Backpackers and tourists have long been drawn to the Pacific beach town of Montezuma for its spectacular sandy shores, waterfalls and laid-back culture. Since 2007, Proyecto Montezuma, a joint effort by a Tico-U.S. couple, has been changing the way people travel on the southern NicoyaPeninsula. By promoting sustainable tourism to fund free English and environmental education for locals, they are helping the community turn the tide toward a better quality of life.
Tourists passing through may find the town a perfect getaway, but for many locals trying to support their families, life is anything but a vacation. More than half of working-age residents are chronically unemployed, estimates Proyecto Montezuma Codirector Kerri Bowers. She thinks English classes are the locals’ best shot at preparing themselves for a well-paying job in Montezuma’s tourism industry.
“One of our dreams is for all the local people to have jobs,” says fellow co-director César Benavides. “Without English, they don’t have opportunities.”
Fees from eco-tours, Spanish classes and volunteer programs fund Bowers’ and Benavides’ work running the English school and sponsoring locals to participate in reforestation projects.
“We don’t have the same type of conservationist tourism as Corcovado or Monteverde,” Benavides says, referring to the popular eco-destinations in southwestern and north-central Costa Rica, respectively. “But we want to attract a more conscious tourist.”
Amid the beach and party scene, it is easy to forget that Montezuma is the birthplace of Costa Rica’s conservation movement. Just a few kilometers west of downtown Montezuma on the beach, a plaque commemorates the former homesite of Nicolas Wessberg, the Swedish conservationist who was instrumental in establishing Costa Rica’s first protected area, the Cabo Blanco Absolute Nature Reserve, in 1963. Wessberg and his wife, Karen Mogensen, helped the government found the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) and sparked an international outcry for the protection of tropical forests.
A Match Made in Montezuma
A native of the U.S. state of Maryland, Bowers, 31, used to teach at an inner-city high school in Washington, D.C. In July 2007, a summer vacation trip brought her to Montezuma, where she went on a hiking tour with Benavides, founder of Montezuma’s Underground Sustainable Tours.
Bowers fell in love with both the charming beach town and equally charming guide. In October, she and Benavides co-founded Proyecto Montezuma.
With a master’s degree in international training and education from AmericanUniversity, Bowers employs her knowledge of curriculum design and organization as director of Proyecto Montezuma’s English school and volunteer program. Benavides, 29, a native of Alajuela in the Central Valley who studied ecotourism at the Universidad Técnica Nacional, directs Proyecto Montezuma’s sustainable tours and teaches the Spanish-immersion courses. The two are engaged to be married.
Bowers and Benavides can be found Monday to Saturday in Proyecto Montezuma’s small but colorful street-level office on the town’s main strip, which functions as their tour office, classroom and de facto afterschool program and community center.
“The local students don’t have an opportunity to do extracurricular activities,” Bowers says. “They have so much energy, but really nothing to do.”
This is where the international volunteers come in. Hailing from all corners of the world, many of them are teachers. They help Bowers give English classes, take part in environmental restoration projects and facilitate extracurricular classes, such as yoga, gardening and art. One Argentine volunteer created a music class using reused and recycled materials found in nature, such as maracas made with stones and plastic bottles. Bowers says these activities create a space for authentic cultural exchange between the international volunteers and the local residents.
Every Sunday, Proyecto Montezuma conducts a beach cleanup with volunteers, tourists and locals to rid the beach of the constant wash of plastic garbage. It is an endless and thankless job. After a heavy rain, the amount of trash that clogs the shore is astounding. Most visitors are unaware that were it not for these organized cleanups, the beach would resemble a garbage dump.
In addition to removing trash, Proyecto Montezuma is helping to plant new trees to lessen the impact of deforestation in the area. Partnering with the United Nations’ worldwide Billion Tree Campaign, the project started its efforts with the town’s public elementary school, Escuela Montezuma.
The schoolchildren were so excited by the responsibility of planting, watering and caring for their trees that they even named their arboreal charges. To date, the organization has planted 200 trees of its goal of 500.
Offering free English classes to locals of all ages through its English school, Proyecto Montezuma serves 30 students, roughly 50 percent of the town’s elementary-age children. Bowers also runs classes for more than 16 adults and a group of aspiring young surf instructors. She originally developed her English-as-a-second-language (ESL) environmental curriculum for airline Nature Air’s Nature Kids program, currently being taught at two partner schools in Costa Rica. The concept is to use local terms, the environment and nature as subject matter for language classes.
The program acts as a support to Montezuma’s public elementary school, which is stretched beyond its limits, Bowers says. Two schoolteachers instruct more than 60 students from preschool to sixth grade. The nearest high school is in Cóbano, a town nearly 30 minutes away by bus – part of the reason many local students don’t continue past sixth grade. Proyecto Montezuma’s after-school classes offer literacy reinforcement that the public school’s overworked teachers aren’t always able to provide.
Beyond English, the youth and adult classes provide specialized job skills training. Bowers offers a specific class just for street vendors – the free-spirited artisans whose tables of handmade jewelry line Montezuma’s main street.
“Their livelihood is based on communicating,” Bowers says. Through the program, they are able practice their sales pitch and language skills with international volunteers.
In addition to ESL classes for locals, Proyecto Montezuma offers Spanish immersion for foreigners. Benavides teaches a group Spanish course every Monday to Friday from 10 to 11 a.m. Travelers can sign up for weekly or monthly sessions, or take private classes. Drop-ins are also welcome.
For years, Montezuma tour operators have offered the same services: boat tours to snorkel at Isla Tortuga, scuba certification, horseback riding, zipline canopy tours, ATV rentals and boat transfers across the Gulf of Nicoya to Jacó, on the central Pacific coast. In addition to these staples, Proyecto Montezuma offers a variety of new ecotours.
The more sustainable alternatives include guided hikes to learn about local ecosystems, ocean kayak and snorkel tours to often-missed islands, mountain biking adventures, turtle-watching night tours and surf lessons with locals.
Led by bilingual naturalist guide Benavides, hikes include long and short treks to area reserves and parks, such as the Cabo Blanco reserve, Piedra Colorada reserve, Curú Wildlife Refuge and the Montezuma waterfalls.
For mountain bikers, a handful of options for different experience levels are offered. For a smooth one-hour bike tour combined with four hours of hiking, Benavides recommends the Cabo Blanco and Cabuya tour to the country’s oldest protected area, on the southern tip of the NicoyaPeninsula.
For a more challenging ride, the La Florida Waterfall tour takes eco-tourists northward through farmland toward Cóbano for a refreshing swim in a series of five waterfalls, each bigger than the last.
Three ocean kayak options are offered: morning, sunset and Isla Cabuya tours. The guided tours take visitors to observe Isla Cabuya’s traditional indigenous cemetery and snorkel at the fish-filled tropical reef.
In addition, this year Proyecto Montezuma partnered with the Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas (ASVO) to create turtle-watching night tours. From August to October, olive ridley and black turtles nest on Montezuma’s beaches. After dark, ASVO volunteers lead tourists on night patrol in the Romelia Wildlife Refuge to view female turtles digging nests and laying eggs, and then guard the nesting sites from poachers and predators. Starting in December, Proyecto Montezuma will offer tours for visitors to witness and protect baby turtles as they exit their nests in the sand and scurry toward the ocean to start their lives in the open waters.
Surf ’s Up
Another of Bowers’ and Benavides’ goals is to launch Montezuma’s first surf school, creating an opportunity for the youths studying English with them to become professional surf instructors.
“Our intention is not only that they enjoy surfing, but that they are able to make a living out of it as well,” Bowers says.
Proyecto Montezuma is currently the only outfit in town that rents surfboards. I grab a beginner longboard and head to Playa Grande for a surf lesson with one of the English school’s star students.
Manuel Céspedes, 21, is waiting for me on the beach. He explains that though the waves are rough today, we can give it a try. Even as a beginner surfer, I can tell the conditions are less than ideal. However, with Céspedes’ instruction and encouragement, I get a taste of the thrill of the waves, getting up every time but once.
Bowers says people still don’t know the surfing is great in Montezuma. Though the beaches aren’t sure-fire every day, good surf can be found by going to the right beach at the right time. Attesting to Montezuma’s potential as an up-and-coming surf spot is the growing number of locals and tourists hitting the waves at Playa Grande, Playa Cedros and Playa Reyes.
As the sun sets, my surf instructor and I head back to town on a dirt path strewn with plumerias and bathed in the scent of ylang-ylang. We stop at Piedra Colorada, where the mouth of a small river pours over multicolored rocks, to take a dip in the cool green water and rinse the salt off the boards. As twilight falls on the shoreline, I come to a full appreciation of the meaning of Proyecto Montezuma’s slogan: “Travel like you care.”
Prices and Contact Info
Proyecto Montezuma is open Monday to Saturday, 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. and 5 to 8 p.m. Day tours cost $35 to $40. Spanish classes are $10 for a daily drop-in, $80 for two weeks and $180 for a month.
A two-week volunteer program including teaching and tours costs $200, or $300 including Spanish immersion classes. Longer programs are also available.
For information, call 8312-0815, e-mail email@example.com or visit www.proyectomontezuma.com.