If I heeded every bit of advice regarding safety that I’ve been given prior to my travels, I’d have missed out on some amazing trips and some unforgettable experiences. No matter where I’m planning to travel, there’s always someone (usually my father) who insists that a particular place (city/country/continent) is way too dangerous to visit, or there’s an activity that one should just NOT engage in. Like renting a car and doing your own driving in Costa Rica, which is what my husband and I decided to do for our 10-day trip a few years back. We took into consideration the dozens of safety precautions we’d read about renting cars in Costa Rica and all the associated dangers, and came to the conclusion that having our own car – instead of relying on tours and private drivers/guides – is a better fit for our style of travel. I should add here that I am not completely opposed to group excursions or private tours. They might make their way onto my itinerary but most of the time when I travel, I want to do things when I want and how I want.
Sure, there were times I was nervous while driving across Costa Rica, but not any more nervous than I am during my daily commute to and from work in my hometown of Chicago. And please understand that I’m not suggesting everyone who visits Costa Rica should rent their own cars and forgo other transportation services. It all depends on your style of travel, really. Renting a car in Costa Rica was right for us and the cost of a small 4×4 for ten days was quite economical. We did participate in a few guided tours while in Puerto Jimenez – at discounted prices because we had our own vehicle. The operator or tour company did not have to arrange for transportation for us so they knocked off at least $10 per person. The guide just rode in the car with us to our destination.
What follows here is an abbreviated version of a post I originally published on my first blog about our drive from San Jose to the town of Puerto Jimenez.
Apparently, we should not have survived this trip. Everyone we talked to was shocked by: 1) the fact that we even attempted to drive from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez; and, 2) that we made it. They were even more shocked to learn that we made the trip in one day.
Puerto Jimenez is only 370 kilometers from San Jose but the drive is not exactly a straight shot. The Pan-American Highway snakes through dozens of small towns, through lush valleys and over several mountain passes. It is completely paved, as is the secondary highway we had to take west from Chacarita. We were doing well, being on the road for approximately 7 ½ hours, and were only three miles from Puerto Jimenez, when traffic came to a halt. Ahead, we could see yellow police tape stretching across the road. This was not good. Everyone was out of their cars and discussing the predicament, and Mark and I desperately wanted to know what was going on. This road is the only way into Puerto Jimenez. It is not like we could have gone an alternate route. I approached a woman standing outside her car to ask if she knew why the road was closed. Of course she didn’t speak English, and it’s amazing how, in an almost-emergency, my Spanish came back to me so quickly. I learned that there was an accident; a woman was waiting for the bus at the side of the road, and was struck by a vehicle. That vehicle then rolled over and off the road so the police closed off the road in both directions. There was no way to determine when the road would be opened again. As we waited, we noticed some cars driving off-road, around the scene of the accident, to continue on the highway. The woman I talked to outside the car was with an English-speaking, seemingly American, man. He told us that he was going to try the off-road route, that we could follow him, and if we got stuck, he would help us. When reserving our rental car months before, we heeded all advice of opting for a 4WD vehicle. This was the first time on our trip that we would need to use it.
Mark put the car in 4WD and it looked as if we’d make it over the slight incline and through the dense palm tree grove, but one of the rear wheels slid in the deep mud and we were no longer moving forward. We were stuck. The English-speaking man who said he’d help us was continuing on, having no problem with the mud. Meanwhile, a local man came running up towards us, arms flailing, yelling emphatically to us in Spanish. I had no idea what he was saying. Turns out he just wanted to help us get through the mud. He yelled to his amigo, Lalo, to get the shovel (apparently Lalo has one in his vehicle at all times), and they began to dig out our tires from the mud. Meanwhile, the English-speaking man was reversing back to our location to tie a rope between his car and ours so he could pull us. It was at this moment that my faith and my belief in karma were restored. As I do whenever I travel, I am wearing my St. Christopher medal (the one Mom gave to me before I left for Tanzania), so he was looking out for us. Moreover, it pays to be nice to people at all times because you can never tell when you will have to rely on the help of strangers to get you out of a precarious situation. We probably would not have made it out of that mud if it weren’t for the help of the Tico and the English-speaking man. We never did get either of their names. Once back out on the road, the English-speaking man untied the rope and wished us well. We thanked him profusely and offered to treat him and his wife to dinner but they graciously declined as they were en route to Carate, a town that is another 90 minutes past Puerto Jimenez.
Just a few minutes later we rolled into Puerto Jimenez and found our hotel. We had a quick dinner at the hotel restaurant and called it a night. I could not wait to get to sleep.
This story could have ended very differently; I’m well aware of that. Still, I can’t help but think: if we hadn’t rented the car, maybe we wouldn’t have found the gorgeous and secluded Playa Platanares.
And after we drove from Puerto Jimenez to La Fortuna, maybe we wouldn’t have found our way to the “secret” location in the midnight darkness to watch streams of fiery lava ooze from the smoking mouth of Volcán Arenal.
All worth the chance we took by renting a car and driving ourselves across Costa Rica, in my opinion. And we managed to survive.