Paradise by the Dashboard Light

In search of the real Costa Rica, Neal Pollack (or more accurately, his wife, Regina) drives the country's western half in four days. It's a tale of misadventures and mitigated bliss--the roads are dreadful, but where they lead is dazzling

We first saw the trucks northbound on the Pan-American Highway, halfway between San Jose and Liberia. There were two and they weaved in front of us, the rear one on the other's bumper. To our right, we saw that the cab of an 18-wheeler had run up a hill. Something noxious steamed from under its hood. To our left, hundreds of feet down a canyon, its trailer had shattered into oblivion.

"I've got to get around these trucks," said my wife, Regina.

"Are you sure?"

The trucks lurched. Anything 20 feet in front of us was hidden by a sinister curve. An eternity of switchbacks ensued. Jungle melded into grassland, with little hints of desert below and rain forest above. And this was the ugly part of Costa Rica. Finally, a straightaway appeared. The rear truck put on his left blinker.

"What's he doing?" Regina said.

"I think he wants you to pass him."

The blinker moved faster, almost insistently. Regina whipped into the left lane and gunned the engine. We got by the first truck without a problem, but about halfway past the second truck, we had trouble. A guy on a bicycle was coming toward us. Regina gave a little yelp. I buried my head in my right arm.

When I looked up, the trucks were behind us. Regina was gripping the steering wheel with ardor. "That was awesome," she said.

Generally, there are two ways to approach a trip to Costa Rica. You take the package tour, which shuttles you from the airport to the resort to various nature experiences and back again, or you strap on a backpack. We wanted a little of what both offer--accessibility, authenticity. We wanted a "real" trip, and we figured a car would allow us to go deep. We soon learned that nothing is more real in Costa Rica than driving.

And that would be Regina's job. A few years ago, driving through Ontario, I got distracted while listening to a particularly suspenseful part of The Talented Mr. Ripley on tape, and I switched lanes into a vanful of high-school soccer players from Alberta. Thankfully, there were no injuries, except to my reputation. Since then, I've been restricted, at Regina's orders, to local routes. She handles all the highways, especially foreign ones.

Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, with a population of under four million. Less than a quarter of the roads are paved, and only 19 percent are in good condition. People, particularly in rural areas, have no fear about walking in the middle of the road. According to the World Health Organization, of the 75 countries it surveyed, Costa Rica has the world's eighth highest traffic fatality rate, 20.1 deaths per 100,000 people. (The rate in the U.S. is 15.) I'm surprised the difference isn't higher: Costa Rica may be an earthly paradise, but driving there is Death Race 2000.

We had five days, so we limited ourselves to the province of Guanacaste, in the north, and to the Nicoya Peninsula, which juts west off the northern mainland. We figured we'd be able to take in some road-trip scenery but also have time to enjoy Costa Rica's famously lush nature. We didn't count on roads comprised mainly of potholes the width and depth of family-size lasagnas. We also didn't count on getting bumped off our outbound flight from Houston to Liberia. Instead, we were put on a flight to San Jose, four hours by car to the south. This put a serious cramp in my plans to spend our first morning lolling on the beach. Instead, we got up before dawn and drove. The death race was on.

Just past Liberia, we caught glimpses of Pacific surf bashing jagged cliffs. A plain of dry, mildly hilly grassland was dotted with thick-based, spherically crowned evergreen guanacastes, the national tree of Costa Rica, which look like umbrellas and give even the harshest landscape a pleasing feel.

We arrived at our hotel, Los Inocentes Lodge, around lunchtime. At the center of the property stands a commanding two-story wooden lodge, dating from 1892. The front porch faces the dark Orosí volcano, and the rest of the property abuts Guanacaste National Park. The park's 85,000 acres span several ecosystems, connecting the dry Pacific coast with volcano-peaked cloud forests before sloping down to rain forest on the country's Caribbean side.

Los Inocentes was handy, if not exactly lavish. Our room was small and rustic, with a 26-foot angled ceiling, twin beds, and a private bathroom across the hall. The place was empty, so we had full run of a shared porch running the length of the lodge, with an array of hammocks and rocking chairs.

At lunch, the restaurant's theme seemed to be "Feed the Americans anything and pretend it's local." The meat was stringy and the salad had come from a bag. I should've known not to eat at a hotel restaurant, but I'd slept two hours the night before, and when you're that tired, you don't make the best choices.


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