On our first full day in Costa Rica, I was vindicated in my decision not to rent a car here.
“The highways are great, it’s just like driving in Canada,” said a friend who had visited. And as far as it goes, that was mostly true today, when we took a tourist shuttle from San Jose, the capital, to Monteverde, a village in the centre of the cloud forest 4,000 feet above sea level.
Although the traffic in San Jose was somewhat chaotic and, for the most part, very heavy, it looked manageable, a lot more so than the madness of Mexican cities. There were a lot of newer cars on the road, and the drivers exercised enough caution to protect their investments. Even so, it was very heavy and it took a long time to get out of the city.
Highway 27, the route we took to link up with Highway 1 along the coast before heading inland to Monteverde, was indeed somewhat like our own expressways, except for the large trucks that travelled at 60kph or less, holding up long lines of cars for extended periods of time.
We left the main highway to take a paved, but narrow and twisting two-lane road into the mountains. I was thinking it would have been fun to drive in a small, peppy car.
But about 20km from Monteverde, the pavement ran out, replaced by a narrower gravel road that got much worse as we climbed. Not a guardrail was in sight as the road climbed torturously through hairpin turns and steep grades. Several times, we came so close to the edge, and a steep drop of who-knows-how-many feet, that I thought the rear wheels were going to leave the road.
But the worst was the wind. It raged all day, with gusts so strong that it shunted our tourist van into adjoining lanes at times. On the road of loose gravel and rock, it also caused whiteouts. Several times, coming up on a sharp turn, the visibility was reduced to zero and our driver had to stop until he could see.
All the way along the road, the steep mountainside had been coated with concrete to prevent rockslides and our van came within inches of scraping it as our driver kept right to avoid oncoming cars.
At one point, where there was space beside the road, our driver asked if we wanted to stop for some pictures. I was nearly blown over as I walked to the edge to take a few shots. Walking into the wind to another nearby location, I was pelted with wind-driven small stones that felt like a thousand needles being stuck into my skin.
The 20 km of dirt road to Monteverde took more than an hour to traverse, and I started to understand why it can take so long to go 138 kilometres in Costa Rica.
When we arrived, I complimented the driver on his driving. “It’s difficult,” he said, “but I enjoy it.”
Monteverde is in the cloud forest, a phenomenon that sees warm air rising up the mountainside rapidly cool and turn to moisture, clouding the peaks in a perpetual mist and light rain. It evidently makes for some incredible flora and fauna, when the weather allows you to see it. Today, the light mist was more like a driving rain in the village, thanks to the cold and steady wind. Not a day to go traipsing around the cloud forest.
Instead, we walked to town from the Monteverde Country Lodge, where we were staying. The friendly checkin staff at the hotel told us it was a one-kilometre walk. Given the hills we had to climb and descend, it felt more like 10, but was in reality probably two or three.
At first, the rain was pleasant. As a mist, it felt good on the skin for a while. But then the wind picked up again and it was just plain miserable.
On the whole, the village was a disappointment. It’s very touristy, with some incredibly overpriced gift shops. I wondered how some of them could get away with what they charged, especially since there were stores literally across the road that sold the same goods for as little as half the price. The best products on offer in the stores seemed to be the locally grown coffee. I’ve had a sip or two of good Costa Rican coffee since we got here and it is indeed delicious. We did manage to find a couple of deals at a souvenir shop attached to the supermarket.
We had an expensive but tasty and filling lunch at the Tree House restaurant, a quirky place where a huge tree grew through the middle of the building and our friendly waiter helped me with my Spanish. There were a lot of young people from all over the world in the town, or so it seemed listening to the conversations in several languages around us. They were a mixture of old-style hippies and what I call the new vagabonds, heavily tattooed and dressed in grunge.
The coffee shops near the centre of town were too busy for our liking, so we didn’t bother going in. Cold and wet, we took a cab back to our hotel for about five dollars. It was another first for us: the first time we’d been in a cab that was a pickup truck.