Off The Beaten Path – “Loco”motion Adventures in Costa Rica I

Off The Beaten Path – “Loco”motion Adventures in Costa Rica I

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When I was asked to write a Howler travel article, my thoughts immediately went to all the different ways I’ve traveled and survived in various modes of “loco”motion in this place. As any local can tell you, traveling in Costa Rica is an adventure all on its own.

So I told him I’d like to do a travel break down that covers all the freaky adventures I’ve had traveling all over the country in search of Stories worthy of writing down one day. So here we go with part one: planes and taxis.

My first trip to Costa Rica started way back on the day I got here in 1992. It all started on the approach to San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport. Somewhere over Nicaragua, the captain said to buckle up, as we were coming in through some “thunderstorms”. All of a sudden, the plane was engulfed in a thick cloud and the bolts started flying. All I could think of was the AC/DC song: “lightning flashes across the sky, you’re only young but you’re gonna die!”

After what seemed like five direct hits, my buddy and I were in the “it can’t end before it starts” white-faced stare. While the other was bent over praying, he wasn’t paying retribution before he could confess whatever was plaguing him.

So we were rocking and rolling our descent when the runway appeared out of nowhere and the plane slammed down. It bounced a few times but managed to stay on the runway. All 20 of us onboard cheered, including the flight attendants!

Little did we know that was just the beginning of our first travel day in Costa Rica. Soon after our first brush with death came the next, and by far the most infamous mode of travel adventure – taxi! We were headed to Jaco and told it was only an hour away. Now I realize that when you multiply one hour by tico time it’s more like three hours.

What we didn’t know is that taxi drivers are notorious for manic driving, with total disregard for public laws and safety. Back then, the country was still using trains for public transit, and taxis were just getting started; drivers often lacked the proper credentials. It was just a free-for-all ambush – trap you in the car first and ask destination later! Very effective but not exactly reputable. So we got corralled into the first microbus we saw and negotiated an $80 ride to Jaco. And true to form, as soon as we left the airport, we knew we were going back to knuckle grabbing.

My worst pet peeve is riding in the passenger seat with a nutty driver, and it was definitely born from that hellraising ride. This guy was shucking and jiving all over the road. I kept slamming on the fake break while trying to get him to chill in between heart palpitations.

Then we hit the famous twisting death road to Orintina. This is a crazy switchback road with no guard rails and famous for blind passes. Add to that, it was pouring rain and the vehicle brakes were smoking. We had again entered the second level of fear and loathing in Costa Rica.

My buddy was trying to tell the driver to pull over and turn around, to which he responded “ahorita.” That means “in a minute” and can last up to 30. After repeated angry requests, he finally pulled over at la cantina and decided we needed a beer. That’s when we found out about a national tradition of beer and a boca, and the calming influence of a shot of guaro – affectionately known as ¨cuatro plumas,¨ or four feathers, due to the feathered Indian head mask on the bottle.

After a few cold ones, bocas and plumas, the rain settled down to a manageable drizzle and we were off again to the beach. This time I jumped in the back and was resolved to my fate with a much more jovial disposition, thanks to some liquid courage.

Thankfully, after a few more twists and turns, the road merged and we were now on a much welcomed, yet pothole-ridden beach road.

This is when we learned you’re allowed to drive anywhere and on any side of the road, as long as no oncoming traffic was posing imminent danger.

So we bobbed and weaved another 45 minutes until finally reaching Jaco. We managed to find our beachfront digs and walked out to the shore to behold three to four-foot glassy, uncrowded conditions. We unpacked the car and paid our driver, plus an extra $10 tip. After all, we did make it in one piece and the waves looked awesome. So we paddled out for a sunset surf. Coming back to an ice cold Imperial, we toasted the arrival and survival of our first transit experience in Costa Rica.

Truth be told, we’ve come a long way since September 1992. Planes now have alternate routes and Liberia has an international airport. Taxi drivers now have paved roads, guard rails and passing lanes to help tame their wild sides. That being said, there is something to be said for the Wild West days when the journey was part of the adventure. So stay tuned for my next Howler article when I tackle rental cars and bus rides.