Driving Costa Rica’s ‘Infamous’ Roads and Highways

Published in International Travel News, November 2008, http://www.intltravelnews.com/

“Are you going to go zip-lining?” everyone we knew asked when told that we were headed to Costa Rica for our next set of adventures. It sounded like fun until so many people asked that I started envisioning the canopy of the jungle crisscrossed with zip-lines zinging tourists across the sky. My husband, Steve, and I decided to head away from popular tourist zones and find our adventures on the infamous roads of Costa Rica–infamous due to significant deferred maintenance. Our informal research indicated that the most popular route is from the capital city, San Jose, to the west or northwest. Being independent travelers we decided to rent a sturdy, though diminutive, four-wheel drive vehicle and head south, staying at modest inns along the way.


Hotel Los Volcanes

Hotel Los Volcanes

Upon arrival in the Aeropuerto Internationale Juan Santamaria, located 17 km northwest of the capital, San Jose, we headed to the only place where we had reservations for the entire trip. Alajuela is a small town located only 3 km from the airport, so it is more convenient to the airport than San Jose, and more attractive and relaxed. The Hotel Los Volcanes (Av 2 between Calles Central and 2nd. USD$35-45) was a bit challenging to find at 10 PM. Searching for an address in the dark we learned our first lesson about Costa Rica—there are very few street signs and they are when they do exist they are small and randomly placed. Luckily the gentleman at the rental car agency had called the inn and wrote some instructions but we still drove around and around until we happened upon it. We were very happy to find secured parking after navigating the narrow streets and alleys. The inn turned out to be a delightful inn with moderately large, comfortable rooms with high ceilings, free internet, and a lovely breakfast served outdoors in a courtyard every morning. In the morning we had our first exposure to the Costa Rican version of a hot shower: an electrical gizmo attached directly to the shower head which supposedly warmed the water. We found these in every one of the inns we stayed in, some more effective than others, while the one with wires sticking did not seem compatible with water. Thankfully electrocution was avoided but I was careful to never reach up while the water was running.

The town of Alajuela has a charming square that filled up with kids playing, young couples strolling, families eating ice cream and the elderly soaking up the sun during the day. The inn-keepers were friendly and helpful as we learned our way around the neighborhood. Restaurants were plentiful and gave us our first taste of typical Costa Rican fare, basic meals of grilled meats, beans, rice and plantains accompanied by the ubiquitous bottle of Salsa Lizano. This deep brown sauce is a vinegar-based, flavorful condiment that tastes slightly spicy with a touch of sweetness but with no chili pepper heat like salsas of other Central American neighbors to the North.


After a couple of days getting our bearings and taking a drive out to the nearby Volcan Poas (Poas Volcano) where we peered into the belching, active volcano, we confidently set out for the Interamericana Highway. Also known as the Pan-American Highway, it connects the Americas from Alaska to Argentina. Though loosely and unofficially defined in North America, it is well defined through Central America. Navigating through the crowded maze of San Jose tested our skills right away, followed by the realization that the paucity of street signs was equally matched by a lack of highway directional signs. A group of construction workers were made to understand my fractured Spanish, pantomime and map and directed us on our way to the town of Cartago, where we missed a turn and lost the Interamericana briefly, but then picked it up again as we headed southwest. We learned to pay very close attention to any navigational aids we spotted. The Interamericana Highway narrows from a four lane to two lane road but was well maintained. Views were dramatic as the hours snaked by over the spine of the Cordillera de Talamanca. Most of our highways in California travel up one side and down the other. On the Interamericana we drove along a knife edge with precipitous, vegetated cliffs sloping steeply down on either side, gazing out at vistas and small villages nestled in the valleys far below.  Climbing steeply we topped out at Cerro de La Muerte (Mountain of Death, which gives one a pause) the highest point on the Interamericana at 3491 meters (11,453 feet). We held our breath as we crept through hairpin turns in shrouds of thick misty fog. The frequently touted “cloud forest” is a term that makes living in a drippy cloud sound more romantic than it is. We were glad we took the advice of tackling this stretch of highway during daylight hours when we were fresh. Descending to a less breathless altitude we successfully navigated our way into and out of San Isidro de El General, a modern commercial hub connecting the surrounding agricultural lands.


Rio Lindo Resort

Rio Lindo Resort

Wanting to get to the coast as quickly as possible so we could enjoy maximum  beach time, we continued on our way and skipped the Parque Nacional Chirripo, home to Costa Rica’s highest peak, Cerro Chirripo at 3,820 meters (12,532 feet), located near San Isidro de El General. Leaving the Interamericana on Hwy 243 we drove through pastoral agricultural lands. Late in the afternoon, after a full day of driving from our starting point in Alajuela, we pulled into the town of Dominical. Driving the couple of blocks on dirt roads that comprised the town we scoped out the hotel choices, finally settling on the Rio Lindo Resort (www.riolindo.com, USD$53-64), a perfect choice with an inviting round pool punctuated with a small island. The deck was graced with large iguanas sunning themselves on the deck every afternoon. A row of rooms faced the pool with walkways leading to the office and restaurant/bar. After enjoying a refreshing dip every afternoon following our local explorations, we made a pool a requirement for every place we stayed.  We spent several days here, enjoying the nearby beaches with the warmest ocean water we have ever experienced, and lazy afternoons by the pool. For such a small town we found a good variety of restaurants, our favorite being El Rincon, an Argentinean restaurant featuring vast amounts of grilled meats cooked in view of patrons.

Marino Ballena Beach

Marino Ballena Beach

A choice beach is located a few miles south at Marino Ballena National Park. It was deserted and peaceful, with a long, curved walkable beach, in contrast to the busy surf beach at Dominical. We were the only two people on the beach for several hours, sharing our space with numerous green iguanas soaking up the rays of the tropical sun.


After reading a description of the unpaved road on the Costanera Sur between Dominical and Manuel Antonio we headed north with some trepidation. The road was in good shape as we made our way a short mile away at the Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge (www.haciendabaru.com), a wildlife refuge covering 330 hectares. When the current owners arrived the land had been completely deforested, and in 1979 they began conservation and restoration activities that have resulted in an eco-haven for birds and wildlife. We stopped in to stroll among many varieties of butterflies in their Butterfly Garden. A large net kept a local sampling of the more than 500 species of butterflies found in Costa Rica enclosed in a lovely setting. The grounds are well maintained and we enjoyed a cold drink at the café. Wanting to get some more vigorous exercise we hiked the nearby trail up to a lookout. Guided hikes and bird watching tours are offered as well as self-guided tours. We walked though shaded jungle, marveling at the lushness of habitat that has sprouted from grazing land and inhaling the earthy odors of the moist under-canopy. A movement caught our eye and I spotted a white-faced capuchin monkey with his dark body and distinctive white face, throat and chest. We froze, wanting to be able to observe the monkey as long as possible, but realized after awhile that it paid us no mind and we could relax. Joined by several monkey companions we spent a leisurely half hour watching the antics of the troop as they scampered up the trees and swung from vines.  We continued on, crossing the highway to ascend the trail to the lookout providing a panoramic view of the Pacific Ocean.

On the way back we paused again, noticing slight grooves along the path. Upon closer examination we found a long trail with leafcutter ants. We were fascinated by the thousands of ants we observed marching in straight lines in one direction carrying large sections of leaf, some several times the size of the ant, while in the other direction ants were returning to the chosen cutting site to pick up the next load. These insects have a complex social organization comprised of specialized workers. The foragers that we observed cut leaves into sections and carry them back to feed a fungus, which in turn provides a food source for the ant colony. Smaller ants tend to the fungus garden, while larger ants act as protectors.

That was all the exercise we needed in the heat of the day, so we embarked upon our road journey once again.


Rafiki Safari Lodge

Rafiki Safari Lodge

As we bounced along I scanned the guidebook and noted that we would be passing near an eco-lodge. Seeing a rare sign with the name of the lodge we decided to check it out. Unfortunately a typo in the book resulted in 7 km turning into 16 teeth jarring kilometers on a narrow rutted dirt road suitable only for a 4 wheel drive vehicle.  As the waning rays of sun faded we transitioned from wanting a look at the lodge to hoping fervently that they would have a vacancy as a return trip through the deep, muddy ruts in the dark was not appealing. As we pulled up to the dramatic setting of the Rafiki Safari Lodge (www.rafikisafari.com, USD $229-300) a surprised-looking young man came out to greet us in perfect English. That’s because Shasta was an American, born in California.  No other guests were present and as they had never before had walk-in visitors he had dismissed all the staff. Being a congenial fellow he said he could accommodate us and we offered to cook our own food if necessary, not wanting to face the evening drive down that road. He was able to entice the cook back to work and they were back in business. The lodge was a splurge compared to our otherwise modest lodgings, but was well worth it. We were coddled by Rafael, the cook, and his wife, who helped out with other chores, and Shasta was an excellent host and guide. The lodging was comprised of luxury tents with wooden decks and spacious permanent bathrooms with hot-water showers. The tents gave the property a faintly African feel, not surprising since the owners hail from South Africa. As dusk fell the jungle came alive with the sounds of birds, frogs and other wild creatures every evening.


The next morning, Shasta led us a moderate hike over a steep hill in the jungle adjacent to the lodge, taking the time to explain the different flora and fauna, pointing out colorful poison-dart frogs, and walking trees with spindly “legs” that can slowly move to reposition the tree to gain access to sunlight. We came upon the fast-moving Savegre River when we met up with Rafael and a white water raft. We clambered in and went for a wild ride through white-water rapids, sometime paddling back upstream if we found a particularly good wave or drop. Heading into one drop for the third time I surprised myself by becoming airborne and ejected into the water. I came up under the raft, but quickly felt my way to the edge and came up laughing and refreshed in the warm water. Shasta looked a little concerned but relaxed when he saw me laughing. Stopping for lunch we found ever-present Rafael, who had laid out a tasty spread of sandwiches, salad and cookies. In the afternoon we pulled off the river for a short walk that took us to a waterfall, where Steve and Shasta took turns jumping into the basin of the waterfall. It was a magical place and we were grateful that Shasta shared this special place with us. Upon returning to the lodge, we cooled off with a dip in the spring fed pool, slid down the concrete water slide and reflected on our luck to have stumbled into this playground hidden in the jungle. That night we dined on a sumptuous, beautifully prepared and presented meal of salad, grilled fresh fish and rice.


Infamous Roads of Costa Rica

Infamous Roads of Costa Rica

We tore ourselves away from our adventurous eco-haven and continued on our road trip, finally encountering the most challenging driving conditions of the trip. Not only was this section of the Costanera Highway unpaved, but the ruts were so deep I thought the car was going to disappear. We hugged the shoulder where the ruts were marginally less deep and drove at an unusual angle, anticipating each river crossing and taking bets on whether the bridge would be intact. Several large bridges crossing wide river beds were completely washed out and Steve had great fun fording the rivers in our little SUV, whooping it up and displaying a wide grin on his face. I, on the other hand, was initially a little more cautious and on more than one occasion I got out and walked across the remnants of the bridge hoping that Steve would make it though the water below. After awhile I became as nonchalant as the semi-truck and bus drivers and we drove through rivers like it was a normal procedure on any major highway, which is only possible in the dry season. Apparently money for road improvements has been appropriated several times but has been “diverted” for other causes, so the bridges and roads continued to deteriorate, keeping the central coast free of a tourist crush.

The terrain on this part of the trip was dominated by African oil-palm plantations, alternating with coastal pasture land and agriculture. We were mystified by the beheaded trunks of acres of palms, standing like ghostly sentinels, learning later that they had served their use on abandoned acreage. Many acres were in transition with dying palms and droopy fronds, giving way to acres of healthy palms.


Shopping in Manuel Antonio

Shopping in Manuel Antonio

We made our way to the popular Manuel Antonio National Park, joining the many tourists flocking there. It is easy to see why the area attracts so many fun-loving tourists. It’s a beautiful area with surfable waves, hidden beaches, swimming lagoons, and hiking trails, but was much more impacted by tourism than the relatively unpeopled south coast. Stalls selling wooden carvings, sarongs, art and other tourist-oriented wares were plentiful along the beach area, along with food stalls. We found yet another gem of a hotel with a pool, clean rooms and warm showers in a two story building, Cabinas Los Almendros (200 meters east of Manuel Antonio First Beach, USD $40-50). We settled into the festive atmosphere and enjoyed the crowds of multinational tourists.

Bank Security

Bank Security

Running low on cash we embarked on a mission to locate a bank. We were directed to the town of Quepos so we set off in our car for a short drive. We spied a bank upstairs in a small commercial center so we pulled over. It was notable for an armed guard holding a rifle posted outside the doors to the bank. An identical guard was posted inside the bank as well. At the direction of the guard Steve waited outside the doors until given permission to enter once a teller was available. I waited outside and entertained the guard by first carefully asking permission for, and then taking his photograph, for which he proudly drew himself into an even more imposing stance. Needless to say there was no ATM at this bank.


Driving back to Manuel Antonio we saw gangs of squirrel monkeys, technically an endangered species, but one wouldn’t suspect that from the prevalence of monkeys swarming the power lines around Manuel Antonio. Smaller than the capuchins, they are olive colored with black mouths, giving them a mask-like appearance. Their long tails are used for balance but, unlike the capuchins, is not used for climbing.

A high point of a stroll through the Manuel Antonio National Park was hearing the sound of the elusive howler monkey. They were hard to spot, but their distinctive howl preceded us through the park. We were rewarded at the far end of the hike by a sighting of the simians high up in the trees. Larger than the squirrel or capuchin monkeys it seemed impossible that the slender branches could support their weight.


Our road trip drawing to a close, we departed from Manuel Antonio and headed north and then east toward San Jose in a driving rain. We had timed our trip at the very end of the dry season and we got a taste of the conditions in the wet season. Luckily the roads had improved considerably.

We hadn’t seen many examples of local crafts since the first days in the country it looked like our only souvenirs were going to be our memories and photographs. It is refreshing to not be bombarded with tacky tourist stalls every where you go, but we still wanted to pick up a few things to complement our growing collection of carved wood from around the world. We stopped at Sarchi, one of the few places in Costa Rica known for its crafts and found a concentrated collection of over 200 workshops selling a variety of locally crafted goods. We added a few wooden bowls to our collection, satisfying our need for a tangible way to remember the country. It was a good way to end our trip and wasn’t far to Alajuela to the south, our starting and ending place.

Back at The Hotel Los Volcanoes in Alajuela, we felt like old-timers, easily navigating the highways and local streets in the area.

Who needs a zip-line when one can experience the thrill of a Costa Rican road? Adventure comes in different forms and we found our adventures on the actual road portion of our road trip through Costa Rica, finding friendly locals, good food, varied scenery, welcoming beaches, good surf, wildlife, rafting, hiking—all the components of an exciting adventure destination.


Hotel Los Volcanes (Av 2 between Calles Central & Av 2)
Alajuela, Costa Rica
Rio Lindo Resort
Dominical, Costa Rica

Hacienda Baru National Wildlife Refuge

Rafiki Safari Lodge