Climbing up the gravel road, our rental car bucks and jerks as if shaken by a toddler who missed a nap. We weave among a herd of tired cattle ascending the windy mountain pass. Their cowboy tips his brimmed hat as we bounce by. Boulders and rocks stick up from the grown like worn teeth, obstacles waiting to bludgeon the vehicle’s undercarriage if I stop paying attention for an instant.
But I can’t help it.
I sneak glances out of the driver-side window and peer down into the rolling, dry northwestern highlands of Costa Rica. The beauty screams out in pura vida style. Between dodging vacation-ruining hazards, I try to record the fleeting images and ignore the rail-less ledge just inches beyond the SUV’s punished tires.
Four of us are a day into our trip and on the way to explore the cloud forests of Monteverde, home to some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. And it’s going well. Really, really well. I want to kiss the car’s four-wheel differential gear. Write a song for the brakes. Make love to the cooling system. Have children with our GPS — a device without which we would surely be the most pathetically lost tourists in all of Central America.
If you don’t speak Spanish and have never been to Costa Rica, few things are more anxiety inducing than parachuting in with a rental car waiting for you. What you read in Internet chatter truly runs the gamut from terrifying to worry absolving.
They say Costa Rican roads are endless stretches of potholes crumbling into gritty dust, or visages of U.S. highways that are steamrolled to within a micron of roadworthy perfection.
They say Costa Rican roads are the most accident-prone in the world, or just the ones with the greatest number of stupid tourists who don’t know how to operate a four-wheel drive.
They say your car is a target for thieves before it even rolls out of the parking lot, or that the previous fact is purely the product of overblown anecdotes.
Fear not, ye wary travelers. This Spanish-ignorant Anglo-Saxon tourist drove 10 days across most of Costa Rica and lived to tell the tale.
Yes, there are some things you need to be wary of (see any of the scarier points above). But don’t let that discourage you from taking control of your destiny. You will be able to see and experience far more than someone in a plane, bus or taxi. Plus, it’s cheaper with more than two people in your cadre.
Stop in a roadside cafe and watch surfers catch 15-foot waves out of the back? That’s you. Dodge machete-wielding bicycle riders and heaps of burning trash? Check. Swing by families hawking trucks full of fresh mangoes and moms strolling babies down the side of the road? Yep. Pull over whenever you have to pee, poop or vomit? Let personal freedom ring.