The first group roll off the plane mouthing, “Where’s the beach?”
The rest of us, clutching our Spanish phrasebook wander through the airport muttering “Dónde puedo rentar un carro?” That part is unnecessary. Agencies deliver vehicles directly to the front door of hotels and hostels.
Left to my own timid devices I’d probably fall into the first category ....hopping into one of the always waiting turista vans for a quick trip to a hotel on the beach. Fortunately, my travel companion always insists on seeing everything. In Costa Rica that means renting a 4WD and heading for the hills ...and everything beyond, from volcanos and cloud forests to yes, beaches.
When a five-week road trip through Costa Rica was first proposed, I confess to expressing considerable trepidation. “That’s in Central America. Don’t banditos jump out of the jungle to kidnap tourists?”
Not usually. Like any country, Canada included, Costa Rica has it’s fair share of crime but is not an inherently dangerous place. Over five weeks and 3400 kilometres there was not a single moment when I felt unsafe or threatened. And frankly, I cannot say the same for trips within North America.
That doesn’t mean you can behave stupidly. I wouldn’t walk around San Jose at night and it’s always best to leave the flash jewellery at home. We were careful about where we parked the vehicle and what we left in it. We over-nighted in modest local hotels which invariably had a locked compound for guest vehicles.
When we needed to leave the vehicle on the street we didn’t normally leave baggage in it. If that was necessary we looked for a secured parking lot. About $4 buys you a carefree afternoon of wandering the streets and markets. In some places, like a market in San Jose, the moment we parked on the street a fellow jumped out of the bushes with an offer to “protect” our vehicle. We gave him a dollar and told him there would be another if our vehicle was undisturbed when we returned. He earned his second dollar.
For short stops we looked for a “Supermercado” or grocery store and parked at the front door. These shops always had several security guards wandering around the parking lot.
Supermercado’s are also reliable locations for restrooms, always a consideration on a road trip because there are no “rest stops” as we know them.
Look for “el bano” or “los servicios” to be at the front of the store off to your left or right. If it’s not there, ask a clerk, “Donde es el bano?” They will deliver the answer in a rapid-fire machine-gun style Spanish that you have no hope of grasping so ignore it. Just watch their hands. They will be pointing. Follow the hands. Works every time.
Small restaurants are also a good bet although you will be expected to pay a few colones for use of the facilities – usually the equivalent of about 50 cents.
People always want to know if you really need a 4WD. Yes. Thinking that you can save a few bucks by renting a car and staying on the tourist trail does not guarantee good roads. The worst road in all of Costa Rica has to be the goat trail up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest, one of the most heavily promoted tourist attractions in the country.
It’s not so much that you need the traction of a 4WD. If you avoid the rainy season (although on the Caribbean coast it is pretty much always the rainy season) the roads are dry and generally navigable by 2WD. What you do need however, is the clearance that 4WD offers.
The quality of the roads in Costa Rica is erratic. One moment they are fine, in the next they deteriorate into a collection of potholes strung together by narrow asphalt bridges. And these are not polite little potholes. No, these are nuclear-bomb-sized craters that swallow Toyota Echoes whole for lunch. So don’t even think about cheaping out and renting the economy compact. The roads will tear out the undercarriage and chew up the tires.
Ticos themselves love to joke about their roads, “How can you tell when a Costa Rican driver is drunk?” The answer: “Because he drives straight.”
Guides like Lonely Planet are not much help in identifying the good versus the bad roads because by the time you are reading them the information is already several years old. The road that the guide says is “difficult” will have been graded and asphalted. The “great” road will have suffered a Richter 9 earthquake the day before you get there.
Travel guides are even less help with predicting the wet river crossings because these are entirely weather dependant. When I read the procedure for ascertaining the viability of these wet crossings I was not thrilled.
After all, Costa Rica has crocodiles doesn’t it? The notion that I would get out and wade across the river first to see if it was too deep for the truck had my stomach in knots. So much so I had Steve do it first. “You’re a better swimmer,” was my rationale.
So he did and I watched. The water didn’t rise past mid-thigh so he declared it a safe crossing. As far as I was concerned, that still seemed a bit deep for the vehicle. What if it stalled, the river rose and it floated away?
Being both the chief navigator and the chief financial officer who would have to finance payment of this vehicle if we sank it (river crossings are not covered by insurance) I grabbed a stick and punching the river bottom in front of me as I walked, plotted out a shallower route.
After that I had no fears and happily bounced out of the truck to test the waters at each crossing.
If your idea of a great road trip is the I5 from Bellingham to San Diego ...you’ll hate driving in Costa Rica. If, on the other hand, the prospect of wheeling a peppy little 4WD up, down and around some of the world’s most scenic and exciting goat trails gets your juices flowing ....welcome to Costa Rica.
Roads are not only of poor quality, but very narrow. Up, down and around mountains, they follow the original pack routes and yes, literally, the goat trails. You will be sharing even the skinniest, bumpiest country lane with huge transport trucks and fat-ass buses. You want a narrow little 4WD SUV like a Diahtsu Terios or RAV4 ...nothing bigger. Trust me on this.
On narrow mountain roads truckers will put on their left turn signal to indicate it is safe to pass them. You will still have to use your own judgement, but if you’ve been sucking up diesel fumes for 20 minutes you will probably decide to trust them.
Essential to understand
The Interamericana Highway runs straight through Costa Rica from the Nicaraguan border in the north to the Panamanian border in the south. It is generally a good road but as usual, be on the lookout for potholes because there will be no warning. Also be aware that even though it is an international highway, everyone uses it. At the end of the day there will be farmers with donkey carts full of sugar cane plodding down the highway home. Don’t come roaring around a corner expecting everyone to be doing 100 kph.
The Interamericana has two other challenges: radar and police roadblocks. The radar is everywhere so take the speed signs seriously. If you do get caught, suggestions that you might find it most “convenient” to pay the officer directly should be resisted. Fines are paid at banks.
Roadblocks are not erected to hassle tourists. They are looking for the bad guys smuggling drugs and weapons up from Panama or down from Nicaragua. You will be asked a steady stream of questions in their machine–gun Spanish ...all of which will be more than your phrase book knowledge can handle. Answer by showing them your passport and saying “playa” which means beach. They will laugh and say “turista” at which you will laugh and say, “Si, turista.” They will wave you on your way.
Where are you going to go?
Geographically Costa Rica divides into five distinct areas. Over five weeks we saw quite a bit of each area. On a shorter trip you would need to pick one or two areas to focus on: