Getting Back to Basics in Montezuma, Costa Rica

Traveling to big cities can be exciting, but my most memorable travel experiences often occur in small, remote towns. The pace of life is slower when you are distanced from the urban bustle, making it easier to clear your mind and appreciate the quieter details of existence. This phenomenon has never been more compellingly apparent to me than it was during my time in Montezuma—a small fishing town on the southernmost tip of Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula.

After riding all day in a small shuttle through a heavily forested region, I arrived at my hostel, Luz en el Cielo. The accommodations were very basic: open-air common areas, sheet metal showers, abundant hammocks, and bare-bones wooden construction throughout. The floor plan was largely exposed, with minimal barriers to the surrounding forest. Colorful birds flittered casually around the premises and groups of howler monkeys made frequent morning visits in the branches above. 

Settings like this were what I appreciated most about Costa Rica. Montezuma had a very natural, raw quality—a certain realness that causes you to forget about the stressors of the modern world. It’s as if you’re in closer proximity to the earth—the way it was originally inhabited before skyscrapers and 401k accounts. Soon after arriving, I began to feel very poised and centered, and this mindset was later accompanied by physical feelings of vitality and health. 

My first morning in Montezuma was spent admiring the sunrise on the beach. Typically I am not an early riser, but while in Costa Rica I frequently found myself waking up at dawn feeling fully rejuvenated. After breakfast I accompanied a group from my hostel to visit Montezuma’s main attraction: the waterfall trail. After a short hike we reached the first waterfall. It was tall and powerful—probably around sixty feet. We went for a quick swim to cool off before continuing on a fairly steep and slippery climb up to the next set of falls.  Once we reached the upper pools, we took off our bags and began scouting out the best places to jump into the water. 

The architecture of the falls was striking. The river gently cascaded over a wide ledge, dispersing through the paths of least resistance before dropping about eight feet to feed into the main pool, where most of the swimming was being done. That pool then funneled into a much more concentrated waterfall, which plummeted freely into a basin about forty-five feet below. The water then careened yet again over another cliff’s edge to create the “big one” (the original sixty-footer we had seen at the beginning of the hike). Seeing these three waterfalls progressively feed into the each other while weaving through the dense vegetation of the jungle was an impressive sight to say the least. 

At roughly forty feet tall, the middle waterfall was an ideal platform for an adrenaline-inducing leap. The stomach-tingling free-fall was riveting—almost surreal. Time seemed to slow down in the seconds leading up to impact, and the intensity of the moment grew like a symphony’s crescendo before the dramatic splash into the water. Upon resurfacing, the first thought on my mind was, “Whoa…I gotta do that again!”

Once I had received a satisfying dose of exhilaration, I returned to the upper pool to reunite with the group. One member of our crew produced a whole watermelon from his bag, sliced it up, and distributed it to our smiling faces as we lounged on the rocks and admired our lush surroundings. Soon after, we pushed deeper up the trail to a much more secluded area. It was fairly difficult to navigate over the wet rocks, and we all slipped at least once along the way. Our final resting place was a calm, shady segment of the river, where we had our last swim of the day. We slid into the cool water and moved gently through it with a quiet contentedness, letting out brief yelps of laughter when tiny fish began nibbling at our toes.

Later that evening, a friend from the hostel proposed having a barbecue. He was a Kiwi named Eddie who had recently moved to Costa Rica permanently. No return date set, no real plan for work—just a tranquil sense of optimism and a fishing pole. He was not the first expatriate to come to Costa Rica on these terms, nor would he be the last. 

In a town with only two streets, it doesn’t take long to find what you are looking for. We asked one of Eddie’s local acquaintances where we could find some fresh meat, and he promptly escorted us to the back of the truck he was standing next to. We bought four pounds of fish and two pounds of shrimp from a local fisherman who was selling it out of a cooler in the bed of his pickup. After a trip to the market for some additional ingredients and barbecue items, we grilled up the marisco at the hostel and feasted heartily. 

The food was good, but it was made savory because of the setting in which it was being enjoyed. Ten friends sat around a table of plentiful food and drink on a warm tropical evening; their independent journeys briefly intertwined in this moment. At this point, stress had become a foreign concept that was difficult to grasp; hostility was a word that had no meaning here.

The next day I spent the entire afternoon sauntering along various trails near the beach, attempting to catch lizards using a grass snare technique I had learned years ago in the Caribbean. After a few hours of idle meandering, I found a well-shaded spot underneath an angled palm tree and took a light nap with my hands clasped behind my head. By this time I had become so unwound—too at ease to feel boredom, too absorbed in the present to remember what my worries were. 

Carefree in Montezuma

This sense of complete relaxation had been building upon itself since the moment I arrived in Montezuma. To me, the simplicity of the lifestyle was therapeutic; a soothing natural remedy for my tendency to over-analyze. This all came as a pleasant surprise—I did not come with many expectations. To be honest, I had mainly come to Montezuma because of its strategic location. I needed to take a water taxi across the Gulf of Nicoya, and I knew I would be able to catch a boat there. Yet in hindsight, that quiet little fishing town was one of the highlights of my trip, and I can still vividly remember the powerful effect it had on me.