Only a few days remained in our trip and we were interested to spend at least a few days at the beach, so with our stomachs inadequately filled, our clothes wet and muddy, and the roads only getting worse, we set off down the mountain, past the “real” entrance to Rio Celeste, and on toward a backroad that skirts along the Nicaraguan border.
Many travel forums often complain that Costa Rica has such a strongly developed tourism industry that a lot of the culture has been lost. Though this may be true in some cases, we can say with certainty that if you take small roads, there is culture abound. Along this route we saw Costa Rica in what we can only think is a more untouched form – people working, hanging out in the street, and living their lives in extremely humble circumstances without another tourist to be seen. These moments – the moments in which we break from the standard circuit and get into the countryside – are the ones that really stand out to us.
In addition to the small communities of farm workers, cyclists, and villages that captivated us all afternoon, our drive was punctuated with Nick Offerman’s irreverent audiobook, Paddle Your Own Canoe, which kept us laughing all the way. With such a lovely afternoon spent, we were in good spirits when we eventually made it to the western side of the country and pulled out onto the Interamericana. Within a kilometer or so, we were flagged down by a policeman on the side of the road.
Bree: Due to some ill relations between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, there are frequent document checks by the police near the border. Since we were in fact, probably less than 10 kilometers from the border, this was sort of to be expected. While Ben rolled down the window to talk to him, I pawed through our bags looking for our identification. Meanwhile, the policeman grilled Ben with questions, wanting to know if we’d come from Nicaragua. When we informed him that no, we’d come from Tenorio, he was particularly confused since technically, Tenorio was south of where we sat. If nothing else, we’ve got a gift for taking the long way. He spoke no English, and though I could understand most of his questions he quickly grew tired of my poor attempts to explain our inexplicable route, and flagged us through.
Ten minutes later, we were at the entrance to Santa Rosa National Park where we intended to camp for the night. Unfortunately for us, we were hours later than planned in part due to the poor quality of the roads, and the ranger station was locked up tight. Hoping we might find someone in the visitor’s center, we drove the 13 kilometers to the museum which was also gated up.
By this point, dark was fast falling and it was getting unclear where we were going to sleep. We spotted a very unofficial looking guy in front of some unidentified buildings and asked if it would be ok if we camped at the campground, and he nodded yes and that we could pay in the morning. Unfortunately, we couldn’t understand him well enough to deduce if we’d need to use the deserted inland campground or if the one by the beach was open.
Feeling a bit free spirited, we decided to drive the last 12 kilometers to the beach to see for ourselves. This plan made more sense before we saw the sign and subsequently reached what I will call, for lack of a better term, a road, although it wasn’t much of one. The signage suggested that driving the road at all was a bad idea and instead strongly encouraged visitors to walk. With less than an hour until nightfall, a seven mile hike with our packs was not seeming prudent, so we took a deep breath and headed down the road in our little vehicle.
The ranger’s reasons for suggesting a hike instead of a drive become clear within minutes because the road was essentially a rocky, rutted, potholed, hiking path that happened to be almost wide enough for a 4×4 to pass through. Branches scraped down the sides of the car as we dove and our bodies pitched dove over every rock and rut with the same fury we might have found on an ocean boat ride.
Naturally, Ben was thrilled at such a ridiculous undertaking and to some extent so was I, but I was also feeling a touch panicky. I couldn’t find our GPS or wallet and darkness was falling fast. If in fact, the beachside campsite was closed for turtle season (which it is, for four months out of the year) we’d need to drive all the way back on this touchy road in the dark.
We crossed two dry creek beds (thankfully it is dry season!), a bridge, long stretches comprised only of river rocks, and dozens of potholes wide enough to span the entire road. At least twice, we bottomed out on huge rocks, wincing at the thud and cracks against our rental car. We were nervous but also thrilled to be acting a bit reckless in the name of a little adventure. In all, it took us 50 minutes and nearly all of the remaining daylight to cover the 12 kilometers.
As we pulled in, a giant “Benvenidos!” sign and a small cluster of tents welcomed us. Camping was open and we were in business.
I settled our bill with the resident ranger and subsequently recovered our wallet and GPS from being flung deep beneath the car seats and then Ben and I wandered around, photographing the half moon and the navy night crowding over the waves. By the time we got around to worrying about our setting up camp, it was completely dark, and so we reconfigured the seats of the car to make space for sleeping and scrapped our plans to set up the tent at all. Then, without a lot of other options, I smeared together my seventh peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a 48 hour period and together we headed out to the dark beach to soak up the waves and the cool breeze before bed