I can’t write an entire blog post about every day we spend in every location, but our very first day in the very first country we visited was a doozie! This one deserves its own immortal space on the interwebs.
First, Costa Rica is exactly as beautiful, lush, welcoming, and free-spirited as it is reputed to be. The local people are super friendly, and English is spoken in most places, at least enough to get by if your Spanish is limited (or non-existent.) We’ve found most people to be very patient at our fumbling attempts to speak Spanish; I have a great video of Chris trying to order food in Spanish at a drive-through window that might find its way to the public.
I say all that to make the point that Costa Rica is an excellent destination for Americans looking to travel outside the country, especially if it is your first time dipping into international travel. Beautiful beaches, mountains, wildlife, and all kinds of activities to try. Once we finish our visit here, I will write a whole post about unique activities and recommendations for anyone interested in visiting Costa Rica.
Now, onto the story, As most of you know, the purpose behind our travel is to research innovative school programs in secondary schools worldwide. So, we arrived in Costa Rica on Monday afternoon, checked into our Airbnb, got some groceries, and unpacked. Tuesday was reserved for ensuring we had our camera and sound equipment ready, that we knew where the school was located and that we were 100% prepared for our first day on the job. Key point….know how to drive between our Airbnb and the school we were visiting.
Where it started to go wrong
We set out in the morning to drive, explore, maybe check out a beach, get some lunch, go by the school, no big deal. I had read that google maps are the best choice for local navigation, so I fired up my google maps, and away we went. First, we discovered the school that “looked close” on the map was almost an hour away over a mountain. That’s ok; we will just have to get up earlier than planned. We kept driving and got to what we believed was very close to the school location….but we were on a very narrow, curvy, and steep dirt road running between some houses. It seemed a little off, but that’s the way the map took us, so I trusted it. I wondered why the cars coming towards us kept honking at us. Well, they were honking because the road had washed out that morning in the torrential rain (did I mention it rains a lot here?). So, we got to what should have been less than a mile from the school and were suddenly halted by rushing muddy water flowing over the road. We sat for a minute….frankly, a bit stunned. Eventually, we decided the only way was back. Still, the road was waaaaaaaay too narrow with treacherous mud (at least treacherous to a small rental car!) along each side to attempt to turn around in the road; Chris had to back the rental car all the way out of the area, hills, curves, mud and all.
We return to the main road and find a new route to our destination. Luckily, this new route took us by a tasty lunch spot and some beautiful beaches, so we enjoyed the view of the Pacific Ocean and walked out onto the beach for a little while, but it started raining again. Probably a sign we need to go ahead and find that school! Luckily we were only about two miles of excellent paved road away, and we could drive right up; Mission Accomplished!
The girls had previously spied a sweet little coffee shop and wanted to stop, and they had been troopers all day, so we made a coffee stop as well. At this point, it was still raining, and it was about 3:30 pm. Knowing it had taken an hour to get to the area we were in, we figured it was time to head back, and we would find dinner closer to our Airbnb. I also knew that we had taken a very indirect route with the whole washed-out road thing, so there was probably a faster way to get home. Back to the trusty google maps, which gave me a more direct route back. Or so I thought.
Where it started to go REALLY wrong
My first clue should have been that it was State Road 911. My second clue should have been that it had now been raining for a few hours, and rain, mountains, and dirt roads aren’t a great mix in a tiny rental Mitsubishi. We had already been joking that we needed to feed the squirrels under the hood to give them some extra power. So, we set off on our new and improved route home, and it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t be a leisurely drive. The road was a steep incline zig zagging up into the mountains, alternating between potholed pavement and dirt. Just slightly more than one lane wide; cars just sort of squeezed to the sides to pass each other. With windshield wipers on high, the road was soon partially blocked by an overturned dump truck. But were we discouraged? NOPE. We squeezed around that overturned beast and forged ahead. About this time, I could hear the engine really starting to strain. Chris tried to use the “low gear” that the little rental had, and we chugged and slid up the mountain until it seemed we had crested the beast and will start to descend. I think Chris said aloud, “This is the easy part.” We began to descend, and it was still raining buckets. We noticed a lot of water running along the roadsides, but honestly, it was pouring rain, curvy, and steep, and even as a passenger, I was just trying to keep my eyes on the road. Also…no cell phone signal. Because, of course.
At about this point in our descent, we come around a curve to see rushing brown muddy mountain water flooding over the road. This was no puddle; this was river rapids. We came to a complete stop because there was nowhere to go. The road had turned into a river and it was too narrow to try to turn around. So, we sat. As we sat and talked about our options, a few 4-wheel drive types of vehicles pulled up, took a look, and started to back up, going in reverse up the mountain. I had two thoughts. First, I could wade out into the water to see how deep it actually was. Four inches? Four feet? At least we would know what we were dealing with. Then if it wasn’t very deep, we would just wait for the rain to stop and the water to recede. I figured we had about two hours until dark, and IF it stopped raining and IF the water levels went down, maybe we could just drive on. Chris was not on board with my plan. He decided the “drive in reverse up the steep, winding and wet mountain road plan” was better. In case you are counting, this was now the second time in one day we have come to an impassible road washed out by water and had to back up on a narrow winding road to get out. So, he started backing up. Folks, this was scary. To whoever invented the backup camera, I salute you! While Chris was doing the old-fashioned look-over-your-shoulder backup move, at least I could track our descent into an untamed jungle when we went over the cliff. Just kidding, we didn’t go over a cliff. But it felt very certain that we would in that moment.
We backed up a ways ( it felt like a very long way, but I’m sure it wasn’t) until we got to what seemed to be a top of a hill, and there were some other cars parked there, apparently the same folks who came down, looked, and backed up before. While I’m not sure we were any better off at this point, at least we had company. Unfortunately, this was also the point where I decided I really needed to use the restroom, which would have been one problem in the rain in the jungle by the rushing rapids, now it was a different problem in the rain on top of a hill with some dudes in 4×4’s. Alas, I just had to hold it.
Take all my money!
As we sat, we noticed several vehicles coming out of a driveway with a metal gate not far away. A man was opening and closing the gate for the cars, so we thought we could at least get some directions to tell us if there was an alternate route out of this. It turned out the gate was an entrance to a place where they rent four-wheelers and do tours in the forest. So we pull up, and Chris tells the man that the road is washed out and asks if there is another route. With all of the sympathy this guy could possibly muster for this unfortunate carload of tourists, he says, “Oh yes, there is another bridge you can cross. But we own it, and it will be $10 American dollars to cross it.” Some of you think that’s awful, taking advantage of people and all sorts of things. Chris was practically begging the guy to take his $10. In my memory, Chris is yelling, “TAKE MY MONEY! But I had other ideas. I yelled out the window to the guy, “does that $10 include use of your restrooms?” We came to an understanding, and for $10, we got to cross a very questionable bridge over some rushing rapids, use a bathroom that has seen way better days, stimulate the local economy and get home in time to eat pizza and crash into bed. I’m calling it a win-win.
The moral of the story
If there is a moral to this story, it’s: ask for directions, your map might not be the best bet, don’t cross rushing water, shortcuts are rarely shorter, pee before you leave, and carry cash. Overall, it was an unforgettable first day.