This is the story of a colectivo (gypsy cab) trip that I would never believe hearing from somebody else. For anyone unfamiliar with colectivos, see What to Expect on page 36. For my tale of the unexpected, buckle up and read on.
I was at my favorite gelato spot in Tamarindo recently after dinner, finishing up a single scoop choco-coco waffle cone. It was time to turn in for the night at Cafe Cafe, my buddy’s’ hostel in Villarreal about a mile and half down the road. In situations like this, colectivo is the best bet for transportation. No sooner had I started walking towards the nearest bus stop about half a block away, when I spotted a small rice rocket coming down the street. I turned to face it and it flashed its lights. I raised my hand, the dude pulled over, I hopped in saying “Buenas” and “Cafe Cafe,” and we drove on. I was the only passenger so I was riding shotgun with a Tico driver in his late 20s or early 30s. Homeboy had his dashboard upholstered with a Bob Marley blanket and it looked really nice. I told him that but he didn’t seem keen to talk so I stopped trying. Colectivos are usually the only Spanish practice I get in Tamarindo, as the drivers are pretty much a captive audience. We pulled over at the next bus stop and three more people hopped in: an older woman, a chunky Tica, and a Tico with a couple bags of groceries, which he loaded in the trunk when the driver popped it open.
Off we went on a ride that would normally take three or four minutes. After passing AutoMercado — the nice grocery store in town where homesick gringos go for a bit of first world-comfort every so often — we started down the paved straightaway. Not too far along we noticed a police checkpoint up ahead. Bear in mind the risk of colectivo drivers being fined if caught operating illegally. Approaching the checkpoint, it was clear our driver did not want to stop, and we were in a bit of a tight spot. Sometimes the cops just wave you through, but no such luck. The car in front of us had slowed, so we had to stop behind. It was waved through; we were not. The officer shined his flashlight on us and motioned to the side of the road. We pulled onto the shoulder and he started walking up behind our car. He got about two paces before our colectivo driver slammed on the gas and burned rubber back onto the road, leaving the cop in a shower of sand and gravel.
Our driver tore down the road, weaving in and out of traffic, the cops in chase and everyone shouting in Spanish. We rounded a curve and took a hard left onto a dirt road running by Tamarindo Chapel and back through a barrio. I had been in this area once and knew there were several dirt roads winding through woods and fields. We were hauling ass … bouncing our way along and doing a pretty decent job trying to shake the cops. They were no longer in sight but we could hear the siren and see the flashing blue lights trailing us through the woods.
Then our driver hung a right and headed down a steep hill before stopping abruptly at the bottom where a river awaited. It was a fair-sized stream and we were in a glorified go-cart with the clearance of a housecat.The car fell silent. The dude in the back said, “Man, it’s too deep, you can’t make it.”
I suggested a move straight out of Southern Boy’s Handbook: “Cut your lights! They won’t see us in the dark.” Our driver obeyed, but to no avail. As the lights and sirens drew closer, he yelled something in Spanish and once again gunned it, this time straight into the river. And it was deep. Luckily, he really hit the gas hard, and with some momentum remaining from our descent, we splashed our way across, practically floating the last few feet to the other side. The cops pulled up on the bank behind us, lights glaring and sirens blaring.
The bank where we emerged from the river was even steeper than on the side we had entered from, but that didn’t deter our driver from hitting the gas one more time. We began ascending slowly but steadily, the engine revving. Unfortunately, the mud on this side of the river was wet and colectivos are not known for their off-road capabilities. Just when the front tires began to crest the hill, the back tires lost traction in the mud. Not being a four-wheel-drive vehicle, our car slid slowly back down the slick bank, tires spinning furiously, before coming to rest right in the middle of the river. The cop, gun drawn, yelled from the opposite bank.
Our driver, defeated, exited the car with his hands raised and waded towards the lights and sirens on the opposite bank. I sat still in the colectivo. This was my first high-speed police chase and I was nervous about how it was going to go down. All I knew about surrender protocol came from watching “Cops,” “Live PD” and the evening news on TV. I envisioned putting my hands out the window, opening the door slowly keeping my hands up, lacing my fingers behind my head and walking backwards … lying face down on the ground with my hands out by my sides. I’d probably be beat up a bit, or at least roughly cuffed and searched. I braced for the assault I knew was coming.
Instead, our back-seat passengers opened the door and got out of the car. That made sense, as opposed to just sitting in the river. I exited too, slowly, with my hands up. We stood there momentarily in the river, not knowing what to do. Then the dude with the grocery bags asked the cop if he could get them out of the trunk. When the cop replied, “Claro,” the dude popped the trunk, grabbed his groceries and waded across the river to where our driver lay on the ground.
I waded across next, greeting the cop with “Buenas.” His reply — I kid you not: “Pura vida.” So I kept walking. The barrio residents had come outside to see what was going on. It’s likely not every day they witness a police chase in their neighborhood, or a gringo walking away from the action with, “Todo bien, no preocupes, era solamente un colectivo.”
Right after getting back onto the main road, I hailed another colectivo. Thankfully, I still had 500 colones, and arrived safely at my hostel.
Word of advice: Wait to get out of the car before paying your colectivo driver.