January 18, 2004

Sand and Sea To Spare In Costa Rica

The Nicoya Peninsula just off Costa Rica into the Pacific Ocean like a misshapen ear. It is rugged terrain, formed by the string of volcanoes inland. Other than a few large beach resorts in the far north, Nicoya's coastline has missed much of the development that has spread across the country. In a search for an affordable, relaxed beach vacation, I first visited Nicoya in January 2002, traveling to Montezuma, a small town on the bottom tip of the peninsula, and returned last year. Once an active fishing village, Montezuma has developed a reputation as a backpacker haven, a beachside Katmandu. One can fly from the capital, San Jos?, to several spots on the Nicoya Peninsula, but on my first visit my three friends and I chose a combination of buses and a ferry ride. With the closest landing strip about 18 miles away, everyone completes the trip to Montezuma by road. The town is at the base of a steep line of cliffs, a few dozen buildings cozied up against the Pacific Ocean. A string of long beaches stretches to the south; a picturesque lava-rock coast backed up against thick jungle lies to the north. Montezuma itself is a cosmopolitan oasis, dominated by young visitors from Europe and South America. Its two main streets form an L and serve as an intimate town center. I counted one late-night bar, one mini-supermarket and one town drunk. We settled into two simple rooms at Cabinas Mar y Cielo, a six-room operation behind one of the main gift shops. I soon discovered more elegant, affordable accommodations north of town, but I stayed faithful to Mar y Cielo. It was centrally situated, yet generally quiet. I could open my door and see the ocean a few hundred feet away. Soon enough, I settled into a pleasing schedule, alternating the natural and the urbane. After a morning dip in the surf, I might head to town for a mango and papaya smoothie. I'd take a hike to the waterfall. Then I'd return to town to check my e-mail. By sunset, my friends and I might meet on the beach and go to La Playa de los Artistas, the best among Montezuma's handful of good restaurants. We had intended to move around Nicoya, but Montezuma got the best of us. We stayed there for 10 days and vowed to return. Along the Nicoya Peninsula Among the airlines that fly from the United States to San Jos? are American, Continental and Northwest. To get to the Nicoya Peninsula from there, you can rent a car, take a bus (it is about a five-hour trip by road and ferry to Montezuma) or fly. Sansa, www.flysansa.com, and NatureAir, www.travelair-costarica.com, fly to landing strips at Tambor, S?mara and Nosara ($58 to $80 one way). The major airport in Liberia is near the northern part of the peninsula. The international dialing code is 506. In Montezuma, it's hard to find a place that isn't near the ocean. I stayed at Cabinas Mar y Cielo, (506) 642-0261, which offers double rooms with bath for $25 to $40. The attractive Hotel Los Mangos, (506) 642-0076, fax (506) 642-0259, Web site www.hotellosmangos.com, features a pool with an incredible view and individual bungalows ($81); book well in advance. Hotel Amor de Mar, telephone and fax (506) 642-0262, www.amordemar.com, has a wonderful lawn and tide pools and comfortable, simple rooms for $35 to $87, double. Among Montezuma's restaurants, La Playa de los Artistas serves the best dinner in town (entrees about $10) and Pension Lucy's has a simple lunch with great ceviche for about $3.