A revenge-free Montezuma

Mother’s Day in Costa Rica doth not come in May, like we’re used to in North America. Here, it’s 15 August. This is the day (so I’ve read) that the Virgin Mary ascended to Heaven, and given that this is a very Roman Catholic-centric society, Christian Holy Days are holidays. That means El Día de la Madre takes on extra importance here. Down here, it really is a religion.

Which is good for me, believe it or not. You see, back in May, I royally screwed up and really blew Alex’s first Mother’s Day by doing … well, nothing. At least nothing of note. Not exactly a wise thing to do on a mother’s first Mother’s Day. I had some serious sucking making up to do.

My plan? Another surprise weekend. And given that it was a long weekend, it was a good chance to go a bit further than before and see something new and interesting. So I started hunting around for interesting places to go. Originally, it was to head out to Arenal — a place we’ve both been to and like. But I couldn’t get a good room.

I stumbled across a beach resort called Ylang Ylang. Not the nicest website, sadly. (I should offer them services in return for a week’s stay or something. To take pictures for the website, of course.) But they had two major offerings listed on their website:

  1. Candlelit dinners
  2. Hammocks “everywhere”

The tricky part is getting there. Ylang Ylang is in Montezuma, a small remote former fishing village on the Nicoya Peninsula. There are two “overland” routes: One that takes you to Puntarenas where you board a ferry to Paquera, and one in a loop over the north end of the Gulf of Nicoya (which is about 5-6 hours longer).

This was the first real test of the Suzuki for distance. By 9:00am, we were packed and hitting the road for Montezuma. Well, almost. We had to stop at Más Por Menos for some supplies. While Alex shopped, I had to make a quick return trip home to get the forgotten stroller, which is when I found out that my keycard no longer worked, necessitating a long conversation with the security guard in broken Spanish.

But I digress.

My biggest worry for the trip out was running into another jerk cop who wanted to give me a hard time for not having any metal license plates on my car. At the moment, I have the official permit that says I can drive my car, but no plates. This is “normal” in Costa Rica and you see a couple cars a day like this. The joys of backlogs of paperwork. Still, after my last run-in, I didn’t want to go through the trouble with a disgruntled infant.

The trip to Puntarenas is barely 80 kilometres. But it takes about two hours to drive, thanks largely to the Costa Rican highway system, which is just shy of pathetic. Unlike the countries to the north and south of Costa Rica, the highways here are in perpetually poor state and simply not well-designed. They snake all over the mountains rather than cutting through them (or under them) to alleviate the dangerous hairpin turns and really dangerous nighttime traversals.

On a map, Puntarenas doesn’t really look that long of a spit of land into the Gulf, but it still took over 20 minutes of driving to finally get to the end, where we found the line for the Paquera ferry. Being a long weekend, it was a long line. We climbed out and were heading up the line to buy a ticket when a very sweaty young man by the name of Marcos (who spoke surprisingly good English) told us to stay with the car.

This is how we found out how the process works:

Marcos was a particularly nice guy. The two of us chatted on the way up the line to the ticket booth, at which point he told me to move the car to a small parking area (it was a rocky dirt lot) and told me to wait for him there. Because he “liked [our] baby”, he was going to let us cut into the line to make sure we got on the ferry.

When people say that Ticos are nice, they’re not kidding. They are nice. Far too nice. They make Canadians look like assholes, they’re so nice.

The ferry itself looked little more than one of those smaller ferries they use in BC for the short island hops with low traffic: a car deck, with a smaller deck above it for walk-on pedestrians. The ship was deceptively small, and had a “hidden” lower deck that cars drove into (through hatches on the main deck). This is where we parked. It’s dark, dank, stiflingly hot (which isn’t much of a stretch — all of Puntarenas is stiflingly hot compared to Santa Ana), and once all the cars are in, cramped. The upper deck is air-conditioned, but you could barely tell.

Ferry to Paquera, Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica, 15 August 2008

The trip over is about an hour and a quarter. Then it’s back in your car, and away you go … to try not get lost. (Remember, Alex didn’t know where we were going, so I was going off a half-memorised map and some road signs.) And off we went.

The distance from Paquera to Montezuma is about 30-40 kms. Which takes an hour to drive. Like the rest of Costa Rica, the roads are windy, so you can’t drive quickly. The last 7 kilometres from Cobano to Montezuma are some of the worst roads I’ve seen outside of Mongolia. The last 500 metres are down a 18% grade unpaved rocky hill with a near-hairpin turn at the bottom.

Fun. Reason #158 we bought a 4×4.

You are rewarded, however. Although Montezuma has probably more hotels than homes, it’s so quaint that you don’t even really see the hotels. There are no chains to be seen in Montezuma — and it’ll likely be a long, cold day in Hell before that happens.

There are basically three main roads in Montezuma — the “highway” that runs all the way down the coast, one road that runs perpendicularly towards to the only other road in Montezuma, running parallel to the highway for a little over two blocks, connecting the two main parts of Playa Montezuma. The tallest building doesn’t even come to the height of the trees, and the newest-looking thing is a Coca-Cola sign hanging over one of the stores.

Montezuma, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, 16 August 2008

In other words, a little slice of quaint paradise.

We pulled into El Sano Banano, an odd-named hotel that is the parent owner of Ylang Ylang (the latter being decidedly more upscale, although still insanely less expensive than a comparable place in North America). I ran in to “check-in” (you do Ylang Ylang check-in at El Sano Banano), then drove around the back to get to the parking lot. You can’t drive to Ylang Ylang — there’s a shuttle for you. The parking lot has a 24-hour guard.

The shuttle arrived about 30 minutes later. A Land Rover Defender. I know what you’re thinking: “Boy, isn’t that pretentious?” It’s not (just) about being pretentious — it’s about being functional and appropriate. The drive from El Sano Banano is not far — only a 10-minute walk, really — but it’s over a beach with rocky outcroppings, and carrying bags that far ain’t easy. An ordinary car wouldn’t make it, let alone something like a golf cart.

We soon found something interesting about Ylang Ylang — unlike virtually every other place that we’ve been to in Costa Rica so far, almost every single person at Ylang Ylang speaks very good English. And are extremely friendly (moreso than regular Ticos). Our driver (I’m going to call him “Carlos” because I honestly forget his name) constantly tried to make Mi Pequeña Niña giggle (which isn’t that hard, and is very rewarding — there’s nothing like baby laughter).

We arrived with a pair of women who were also from Santa Ana — teachers from NYU at a satellite school. I think Jason, Mark, and I met their students a few weeks ago in Bar Amigo when we were out scouting Santa Ana. They were staying in the room right next to us.

The room, incidentally, was down a 250-metre tiled path through the beach-front forest to a 3-storey, 6-room (the upper rooms are two-storey lofts) building. Ylang Ylang doesn’t have a lot of available rooms — maybe 15 in total. You couldn’t have more than 45 people there at any time, even with triple occupancy in the larger rooms. It’s a big space, and you don’t feel even remotely cramped.

The room had two double beds with mosquito nets above them. It’s the rainy season right now, which seems to mean that you aren’t likely see mosquitoes much, actually. And although Costa Rica is in the “malaria zone”, Ingrid (one of my co-workers) has lived here most of her life, been all over the country, been bitten by countless mosquitos, and doesn’t know a person who’s had malaria.

(That’s not in any way a defence, more a statement of fact and a lessening of my mother’s blood pressure that we might be getting a nasty disease here.)

No air conditioning. That part wasn’t so good. Ylang Ylang is more environmentally-conscious than most places I’ve been to, and I guess A/C isn’t one of their preferred items. There were two ceiling fans at least. No glass on the windows (and no screens beyond the shutters) meant a constant fresh-air supply, and some airflow through the room. Also, a very clear (and sometimes loud) serenade of the surf on the adjacent beach.

We ate dinner early the first night — we had to get food into our child before she had a total meltdown. She ate most of a plate of spaghetti (cutting noodles for children is not easy). I can’t for the life of me remember what Alex ate. As for me, I had probably the best blackened tuna I have ever eaten in my life. I’ve had many “blackened” meals in my day ever since first sampling one in New Orleans. But never one that good. I’m sorry, Nawlins, but this chef actually out-did you. I’m still in awe days later.

Sleep was rough the first night. Too hot (we were getting adjusted to the temperatures on the coast) and the surf was a bit too loud for my liking. Fortunately, the kid slept well. At least until 5:15. That’s when we had our wake-up call.

A howler monkey.

Fortunately, I knew what a howler monkey sounded like — our first trip to Costa Rica back in 2005 featured a little hike around the back of Arenal Volcano, and a howler monkey serenade. Loud buggers. Especially at 5:15, less than 20 metres from your glass-less window. Everyone was up for the day at that point. Going back to sleep simply wasn’t an option.

Because breakfast wasn’t served until 7:00 (and we were there pretty much on the dot), there was a signficant amount of distraction needed so Mi Pequeña Niña didn’t meltdown from lack of food. Fortunately, a beach makes for a great distraction.

Playa Montezuma, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, 16 August 2008

We wandered into Montezuma after the morning nap to get a better look. I wasn’t really surprised when we realised that we had already seen the entire village when we’d arrived the day before. Montezuma is small, quaint, and at the time not heavily populated. A lot of English is spoken there, though — it must attract a lot of North Americans. (I was told later it’s known by the locals as “Montefuma” for all the marijuana smoke — something that must come out in the high season. High season. Get it? HAH! I kill me…)

We wandered into a couple of stores, MPN was fawned over by a number of people (it happens a lot) before we went to a small place called Organics for lunch. Think of a nice bistro-style open-air restaurant run by vegans. That’s pretty much what this place was. Good food, though. Probably the best nachos I’ve ever had (not cornmeal chips — something else entirely different), and an amazingly flavourful black bean dip. I tried to feed an avocado sandwich to the Wee One, getting almost as much avocado on me as in her.

By the time we headed back to Ylang Ylang, the tide had come all the way in and pushing the stroller was almost impossible (the hard-packed sand is only available at lower tides). I ended up dragging it most of the way back. I was dripping sweat. It was so hot that an afternoon nap wasn’t an option — the blood-curdling screaming was enough of a sign of that.

Hence, a dip in the pool. Although the ocean there is fantastic (the temperature of a nice, warm bath), the surf made going in not an option with MPN. The pool more than sufficed, and three of us swam for close to 45 minutes. The coolness also restored our core body temperatures, allowing the afternoon nap to actually take place.

Pool at Ylang Ylang, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, 16 August 2008

Alex rocked in the many hammocks, read one of the Babysitter’s Club books (she loved ’em as a youth, and loves them still for the quick readability), while I traipsed around in the ocean. On one of my trips back to make sure MPN was still asleep (about two hours all told), a troop of white-faced capuchins were running across the reception building, crossing over to trees and carrying on only as monkeys can.

Fortunately, no poo-throwing.

Curious little buggers, they came right down close to the pool area to see if there was food or anything shiny (they’re great thieves). One of them came quite close down a palm leaf and gave Alex and I a bit of a scare. You’re never really sure if one of these things might jump on you, and capuchins aren’t exactly the cleanest of animals to have jump on you.

Capuchin at Ylang Ylang, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, 16 August 2008

It wouldn’t be our only run-in with capuchins that day. When the Wee One finally woke, I took her out to the restaurant area to have a snack while Alex got a good back massage (to make up for the el crapo one she got at Punta Leona a couple of weeks ago). One of the capuchins noticed that I was carrying a banana as I walked down the path, babe in arms. It came right down on a branch mere feet away. I shooed it and made a break for the restaurant, just in case it got grabby.

Well, be darned if it didn’t race back up that tree to see where I was going, then run from tree-top to tree-top following us, across the restaurant’s roof and climbed down one of the supports to wait for us. Darn sneaking things. Cute, yes, but a little needy. I shooed it away again.

The restaurant staff, of course, saw all this and laughed. The capuchins play here a lot, and people encourage it, so things are a little less-natural than perhaps they should be. Monkeys ain’t stupid, though — people are. One of the restaurant staff even demonstrated the capuchins’ desire for bananas for us (there was also another family with young kids from LA), by taking an older banana (quite brown) and coaxing one such monkey from a nearby palm tree.

It almost came out for the entire banana, but the kids shrieked and scared the monkey. Broken in half and given in two portions tossed out on the grass, the monkey was a little more brave.

Dinner was again fantastic. While Mi Pequeña Niña downed most of a very tasty quesadilla, I went through a wonderful Thai-style teriyaki tuna. (I’m struggling to remember what Alex had. I think my food thoroughly distracts me. I know she had chicken, but I’m darned to remember what exactly.)

Just as we put the Wee One to sleep, it started to rain. Little did we know, but a storm was rolling in across the country. It rained all night. Heavily. No night photography for me in Montezuma — I’ll just have to go back! The rain pounded through all the trees, even drowning out the nearby surf.

The storm was pretty big, and the next morning the damage was clear — about 1/5th of the sand on the beach had been washed out. (Carlos would later explain that this is normal, and happens in September and October every year.)

At 9:00, the Defender took us back to El Sano Banano, where we loaded up the Suzuki for the ride home. Alex stopped in the store to pick up some supplies (baby food, “just in case”), and some postcards. A couple last pictures, and we headed back up the even-more-treacherous hill. Thankfully, we have a 4×4 — going up in anything else wouldn’t be so easy, I think. The road back was quite muddy.

Downtown Montezuma, Puntarenas, Costa Rica, 17 August 2008

Having no idea what time the ferry actually left from Paquera, there was the possibility of us missing it. As cars started to whip past us quite quickly, I began to think that maybe they were racing for the ferry, too. But driving quickly in what was turning into another torrential downpour didn’t strike me as a good idea — straight roads here are a rarity.

We got to the ferry line after loading had started. Alex stayed with the car while I raced off to get a ticket. The line was vastly unorganised and excruciatingly slow, and I had some lady behind me who constantly kept bumping into me — a pickpocket’s technique — though nothing was lifted (I keep my rear pockets devoid of anything). I managed to get the tickets to Alex just as she arrived at the front of the line to drive on. I slapped the tickets into the ticket-collector’s hands, but instead of getting back in the car, he directed me to walk on — the long way. I had to run to catch up with Alex on the main deck.

It rained part of the trip back. But Puntarenas was sunny and warm. Originally thinking we might stop there for lunch, we opted to hit the road and find something along the way. At Esparza, I pulled off at a roadside diner-like establishment that seemed to be a major stopping point for buses. We both opted for a casado con pollo (a typical Tico dish with rice, beans, shredded cabbage or lettuce, and chicken), feeding some of it to Mi Pequeña Niña.

I don’t know if it was all the buses that were stopping, or if it was Esparza, or my own imagination, but I began to get a little nervous about our car. People were getting too close to it. One jerk even cuddled up to it, looking like he might try to rip off the antenna.

There’s a problem in Costa Rica, mostly with rental vehicles. People puncture holes in the tires, then follow you until you pull over because of the flat. They offer to help you, and steal all your luggage. I don’t know how common this is, but most of the travel books and rental agencies warn you about it. (Avis’s insurance won’t cover the tires, no matter how much you get.) We ended up racing through the end of our meal to get back to our new car before something bad happened.

Turned out it was just that the guy was a jerk.

Not long after we left Esparza, the rain hit again. It was raining pretty much everywhere on Sunday, and heavily. Even for the rainy season, it was a lot. All the way over the mountains, it poured. Even creeks were racing with all the water. A tractor-trailer with a short container load even flipped on one of the many hairpin curves. A sure sign that the driving should be done with due care.

We stopped only once on our way back, when Alex spotted wooden toys for sale at the side of the road. I’d spotted little trucks, but she’d seen the rocking horses. After a short double-back, we picked one of them up. It’s Mi Pequeña Niña’s first birthday on Friday, and we wanted to get her something nice. I think it was a great idea.

Once we got past Grecia, the trip was pretty easily. I’ve done that part of the Panamerican so much that I almost have it memorised. We stopped at the Auto Mercado for groceries (running into Jason and Jen, and raving about Ylang Ylang to them) before heading home. I’ve lost faith in Auto Mercado, as their produce is beyond sketchy (a bunch of bad bananas and a bad mango all in one shot?). Más Por Menos seems to be better, and Fresh Market is usually the best (and most expensive).

Home in the rain, and it rained all night. The Lago even flooded yesterday at the complex, and they were fixing the overflow drain this morning.

The next adventure? Don’t know yet. Maybe a return to Arenal, maybe a flight out to Tortuguero (the drive is not easy or short), maybe just little trips around the area. We’ll see.

But stay tuned…