The outward appearance of Costa Rica is of endless tracts of rainforest canopy, throngs of natural wildlife, and beautiful white sand coastlines. These picturesque landscapes are populated by healthy, friendly, welcoming locals and rich markers of cultural heritage. The air is clean, the food is organic and the government is stable.
All of these highlights live up to (and in some case exceed) expectations, but there is one untold pitfall among all the beauty, culture and fun of Costa Rica: The roads are in a horrendous state of disrepair.
Much has been written in Costa Rica travel guides about the unpaved pot-hole constellations that pass as roadways, and the various reasons for the inability for the government to build and fix the roads (short answer: corruption). The expense of this scenario reaches into the economy in the form of increased vehicle wear; a typical tourist commuter van that runs to the Pacific beaches needs new tires every 5,000 miles! The combination of passing on two-lane paved highways near San Jose and swerving around unpaved gravel roads in the countryside eats up the tires, plus greatly increases the likelihood of damage to the brakes, suspension, and steering.
Several Costa Rica road projects met with years of delays and budget overruns that were only solved by selling the stalled projects to foreign interests. One example is the Autopista del Sol which a Swedish construction firm finished in exchange for a healthy percentage of the toll revenue; another example is the aptly-named Amistad de Taiwan (Taiwan Bridge) whose completion cut nearly three hours (and a ferry ride) out of the drive from San Jose to the coastal province of Guanacaste.
When you ride on the country roads around Costa Rica, any cynicism towards the upkeep evaporates in the face of how miraculous the existence of these roads are in the first place. Elevation changes are drastic and rapid. The earth pours rock, mud and felled trees across the road during the monsoon season. Some of the bridges in the low country are patchwork creations of clay, PVC pipe, gravel and a healthy dose of prayer. Never mind my own bravery; there are dudes in 18 wheeler Mack Trucks barreling down roads barely two-horses wide making turns that I wouldn’t attempt in a go-kart.
For the traveller who is willing to let go of concepts like making good time and not being delayed, Costa Rica’s primitive highway system can lead to very authentic adventures. For instance on my most recent trip to Guanacaste I was ‘stuck’ helping a few Ticos haul a tree off the road using two mules and a beat up chainsaw; once we finished they invited me to a Rodeo that night in Esperanza. In fact the eldest of the brothers was a participant so naturally the other fellas were in a festive mood.
Four hours, a dozen Imperials and about six gorings later, I piled back into my rental rally car and finally got on my way. Turns out that the roads in Costa Rica have a way of taking you to the right place after all.