Taking the road less travelled in Costa Rica

“How about a melon?” urged the fruit stall holder. We had just bought lychees, fresh coconut, mangoes and bananas. Why not a giant watermelon too? I nodded and he ran back to the stall then passed it through the window.

coast view

“¿Adónde van?” he asked, wondering about our destination. I told him where we were heading – a 5 hour drive from the airport to where we would sleep, despite a near total shortage of signposts. It turned out we had missed a tiny turning a few hundred metres before his stall. He pointed it out to us. Such providence – we must have passed near a hundred fruit stalls, wondering each tome about choice, price, the possibility of stopping safely. We had wondered aloud why we kept driving past them and here was our explanation. We needed to stop at this one to be set back on the right path.

I passed my daughter the money and she paid him and thanked him, her school Spanish at last having a purpose. We carried on, marveling at our good fortune. As I did further along the road when in a small town with a tumble of signs and stalls and passers-by I spotted, out of the corner of my eye, a hand-painted sign no bigger than a legal pad, with the name of the place we were going. It was a critical junction, hundreds of miles from our destination and we didn’t see any more till we arrived a couple of hours later. Maybe it’s not even there now. But at that very moment when we needed it, it had been there and had caught my eye and kept us on track.

imo snake

My younger daughter is generally up for this kind of whimsy – my insistence that the world is a turmoil of possibilities and we can choose the ones we want. But a couple of days later when she was leading the way on one of my off-track diversions and a long black snake leapt across her path she began to lose her nerve. This proved to be a problem later on our trip when our google map route to Arenal volcano proved to be little more than a rocky goat track. I had scoffed privately at the local police who an hour earlier had said what every traveller hopes to hear “you can’t get there from here”. Yet this route had rapidly deteriorated from single track tarmac road to cobbles, to dirt and now something approaching a waterfall in the dry season. Our inadequate vehicle lurched from rock to rock then came to a halt. It refused to go up the next bend. I stopped to think, and was more than a little alarmed to find the brakes weren’t enough to hold us in place. The weary vehicle started to roll gently back down the hill.

The hairs on the backs of my hands leapt up as I raced through options in my head. Reversing down a twisty rocky road with a precipice to one side was not tempting. I turned everything off. No fan, no radio, just the engine and started it up again. Our backward roll had given us a bit more of a run up on the hill and I was optimistic (ha!) that round the next bend the road would improve. Small roads in Costa Rica are maintained by the landowners they run across so the quality can change dramatically every quarter of a mile or so. I rushed at the hill, picking the least ridiculous route across the rocks and we made it up and around the bend. Where we were faced with another 100 metres of similar challenge. By now I was getting quite seriously worried and persuaded my daughter (very reluctant because of the snake issue) to get out and walk to the top of the rise to see if things improved after that. At least that’s what I told her. In fact I was no longer confident of staying on the ‘road’ and decided she was safer out of the car. Afterwards she told me she felt the same way – though neither of us had a clear plan for what she would do next if I were to plummet over the edge. She has some initiative, I’m sure she would think of something.

Her foray was not encouraging though. More of the same she reported and I faced the uncomfortable choice of going back. Uncomfortable because neither reversing down that track, nor turning around seemed technically plausible. And also uncomfortable because I hate being defeated and retracing my steps. I had to admit though it seemed like the least worst option. So very slowly and carefully, via about 15 manoeuvres instead of the usual 3, I managed to get the car facing back down the hill. My daughter walked a safe distance behind while I lurched down the hill, amazed at the resilience of the tyres.


We did in the end arrive at the volcano, a little shaken but also with the jubilation that comes after fear. The scenery was spectacular and enjoying ceviche in the swim up bar at the hot springs proved an efficient salve.

For me, no trip is complete without a little spice of adventure. That may be while I travel alone a lot – I realise it’s not everybody’s idea of fun. But I am lucky, I live a charmed life. Signposts, angels and guides appear when I need them. I get away with it. And live to travel another day.

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