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Conquering Costa Rica by Car

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.

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