Driving in Costa Rica: Earthquakes & Slammin’ Brakes

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Sunset Jaco Beach Costa Rica

For my first stop on RTW 4, I am joined by my good friend, Theresa.

You may remember Theresa and her husband Gary from RTW #1. Their plan to meet me in Berlin was foiled at the last minute when they couldn’t get on a flight out. Theresa works for Delta and, though she can fly for free, it is always standby. So we were never 100% certain that she would make it on the plane to Costa Rica Wednesday.

However, the standby Gods smiled upon us and she not only made it on the flight, she got a seat in first class right next to me. 

Unfortunately, that was the end of our good luck for the day. After we were comfortably seated with baggage stowed and fancy plastic cups of champagne in hand, our pilot announced a mechanical problem with our plane.

Note: This post may contain affiliate links. If you choose to book through these links, I receive a small commission, which I will undoubtedly blow on more flights (it’s a vicious cycle).  All of this internet voodoo takes place at no additional cost to you. 

So, off the plane we went to another gate where we waited two hours before finally boarding our new (and presumably fully-functioning) airplane. Not a major problem since we were just thankful Theresa made it on the flight.

Costa Rica greeted us with the kind of pounding rain normally reserved for the Asian monsoon season. (If this is the dry season, I don’t want to see the wet one.) We deplaned down a rolling staircase to the tarmac and onto a terminal bus. After weeks of debate, I had decided to rent a car instead of utilizing the public or tourist bus options to travel within the country.

I went back and forth on the idea of driving in Costa Rica. Exhaustive research on the subject was inconclusive. Some said it was fine, others told cautionary tales of woe. The primary tourist areas in Costa Rica are relatively spread out and drive times can range up to 4-5 hours to get from one area to another.

And since we only had three days, flights and buses weren’t as practical because of the limited schedules. Renting a car offered the most flexibility. Research revealed that the road conditions in the country were less than optimal. Driving in Costa Rica, in your own vehicle, was not advisable in many parts of the country unless you rented a 4-wheel drive (big money).

There were two major areas I wanted to visit and both were a good distance from the airport. So, I ultimately decided that we would need our own wheels. Plus, I love the flexibility of being able to stop when you want to and take in the view (which we did a lot on this trip). So, I rented the cheapest car National had to offer hoping for an upgrade with my “Executive” status (I rent with them often for business). 

Driving in Costa Rica

We did indeed get an upgrade to a mid-size Toyota that looked fairly sturdy, but our next hurdle was directions to our first stop, the Arenal volcano. The National office gave us a good map but we were a little concerned when they told us most of the roads didn’t actually have names.

Turns out the primary method of navigation in this country is from one town to the next following signs. Easy enough, I thought. With what we hoped were good directions in hand, we set out on the 2-3 hour drive to Arenal.

Our delay in Atlanta had cost us precious hours of daylight we hoped to use to get through the mountains. The first hour of the drive was easy going on good roads and I began to gain confidence, perhaps even overconfidence. Shortly thereafter, we got a reality check in the potential dangers of driving in Costa Rica. As the sun’s remaining rays faded over the mountain range, we came around a bend and noticed a few cones up ahead in the oncoming lane.

As we passed the cones with caution tape strung between them, we could see that a portion of the road had quite literally fallen away into the endless valley below. Wait a minute…they rope off an SUV-sized hole in the highway with CAUTION TAPE!?!?!?!  What, were they out of dental floss?? I really think something sturdier was in order here.

I realized that if we had been coming from the opposite direction for the first time on this road, even observing the posted speed limit as I was, it might not have been enough time to stop on a wet road. Talk about a gut-check. For the rest of the drive I was overly-cautious. It was dark now and we had passed another collapsed section of the road a few miles after the first one, also in the other lane.

Luckily, between the directions from the National office and our hotel’s website, we found the tranquil haven that was the Agua Inn easily in a little over two hours. The rain had receded but there was a distinct cloud-cover atop Arenal that prevented us from appreciating it fully.

Fortunately, the hotel was a little slice of jungle paradise after a long day of travel. We dropped our bags and headed into town for dinner before calling it a night and hoping for better weather in the morning.

All Wet at Arenal

Unfortunately, we awoke to weather even more miserable than the day before. The volcano, Arenal, was completely obscured by clouds. We hung around town for a bit hoping our luck would change but gave up around 10am and decided to hit the road early for our next destination, Jaco Beach. 

After studying the map, I had decided on an alternate course for our drive that, though longer, appeared more scenic since it would take us around the volcano and Lake Arenal. It would take about 2 hours longer than going back the way we had come the night before but after our experience with that road, I was wary of getting back on it. It turned out to be a fortuitous decision.

The drive was as beautiful as I had hoped and we even began to see glimpses of the sun as we wound our way along the lake. Little did we know, our first sighting of Costa Rican wildlife was next on the agenda. As we drove along, a small, brown, furry creature sauntered out of the woods and approached our car in an inquisitive manner.

Ring-tailed coatis Costa Rica
Ring-tailed coatis coming to greet us in Costa Rica

I hit the brakes and slowed to see what it was, definitely nothing either of us had seen before. He seemed friendly and we wanted a picture so we stopped the car. Another car came along behind us and stopped as well to see what was going on. When they got out, the animal headed straight over to them followed by about 20 of his closest friends who seemed to come out of the woodwork. The first one was obviously the “scout.”

Ring-tailed coatis Costa Rica
Ring-tailed coatis near Arenal

The guys in the other car were feeding them so we jumped out and took more pictures. They were adorable and showed no fear at all of people. After a little research online that night, it turns out they were “ring-tailed coatis” and very common in the area around Arenal. Known for their friendliness with tourists while pandering for handouts, these little bandits are a harmless relative of the raccoon. We ran across new families of coatis a few more times on our drive and jumped out to take pictures each time.

Jaco Beach

A full day of driving behind us, we finally arrived at the Pacific Beach town of Jaco (pronounced “hock-o”) just in time to change and grab a cold beer before sunset. Our hotel in Jaco for our remaining two nights was the Hotel & Villas Tangeri. It was right on the beach, had a terrific beachfront restaurant and was popular with the local crowd.

When we arrived in Jaco, we had a text from Theresa’s husband, Gary, asking if we were ok after the earthquake. We had no idea what he was talking about. Good information in English in Jaco was severely lacking as all news was in Spanish but we did notice video of the damage on the TV’s in the hotel’s bar when we arrived. The earthquake struck about 20 miles northwest of San Jose a little after 1pm that afternoon, while we were driving!

We could not believe we didn’t feel it as news reports said rumblings extended as far north as Nicaragua. We were about 2 hours north of San Jose when the quake struck. The only thing we can figure is the roads we were driving on were so bumpy we must not have noticed it.

New motto for submission to the Costa Rican Tourist Board, “Costa Rica – Roads so bumpy you won’t even feel the earthquakes!” (I’m just tryin’ to help, Costa Rica.)

Sunset Jaco Beach Costa Rica
Sunset at Jaco Beach, Costa Rica

Theresa later pointed out that if we had taken the shorter route back through San Jose the day before, we would have been within a few miles of the earthquake’s epicenter at the time it struck. I don’t know why I was so sure about the longer route, but I’m so glad we made that decision. We had also hoped to visit the Poas volcano and waterfalls on our way to the airport Saturday. However, thanks to the hotel’s wi-fi, we learned that 14 people were killed and many more were injured, stranded or missing when the earthquake caused several landslides in that area. Scary.

Manuel Antonio National Park

But back to happier Costa Rica highlights…For our final full day, we decided to visit the Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica’s largest, about a 90 minute drive from Jaco. We hiked the park’s jungle-like trails down to two picturesque, white-sand beaches and spotted several white-faced monkeys and one sun-loving iguana along the way.

Manuel Antonio National Park Costa Rica
Manuel Antonio National Park, Costa Rica

It was a great day and we had definitely earned another good meal and spectacular sunset after a day full of hiking.

Saturday morning we hit the road early, not knowing for sure how long it would take us to get back to San Jose for our return flight at 2pm. When it comes to driving in Costa Rica, it is difficult to get exact driving times.

How long it takes to get from Point A to Point B depends on a number of factors including, but not limited to: construction, random unpaved sections of the road, random completely missing sections of the road, coatis looking for a handout, herds of cows crossing the road, slow trucks in front of you, etc. A 60-mile drive, like ours to the airport, can take anywhere from 90 minutes to 3 hours. It took us the full 3 hours.

Before this trip, I was definitely unsure whether driving in Costa Rica was a good idea. Now that we had safely returned the car with no damage and no international incidents, I’d have to say I would recommend it. As long as you take it slow, double (or triple) the usual travel times and (for God’s sake) get the full insurance.

We arrived at the airport hoping Theresa would again be able to get on the flight with me. She had purchased a few “liquid” souvenirs for Gary and I offered to check her bag for her since I could do it for free. When airport security later tried to take my tiny scissors (legal everywhere else in the world but here, apparently), I decided to check my bag as well since we would have to wait on Theresa’s anyway. In hindsight, I knew this was a mistake when I did it. I never check my bag – especially on a trip like this – but I thought surely it would be ok just this once…

When Theresa made it on the flight we were excited, but it was short-lived. After a delay on the tarmac, they announced the airplane was overweight and called 4 passengers (all standbys, including Theresa) to disembark. That still didn’t do the trick because after 2 more hours of sitting on the tarmac they next announced that all luggage tagged for final destination in Atlanta would be taken off the plane and delivered the next day.

A huge problem for me since I needed my bag for the remaining legs of my trip and I would depart Atlanta the next day before my bag could arrive. I went up to the flight attendant and explained the situation, asking if there was any way to make sure my bags stayed on the plane. He came back and assured me that my bags were still on the plane.

Unfortunately, when I finally got to baggage claim at 11pm (4 hours later than scheduled) our bags were nowhere to be found. I can’t say I was shocked. The worst part was the bag I had checked was my lone international-size carry-on bag. But the baggage claim office at the airport had a new twist for me. Instead of both of our bags arriving in Atlanta the next day, Delta had re-routed one bag to meet me in Paris on Monday and the other to meet me in Naples on Tuesday.

If this makes any sense to anyone, please send me an e-mail and explain why. I’m at a loss. The best part? There is no way to tell which bag is which. So, it looks like I will arrive in Paris Monday morning and hope Delta will surprise me with at least one bag.

It was after midnight when I finally got home. I decided to pack a small bag with the remainder of the clothes, etc. that I’d planned to take on the rest of the trip and hopefully switch it out with the contents of my current bag if it ever finds me in Europe…

Next stop, Paris!

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