Circling Costa Rica is the easiest way to see its varied landscape, but the roughest on your shocks
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.
Related: Exploring Costa Rica’s Osa Peninsula
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.
Jowa and I considered all our options and decided to do nothing. A day at the pool seemed challenging enough. We basked in the sun, watching howler monkeys napping in the trees above us while large ctenosaurs—tan iguana-like reptiles—tiptoed around the deck. As the afternoon light faded, we walked down to Tamarindo's main drag, where the young hippie crowd was setting up beads and bangles stalls. Then we joined some other travelers on the beach to watch the sunset.
We left Tamarindo at about 11 a.m. and drove east to meet Route 21, which would take us onto the Nicoya Peninsula. As this is the driest part of Costa Rica, developers didn't dare tread here until recently. Now, of course, the region is opening up to luxury resorts and golf courses—I counted at least six billboards along the side of the road for new championship links. Despite development, Nicoya looks unlike any other part of Costa Rica: the stony bluffs and long flat plains make you feel as though you're driving through southern Arizona. Indeed, this is Costa Rican cowboy country; you're as likely to see a boy on horseback as riding a bike.
A dreamy heat haze drifted up off the paved road as we flew along (I tried to keep my crispy red arm out of the sun). We marveled at how the roads change from atrocious to sublimely paved in the course of a few miles. "It must be their version of Adopt-a-Highway," said Jowa. After an hour we arrived at the banks of the RÌo Tempisque, where a little ferry crosses every hour from Puerto Moreno.
A few miles inland we rejoined the Pan American Highway for a two-hour drive south to our next hotel, a Victorian-style mansion named Villa Caletas, looming high on a cliff near the beach town of Jacó. We arrived in plenty of time to admire the coastal rain-forest view from our balcony and to spoil ourselves floating in an infinity pool that seemed to melt into the Pacific on the horizon.
Our final day on the road was to be an easy two-hour journey back to Alajuela, a town about 15 miles outside San José and only five miles from the airport. We'd booked a room at Xandari, a newish hotel on a working coffee plantation. Ten miles from Villa Caletas, we stopped at the Reserva Biológica Carara, a coastal rain-forest park. We aimlessly explored the cool, humid labyrinth of trees, plants, and vines, occasionally being stopped in our tracks by the shriek of a scarlet macaw.
Half a mile down the road, at the Tárcoles River bridge, we bought ice cream cones from a roadside vendor and joined scores of other sightseers peering at the 10-foot-long crocodiles sunning themselves on the riverbank below. All that remained was the climb back through the mountains to the central valley.
It was Sunday afternoon, and half of Costa Rica had decided to join us on the road up from the coast. So we crawled our way back, once more navigating ridiculously steep and winding roads, at speeds of no more than 20 mph. But we were in no rush; we spent the last hours of our drive in slow motion without complaint.
That night, over a fine dinner of poached sea bass, Jowa and I gazed from Xandari's open-air restaurant across the illuminated San José cityscape, and relived the trip. We'd gone from the mountains down to the humid Caribbean, up into the bone-dry savanna of Guanacaste, and back to the Pacific rain forest before returning to the highlands. Having satisfied both of my goals for this weeklong road trip, I raised a glass of Imperial to Costa Rica and the 560 miles we'd covered—not forgetting to say a little thanks to our Rav4 for remaining in one piece. Jowa joined me, and toasted to never once lighting up.
Casa Turire Hacienda Atirro; 011-506/531-1111, fax 011-506/531-1075; doubles from $120.
Hotel Capitán Suizo Tamarindo Beach, Tamarindo; 011-506/653-0075, fax 011-506/653-0292; bungalows from $125.
Villa Caletas Jacó; 011-506/637-0606, fax 011-506/637-0404; doubles from $160.
Xandari Plantation Hotel Alajuela; 800/686-7879 or 805/684-7879, fax 805/684-4295; doubles from $150.
DAY 1 Take Route 2 from San José to Cartago, then follow signs to Turrialba. Overnight at Casa Turire.
DAY 2 Head toward Siquirres on Route 10 and take Route 32 west, then Route 4 north to Puerto Viejo. Continue on Route 4 to Laguna Arenal. Head around the lake on Route 4, then south on to Las Cañas, picking up Route 1 north to Liberia, then Route 21 south toward Belén. Follow signs to Tamarindo for an overnight stay at Hotel Capitán Suizo.
DAY 3 Laze by the pool or take a day trip to Parque Nacional Marino Las Baulas.
DAY 4 Retrace the road back to Belén, and then go south on Route 21 across the Nicoya Peninsula; take Route 18 to Puerto Moreno and the RÌo Tempisque ferry. Take Route 18 to the Pan American Highway (Route 1), and at Esparza, take Route 23 south to Orotina. Go south on Route 34 until you reach Villa Caletas, just north of Jacó. Stay the night.
DAY 5 Take Route 34 north, stopping at the Tárcoles River bridge to see the crocodiles. Continue on 34 to Alajuela, to spend the night at Xandari.