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).
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.
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.