Picture this: A small beach village on the Pacific Coast. Towering, emerald-green mountains as a backdrop. A hike through the jungle along a roaring river. An 80-foot waterfall plunging into a crystal-clear swimming hole. This is what you’ll see when you hike to Montezuma Waterfall in Costa Rica.
Montezuma Falls is one of the more affordable and accessible waterfalls in the country. You could stop for a quick hike and swim as you beach-hop around the Nicoya Peninsula, or bring a picnic and spend half a day or longer lounging at the falls.
This waterfall is popular with locals, but less busy with tourists, so it can be hard to find information about what to expect. In this post, I’ll give you all the details to plan your trip to Montezuma Waterfall!
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Where is Montezuma Waterfall in Costa Rica?
The Montezuma Falls hike is located on the Nicoya Peninsula, in the town of Montezuma.
Montezuma is near the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula, near Santa Teresa and Malpais. It’s an easy day trip from those popular destinations.
However, it’s a long, rough drive away from some of the other popular Nicoya beaches. If you’re staying in Samara, Nosara or Tamarindo, save this waterfall for a future trip. The roads between the northern and southern Nicoya are a nightmare.
Montezuma Waterfall hike: What to expect from the trail
Starting from the Montezuma Trailhead, you can reach Montezuma Falls in about 20 minutes.
The hike begins along the Montezuma River, which is really more like a large creek. You’ll walk first along a wide path, then on a narrow and slippery trail. The hike crosses the river several times in the first half-mile or so, and the rocks can be very slippery.
Once you’re on the right bank, you’ll stay there as you gradually climb along the rocky and root-y trail. (It feels mostly flat but you’re gaining a tiny amount of elevation.) It’s not particularly scenic, but the river to your left provides a nice atmosphere.
Eventually you’ll reach a spot where you have to climb along the river bank for about 20 feet. There are ropes to help you — I promise it’s not as difficult as it looks! That being said, this is very much a one-way section of trail. If someone is coming the opposite direction, let them pass before you climb out onto the riverbank.
At this point you’re very close to the lower falls. All you need to do is climb up a bit more and you’ll see the forest open up around the swimming hole.
When you finish at the falls, you’ll return the way you came.
The three waterfalls — Lower, Middle and Upper
Montezuma Waterfall is actually three different waterfalls — a lower, middle and upper waterfall.
The Lower Falls is the most easily accessible on the route described above, and the only one that’s free to visit. It has an amazing swimming hole that’s the exact perfect temperature for cooling off in the tropical heat. It’s also the largest of the drops and the most scenic. Most people hang out at the Lower Falls and don’t bother with the others.
The Upper Falls is accessible via a path that climbs 200 steep steps. (There is another path that runs along the waterfall, but it’s ridiculously steep and eroded — it would be very dangerous to take this route.) You’ll have to pay a 2,000 colones entrance fee once you reach the Upper Falls. It’s a much smaller waterfall, although it has a nice swimming hole. You can also reach the Upper Falls another way, through its own entrance — more detail below.
The Middle Waterfall is hidden between the other two drops. It’s impressive, at 40 feet — but hard to get a good view. You can see it through the trees as you hike to the Upper Falls. Alternatively, you can peer over the edge of the swimming hole from the Upper Falls. Some people jump from the Upper Falls to the pool at the base of the Middle Falls, but people have died attempting this.
In my opinion, if you’re short on time, you only need to visit the Lower Falls. The Upper Falls are a nice add-on if you have half a day or longer but they’re not super impressive on their own.
The Sun Trails entrance to the Upper Falls
If you want to combine your waterfall hike with a canopy tour, you could consider skipping the Montezuma Waterfall Trail and doing the Sun Trails excursion instead.
This trip begins at Sun Trails, an adventure company based above Montezuma Falls. To reach the entrance, drive past the main parking area and continue up the hill. It’s a very steep and narrow road.
The entrance fee is about $4, and includes access to the trails, two hanging bridges, and all three waterfalls. You can enter between 8:30 am and 4:30 pm.
There are also options to do a guided tour (including transport) and to combine your waterfall visit with a zipline tour. The Montezuma Waterfall Canopy Tour runs $60 per person.
If you’re just looking for somewhere to take a quick swim, the Sun Tours entrance is a good option. But it’s not the best way to see the Lower Waterfall — you’ll have to hike down all 200 steps to reach it, then climb back up when you’re done.
The Butterfly Brewing entrance
There’s one other option to reach the Montezuma Waterfall — through Butterfly Brewing. You may want to consider this option if you have your own car, the parking area for the Lower Falls is full, and you want to stop somewhere for lunch or a drink.
Butterfly Brewing is a craft brewery and restaurant between the Lower Falls and the Upper Falls. You still have to drive up a steep hill to reach it, but not as far as the Sun Tours entrance.
The brewery and restaurant are worth a stop on their own — it’s the best place to eat and drink in Montezuma. There’s also a beautiful garden on the premises.
But if you just want to visit the waterfall, you can also park here for 1,000 colones and take the trails through the garden. They lead you to an intersection on the Lower/Upper Falls Trail, closer to the Upper Falls. You’ll still need to pay the 2,000 colones fee to access the trails around the Upper Falls.
The advantage to using this entrance is easier parking. The disadvantage is you’ll have to climb steep steps for both the Upper and Lower Falls. There is no way to see the falls without doing a bit more hiking.
Best time to visit the Waterfalls in Montezuma Costa Rica
Montezuma Falls is a year-round waterfall. It’s even impressive in dry season, and the swimming hole at the Lower Falls is consistently full.
I recommend visiting during the dry season, from December-April. This is also the busiest time of year, there’s no guarantee it will actually be dry, and it’s very humid. But the main reason this is the best time to go is the roads, especially if you have your own car. Even though you can reach Montezuma Waterfall entirely on tarmac, the roads are so steep that I’d be nervous in wet weather.
If you visit during rainy season, be extra careful crossing the river while hiking, as water levels can be much higher. If you’re self-driving, it’s worth renting a 4×4 to ensure you have the traction to make it up the hills.
What to bring on your hike
Like any hike in Costa Rica, you’ll want to be prepared for hot, humid and potentially rainy conditions on this hike.
You can hike to Montezuma Falls in your typical hiking clothes — shorts and a t-shirt are fine. The hike isn’t so long or difficult that you need technical hiking clothing. I wore gym shorts and a cotton t-shirt and was comfortable. Even if it’s rainy, the hike is so short that you don’t absolutely need a rain jacket if you don’t mind getting a bit wet.
I’d recommend wearing your swimsuit under your clothing. You can change at the trailhead, but once you reach the Lower Falls you’ll have a hard time finding a private spot in the woods to change.
Hiking sandals are the one essential piece of gear for this hike. You’ll have to cross the river a few times. If you wear boots you’ll either spend ages taking them off at every crossing, or you’ll get them soaking wet. Most water crossings are about knee-deep, so even waterproof boots won’t help. Tevas are my #1 pick for hiking sandals.
Even though it’s a short hike, do not forget to bring water. If you’re just going to see the Lower Falls, half a liter is enough. If you plan to spend more time at the falls or go to the Upper Falls, a full liter would be best.
How to get to Montezuma Falls
Remember how I said there aren’t many tourists at the Montezuma waterfalls? That’s because Montezuma is…not the easiest corner of Costa Rica to get to.
See, the Nicoya Peninsula — despite its popularity as a beach destination — has some of the worst roads in the country. It’s gradually improving, but one wrong turn in this region and you could end up on a pretty dodgy, very steep, 4×4-only-even-in-dry-season road.
You can reach Montezuma entirely on paved roads. You can also reach it via one of the worst stretches of road in Costa Rica, involving multiple river crossings even in dry season. (Don’t take the hard route.)
But regardless of how you get to the town, there’s no avoiding the extremely steep, extremely narrow descent from the hills to Montezuma Beach. The good news is, it’s on a tarmac road. The bad news is, the road is barely wide enough for one car, there are blind curves everywhere, and you’ll be sharing it with ATV’s and motorbikes.
I was driving an AWD SUV and I wasn’t certain the car would make it back up the hill when I left Montezuma. It was fine, just a little nerve-wracking.
Self-driving with a rental car
The most reliable way to get to Montezuma is with your own vehicle. It’s an easy enough drive, but very important to plan your route in advance and ignore GPS directions that try to take you a theoretical “faster” way.
Your first step is getting from the mainland to the Nicoya Peninsula. There are two options: the bridge on Route 18, or the ferry that runs from Puntarenas to Paquera. While the ferry is much faster on paper, the departure times aren’t super convenient. You’ll often arrive earlier by driving Route 18. If you want to take the ferry, book your ticket online at least a day in advance.
Even if you’re coming from the northern Nicoya Peninsula, you should drive back to the mainland and cross the bridge on Route 18 rather than attempting to traverse the peninsula. It’s faster and far less dangerous.
Once you’re on the Nicoya Peninsula, you’ll drive Route 21 to Cóbano. This is where your GPS can get you in trouble — just before you reach the town, you may be directed onto a shorter route that turns down to Montezuma. Do not take this shortcut. You should drive all the way into Cóbano, where you’ll pass a supermarket and other shops. Trust me, I made this mistake — there’s a creek ford on the shortcut even in dry season.
Coming from Santa Teresa to Montezuma Waterfall, you’ll also want to double back through Cóbano. Take the route that leads you through Los Charcoles — not the one that fords the Rio Negro. There is also a back-road route between the towns, but it’s very dangerous with multiple river fords. If you aren’t sure, Google Maps shows where the river and creek fords are, so carefully examine the route on the map before committing.
From Cóbano, take a left on Route 624 to reach Montezuma.
The Nicoya Peninsula doesn’t have a ton of service stations. Never let your gas tank drop below half-full here — the mountain roads eat up gas super fast.
Tourist shuttles to Montezuma
If self-driving sounds too stressful, another option to reach the Montezuma Waterfall is a tourist shuttle. You’ll be picked up from your hotel/airport wherever you’re coming from, and dropped off at your hotel in Montezuma.
The most reliable company for shuttles to Montezuma is Tropical Tours. Expect to pay $50-60 for a shuttle from the mainland.
Tourist shuttles are a comfortable way to travel in Costa Rica, but they can’t avoid the bumpy, dusty, gravel roads. Don’t expect a comfy ride on tarmac the whole time.
You are allowed to bring a surfboard on most tourist shuttles for free.
Public transportation to Montezuma, Costa Rica
If you are backpacking Costa Rica on an extremely tight budget, you can still reach Montezuma. It won’t be fun, comfortable, or fast, but it’s possible.
Your only realistic option to get to Montezuma is to begin in San Jose. There are two buses a day, leaving at 7:30 am and 3:30 pm, from Terminal 7-10. The price is about $12, which includes your ferry ticket. You’ll pay a small extra fee for a surfboard.
This bus will only get you as far as Cóbano. It takes five and a half hours.
The good news is, once you reach Cóbano, local buses will meet you to take you the rest of the way to Montezuma. These leave roughly every two hours between 5 am and 7 pm. They take 45 minutes and cost 1,000 colones.
If you get stuck overnight, Cóbano has a few hotels and plenty of restaurants.
For more on the bus logistics of reaching Montezuma, check out this guide. It also explains how to pick up the bus along the route, which is your best option coming from the southern/central coast (like Manuel Antonio, Uvita or Drake Bay.
Finding the trailhead and parking
Once you reach the town of Montezuma, you’ll still need to travel a bit further for Montezuma Waterfall.
If you’re self-driving, you’ll need to meander slowly through town (the traffic is horrible even though there aren’t actually that many people here!). The waterfall is on the exact opposite side of town from where you came in.
Theoretically, the cascade has its own parking area just after the road crosses the Rio Montezuma. If you’re lucky enough to snag a spot, you’ll pay 1,000 colones for secure parking.
But…don’t count on getting a spot in the parking area. It only has room for about 10 cars and it fills up by mid-morning.
So as you drive through town, look for parallel parking on the roads. There’s plenty of parking near the beaches, where it’s a 5-minute walk to the trailhead. Just check the signs carefully — there are time limits on most spots.
If you took the bus or a shuttle to Montezuma, you can easily walk to the waterfall trailhead from town. Just stroll along the main road, past Playa de los Artistas. It’s about a 15-minute walk from the main tourist area.
A few final tips for hiking to waterfalls in Montezuma, Costa Rica
- Be sure to leave the falls no later than 4:30. You would not want to hike back along the river in the dark.
- Montezuma is a super cute town with lots of nice hotels and restaurants. I really wish I’d stayed here instead of Santa Teresa. The beaches are great too!
- If you want parking at the trailhead, arrive by 8 am.
- There is a restroom at the trailhead.
- Even in dry season, it can rain in Montezuma. Rains typically roll in by early-mid afternoon. Go in the morning for a better chance of dry conditions.
- As with any waterfall swimming hole, scope out the area before you swim. Don’t jump off rocks. Keep an eye out for hidden strainers (logs, rocks or other underwater obstacles that can trap you underwater). Be especially careful after storms, since new dangers are more common then. And hopefully this goes without saying, but don’t drink and swim in waterfalls, ever!
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