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On the road in Costa Rica

On the road in Costa Rica, I met many travelers who voiced fears about driving its treacherous terrain in a rental car. These folks stuck to tours, the scheduled bus system, or puddle-jumper planes.  But I love the independence of a rented car–changing my mind at whim, exploring side routes, following my own schedule–and I wasn’t going to give up my freedom until I tested Costa Rica’s roads for myself.

Renting a compact with A/C and automatic transmission from a major company is an astounding bargain at $70 a week.  The catch?  Insurance rates are more than double the rental fee.  Still, the grand total, including all fees, came to $450 for two weeks of blissful, refrigerated freedom across Costa Rica.

Despite urgings by travel guides and rental companies alike, I avoided the extra expense of a 4X4 SUV.  I knew in advance that my destinations were along so-called paved roads or passable stretches of unpaved road, and I didn’t regret my decision.  My little Korean compact was perfect for negotiating the narrow streets of cities and towns, climbing volcanoes or dropping into deep forest valleys.  Though a passenger car is useless for reaching jeep-trail destinations such as Monteverde’s cloud forest or Cirrepo, the highest peak, private tours abound to such popular sites, saving both your rented axle and your sanity.  Besides, my Hyundai transported me through two other cloud forests and up volcanic peaks, all along main routes.

Still, as a Costa Rica novice, I had plenty of white-knuckle moments behind the wheel. The moment I drove from the rental agency, I felt stuck in an ancient Driver’s Ed instructional video loop which featured every conceivable hazard on one street: a little kid kicking a bouncing ball; an ice cream truck screeching to a halt; an elderly lady jaywalking on the arm of a grandchild. The Costa Rican reality show includes all of the above, but adds twisted extremes.  An entire team will chase a soccer ball down the “highway” from a roadside playing field.  Slow-moving herds of cattle will cover both “lanes,” an insolent cowboy encouraging them to stay strictly on the pavement until they reach the pasture.  Amish girls will stroll three abreast under one umbrella, covering most of the road’s pavement while a pickup stops opposite to completely block the route. Grandpa will pop from behind the pickup into the middle of the road to flag down a taxi while his dog taunts a tourist’s rented tailpipe in tenacious fury.

Primary routes noted on the map as “major highways” between major towns are better understood in U.S. or Canadian parlance as “rural country roads” –narrow, one-and-a-half lane, shoulder-less, and prone to constrict even further into one-lane bridges.  So what happens if a huge, hurtling commercial truck demands all of the road’s width?  The driver of the small compact squeezes himself small as possible, prays, and if prayers aren’t answered, drives off into a pasture.  The pavement–rutted, gnarly, potholed, rough-patched, devoid of painted lines–often just ends.  A few times, there’s even advance warning.   A yellow sign may announce, “Carreterra Muy Mala.”  As front wheels drop from pavement onto muddy, potholed bare earth, the startled driver clamps jaw and translates: “Very Bad Highway.”

“Very bad?”  Si. “Highway?”  No.  Out of the thousand kilometers I drove, maybe twenty–mostly near the capital city of San Jose and the airport–would qualify as even a secondary highway in the U.S., Canada, or Mexico.

Road signs are even more rare than painted lane lines, full two-car road widths, shoulders, or turn-outs.  Official maps will indicate an intricate system of route numbers, but they are hardly ever posted on the roads themselves or signed at crucial junctions.  Even the Interamericana Highway simply terminates, without a word or warning, dumping its traffic into an unmarked, signless, jammed-up San Jose intersection.  No signs lead from major towns onto the Single Main Auto Route Across the Entire Nation, nor indicate that you might be on it, nor offer any given direction, nor mention the next major town. Then, after one wanders in blind mystery for an hour, in the midst of some switchbacking patch through maddening hilltops without junctions of any kind, a series of mud-splattered white squares will scrupulously begin to announce distances–San Ramon 15 km.; San Ramon 13 km.; San Ramon 12.5 km.—then stop.

I was never sure I’d actually arrived in San Ramon, or any other locality, since town names are rarely revealed.  Suddenly, rural scenes recede and the car prowls a narrow street busy with crowds shopping, laughing, snacking, kissing, and assisting jaywalking great-grandmothers.  I may spot a business, San Ramon Cleaners, but it’s next to Santa Rosa Park, San Jose Liquors, the San Francisco transit center, and Santa Maria Women’s Wear.  I drift through an entire small nameless metropolis, down one-way streets, finding stop signs that also feature stoplights (go through on green or stop at the sign?)  On blinking yellow, do I slow like a small genuflection to the patron saint of traffic, then hurry through the unmarked intersection?  
Somehow, miraculously, this signless drifting up, across, down, and over the entire valley ends without ceremony right at the Autopista—that very same Single Main Auto Route Across the Entire Nation.

The only truly common road sign in Costa Rica reads “No Passage, Go Back, Do Not Enter!”  But given that there’s often only a single ribbon of bad asphalt ahead and no alternative of any kind, the blunt warning is actually open to interpretation.  Approaching the port of Quepos, in fact, the way forward is to check for oncoming traffic, then slip around the GO BACK, NO PASSAGE! sign blocking the inbound lane.  It’s the only possible passage into town.

A short time on the road eroded my American expectations, especially about safety-consciousness.  That quaint concept, “safety,” doesn’t exist in Costa Rica.  If I never really understood Costa Rican recklessness, I did come to appreciate it.  Bold, seemingly out of nowhere, rural pedestrians step right onto the road because there’s no curb or shoulder, ever, anywhere, no matter how muddy and mucky the roadside is.  So the narrow highways not only become cattle drives, they’re the sidewalks, plazas and social connectors of every rural zone and small town.  Delivery trucks and gawking motorists come to dead stops, blocking the lane, for the same reason; there’s just nowhere else to park.  Tour busses will halt in the middle of a forested curve to allow the passengers to feed wild raccoons with bread crumbs–an evil ecological sin–endangering the animals, the tourists, the vehicle and any drivers unlucky enough to round that blind turn.  Ever-present motorbikers and bicyclists don’t heed rules or take any precautions.  As I descended the steep incline of Arenal Volcano’s shoulder one black moonless night, a local dressed in black coasted down the middle of the dark highway on a black bicycle.  Needless to say, he didn’t have a rear reflector, a headlight, a helmet, nor any notion of keeping to the edge of the road.

A big surprise of my motor tour, though, was the scarcity of roadside scenery in Costa Rica.  I expected to  be driving through long stretches of the many eco-zones—cloud forest, rain forest, lush coastal jungle and Central Valley pastoral.  They’re all there, but not for any sustained stretches along the roadways between towns and preserves.  I found continuous roadside wilds only along the Road of Death, an insanely curving section of the Interamericana Highway south of San Jose—and probably only because its steep ridgetop is uninhabitable.  Otherwise, the quest for wild Costa Rica involves motoring from isolated island to isolated island of preserved land along populated roadsides.  Since roads are few and towns are many, 4 million Costa Ricans are densely disbursed along the pavement.

A bigger surprise was how my rental car delivered me so intimately into the country’s daily life.  Driving in Costa Rica may be a challenge, but because hurrying or “making time” are impossible, the rental-car experience doesn’t seal off the traveler as it often does elsewhere.  Along with providing freer access to the country’s wild preserves, mountains and beaches, rented wheels take the driver right into an ever-changing human pageant, the spontaneity and humor at the heart of Costa Rican culture.  Given the signless, routeless nature of roads, I had to stop for directions constantly, which improved my Spanish and often led to invaluable tips on local attractions, bits of history, and plain old gossip.  As I hit my brakes for the ice cream man whose cart rolled under the beer delivery truck which blocked the road while the soccer team chased the ball ahead of the cattle drive—not to mention the kindly schoolgirl who took leave of her blind grandmother to retrieve the dog who finally bit a chunk off my tailpipe–l always felt like I was meeting all 4 million, all at once.

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