Can’t Keep Away from Costa Rica: Part 1 – Montezuma

We landed in San Jose after dark and checked into a small hotel close to the airport for the night. On the cusp of rainy season, the air hung with moisture. We rolled our suitcases over a cragged walkway and tossed ourselves onto the stiff, cool beds.

Our alarms went off as the sun was rising – the heat already pushing through the hotel room’s windows, wrestling with the room’s air conditioning. How I missed the tropical heat. We pulled our suitcases out of the room, back down the walkway, and in the early light of morning, there was all of San Jose.

We’re here.

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We were going further south, first to Montezuma and then to Santa Teresa. For now, it was just Ana and I – the boys would be joining us later. Back at the airport, we crossed the tarmac to board our flight to Tambor. Our stomachs lurched. We looked at the plane and at each other – the plane was the size of the one I skydived from in Hawaii. As we piled in, squeezed close, and buckled in, memories of the plane’s side door swinging open with nothing but the wind and the incomprehensibly distant terrain below flooded in.

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Of course we made it one piece – palms sweating and hearts pounding as we landed onto a patch of gravel in an open field. We hopped into our arranged cab, thanks to my god-send of a travel companion who speaks fluent Spanish. The two of them chattered away while I watched the lush expanse unfold around us.

We pulled up to our hostel and towing our bags up a gravel path, we found a small area hidden in the trees serving as the front desk, lounge area and kitchen. Upon checking in, we were led to our room. We climbed up through the jungle on a sliver of a stone and dirt pathway. Up, up, up. And then up some more to our room perched high over the hostel and the town of Montezuma. The sounds of a million droplets of rain being blown from the leaves of the trees from an earlier rainfall and the booming, guttural calls of howler monkeys filled our little tree-fort.

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We changed our clothes, pulled our hair up off our necks, and made our way down into the town. Montezuma sits on the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. While Costa Rica has been upgraded to tourism stature, a now common vacation destination offering an abundance of hotels, spas, retreats, and restaurants, Montezuma remains untouched, securing itself off-the-beaten-path. A few backpackers here, a couple there. The slack, slouching town unfurls along kilometers of rugged coastline.

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We soon catch wind of a must-visit restaurant a bit of a ways up (bordering a climb) and as two food-obsessed individuals, our plans were made. What we made the vertical stroll to (I may or may not have had my hands on the pavement at one point, crawling upwards on all fours) was Cocina Clandestina and we were ecstatic. Ana and I slid into our candle-lit table on the balcony, perched high up in the trees of the Montezuma Butterfly Gardens, and ordered gin and passionfruit concoctions that burst with floral flavours.

Clandestina’s owners, Bryan and Phoebe Swett, a Costa Rican and North Westerner duo with a long history in the restaurant business, enlisted long-time friend and skilled chef, Chris Ericsen from Portland, Oregon, to make this dream of a spot into a dream-like reality. Together, this team brings an innovative blend of Central American flavours and plates. Soon enough, Ryan and Josh Bickle, brothers from Oregon and owners of Butterfly Brewing Co., joined the team and added in-house brewing to the mix.

It seemed that all of the life in Montezuma was pumping from this one spot. All at once, Montezuma’s secluded and vibrant community made up of like-minded expats and locals became apparent to me.

As we chatted about the menu items with our waitress, our conversation unraveled beyond the food to Montezuma and her life here. An Indian woman born in Sweden, she told us that she spent a “long, long time searching for home” and that here, in Montezuma, she finally found it.

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Montezuma’s boasted main event is its waterfalls. The set of three cascading falls is only accessible by a hike through the surrounding jungle. We found ourselves climbing, hopping and swinging up, over, and around streams, boulders, and trees – and we were rewarded. The first and largest of the falls is almost 80 feet tall, the sound of the plunging waters echoing throughout the trees. The second two offer up crisp, refreshing pools beneath them to jump into and swim in.

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After cooling with a long swim and making our way out of the thick entangle of jungle, we knew exactly what we wanted to do next – back to Clandestina of course. When we arrived, the restaurant was anew in the light of day – bright, cozy and welcoming. Unfortunately, the kitchen was closed due to a shortage of staff and the need for all hands on deck to prepare for dinner that evening. We “awwwwwwww’d” and opted for another passionfruit drink (without the gin this time) while me mulled over our next move and watched the butterflies flutter around next to us in the foliage.

As we sipped and chatted, owner and chef, Bryan, came over clutching his big chalk board in one hand and a marker in the other. He pulled up a chair, popped the marker’s cap off with his teeth, and propped the board onto his lap, saying, “You know what ladies, we’re going to open up for lunch.” We all but threw our hands up cheering.

He sat with us and, as he wrote the menu item on the board, he described to us the dish and its combination of ingredients. In between dishes, we chatted about his life here, reciprocating with our stories, exchanging our different lives over our shared love for food.

And this was Montezuma for me.

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Up next – Santa Teresa.

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