8 July 2018

Montezuma At Your Own Risk

"Would you have any water you could share with us? We are very thirsty and our car broke down..." the man asked me. He was calf-deep in the river that I had started to examine, considering the risk to cross it with my dingy 2-wheel-drive car. We were in the middle of blazing hot Nicoya peninsula, on the Central Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

"Sure, let me see what I can do. But what happened to your car?" I asked the man and his two friends.

The man, a Swede in his early fifties, had tried to cross the river with his SUV but a stone had punctured his gear box. The oil had leaked entirely. Well that was promising for me: if he hadn't managed with his SUV to cross the river, how would I manage with my cheap rental car? Slippery stones were randomly dotting its bed. I could feel them moving under my feet.

I had already and stressfully crossed many rivers up to that point. I had even back-tracked from one wide river. An ominous, metal sign – in English – had been planted on its riverbank: 'We remind you that there is no warranty for rental cars to cross rivers'. That had convinced me to be more reasonable and drive a few more dozen kilometres on dirt, pebbly tracks, to go around the obstacle. In the end, I still had to cross multiple, albeit slightly smaller rivers! Top speed on those "roads" was a mere 30 km/h, the average not exceeding 20 km/h. It is said that Costa Ricans are purposefully not paving those roads to avoid mass tourism. I guess that's certainly a working strategy!

The nearest town was at least an hour away. I went back to the car to fetch some food – packs of biscuits – and water. I evenly divided what we had and came back to the Swede. He erupted in laughter, as he was sipping his can of cold beer: "I was joking! We actually have plenty of drinks in the SUV's cooler, would you like one?" Swedish humour, surely. It didn't make me laugh. I was stressed enough with having to cross the river and slightly annoyed at my mother who was examining each stone of the river bed, displacing a few here and there as if it would change anything.

We were so close to reaching destination – we had driven hours and hours across the countryside on the very same dirt roads. No tyre had burst, I considered myself lucky. Yet I didn't want to push my luck too much.

First gear engaged. Deep breath. Eyes looking at the water and the steep slope right after the river: for even if I managed to cross the river, I would still have to drive the car uphill. I had previously skidded on similar abrupt ramps, wheels spinning aimlessly, so I knew I wouldn't be able to relax even if I did manage to successfully get out of the stream.

Speed had to remain constant to avoid getting stuck. Yet I also had to turn the wheel while in the middle of the river to be able to get to the other side. A weird, jerky movement of the car made me panic but within a few seconds, I had made it. Did I feel like a hero? Absolutely not! Overheating and stress made me sweat profusely despite the car's functioning air conditioning.

You have no idea the joy it is to arrive an hour later to... asphalt roads! The little town of Montezuma was finally there, almost at the most southern tip of the peninsula. What used to be a remote fishing village had become gradually popular with tourists on a budget – although don't be fooled, Costa Rica's accommodation is expensive compared to the one in equivalent countries.

And then you suddenly forget it all – the hours spent in the heat on those countryside dirt roads. Because Montezuma is pretty – its beaches, its waterfalls, its baby turtles which had just hatched in the conservation program. Do enjoy this video montage I just created, purely based out of shots I took with my brother's drone:

While I have no interest in the following, especially considering the state of my lungs, it turns out Montezuma is also known to be a focal point for weed smokers, however illegal the activity is in the country (I did spot two methodical police checks during my stay). Perhaps the remoteness, the tranquillity, the "pura vida"... "Fumar" means "to smoke" in Spanish. So next time you're looking for Montezuma, lost on a trail without enough water to survive, do know that the town also goes by its nickname, Montefuma!