Montezuma? Santa Teresa? Getting lost on the Nicoya Peninsula was just what we needed

February 20, 2018
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With the recent onset of La Niña bringing some much-needed rain, my wife and I decided to get away from it all. You may find it hard to believe, but even when you live in sunny Tamarindo you need to get away from it all.

We had made a tough call in April, when we cancelled our plans to visit Cuba. It was our five-year anniversary, but there was just too much going on with our pizzeria and my work, so we stayed in Tamarindo. But now, it was time to get away.

We booked a vacation rental down the coast on the Nicoya Peninsula, in Playa Hermosa. It’s one of the towns near Santa Teresa, where we planned to spend our days. Of course, that plan existed before we realized we’d confused Montezuma and Santa Teresa. We’ll come back to that.

The house looked just like the pictures on AirBnB: modern, simple, away from it all. The drive in had been a rocky stumble up a hill, through a gate, then up an even steeper driveway, but we made it.

Our vacation rental above Playa Hermosa.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

The house backed into a jade collection, socked with ferns and endless trees. Other than the candy-striped cell tower poking through the canopy, there was nothing to see behind us but a blanket of treetops.

The front view was much more exciting. The property perched over the ocean with views like a balloon ride. The ocean stretched so far you could see the curvature of the earth.

It was lovely, but we were in the wrong area. We’d intended to stay near Montezuma. Instead, we were closer to Santa Teresa.

“What do you mean?” Cristina asked, looming over my shoulder, then shoving her face in my screen.

My wife doesn’t have the best spatial awareness or eyesight. She’s notorious for blocking my view when I’m working on something.

“We were thinking of Montezuma,” I repeated. “Look at the map.”

The view from our vacation rental in Playa Hermosa.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

Tapping the plus key, I zoomed to the tightest possible view. There, in detail, was the map of what we thought was Santa Teresa. But it wasn’t Santa Teresa; it was Montezuma, which was about an hour away. It’d been six years since we’d been on those streets, so the memories were a little fuzzy.

“That’s on the other side of the peninsula,” Cristina said.

“I know.”

“So … we hung out in Montezuma, not Santa Teresa?”

“Mostly, yep.”

The tide pools in Playa Hermosa.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

In July of 2010, we first visited Costa Rica with our Tico friend, Gustavo, his brother, his sister and a friend of his brother’s. It was a 10-day excursion, starting in Heredia, where he grew up.

For the middle part of the trip we stayed on the Nicoya Peninsula, in a much bigger house with a pool. Our vacation rental on that trip also overlooked the ocean, but a little further off the beach.

We took day trips into several beach towns, including Santa Teresa, but spent more time in Montezuma. We had fond memories of Montezuma, but somewhere over the years, we’d confused it with Santa Teresa.

“What do you want to do?” Cristina asked, sliding back my computer.

Cristina found this shopping near Santa Teresa.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

“Whaddaya mean, what do I want to do?

“Drive to Montezuma?”

“Your appointment is at 6….”

She’d scheduled a tattoo appointment in town.

“Oh yeah,” she said, rubbing the inside of her arm. “Where should I put it?”

Crews at work on improving Santa Teresa's water supply.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

Earlier, we’d found our way into town. Getting there was no small feat. It meant driving down the hill into Playa Hermosa, then trekking back to Teresa along a gnarled road of mud-holes. Hermosa was at the northern end of this string of towns. Skipping the smaller bays, from north to south it goes Hermosa, Teresa, Carmen, then Malpaís.

Albeit more developed than we remembered, this part of Costa Rica is just getting its first modern water supply. The dirt road along the coast was a mess of construction, with thick green tubos, as the Ticos call them, littering the roadside. Crews dug trenches with the biggest chainsaw I’d ever seen.

To get into town we had to first stop at a roadblock. There was only one lane either way. When the crewmen finally let us pass, I found the passageway too obstructed to make it in our rental car. The road crew called over a hauler to move dirt so we could pass. These are the things you have to anticipate traveling off the beaten path in Costa Rica.

The main corner of Santa Teresa was familiar, but that was about it.

“Carmen,” Cristina said, correcting me.

“What did I say?”

“You just called it Teresa again. We’re in Carmen. Teresa is up one beach.”

“Does it matter?”

Cristina on Playa Carmen with our dogs.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

She rolled her eyes.

“This doesn’t look at all like the town we were thinking of,” I said, squinting.

From memory, we spent one morning in this town in 2010, but it was much smaller back then. Now, Carmen stretches up the coast, bleeding into the other beach towns like one big party. They’re all connected by the same dirt road, so you can’t tell one from the next. It’s easy to understand how one could get confused.

The most we could remember is that we’d enjoyed some coffee in one of the shops that used to be on the corner. We debated where exactly the coffee shop had been, but there were plenty of other places to see: surf shops, souvenir stores and restaurants.

There, amongst the shops, we’d found Good Life Tattoo Parlor. We booked Cristina’s appointment with a young man named Kawika. It just so happened that we knew his mother from a border run we made two years prior. It’s a small country.

Flyers on the front desk at Good Life Tattoo.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

It was early when we made the appointment, so we decided we’d go back to our vacation rental to make some food, maybe catch some of the Olympics. It was there on the couch of our little home away that we figured out the mistake.

“We could hit Montezuma tomorrow on our way home,” Cristina said.

“No, it’s all right. I just want to relax with you. That sounds like a bunch of cramming.”

“Funny we both thought it was Santa Teresa,” she said, zoned out watching beach volleyball on the TV.

“Funny we thought Carmen was Santa Teresa,” I added, grinning.

Lunch at Chop was organic but we didn’t mind.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

To be honest, the 2010 trip was a blur. I was still drinking back then and she did her best to keep up. The people we traveled with were on the same itinerary: sleep, eat, drink, repeat. It’s amazing we remembered anything. One memory, however, we would never lose.

I’d planned for months. I bought the ring in secret, packed it and planned to propose to Cristina on the volcano. Three of us, Cristina and I included, came down with an awful bug in the middle of our trip, in the middle of Nicoya. We spiked three digit fevers, unable to get out of bed. Paradise slipped through our fingers for days. There would be no time for the volcano.

By the time we felt well enough to move, it was time to leave the peninsula. We’d only spent one morning in Playa Carmen, and two days in Montezuma. Two in Montezuma, because we drank so much at Chico’s bar one night, we had to crash in a Tico-style cabina for the night.

Sitting on the cold bench of the ferry from Naranjo to Punterenas, I felt like my head was a bag of sand. Breaking the fever just hours before had exhausted me. My body felt like I’d raised a barn single-handedly.

The Bakery in Playa Carmen may not fit your diet.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

As I stared into the chocolate stew filling the Golfo de Nicoya, a kernel of an idea rolled out of my head. I could propose to Cristina right now, on this boat. Nobody would have to know it was the dirty tug that’s bangs back and forth, carting cars and people. Nobody would know the water looked more like sewage than water. The story she could tell her friends would be, “He proposed on a boat in Costa Rica.” That was, I popped the question and she accepted.

Nobody knew of my plans. I figured she should be the first.

“Hey,” I said to Cristina, not giving myself a chance to think.

“Hi.”

This was the most conversation we’d had all morning.

“Come up to the bow with me,” I said, fishing for the box containing the ring behind my back. I’d buried it in my bag somewhere.

I tried making a call on this conch, but apparently it was a one-way channel.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

“OK,” she said, turning to Gustavo, who was asleep on the bench behind us. “Can you watch our bags?”

Finding the box, I stuffed it in the pocket of my hoodie. Gustavo, who was still fighting the bug, tilted his head, opening one eye.

“No problem,” he said.

I had a basic outline of what I wanted to say, but I hadn’t practiced. The walk to the bow of that ferry was the shortest walk I ever took. Any energy I had for hammering out my script was burned up trying to keep my legs under my body.

“What’s going on?” Cristina, standing on the bow with her arms around my waist.

I knew what I wanted to say now.

“I wanna talk to you,” I replied.

Cristina swallowed hard. “OK….”

The tension felt like a break-up, so I spoke carefully.

“For some time we’ve called each other husband and I wife. It was funny for a while.”

Cristina nodded, letting go of my middle.

“I’d prefer you not call me husband anymore.”

“OK,” she replied, opening her mouth to ask a question.

Our dog Kai loves the tide pools in Playa Hermosa.

Damon Mitchell/The Tico Times

“I’m not your husband,” I added, cutting her off.

“You’re right,” she said, her eyes darting.

I didn’t wait for her to speak. “Because we live together, I’d also prefer you didn’t call me boyfriend anymore.…”

Cristina’s eyes welled up. She swallowed hard.

“What would you like me to call you?”

In my hand, just below her view was the open box with the ring.

“Would fiancé be OK?” I asked, glancing down.

Cristina’s eyes followed mine. She stared at the ring for what seemed like minutes. It may have been two seconds. She pulled the ring from the box, shoving it onto her finger without a word.

“Should I assume that’s a yes?”

By the time her arms wrapped fully around me, tears poured from her eyes. Like she was afraid to let go, she shifted her grip, squeezing harder and harder. Between the tears, Cristina chuckled into my neck. Me too.

That was almost six years ago. We married the following year, and moved to Costa Rica two years after the boat ride. It took us this long to get back to the place where it all went down, but we missed the mark by several towns. It didn’t matter. We always get a little lost when we travel. Perhaps that’s the point.

“We should get going,” Cristina said, pointing at the clock on her phone.

Her appointment was in 30 minutes, and we still had to navigate the big chainsaw again.

“I changed my mind,” I replied.

“About the tattoo?”

“Montezuma. We should leave early and eat breakfast there on our way home tomorrow.”

“OK,” she said, smiling. “Sounds good.”

We made it to her appointment on time. On the inside of her right bicep, Kawika inked one of cleanest swallow tattoos I’ve ever seen. In traditional Japanese tattooing, the swallow has many meanings: one who travels, freedom, even everlasting love and loyalty. Yep. That pretty much sums her up.

Contact Damon Mitchell at damonre@gmail.com.

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