Montezuma to Playa Samara – Costa Rica
Ever get the feeling you’ve peaked too soon? A plane, a car, and a ferry took us on the six hour trip from the Osa Peninsula in the southwest to Nicoya peninsula in the northwest of Costa Rica. We had booked a beautiful little hotel by the sea in the little village of Montezuma on the southern end of the peninsula, chosen for being off the main tourist track and it’s beautiful surroundings. But my God were we miserable when we arrived. We were desperate for laundry but the hotel didn’t offer a service, the room was tiny with nothing more than a curtain for a bathroom door, ATV’s boomed past the window that looked out onto the main road, breakfast wasn’t included and a gin & tonic in town cost £5.80. Yes yes, first world problems but everything appeared small and expensive. The restaurant that had been recommended to us was only open from Thursday to Sunday at lunch time and the nearby national park which is supposed to be well worth the visit is closed on Monday and Tuesday to give the wildlife a rest. We had arrived on a Sunday afternoon and were leaving Wednesday morning. One pizza restaurant we went to wouldn’t serve us at 2.10pm and told us to come back at 3pm. To be fair on Montezuma, these oddities are a consistent theme in the country, and when we had had a good night sleep and made a conscious effort to enjoy ourselves, the place wasn’t so bad. In fact if we had started the tour here we would have been blown away by the beautiful beaches, the tiny village that was basically for tourists but not overkill, and the charming garden at our hotel that ran down to the sea. The problem was, we had just been to Drake Bay, aka heaven on earth, and just like after a good session on the gin, we couldn’t shake off the after-effects. Although we did take full advantage of not having to be anywhere, with one day spent relaxing in hammocks in the garden, one day hiking up and around an impressive waterfall, and lie-ins and good food on both days.
An early morning departure and a five hour, 180 kilometre drive got us to Nosara on the west coast, north of Montezuma and a considerably larger disappointment. Montezuma didn’t deserve our unwarranted critical opinions but Nosara did. Another quirk of Costa Rica is that in the south everything is in Spanish and the local currency, colones. Most of the tourists we met were Spanish and German. Over halfway up the country in Montezuma, English was creeping into the menus and more prices were in US dollars. Europeans were still on site but Americans had noticeably appeared. Further north, everything was in English, the dollar prevailed although there was a share of many nationalities and, commercial tourism had taken root. Mercifully we had an awesome hotel, not far from an incredible expanse of beach and with several excellent places to eat close by. We had come here for one reason only, turtles. Ostional is only ten kilometres from Nosara yet takes a good 40 minutes in a tuk-tuk thanks to the usual appalling roads. It’s an adventure in itself but maybe less so at 4.30am. Ostiona beach I believe, is the second largest nesting site in the world for several species of turtle including the leatherback and every month, around the time of the full moon they swim ashore in large numbers to lay their eggs. Over the period of a few days the beach can be covered in thousands of turtles, digging holes and popping out many eggs. Although we had missed the peak we managed to catch the tail end of it and as the sun rose we saw enough turtles going about their business to keep the over-excited ladyfriend content. We didn’t get to see any hatchlings but the beach is littered with egg shells from previous mass breakouts and vultures flock to the beach in numbers that makes one wonder if any baby turtles ever make it to the sea. We had to book a guide because as you can imagine, the beach and turtles are massively protected. During this process, we saw on their Facebook page that they (the guides, not the turtles) were trying to raise funds for an actual proper road to be built to the conservation centre. I mention this only because I was surprised to see the Chinese laying roads all over Costa Rica but – quite obviously – they are only building roads from ports to major cities as part of their stealth colonisation policy, sorry, I mean Belt and Road Initiative. Conservation and the local economy can go and get f……. Chinese supermarkets are also appearing in every town, not that I really care who owns the local supermarket, but I was amused to see their prolific use of free, single use plastic carrier bags that are not seen in the locally owned shops.
Other than turtles, the other reason to visit Nosara is the surf and I was determined to get back on a board after my first attempt at surfing seven years ago which I enjoyed far more than expected. We booked a 90 minute lesson for the two of us and we were greeted by the typical surfer type with a single board and a single ‘sign your life away’ form. I also offered to pay before heading down to the beach but he said someone else would collect that later in the day, and with that he headed off to find another surfboard and waiver form, having clearly not got the message that the lesson was for two. On the beach it went from bad to worse as our instructor had as much enthusiam as I imagine I would have if ever summoned for a prostrate exam. After a blunt theory lesson on the beach, I hoped it would get better in the sea but if anything it got worse thanks to constantly being told how rubbish I was and how I would never be able to surf if I didn’t do exactly as he said. I can assure you that it wasn’t through lack of trying and the fact I kept making the same mistake time and again frustrated me more than anyone. It didn’t help that every time I pulled my head back out of the water I saw my instructor looking at me with nothing other than a mixture of disappointment and outright disdain, even on the rare occasions I did manage to stay on the board and catch a wave. The universe is a wonderful place though, as we left Nosara the next day $130 better off, thanks to no-one coming to collect payment for the miserable prick’s lesson.
Another ‘perk’ of Costa Rica is that it has a fleet of minivans from various companies that transfer people around the country; a middle option between the local bus and a hire car. It was these that we had planned our whole journey around with different companies having a greater presence in some areas than others. On the Nicoya peninsula, the company we were relying on kept telling us they needed a minimum of four passengers to run the service, yet they never took our details and asked us to follow up closer to the departure day. If they were like this with every enquiry than how were they ever going to get the passenger numbers required? They always managed to offer us a private transfer though! It’s also worthy of note that whether it be private or shared, we always had excellent drivers. Playa Samara was our next stop, just down the road from Nosara but a whole lot better. Up to this point we had been staying at hotels and chalet type places, but here we had an Air B&B booked which turned out to be a wonderful decision. Situated 50 metres from the beach, nestled amongst trees and just the right distance away from the main streets of the town, we wasted no time brewing our first cups of tea in over two weeks. This was pure bliss. Obviously the flat came with a coffee maker and no kettle, but a pan of water on the gas stove was good enough and provided the perfect start to our mornings in Playa Samara with tea and the sound of waves crashing on the beach, and a light breeze blowing through the large open window that looked out on it all. We did almost nothing in Playa Samara other than enjoy not going out every time we needed to eat, cooking up some homemade grub, downing beers and Malbec, and making the most of the gorgeous beach that forms the magnificent bay where the town sits. The one activity we did do was a forest walk over on a local ranch. There are many places like this in Costa Rica where farmers have been encouraged by the government to re-wild their ranches which were once home to cattle, but are now reverting back to thick forest full of wild animals, birds and insects. Such as in this case, tourists like me can pay $40-50 for a three hour walk with a guide armed with a wildlife telescope. As a result it appears there are few places to roam in Costa Rica that doesn’t charge entry either through national parks or private reserves. This is annoying, firstly because I have to pay for a walk in the countryside and secondly, because before I arrived in Costa Rica I always thought this would be a good idea for farmers in the UK as a way of generating income while giving nature a boost. Now I’m conflicted. The reason for this little forest walk was because it was advertised as ‘semi-dry forest’ and to our knowledge we hadn’t yet seen such a thing. As you can imagine to the untrained eye it looked like every other forest in Costa Rica, yet it was still a good little hike with only three of us and awesome views of Samara bay after a wee push up a steep hill. Our guide – as with every other nature guide in Costa Rica – was also full of entusiasm and fast to point out birds and insects that I would have otherwise ignorantly walked past. But then it’s no surprise the guides are like this as they apparently have to undergo two years of training whilst a copper here only requires six months training. Ultimately, if we have to pay to walk through national parks and private reserves like those of Costa Rica than it’s hard to argue that it’s not worth every penny. After all, hasn’t that been the problem all along? Failure to put a price on natural habitat.