Driving Costa Rica's Wild and Wooly Dirt Roads

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Dec 29, 2014

MONTEZUMA, COSTA RICA—Ready for an adventure? Try a week or two of driving around Costa Rica. In part because heavy annual rains tend to wash out any form of paving, most of the roads outside major cities are rutted dirt, with big, bone-jarring potholes, river fords and plenty of obstacles to dodge.

Passing is an art in congested towns like Montezuma (which does have paved roads!). (Jim Motavalli photo) Through the clouds of dust generated by your passage, expect to see dogs and children in the road, as well as iguanas, the occasional coatimundi (a raccoon-looking fellow), horses, cows and even a speed trap or two. Speaking of radar, my daughter’s wide smile, passable Spanish and diplomatic manner got us out of a $200 ticket—payable at the nearest courthouse. The top speed limit on any of these roads is 80 kmh (50 mph). Here's a passenger-seat view on video:

Costa Rica’s Nicoya Peninsula is a gorgeous ecotourist destination. The beaches at Montezuma (Playa Grande is tops) and Mal Pais (Playa Hermosa is recommended) are the best and most undeveloped I’ve seen elsewhere, with bathtub-warm water and big surfing-friendly waves. There are plenty of affordable places to stay or eat; Mal Pais even has Mary’s, a stupendous farm-to-table local food restaurant. Our waitress was from California.

This baby Olive Ridley turtle, weighing less than an ounce, is using instinct to make its way to the sea. (Malaika Motavalli photo)There's plenty to do around here. On Montezuma Beach, we were entranced by the release of just-born Olive Ridley sea turtles, nurtured on the beach by a cheerful crew from the Association of Volunteers for Service in Protected Areas (AVSO).  With human help keeping them safe from predators until they reach the water, the babies' survival rate goes from one in 10,000 to one in 1,000. There are ziplines through the forest, incredible waterfalls to see, howler and white-faced capuchin monkeys in the trees. It's not buggy for some reason.  

 You'll get there eventually in Costa Rica. (Jim Motavalli photo)The peninsula’s very inaccessibility is what helps keep it pristine; there’s not a chain hotel in sight. We stayed at Casa Smythe, a peaceful, open-air B&B run by ex-pat Americans. The few tour buses I’ve seen are piloted by brave souls. The roads really are invigorating, best attempted only with four-wheel-drive vehicles. You see mostly small and very dusty Hyundai, Kia, Toyota and Honda SUVs on the road, complemented by ATVs and scooters piloted by bandana-wearing drivers. The clouds of thick, café-au-lait dust are democratic; all cars end up looking the same. When the local road crews are convinced that the rainy season is over (around December), they coat the road with molasses (yes, sweet, sticky molasses) to keep the dust down.
We’ve only forded one river so far, and came out easily enough. My brother, on an earlier trip across another river, plunged in and hit something hard under the water, leaving behind a skid plate or two. Tomorrow we head out on a bunch of roads that are just narrow white squiggles on the map. A friend who owns property in the area tells us, "The last 13 kilometers into Nosara are like driving on the moon."

Nosara.... or the moon? (NASA/Eugene Cernan via Wikimedia Commons)There are easier ways to get here. We flew in to the smaller Liberia airport at the top of the peninsula, but you can also fly to the capital of San Jose, drive down on what the map shows as better roads (but probably aren't), and take a fast water taxi from Jaco to Montezuma. You can do that, but where’s your sense of adventure?

Want even more on Costa Rica's bad roads? Check out this video:


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