Costa RicaCosta Rica

Offroading to Paradise

Destination: Santa Teresa

My heart was beating out of my chest, even an hour after we'd reached Cobano and the incident was over. The whole thing could have been avoided had we only followed the locals' advice.

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Instead, we'd experienced a roller coaster of a car ride. My heart rate was through the roof for two and a half hours straight.

We were headed south to the small ocean town of Santa Teresa, at the bottom of the Nicoya Peninsula. The first three hours from Samara were beautiful. We traveled along the coast through Playa Carillo, Punta Islita, and Playa Camaronal. There we got out and took a walk on the beach. Recently hatched marine turtle eggs that looked like ping pong balls littered the coast.

Finally, we reached Playa Coyote. Here we stopped at the only restaurant on the beach and had some chips with a refried bean dip. Some friendly locals told us to wait a half hour for the tide to lower enough that we would have no trouble crossing Bongo River, the nearby river located about an hour outside of our next destination: Santa Teresa.

By the time we got to Bongo, a tow truck was dragging a dirty rental car out of the river, which was about waist deep. They told us that the careless tourists had caused $11,000 in damages to their vehicle; we would be crazy to try to ford the river. They advised we turn around and backtrack two and a half hours to the other side of the Nicoya Peninsula and then down and back across to our final destination. We had no choice. On the way back we found a bridge over Rio Bongo, and we decided to take the risk -- after all, we might have found a shorter route. Big mistake.

We traveled a while without seeing another human being. Finally we came across a friendly old man with kind, cataract-clouded eyes and a machete nearly as tall as he was. He began drawing maps in the sand with the blade, waving it carelessly back and forth as he explained where we needed to go.

The road, if you could call it that, was exhilarating. It was marked with potholes and loose rocks, and only permitted the SUV to drive about ten miles an hour. No wonder the locals had told us to go around. I somehow maneuvered it across six rivers, each bigger and more intimidating than the last. It felt like a scene straight out of the old computer game Oregon Trail. After five hours of driving we realized that the gas gauge was broken. It still read "full," leading me to wonder if it was nearly empty.

We drove about an hour and a half more without cell phone service, without seeing another human soul, house, fence, telephone pole, or any other sign of life. I was petrified we would reach an impassable river, and that the tide would come up and we wouldn't be able to return. All sorts of impossible and outrageous scenarios floated through my mind. We would be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no recourse. We would have to spend the night in the car. We really should have taken the longer, recommended route instead of going off the main road.

I hit a huge pothole and the car bottomed out. I stopped daydreaming. The vehicle began making horrible sounds and screeching noises with every application of the brakes. I became frustrated and careless after the final river, and Tim demanded to take the wheel. I obliged. Finally we began seeing cars and we reached Cobano, the crossroads town connecting Mal Pais with Montezuma and the rest of the Nicoya Peninsula. We could have kissed the ground. We'd made it.

A mere 20 minutes later we were at hotel Casa Marbella in Santa Teresa. The second I stepped onto the property my blood pressure dropped, all signs of stress vanished. The journey was well worth the deep sense of self-satisfaction we felt upon reaching the finish line.

That night we ate at an incredible restaurant called Las Brisas del Mar. The friendly American waiter served us a pitcher of their signature Watermelon Coco Loco under the thatched palm roof. We sat around the Chinese lanterns and listened to the tranquil music drifting in the background. We'd earned it.

Offroading to Paradise in Pictures

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