On the long flight to San Jose from Orlando, I started to thumb through a Costa Rican guidebook, which a friend had let us borrow. I realized that we were headed to an extraordinary country. Why had it taken this long to begin the research? Why wasn’t I paying attention? A country only the size of West Virginia with a population of around 5 million and one of the world’s natural wonders: 11 volcanoes , several still active, two mountain ranges with many peaks towering above 11,000 feet, rain forests, desert-like “dry forests,” coffee and banana plantations, exotic birds and wildlife, waterfalls, raging streams with kayaking and rafting, the windsurfing capital of the planet, the Pacific Ocean on one side and the Caribbean on the other….The list was long. Tourism attracts over three million visitors a year, and resorts are plentiful. Costa Rica is the most stable Central American country and its only functioning democracy, one of the few countries in the world without a standing army, and the center for eco-tourism. Good heavens! Why hadn’t this country been at the top of our bucket list?
I did also note that in the section giving advice to tourists that there was a soft heads-up on renting a car, suggesting that it might be advisable to get your hotel or resort to pick you up or to hire a driver due to the poor condition of the roads and the high accident rate. I did not think much about that at the time since I like to drive and consider myself a good driver. Embry had casually mentioned that she had left her driver’s license at home, but I was usually the driver anyway, so no problem. I was finally getting charged up and ready to go.
As we deplaned in San Jose, the nation’s capital, we entered a large room, teeming with humanity. We got in the short line reserved for families and seniors to clear passport control. Embry breezed through. I was stopped because of my “invalid passport.” Oh, my goodness, I thought, here we go again! The agent excused herself and returned a few minutes later and stamped the passport without commenting, and out we went as I raised my arms in a victory salute. We spotted our bags immediately and headed to the Avis pickup spot, picked up our car and were on our way.
First stop, our hotel in San Jose, a small hotel in downtown San Jose with a quaint French name.
As we made a right turn into a very congested, narrow two-lane road, Embry suddenly warned, “Watch out, Joe, there is a deep ditch on the right and you almost went into it!”
“Yes,” I answered, “But the bus passing in the other lane missed us by inches and I had to get out of its way. Why is there no shoulder!”
Welcome to Costa Rica—and the ubiquitous ditches, which would become over the next five days the bane of my existence!
Not every road in Costa Rica has these two-to-four-foot, paved ditches, in the shape of a “V,” but a whole bunch do; and they are terrifying if the road is narrow and two-lane and has no shoulder. One false move and you end up stuck in the ditch or worse—your car flips over. The reason for the ditches somebody told me was to allow water to drain easily from roads during the rainy season, which is basically from May through September. I announced to Embry that if we both got home in one piece, I would call the trip a huge success regardless of what else happened on the trip.
We soon came to an intersection with a major six lane, interstate-like artery that went into the central part of the city. The traffic of cars, buses, and 18-wheelers leading into the city was bumper-to-bumper inching along. We wriggled our way into the third lane as a motorcyclist whizzed between our car and the car in the adjacent lane, passing us on the driver’s side with less than six inches to spare. Then another on the passenger’s side, and another and another. These motorcycles were everywhere darting between cars, going in and out and dodging in front of cars and massive trucks and busses when there was an opening. I had never seen anything quite like it, but had to admit, compared to the cars and trucks, they were making good time.
San Jose is situated in a valley almost a mile high and surrounded by peaks almost twice as high. During the dry season the high temperatures are in the high 70s in what could be described as a delightful climate. Just under 400,000 people live in the country’s largest city though it seems larger given the traffic and congestion. Except for a colonial church or two, a few squares and older government buildings, there is not a lot in the way of tourist attractions.
After a little over an hour, we finally had made the 20-mile trip to the city center and got off the “freeway” to a main street, following the instructions on the GPS. The main street was even more crowded, not just with cars, trucks, and buses, horns blasting, and motorbikes dodging in and out but also with pedestrians, shoulder to shoulder on jammed sidewalks and jay walking between stalled cars waiting for traffic to clear. The other thing that stood out were all the security iron bars, fences and barbed wire around the stores, houses, and apartments. In our travels and Embry’s work, we have been in tough neighborhoods all over the world—the notorious barrios outside of Lima, “informal settlements” in several African countries, the famous favellas in Rio. This was nothing new to us, but the initial impression of this extraordinary country was a far cry from the “Garden of Eden” described in the guidebooks. It felt like a “Third World,” developing nation to us.
The chaos, jammed streets and pollution in San Jose, is why most tourists skip it if they can and are whisked away in limousines provided by fancy hotels and resorts in the mountains or on the coasts. Yet to miss this frantic city would be missing something very important about the country and about how a whole lot of people in the world live. Over the years this part of our travels has been what I have valued the most—not so much seeing the tourist attractions but the way that ordinary people live.
The challenge, of course, was finding the hotel, which we did in another half hour thanks to the GPS. Since few streets in San Jose are even marked with street signs, you have to wonder how any tourist could have found an obscure hotel before we had the mapping technology. By this time, however, I was a wreck. It was now getting toward five in the afternoon Costa Rican time. We had been up since four in the morning their time, had endured enough stress at National Airport to trigger a psychological melt down, and now had been on the road for almost two hours dodging motorcycles and pedestrians, 18-wheelers, trying to avoid ditches and wind our way through packed streets to find a place to sleep.
The hotel was located on a quiet side street about half a block from the bustling main drag. I found a temporary parking spot and waited for Embry to check us in. The hotel had two levels, seemed quite small to me, and was protected by two huge iron gates, which I noticed were padlocked. No one seemed to be present, and it appeared impossible for us to get in. In about 10 minutes Embry appeared smiling.
“Well, all the doors are padlocked, but I finally found a young guy working on the grounds who did not speak a word of English. We communicated via Google Translate on our smart phones. I do not know how Google translated into Spanish my question of where someone might be who could let us into the hotel, but his answer to my question came back to me as “He is in a corner and we don’t know where he is.”
In a few minutes, however, an older guy did emerge from the locked gate, opened a second padlocked gate where he motioned for me to park my car, and proceeded to check us in. It appeared we were the hotel’s only customers. We were set and at last could catch our breath. The hotel was charming in an old world, tarnished sort of way and just fine for us. We wandered up to the main drag looking for a restaurant but could not find one, so we ordered tacos from a tiny takeout with two small wooden tables, went across the street to a liquor store and bought two bottles of beer, and returned to sit at the vacant table, eat our tacos and watch the hustle and bustle of San Jose and the “Ticos” (what Costa Ricans call themselves) passing by. When we returned to our hotel, a small bus was unloading a dozen or so serious hikers with huge backpacks, all appearing to be in their twenties. We crashed around nine, ready for the adventure the next day, which would take us over two mountain ranges to the wild and lonely Guanacaste Region in the upper northwest corner of the country about 120 miles from San Jose.
Stay tuned. Challenges awaited us.