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

By Neal Pollack, Tuesday, May 24, 2005, 10:38 AM

We first saw the trucks northbound on the Pan-American Highway, halfway between San Jose and Liberia. There were two and they weaved in front of us, the rear one on the other's bumper. To our right, we saw that the cab of an 18-wheeler had run up a hill. Something noxious steamed from under its hood. To our left, hundreds of feet down a canyon, its trailer had shattered into oblivion.

"I've got to get around these trucks," said my wife, Regina.

"Are you sure?"

The trucks lurched. Anything 20 feet in front of us was hidden by a sinister curve. An eternity of switchbacks ensued. Jungle melded into grassland, with little hints of desert below and rain forest above. And this was the ugly part of Costa Rica. Finally, a straightaway appeared. The rear truck put on his left blinker.

"What's he doing?" Regina said.

"I think he wants you to pass him."

The blinker moved faster, almost insistently. Regina whipped into the left lane and gunned the engine. We got by the first truck without a problem, but about halfway past the second truck, we had trouble. A guy on a bicycle was coming toward us. Regina gave a little yelp. I buried my head in my right arm.

When I looked up, the trucks were behind us. Regina was gripping the steering wheel with ardor. "That was awesome," she said.

Generally, there are two ways to approach a trip to Costa Rica. You take the package tour, which shuttles you from the airport to the resort to various nature experiences and back again, or you strap on a backpack. We wanted a little of what both offer--accessibility, authenticity. We wanted a "real" trip, and we figured a car would allow us to go deep. We soon learned that nothing is more real in Costa Rica than driving.

And that would be Regina's job. A few years ago, driving through Ontario, I got distracted while listening to a particularly suspenseful part of The Talented Mr. Ripley on tape, and I switched lanes into a vanful of high-school soccer players from Alberta. Thankfully, there were no injuries, except to my reputation. Since then, I've been restricted, at Regina's orders, to local routes. She handles all the highways, especially foreign ones.

Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, with a population of under four million. Less than a quarter of the roads are paved, and only 19 percent are in good condition. People, particularly in rural areas, have no fear about walking in the middle of the road. According to the World Health Organization, of the 75 countries it surveyed, Costa Rica has the world's eighth highest traffic fatality rate, 20.1 deaths per 100,000 people. (The rate in the U.S. is 15.) I'm surprised the difference isn't higher: Costa Rica may be an earthly paradise, but driving there is Death Race 2000.

We had five days, so we limited ourselves to the province of Guanacaste, in the north, and to the Nicoya Peninsula, which juts west off the northern mainland. We figured we'd be able to take in some road-trip scenery but also have time to enjoy Costa Rica's famously lush nature. We didn't count on roads comprised mainly of potholes the width and depth of family-size lasagnas. We also didn't count on getting bumped off our outbound flight from Houston to Liberia. Instead, we were put on a flight to San Jose, four hours by car to the south. This put a serious cramp in my plans to spend our first morning lolling on the beach. Instead, we got up before dawn and drove. The death race was on.

Just past Liberia, we caught glimpses of Pacific surf bashing jagged cliffs. A plain of dry, mildly hilly grassland was dotted with thick-based, spherically crowned evergreen guanacastes, the national tree of Costa Rica, which look like umbrellas and give even the harshest landscape a pleasing feel.

We arrived at our hotel, Los Inocentes Lodge, around lunchtime. At the center of the property stands a commanding two-story wooden lodge, dating from 1892. The front porch faces the dark Orosí volcano, and the rest of the property abuts Guanacaste National Park. The park's 85,000 acres span several ecosystems, connecting the dry Pacific coast with volcano-peaked cloud forests before sloping down to rain forest on the country's Caribbean side.

Los Inocentes was handy, if not exactly lavish. Our room was small and rustic, with a 26-foot angled ceiling, twin beds, and a private bathroom across the hall. The place was empty, so we had full run of a shared porch running the length of the lodge, with an array of hammocks and rocking chairs.

At lunch, the restaurant's theme seemed to be "Feed the Americans anything and pretend it's local." The meat was stringy and the salad had come from a bag. I should've known not to eat at a hotel restaurant, but I'd slept two hours the night before, and when you're that tired, you don't make the best choices.

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.

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.

Regina followed his path precisely. The water came halfway up our doors. In my mind, I composed explanations to the rental car company about why their vehicle had washed out to sea. Suddenly we were on the bank. But we couldn't dwell on our success. It was still more than 100 miles to Playa Hermosa, our final stop.

After the spectacular places we'd seen, Playa Hermosa seemed like your standard beach town. But on the main drag, just before the turn down to the beach, a restaurant called Ginger set it apart. An expat from Montreal is the chef and owner. She served us a meringue filled with and ringed by mango, pineapple, kiwi, and strawberry. It was one of the best desserts I've had anywhere.

We chose Playa Hermosa because it's 22 miles from the Liberia Airport, and we had an early flight. At the airport check-in line, we waited behind a woman from L.A.

"So where did you stay?" she asked.

My wife and I exchanged the kind of look that makes marriage worthwhile. We'd traveled approximately one third of Costa Rica in five days, in very rushed and peculiar circumstances. We had seen beaches and jungle, overdeveloped tourist towns and unknown hideaways. We'd eaten well and eaten poorly and slept in some really nice beds along the way. We'd experienced a universe, all because we'd dared to get our own car. "Lady," I said, "you have no idea."

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