Paradise by the Dashboard Light

In search of the real Costa Rica, Neal Pollack (or more accurately, his wife, Regina) drives the country's western half in four days. It's a tale of misadventures and mitigated bliss--the roads are dreadful, but where they lead is dazzling

The road we'd taken to the lodge headed up into the hills, and far in the distance it looked like it skirted a narrow gap between two volcanoes. We got back on it to explore. Ten minutes in, we came upon the town of Santa Cecilia, on the edge of a mammoth corporate-owned orange plantation. At this point, our National Geographic Adventure Map, invaluable so far, let us down. It indicated mostly paved roads after Santa Cecilia; the drive looked short and easy. Half an hour out of town, when the roads were still mostly rocks and deep holes, we began to worry, particularly because we hadn't yet reached the next town on the map. I realized that we probably wouldn't see the sun set along the beach, which was at least two hours in the other direction.

When you're on a five-day vacation, it's kind of a drag when you waste three hours in a landscape that offers little more than skinny cows and orange groves. Nothing lay ahead of us except potholes. Around 4:30 p.m., the heat finally eased a bit from its high of 97 degrees, and the scenery improved. We had hit volcano country. The road was enclosed on either side by walls of tropical forest. Fading light cast a gilded penumbra around a canvas of deep green. The air smelled old, like earth and pine, cool and wet, a stark contrast to the crisp aridity we'd been passing through just an hour before.

As we cruised down the paved exit road, we stopped for a few minutes in Rio Naranjo. In the twilight, the village appeared like a Central American Brigadoon. Little brooks ran through town. Children in school uniforms skipped along the roadside. My attention turned to some hand-painted dinosaur sculptures that faced the highway. I asked the sculptor what was going on, expecting to get some sort of outsider artist spiel. He was building them, he told us, for a Jurassic Park theme park.

The next morning, before the day's heat could dominate, we went on a horseback "monkey safari." For two hours, a guide led us through dry lowland forest, wet high forest, and a couple of moist forests in between. We spotted spider monkeys, howler monkeys, capuchin monkeys, a tree sloth, a rare local woodpecker, and several toucans. Atop my grouchy old horse, I saw a baby monkey jump on his mother's back as she swung from tree to tree by her tail. It felt like how I imagine the world used to be.

The day's goal was to get from the northern tip of Guanacaste to the southern tip of the Nicoya Peninsula before sundown, a six-hour drive. It was ambitious. The first two hours down the highway bisecting the peninsula were dull and dry, but easy. After a while, we cut east toward the Gulf of Nicoya. The scenery resembled, in turn, the hills of Kentucky, the gently rolling pastureland of Wisconsin and northern Iowa, and the Oregon coast. An hour and a half from the peninsula's base, we came to prosperous towns and passed nice resorts. We rolled down the windows to let in the salty air, and attacked the smooth, hilly roads with enthusiasm.

The town of Cabuya is basically a one-lane road, a few houses, a sign for an Internet cafe (though we never found it), and Hotel Celaje, a seven-bungalow oasis operated by two efficient Belgians. Our thatched-roof bungalow had a spacious, high-ceilinged sleeping loft with teak walls and floors. There were little shelves on the walls, and a table, chair, and hammock on the front porch. The hotel's pool was cool and blue and recently tiled. We could hear the soft waves of the rocky beach, which lay beyond a small thicket of palms.

It's always a good idea to stay someplace where Belgians are cooking. We left the Celaje the next day at 11 a.m. with our bellies still full from the night before, when we were served anchovy toast, smoked fish, and steak with bordelaise sauce.

The seven kilometers we then traveled must be one of the greatest drives anywhere in the world. Cabuya connects to the Pacific side of the Nicoya Peninsula through the Cabo Blanco Absolute Wildlife Reserve, 2,896 acres of tropical forest, with 150 different kinds of trees and untold varieties of fauna. The road skirts the reserve, with steep climbs and magnificent drops, to where the ocean butts up against the western edge. It was an incredible ride and we noodled through it slowly.

On the other side was Malpaís, a place that bore the signs of having recently been a sleepy fishing village. Much of the beachfront remains undeveloped, but not for long. The Pacific side of the peninsula is undergoing a land rush unlike any in Costa Rica's history. Ten or fifteen years from now, chances are good the area will resemble southern Florida, or at least the Yucatán.

Large groups of college students were wandering the rocks, and ATVs roared along the dirt roads. We followed a dirt road toward the restaurant Soda Piedra Mar. The name literally means "ocean rock," and we could see why. Twenty feet in front of us was an inlet, framed by jagged rocks. The surf roared in and shot up through the rocks like a geyser, but always away from our table. On the other side was pristine beach. People pay top dollar to eat in settings like this. Our bill was $14, and only because I ordered the lobster, which still smelled like the ocean. Regina had fried chicken and rice, and it was delicious. We ate at a couple of relatively fancy, and very good, restaurants later in the trip. But the setting, combined with the high-quality home cooking, made Soda Piedra Mar one of the finest places I've ever eaten. I would have gone back 20 times if I could.


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