There is a force stronger than the sea itself in that little fishing town. It is mysterious and unidentifiable, ever changing and unquestionably powerful. I can feel it pounding in the surf that reverberates up the cliff, penetrating my thoughts as I write this. For some, Montezuma is just a speck on the map, a tiny village turned bohemian tourist lure in Costa Rica, a place to visit for a day or two and move on. The forces of Montezuma are selective as to who it chooses to take hold of and refuse to let out of its grasp; not everyone feels it. Those of whom Montezuma has taken hold know it and they know they’re powerless to escape it. She will always force your return, beckoning softly or violently ripping away that which has begun to draw you away from her. She is relentless. There is a sense of natural purity that for awhile can disguise the dark, seductive pull in this modest corner of paradise.
Some may say that the ocean is simply a reflection of the sky above it but in there, it is a reflection of Montezuma herself. Sometimes she is the soft pearly blue of reflection, sometimes the deep tumultuous gray of impending storm, or the bright clear blue of vitality and life. And sometimes, just for a few minutes in the late afternoon, the whole surface of the sea glows a soft golden pink, el celaje we call it, the moment the sun finally disappears from the sky and leaves everything beneath it coated in a rosy glow. The chorus of parrots and blackbirds fills the jungle canopy and the occasional roar of a howler monkey rips through the quiet symphony of rustling leaves and crashing waves. The sweet, heavy scent of ylang-ylang blossoms, wet earth and salt air intoxicate your senses as the thickness of the tropical heat and humidity sticks in your lungs and on your skin. Everywhere you look you see the vivid green of new growth crowning the top of every tree, shading the deep brown of the tree trunks that embrace the scent of the sweet, fresh rain in the tropical winter. Bursts of colors of bright tropical flowers punctuate the landscape.
Some are drawn to her beauty but others to her dark and irresistible allure. It’s easy to get lost in the shadowy underside of paradise, and in the attempt to escape your own reality, she provides one for you. A dangerous black hole of self-medication and intoxication lies in wait for those too weak to resist her unrelenting silent urging. They drown in the illusion she so generously provides. Balance is not easy in Montezuma for she is constantly beckoning for you to come closer to her mystery, sink deeper, and if you’re not careful you’ll forget about the powerful beauty of her warm sun on your face and give in to the seductive power of her moon.
Montezuma is surrounded by and cut through with water. It’s located on the tip of a peninsula facing 270 degrees of open ocean where countless rivers, streams and waterfalls make their way from the depths of the jungle to the edge of the sea. The moon holds more influence here than in most places on earth. Her fullness every month brings with it an undeniable energy and whether that energy translates into dancing barefoot on the moonlit sand to the hypnotic pounding of electronic music or silent and brooding introspection, you never know until the moment arrives. We who live in this sometimes ethereal location either choose to respect her power or foolishly deny it but it underlies everything, and sooner or later we all realize the inescapable reality that we have entered her domain and are powerless to leave it behind.
At first, I fell in love with her Latin rhythm, her lush overhanging cliffs and gently curved coast. I was enamored with her easy flow of life and pura vida. I had found my place where the jungle met the sea and I was deliriously happy. I got to know her eccentric people and loved her even more. Time passed and I became a part of her. She is young, she is old, she is everything in between and from every corner of the world. Montezuma is old retired men, passing their days at the bar with a lukewarm beer. She is old hippies smoking their joints and doling out homeopathic remedies. She is yogis and healers of every kind. Montezuma is her artists, her drug dealers and thieves. She is the fishermen and artisans. She is her modern nomads, just there long enough to pass the season or a few, make some money and travel on. It was a casual and unhindered lifestyle and no one cared. We all laid in the sun all day and worked our respective jobs so that we could all meet back up and spend all our money in the only bar in town at night.
Time is a strange concept in a place like Montezuma. Every day felt like paradise but minutes tick away and the days pass on just like anywhere else in the world. It was a constant repetition of the best day of my life: wake up, go to the beach, go to work, party, sleep, wake up, beach, work, party… The days turn to weeks, the weeks to months and the months to years and all the sudden I realized I had been doing nothing but smoking joints, working on my tan and spending enough evenings at a mindless job just to have enough cash in my wallet to enjoy a night out. There are a million funny stories locked in that haze somewhere and moments where I made the choices that led me to where I was but I couldn’t really remember any of it, specifically.
The darker side of Montezuma slinks in subtle and unnoticed. At first it’s funny. At first you laugh at the incredulousness of this strange new world where you can roll a joint and smoke it at the bar. Then you sit in disbelief when you see someone pull out a bag of blow and snort a couple lines off their house keys. Drug and alcohol addictions are such a serious problem simply because nearly everyone has some sort of an addiction and nearly no one sees it as a problem. And since no one really saw it as a problem, neither did I. I laughed if I thought about what friends with more “normal” lives back in California might say if they knew what was normal for me in Montezuma, but since you can’t compare such differences I never tried.
For years Montezuma was my retreat, my sanctuary, the only thing I could think about when I wasn’t there and the only thing that mattered when I was. It wasn’t until I physically couldn’t leave that it became my beautiful prison. I felt like I had lost everything, my savings, my heart, friends and I was seriously beginning to lose my faith and my hope about the good side of life in general. There was almost nothing about Montezuma I loved anymore. I took no joy in the beauty around me because I felt like everything I had loved there before was somehow taken away because I had chosen to be there. I knew something needed to change but I wasn’t willing to let go. I wasn’t willing to give up because things were hard and I couldn’t leave her behind me, despite all her flaws. I desperately begged some sort of greater consciousness to provide me with the strength to either overcome the difficulties of living in a small town in the jungle or the strength to leave it. I felt like layer after layer of my life in paradise had been stripped away and lost forever. When my cat got eaten by a boa constrictor, I finally broke down and booked a ticket back to California.
As it turns out, inexplicable magic exists not only in the steamy tropics but in the cool, misty mountains as well. I spent nearly a month watching the tumultuous gray Pacific, cold and nothing like the warm waters that kissed my skin in Montezuma but just as powerful. I listened to ancient trees sway in the wind whispering, nothing like the raucous jungle but full of just as many secrets. My eyes absorbed the muted greens of lichens and moss, so different from the vibrant greens of the wild vines and banana leaves, but just as alive. The musty, salty smell of the fish market from years ago in The Gambia flitted through my memory and I remembered the warm orange glow of its afternoon, like the late summer in California when the wildfires rage. As I watched the first snow I had seen in seven years float peacefully to the ground, I thought of the fat drops of rain from the tropical storms that I had loved so deeply. I started to hear something I hadn’t heard in a long time, the powerful whispering of the unknown began calling to me again. I realized that if I could feel the magic outside the tropical bubble of Montezuma, a mere few hours from my own backyard, I would feel it in a lot of other places, places I haven’t seen yet or experienced their own unique mystery. The mountains were a blast of cold air revitalizing my damp and wilted soul and I knew it was time for the chapter where the jungle meets the sea to close.
My years of youthful and wild abandon had burned out into a defeated and seething pessimism, that from its ashes sprung a phoenix I never expected, myself. I had found the strength to leave her behind how she deserved to be left: no illusions, no desperate escape, just peace and determination. I was able to release myself from her powerful grip not by unraveling her mystery, but by remembering that there are others to discover. I had to return to Costa Rica but I was finally ready to move on.
The moment I felt the wheels of the plane lift off Costa Rican earth for what might have been the last time, tears came to my eyes. Not in sadness for the six years of a life I had built there, not for the true friends I had made and was leaving, nor for friendships that ended; they were tears of tremendous happiness. I had arrived in Montezuma by chance, searching for something so simple and through her I had discovered something so much more complex. I was leaving that life behind so that I could continue to chase my dream, to discover where those powerful whispers of unknown might lead me. I knew that although I was leaving her domain, Montezuma would never truly leave me.
Jillian Bright is a full time traveler and modern nomad, living most recently for six years in Costa Rica. She has been writing privately since she was 7 but is just now getting out there publicly. This is her first contest.
“Dura La Vida: The Other Side of Paradise” won a Gold Award in the Bad Trip category of the Eighth Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.