Costa Rica Road Map Research

It’s not all fun and games

We’re just days away from our next research trip to update the Waterproof Travel Map to its Fourth edition (ISBN 097637334-3) and Costa Rica Guide into its eighteenth year of dispensing advice.  All of our friends have begun the requisite teasing about how we’re “packing to spend another month and a half on the beach in paradise” while claiming to “work.”

Sunset on Playa Cuajiniquil from our last round of updates a couple of months ago
Sunset on Playa Cuajiniquil from our last round of updates a couple of months ago

While there are some serious fringe benefits (Osa/Corcovado) associated with traveling around Costa Rica for work we want to dispel the myth that it’s all an extended vacation with adventure tours, luxury resorts, and relaxing on the beach with cool drinks.

We work hard when we’re traveling.  Sure, we accept the occasional complimentary suite at a luxury resort but believe us when we tell you that’s not how we roll; we’d rather be out climbing volcanoes and sleeping in huts.  It’s also a lot of work checking out every room type and all the amenities, meeting with management to hear why their property is the best, and striking up casual conversations with guests to fish for candid opinions.

If you’ve ever driven a couple hundred kilometers across Costa Rica you know it’s not always fun.  A typical day for us may include ten hours in the car with the gps enabled notebook computer stopping at every hotel, lodge, resort, restaurant, tour and  roadside attraction to chat, renew our acquaintance or make our introductions and take a look around.  The whole time we’re lugging fifteen kilo gear bags because we follow our own advice to “never leave anything in a parked car.”

At the end of the day a Luxury Resort is the exception rather than the rule and we typically stay in modest cabinas or nondescript in-town hotels and grab a quick bite at the closest soda before falling into bed.

But, you might think, “what about the activities, those have to be fun right?” A lot of the time they are, but think for a minute about multiplying that once in a lifetime zipline through the cloud forest canopy by the 121 zipline locations in Costa Rica – can you say “too much of a good thing.”

Don’t get me wrong, we’re not complaining – we love our job, this is just a minor reality check for our friends.

Naugahide-a-Bed

If you wake up in a pool of sweat it could be that you’re showing the first symptoms of some bizarre tropical disease, but unless you have red spots all over it’s more likely that you’ve discovered a naugahide-a-bed.

Especially in the budget and backpacker price ranges hoteliers sometimes try to protect their mattresses from spills, absorbed odors, sweat and other bodily fluids even more discomforting to consider by covering them with something impermeable.

Some use fake leather upholstery fabrics like naugahyde, others have plastic backed mattress pads and some simply leave the mattress in the plastic bag that it arrived from the store in.

Remarkable Roadwork

We spent a few days on the Caribbean coast a few weeks ago and saw a remarkable transformation. We started up north on Playa Westfalia (Hotel Playa Westfalia – recommended) and there was a crew with a truck full of asphalt, a few guys with shovels, a backhoe and a steamroller out front one morning. Four days later we were at the Korrigan Lodge (highly recommended – see photos) across from Playa Cocles nearly to the Panama border, and there comes the crew.

They had patched every pothole on the road between Limón and Manzanillo in under a week. It was some sort of world record.

Of course this doesn’t happen often (ever?) but there was a reason for the repairs. The president, several government ministers, a handful of prominent businessmen and some French dignitaries were coming to the coast for the finish of the Jacques Vabre trans Atlantic yachting race from Le Havre to Limón over the weekend.

As we headed north the next morning we saw a news van along side of the road next to the Limón airport and a camera was aimed at a reporter standing in the rain and pointing beyond the runway out to sea. I slowed down and peered in that direction and sure enough there was a little white triangle of a sail on the horizon.

Then I looked up as I heard the dull thud of rubber being compressed all the way to the rim and saw muddy spray cover the windshield. The section they had patched earlier in the week was already sprouting new potholes! I smiled to myself as I realized all the roads in Costa Rica were only a MOPT budget cut away from their gloriously holey past (read why we’re nostalgic for Costa Rica potholes).

We Miss Costa Rica’s Potholes – Where Have all the Huecos Gone?

Though far from extinct, the Costa Rican pothole is definitely on the endangered list.  Their numbers are down from the millions to a few thousand and their habitat has been severely reduced by “progress.”

If you’ve ever spent any time in Costa Rica you’re probably asking yourself “yeah, so what?  What kind of nut would miss potholes?  That’s like lamenting the loss of small pox.” but we have our reasons.

Pothole Paradise

Even as recently as ten years ago there wasn’t a road in Costa Rica where potholes didn’t keep the average speed down to 40 kph (25 mph) and many places it was even slower.  On bicycles it was heaven.  we could travel as fast or, due to superior swerving ability and narrow track, often faster than the cars, trucks and buses.  We bike toured around Costa Rica for five weeks on our honeymoon in 1993 and never gave a thought to being pancaked by a 100 kph semi or bus.  Of course there were a couple of spots we avoided, like cerro de la Muerte and downtown San José (where it wasn’t so much an issue of speed as the bumping and grinding of stalled traffic) but basically we could find a route anywhere we wanted to go in the country.

We returned for years riding over 4,500 km before we hung up our bikes in 1999.  There are still great bike rides in Costa Rica, but it’s gotten very difficult to find a safe multi-day tour.  The roads are still narrow, winding and shoulderless, but more and more often they’re also relatively pothole free.  Even on minor two lane highways average speeds exceed 70 kph and of course the morons who want to go 90 can get away with it (until they hit a cow which aren’t endangered).

There are hundreds of kilometers of the rides we enjoyed that would simply be suicide now: Highway 21 from Liberia through Santa Cruz and Nicoya to Naranjo; the Guápiles highway to Limón; 35 up to Los Chiles, and most of 4 through Sarapiquí, San Miguel and Upala, all the way to La Cruz; the Costanera Sur from Orotina through Jaco, Manuel Antonio, Dominical and Uvita; and even the Pan American highway south from Palmar and north from Juntas.

So that’s why we’re a little nostalgic for potholes.