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
Our hotel was down the road a couple of miles, in Santa Teresa, a town that's become a hangout for cool surfers and yuppies. I had booked a room at the Tropico Latino Lodge, just off the main road, months before. They had asked me to wire money for a deposit. Driving in, the wiring seemed worth it. Bungalows were spaced evenly along pathways lined with pretty foliage. A two-tier pool beckoned, overlooking a lovely stretch of private beach. In the middle was a buzzing bar. We checked in with the bartender, who was the head person on duty. He was named Richard, and he was laid-back, slick, and handsome, like a surf version of Peter Krause on Six Feet Under. He also resembled that character in that he didn't really seem to want any responsibility.
After disappearing for 20 minutes, he returned to the bar and said, "There's someone in your room already." He shrugged. "I'm just here to make drinks."
"Kick them out," I said. "I wired money."
Apparently, a French gentleman had seen my name on the reservation sheet and pretended to be me, therefore stealing the last bungalow. The woman working the morning shift didn't seem to notice, or think to check his ID. Richard didn't know how to contact the hotel's owner, or perhaps he didn't want to try.
In retrospect, I should've been wary of a hotel that wanted me to wire money ahead. But what could I have done differently? A confirmation number wouldn't have helped much on the Richard front. I stood at the bar for the next three hours as he mixed margaritas and chatted up everything that walked. In between, Richard made a few calls on our behalf, trying to find us a room.
By the time I retreated in disgust--with a full refund--I looked like Richard had put me in a blender. I was wild-eyed. Sweat plastered my hair against my forehead. Regina and I drove up and down the road. Every hotel, at every price range, was full. We'd have to traverse the coast until dark. Maybe we'd find a place.
As a last option, we turned in at a sign that read florblanca. Regina parked and I got out of the car to see what they had. The restaurant and bar looked like something on the Fine Living Channel, all cool concrete and wooden beams and tables. The hotel was filled with gorgeous, tanned people of many nationalities. I walked up to the front desk. Even though I must have looked scary, they smiled at me.
"I need a room!" I said. "Now!"
"Of course," the receptionist calmly replied. She showed me a room. I went to get Regina.
"This is where we're staying," I said.
"How much is it?"
"A lot." She didn't bother arguing.
Our casita had three rooms. The bedroom was fully enclosed, with the first air-conditioning unit we'd seen on the trip, and it had a mosquito-netted king-size bed. The living room contained many more comfortable chairs than we could handle, and our bathroom was entirely open-air, with an outdoor shower and a sunken concrete tub.
In the lobby, the hostess handed us two virgin guava margaritas. The locally picked fruit is goopy and stringy at the same time. It tasted like a mango dipped in honey.
We'd accidentally landed in someone else's vacation, a fantasyland of beach walks, swimming-pool dips, fancy drinks, and sushi under the stars. But we had to leave the luxury behind, because we couldn't possibly afford another day.
Everyone warned us that part of the road up the Pacific side of the peninsula was literally on the beach. At high tide, it's covered by water. We left at 9:30 a.m. and followed the rough road out of Santa Teresa. Within minutes we had said good-bye to overgrown development. Just when we thought the driving couldn't get any better, the road dipped down and we found ourselves cruising along the sand. The tide was coming in, lapping over the road.
"Follow the tire tracks," I said to Regina. She complied, flooring it like they do on the commercials. We came to an estuary, where I got out of the car, took off my shoes, and stepped in. The water came up past my knees.
We backed up a couple of miles and took an alternate route, spending the rest of the day slinking through little towns and past small beachside communities that obviously intended to remain secret. Gorgeous view stacked upon gorgeous view. We became blase about foaming surf crashing against rocks with a backdrop of rolling farmland and jungle-foliaged volcano-scapes.
At a bend in the main road, we were thwarted by a river. This was beyond our skills. We gazed at the water for several minutes, not saying anything, just awed, realizing that driving in Costa Rica will eventually defeat everyone, no matter how sturdy or determined.
As though we'd dreamed it, an electric company truck pulled alongside us, and the driver indicated that we should follow him. He maneuvered his truck into the water, curved left, and then cut sharply right. He was submerged to well above his tires, and then he pulled the truck onto the bank and sat there, waiting.