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Revisiting a Ghost…Ending my twelve-year love affair with Montezuma, Costa Rica

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Montezuma is easily one of Costa Rica’s most beautiful beaches, but our love affair effectively ended after spending three days there in February 2011. This can not be attributed to the ten-month build-up or overly-high expectations, and while I’d like to blame the rose-colored glasses of youth, it’s not that either. Montezuma has changed…and we don’t want the same things out of life anymore.
Montezuma bay & beach

It all started in 1999, during my Junior year in college, when I studied abroad for a year in Heredia, an hour outside of San Jose, Costa Rica – a decision that would forever change the course of my life. During that inspirational year, a close-knit group of twenty or so friends traveled throughout the country together every weekend, and we particularly fell in love with Montezuma, near the tip of the Nicoya peninsula on the Pacific coast. Back then, two perpendicular streets and the corner they formed made up the sleepy beach town, which was lovingly nicknamed ‘Montefuma’ by the free-spirited Argentine hippies, Afro-Caribbeans selling jewelry and old drunken British/American tattooed sailor types who had all settled here. For a group made up of fairly privileged middle class American college kids, losing ourselves in conversations with people living such alternative lifestyles made us feel out of our element and very much alive.
Montezuma beach & sculptures

A gem itself, the tiny town is really the entry way for a string of stunning, deserted beaches, each one completely different to the next: one might be a small cove filled with colorful pebbles and water crashing violently against giant black rocks, and around the next curve, a stretch of long, wide beach with shallow water and gentle waves provide perfect surfing.

Everyone who ended up here was instantly drawn in to the collective desire to say Damn the Man and live freely on this beach, laying out by day and drinking beer at Chicos, the only bar in town, by night. With the exception of eating at a few cheap sodas (small typical Costa Rican restaurants), we otherwise bought the essentials – bread, beans, bananas and beer – at the only corner store in town. We didn’t need anything else and kept on coming back for more.

Even two years later, when I was then living in Guatemala, a smaller, more international group of friends and I set off on the three-day Tica Bus pilgrimage from Antigua, Guatemala to Montezuma, Costa Rica and enjoyed the same carefree time as I always had before.

deserted beach in Montezuma Costa Rica

Twelve years after my first visit, as Dani and I made our way down through Mexico and Central America, I had gone on and on about my favorite beach in Costa Rica. I felt nervous, almost protective, over my little town, hoping Dani would love it, that she would ‘get it’ the way that we had ‘gotten it’ back then.

However, after a long drive from Samara Beach, as we made the final turn into town, I didn’t even have to get out of the shuttle to know Montezuma had changed forever. The Damn the Man motto was gone – the Man has arrived here, and he is thriving.

Rental cars pack the once empty streets, competing for space with the humming 4wds, now the popular way to race up and down the long stretches of still relatively deserted beach. While the very central Hotel Montezuma and some of the smaller cheap hostels were still in tact, there is a whole slew of newer mid-range accommodation and overpriced restaurants charging $12-$15 per meal. The hippies have grown up, gotten jobs and had families. Montezuma, Costa Rica is now filled with organic food restaurants and luxury yoga resorts. The center of town is now filled by a sprawling, well-constructed playground for children.

Montezuma street Costa Rica

Not only a family-friendly destination, Montezuma also now caters to higher-end visitors with packaged boat and jungle tours, plus expensive speed boats connect the town to Jaco and Manuel Antonio across the bay – otherwise only reachable by a long six-hour bus-ferry-bus slog  (for a total of $10).

The little corner shop still has cheap cans of Gallo beer and boxed wine, but the brand new supermarket up the road has German chocolate, French cheese, and nearly every American product someone could miss from home. Visitors to Montezuma now range from young European families to retirees from the Deep South and the Far East.

Montezuma packages the memory of itself as a free-spirited, relaxed beach town and sells it to those who fell in love with it  all those years ago.

With those stunning beaches and prime location, Montezuma was bound to become a star and claim its position slap bang on the main tourist path. As far as we could tell the development has done a world of good. There is strong economic and social infrastructure in place with no evidence of increased pollution or damage to the land: the town is kept clean. In fact, no one but us seemed disappointed about the change.

Horses on the beach in Montezuma Costa Rica

I say ‘us’ because Dani wanted no part of the tourist trinkets, overpriced dinners and pre-packaged tours, either. In spite of the all the beauty, that magical vibe has long since been lost. This is another reason why we beg you not to go to Samara Beach, for fear of the same thing happening to our little treasure on the Pacific Coast.

Have you ever returned somewhere you used to love, only to find it a completely different place? Feel free to commiserate with us over the loss of your favorite hidden spots. Plus, please let us know any places we definitely shouldn’t visit, that have completely sold out to tourism anywhere in the world!

Tags : costa ricamontezuma

18 Comments

  1. Such a shame! There’s a rather popular beach destination in Australia that I have been visiting with my family forever and ever…and the way it’s changed even since I was a kid is astounding. And when my parents started visiting 30 years ago it was nothing more than a beach, a caravan park and a hamburger shop…now it has fancy cafes and boutiques.

    1. Hey Megan, thanks for sharing your pain 🙂 There is nothing wrong with development, and especially when it’s done right, but there is just so much emotion wrapped up in your memories of the place…maybe it’s better not to re-visit somewhere you really loved?

      1. Maybe…I wonder about that quite often, actually, especially the more I travel and consider returning to places I really loved. We always hope we’ll have similar experiences to the last time we were there, but it’s always going to be different – whether it’s the people you’re with or the vibe or even the time of year.

    1. Hi Andy, thanks for stopping by. It’s hard, it really is, to see places you love undergo the development ‘knife’, completely altering a spot you love.

    1. Hey Kim, thanks 🙂 It definitely was different than in my memory, but also, it is a completely different place….we’re talking several tourists wearing socks and sandals….very different to the barefoot hippies that kept me coming back before.

    1. Hey Jamie, it’s really the truth. That is why on the one hand we love to write articles about our travel experiences, but there is always that feeling that by encouraging more people to go to places we love, the faster the inevitable change comes about. What made you think about this recently? Any place in particular?

  2. Unfortunately most of us have seen progress ruin the quaintness and solitude of these smaller once isolated towns. I have seen that in the Caribbean where I grew up.

    You see the charm as a child but it is not apparent then, it becomes so shocking when you see it change as an adult. I guess even children appreciate the charm of these areas too.
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  3. Pretty winey, mate. Trustafarians really hate to share stuff, don’t they? Down with elite backpacker snobbery! There’s plenty of room here for everyone who wants to experience YOUR place. The development of this place has been handled very responsibly. Don’t like it, then take your twenty-something angst somewhere else. And get a bloody job!

    1. Hey there Buddy…not hating on Montezuma at all, just saying that what I loved about it has gone away with the changes. Also, just to point out – we are not ‘backpackers’ in the traditional sense, and if you had taken the time to look at the rest of the site, you would have seen that we stay in a huge variety of hotels, hostels, we housesit, etc. Second – not exactly twenty-something either. Dani and I are both in our 30s. Lastly, I am actually fully employed within the travel and tourism industry, which I believe thus qualifies as a bloody job. Pretty hateful retort here on your part, mate. No room for angst on the site…

  4. You are right. I apologize for my swinish and disrespectful comment. Wish I had expressed my feelings in a more mature and patient manner. Thank you for calling me out.

  5. I’ve been living off and on in Montezuma for 9 years, and I’ve seen it change as well. Not only for the development, but for the increase in crime and drug use.

    Believe me, when I say ‘drug use’ I’m not talking about smoking a joint behind Chicos Bar.

    I’m talking about full-on crack heads, and coke addicts who will literally steal from their own family to buy another bag of drugs, and who hang out in town just to find a tourist to take advantage of.

    I wish it was still Monte”Fuma” but the only things these locals are smoking these days is crack-cocaine. In fact, it’s now known by locals as Monte’Fuma’ ‘Coca’ Rica.

    Now, on the other hand, Montezuma is still the only place in Costa Rica (that I know) that has numerous beautiful beaches, incredible waterfalls, and a real community type feeling that I haven’t found anywhere else in Costa Rica. And not everyone does cocaine, but you will definitely see it as the sun goes down. And, to be honest, most of the really bad addicts are from the next town, Cobano.

    So, come to Montezuma, but enjoy it by day, exploring the beaches and waterfalls, and skip the coke-filled nights at Chicos when all the locals and tourist are ‘hasta la picha’

    And, most importantly, leave your valuables locked in a safe, and leave them there. Believe me, especially in low season, they WILL rob you.

    Yes, even that really cute guy who seems SO nice and innocent is almost surely with you just to get something. (not just sex!) The second your guard is down, he will take advantage of you in some way. It’s life, here baby. You’ll wake up and your computer/money/camera are gone, and you will wonder why you didn’t listen to me!!!
    .
    The power of cocaine is mighty strong, my friend. Until ‘Coca-Rica’ figures out an effective anti-drug campaign, (eg., Faces of Meth campaign) these poor people are slave to the snow. And the gringos are paying for it.

  6. Dani, (dupe of comment on “Samara”)

    Your comments about how much Montezuma “has changed”, how “Samara is perfect” reflect what Aussies call the “Drawbridge Mentality”>> “Hey, I got it good. Don’t anyone or thing care change, stay OUT!”
    You loved Montezuma when you traveled there in a 4 wheel “cage”, there was only the big “old hotel”? And now it’s ruined, there go my memories, damn!
    Ironic, to want time to have stood still in 1999. I was in both towns 25 years before (1974). Samara had NO tourist accommodation. Only private bungalows often accessed by light private planes landing on the beach. Otherwise, 4Wd only in the rainy season. Yet you say it’s wonderful, don’t want it “to change”, oblivious to the fact it HAS changed and a lot.
    As for Montezuma, now “ruined” where you went in 1999. The ONLY way to get there in 1974 was on horseback from a friend’s cattle ranch up the coast. NO road, none of your 1999 pristine tourist nonsense.
    And the PEOPLE! What stood out for me compared to anywhere else I’d been in CR was they were almost universally extremely strong and healthy from a life of diving, fishing, subsistence gardening, hunting and gathering.
    Certainly compared to when you “discovered” it, found it “unspoiled”, I’ll bet the people are not the same, running elevators, making smoothies, the sedentary life of the “unchanged paradise” you so glowingly describe?
    Sigh. Please get real.

  7. Jess

    Just a note.

    I was in Montezuma in 1999.
    Actually it was December 31st, 1999.

    The world was in a turmoil over Y2K
    Chaos was imminent.

    So, while a band churned out new years party tunes in town I wondered down to the beach.
    It was deserted….everybody else in town getting hammered.

    I sat and watched the glass like ocean, barely a ripple.
    The moon spilled its silver light over the water.

    It hit 12:00 midnight and I could here the cheers coming from town.
    Planes could have been falling out of the sky world wide and I wouldn’t have had a clue.

    I noticed that there were “lights” coming from the ocean.
    Some sort of sea creatures were creating a light show the likes of which I’d never seen. Hundreds of “eyes” blinking on and off.

    I like to think that the ocean was celebrating the turn of the millennium.

    To this day, I will never forget the sight and the timing.
    One of those “take it to the grave” moments.

    That is my memory of Montezuma.

    Later girl
    Kevin

    PS: I commented on your Samara blog earlier this year.
    I’m leaving next week to spend 18 nights at the “Tree house”
    in Playa Samara Yeah………..I’m looking forward to it!!!

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