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Conquering Costa Rica by Car

I had two things in mind when planning my driving vacation. The first was to get a taste of the many flavors of Costa Rica — rain forests, alpine peaks, and savanna grasslands, all in a country the size of West Virginia. The second was to find low-key accommodations that would still be elegant enough to counter the effects of the country's infamous roads. My companion, Jowa, had another motive entirely: she was hitting the road in an attempt to quit smoking. During the first two days of our trip, however, she was wishing she'd picked up that carton of Marlboros at duty-free, and I was so exhausted, I hardly cared what we saw or where we slept.

It began like this: Before even leaving New York, we survived a ride to the airport with a taxi driver who was trying to set a new land-speed record (hitting 90 mph at one point). In Miami, we milled around the terminal in a seemingly endless layover. We came upon the first obstacle to driving in Costa Rica—renting a car—just after arriving at the San José Airport. The insistent agent wouldn't hand over the keys unless we agreed to pay $28 more per day than we'd been quoted in New York, an additional $30 per day to cover damages, and then signed a blank credit card form. After an hour of haggling over cars and costs, and feeling as if I'd just been fleeced in a game of three-card monte, I took charge of a rather anemic-looking white Toyota Rav4 and hit the road, hard. Naturally, after all that mayhem, I got lost in San José rush-hour traffic and then drove the wrong way down a one-way street.

We were headed for Casa Turire, a boutique hideaway 20 miles east of San José, just outside the town of Turrialba. The hotel, which was built in the style of an old coffee plantation manor, is in the heart of the countryside and offers the chance to hike, ride horses, and go white-water rafting. But by the time we arrived the only activity Jowa and I were excited about was sleep.

After a pre-breakfast stroll through the Turire estate, we set off again at 8:30 a.m., passing through neatly turned out mountain villages nestled among the reds, yellows, and greens of the tropical landscape. Along the road to Siquirres, little groups of schoolchildren, immaculately dressed in blue-and-white uniforms, taunted one another as they returned to class. Winding our way through the Cordillera Central, then heading northeast to the Caribbean lowlands, Jowa and I soon forgot the stress of the previous day and gave in to the warm breezes and the lush, verdant colors of the coffee and sugarcane fields all around us. I was finally beginning to relax and enjoy the loop we were making around the country. Even our little rental, with its zippy stick shift and suction-like permanent four-wheel drive, was beginning to grow on me.

Spectacular as the mountains were, they made for heart-stopping driving. Soon, Route 10 turned into one switchback, hairpin, death trap—call it what you want—after another. The bulk of commuters between San José and Limón choose the new highway just 20 miles to the north of the road we'd taken to avoid traffic. I was grateful for the emptiness since I was trying too hard to avoid the enormous car-swallowing potholes to worry about oncoming cars. Jowa kept a tight grip on her seat with one hand, using the other to cradle the portable CD player, which was fighting a losing battle against nature and the Costa Rican department of road maintenance.

As we dropped out of the hills, the breeze disappeared and we could feel the humid heat of the Caribbean. The road, too, became more languid, less tied up in knots, as it stretched out and relaxed over the level terrain. At Siquirres, we turned west onto Highway 32, the main route east of the mountains. Traffic moved swiftly, with only a few sneakily placed police checkpoints to slow it down, and we made good time, passing banana plantations and small convoys of open-top trucks carrying workers to the numerous farms along the way. Barely three hours later, just as we started climbing through the hills again, we drove out of another of those hairpins and saw Volcán Arenal, puffing smoke and breathing fire, in front of us.

The volcano is one of Costa Rica's most important tourist attractions. For that reason, La Fortuna, the nearest town, is a hub for visitors of all sorts: affluent older American couples taking in the sights as they scout the perfect retirement escape; young backpackers who have made it a major hangout on the bum—your—way—around—Costa Rica trail; and minibuses sardine-packed full of tourists stopping in, like us, for lunch. As we settled down at the Rancho La Cascada restaurant, on the main square, to $4 plates of arroz con camarones and bottles of Imperial, the ubiquitous local beer, we planned the rest of the day. We'd been on the road just over four hours and were halfway to Tamarindo, our destination for the night. We'd done the hard part, Jowa and I agreed. Time to slow down for a bit. Just outside Fortuna, we sidestepped over to the Tabacón Resort to take a dip (at $17 apiece, it was a minor luxury) in its thermal pools.

We waded through the gurgling warm water, finding our place among the throngs. Thoroughly relaxed, we threw on clothes over our wet skin and began the drive around Laguna Arenal. The giant man-made lake, built in 1973, supplies hydroelectric power to neighboring regions and provides stupefyingly beautiful scenery to drivers. But there's a trade-off: the road, for want of a better word, was a connect-the-dots puzzle of huge potholes, better suited for spelunking than negotiating with a motor vehicle. An hour later, when we finally stopped for gas at Nuevo Arenal, a little town toward the far end of the lake, my nerves, and probably the Rav's shocks, were in need of repair. A quick Coke reset my constitution (though Jowa seemed to be craving a smoke) and, with the light beginning to fade, we climbed back out of the hills and descended again into the town of Las Cañas. There, we jumped on the Pan American Highway, Costa Rica's main thoroughfare, and raced to Tamarindo in the dark, trying to ignore the tractor-trailer rigs bearing down on us with illuminated crucifixes attached to their hoods.

The Hotel Capitán Suizo, at the southern end of Playa Tamarindo, is the perfect antidote to eight hours of Costa Rican road warfare. The hotel has some 30 rooms and bungalows (we chose the latter), all standing 20 yards from the beach. After freshening up, we sipped caipirinhas by the side of the pool and then ate a decent, if uninspired, meal. It had been a long day. I'd known that traversing the entire country in one stretch would be tiring, but I never presumed it would prevent us from doing anything other than driving. We retired to our room and promptly passed out.

I awoke to the sound of Pacific breakers. Our bungalow had a clear view of the beach, and though it was only 7 a.m., lithe young guys were already carving their way through some of the best surf in Costa Rica. We were giving the car a rest that day, and after a healthy breakfast of fruit, eggs, and gallo pinto, a local dish of rice and black beans, we took stock of our recreation options. At Capitán Suizo, you can go horseback riding, sportfishing, sea kayaking, or surfing. I'd been told not to miss Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas, where leatherback turtles nest every year. But the park had just closed for the season.

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