Google-Maps is a great tool for finding your way around in unfamiliar territory, unless that territory is Costa Rica. It just doesn’t work so well here. Many of our guests at Casa Mango and Casa Papaya, especially those who don’t speak Spanish, try to navigate with printed Google directions. They often get lost or take all day to cover what they think should have been an hour’s drive. GPS is an even more frustrating tool.
Here’s the thing: Both of these fine pieces of technology know all the routes available but not the level of development or current conditions. This is a rural and developing country. People have been walking these hills for a long time and traditional roads may be little more than a burro path, winding from pueblo to pueblo and finca. What Google-Maps doesn’t know, or won’t tell you, is that the recommended road is not paved, not even graded and maybe not passable all year. Google may show a road going up over the mountain that is used daily by campesinos on foot, horseback, and burros and only occasionally by trucks to retrieve cattle or coffee for market. This should not imply that you should drive it in your rented sedan in the rainy season.
For instance, the shortest route from Casa Mango and Casa Papaya to the golf course at Hacienda Pinilla is clearly indicated by Google as Route 160. Simple, right? What Google neglects to tell you is that 160 is gravel, dirt and rocks the entire length with at least 3 river crossings – I did not say bridges, I said river crossings – and has not been graded for 6 months. It’s a beautiful drive and I wouldn’t dissuade anyone from enjoying it if they want a half day excursion in the dry season. But if you’re trying to make a tee-time, everyone around here knows you take the main hiway through Nicoya and Santa Cruz.
Steve’s cousin recently brought his GPS – it works great in southern California – and we experimented with it on the way from our house to Arenal Volcano Observatory Lodge, which was a programmed destination. He chose a nice female voice and SHE did pretty well until just outside of Tilaran when SHE suggested we turn left instead of continuing on what we knew to be the main road that follows the north edge of Lake Arenal. Seeing nice new pavement on the side road, Steve and I got excited; we might actually learn a new short-cut. The new road climbed into the hills for half an hour and wound between the ICE’s wind generators and then it simply stopped. Even the cow path disappeared. SHE told us to “Proceed one hundred meters and make a u-turn”, which we did. When we got back to the main road we let her loose again and SHE found the hotel at the southeast tip of the lake. But the following morning, as we were leaving the hotel, SHE again told us to turn left. Now, we’ve only lived in CR for 6 years and we don’t presume to know all the routes, but we’d never heard of anyone driving the south side of Lake Arenal. There are horse pack trips that deliver tourists from the volcano to Monteverde – that’s something I’d love to do – but we didn’t know about a road. Giving her the benefit of the doubt, we proceeded but cautiously asked the first fellow we encountered if we were headed in the right direction. He just shook his head. Can you imagine how many rivers spill off the continental divide to dump into the largest lake in Costa Rica, each of which would have to be crossed? At this point, we turned around, reset her language to Dutch and enjoyed the soft rhythm of her foreign patter without paying any attention.
The roads here are getting better all the time. Because more and more Ticos have cars and motorcycles, those cow paths are getting more traffic and the people are demanding improvements. But the terrain is rough – two oceans are separated by three mountain ranges with peaks up to 12,000 feet in a distance of only 275 miles – and conditions can be brutal. My brother was once lost in the hills and, frankly, stumped as to how to get out of them. At a crossing of two or three dirt paths, he came upon a couple of young guys. With his rental agency-provided map, he pointed at his desired destination and asked “How do we get to . . . . ?” There was some discussion between the two fellows, some pointing left and right, and a barely heated exchange. Finally one guy bent down to look at the bottom of the car and then firmly pointed to the left. My brother understood this to mean “With 4-wheel drive and good clearance, you can go this way.”
When in doubt, ask a local. Will Google consider your traction system? Will a GPS know if the rivers are flooding or the boulders are bigger than your first-born child? Not likely. Here are a few words and phrases to help you navigate in Cost Rica.
Ceda – Yield
Puente angosto – narrow bridge
Despacio – slow
Gasolinera, bomba – gas station
Taller – mechanic
Respuestos – auto parts
Escuela – school
Via unica – one way
A la izquierda – to the left
A la derecha – to the right
Al Derecho, directo – straight ahead