Saturday, August 24, 2013
Saturday morning we woke early at about 7 am to the sounds of trickling rain again. We got ready quickly and we were eager for our snorkeling trip that Jenni had set up for us. Jenni told us that we should leave Casa Astrid around 8:15 am because it would take us about 20 minutes to drive to Montezuma.
We were just about headed out the door at 8:30 am and shooing the dogs out of the house when the land line rang. The tour company called to say that the trip was cancelled that day due to the rain.
Rather than pout about getting up early or be lazy and go back to bed, we took this opportunity to get an early start on the day for other activities. Since we had the whole day open and lots of hours ahead of us, we decided it would be the perfect day to just take a drive up along the west side of the peninsula’s coast.
According to our guide book, there were many beaches along the west coast that claimed to be prettier than the ones on the east side, and these beaches also had gorgeous sunsets – or at least that might be the case if it wasn’t cloudy or raining. And much further up Peninsula de Nicoya’s west coast were a few other beaches that bragged of clear water and nesting turtles.
Although I had hoped we could make it all the way up to those prettier sandy beaches that might have clear water, I was not optimistic that we would have enough time in the day. We also did not know if this would be the right time of year to see turtles nesting on the beaches in Costa Rica.
With rain still drizzling, we set out on our day-long adventure up the west coast of Peninsula de Nicoya. Around Cabuya we had seen a few signs directing us to the next city along the way on the southwestern tip of the peninsula called Mal Pais. I had asked Bryce if Mal Pais meant the same thing as what I knew it to be in the United States – malpais or volcanic rock – and he informed me that it meant “bad country”. After knowing this I was a little afraid of what lied ahead.
It wasn’t long after we began our driving expedition that I found out why that city was named Mal Pais and why many parts on that side of the country were not frequently traveled. It wasn’t because of pirates or creepy creatures like I had imagined in my mind. It just had to do with the roads. If we ever thought the unpaved roads around Montezuma and Cabuya were bad, we were highly mistaken.
Much to my dismay at the time, Bryce had chosen to get the cheapest 4-wheel drive vehicle back at the Alamo rental car place, which ended up being a small, dorky Suzuki Jimny. I jokingly said I wanted something cute to cruise around in but he insisted that we would need a 4WD vehicle because of the roads. I trusted his judgement because when Bryce says you need a 4WD vehicle, he knows what he’s talking about and it means he has some crazy expedition up his sleeves that he’s dragging you on. And you don’t want to get stranded in the middle of nowhere on one of Bryce’s crazy expeditions.
As I co-piloted in our 4WD Jimny up the west coast, I tracked the road we would need to follow on our smart phone’s map. We didn’t really have a stopping destination in mind and figured we would just drive along the coast and see what there was to see.
One of the first obstacles we came upon during our driving expedition was a shallow stream without a bridge. In retrospect, I don’t know why I felt so frightened when Bryce had to cross it because it wasn’t anything to get excited over, and considering that we were in the middle of “bad country” it should have come to no surprise that, in addition to driving on rocky roads and dodging one-foot deep potholes filled with rain water, we would have to cross streams.
After reviewing the map again and this time looking ahead on the curvy road we were trying to follow along the coastline, I noticed there was going to be a large river in our way, the Rio Bongo. The name itself sounded scary but not only that, the fact that it was actually depicted on the map and all the seemingly “little” streams we had crossed thus far were not on the map, meant that this river was probably no joke.
I half-jokingly commented to Bryce that we probably couldn’t expect a bridge across it, given that there was no bridges for the past few streams we had passed. In the back of my mind though, I had a pessimistic feeling that it truly would not have a bridge, and at the same time prayed that it would.
We both sat mostly in silence for the next hour or so until we reached the ominous Rio Bongo, with only the sounds of rocks crunching under our tires and the pitter patter of the rain hitting our vehicle.
We could see the Rio Bongo several feet before we got to it and it didn’t look good. In fact, at first it looked like the road dead-ended into the river, but upon reaching it closer, we noticed that the other side of the road crept out of the river at the far left of us. This meant that we had even more river to cross because we were having to cross it at an angle.
My first thought was this was the end of our driving tour along the coast, but Bryce was definitely not as easily defeated. He left the car parked in the middle of the road just a few feet from the water, jumped out of the vehicle, and trudged into the Rio Bongo while I watched. I was unable to un-glue myself from my seat because I was still in awe of the fact that a road had been created over this massive river.
We hadn’t seen any other vehicles for quite some time on our driving expedition, but as Bryce tracked across the river in water that was almost knee-deep, another vehicle from the opposite side drove up and parked.
I was elated at first, thinking this other SUV would just barrel through the river and show us we were being sissy American tourists, but instead, they parked their car, jumped out, and stared at us while the father of the family took a smoke break.
After walking across to the deepest part of the river, Bryce popped the hood of our Jimny to do some quick evaluations, which almost had me convinced he knew what he was doing. He put his leg against the vehicle making a note of how far up his leg the water had reached, comparing this to the level of the engine’s air intake. He said the river was rocky and not muddy, and came to the uncertain conclusion that it might be possible to cross the river.
We still continued to stand around for a bit, hoping the other vehicle would cross first, but it seemed like a stalemate and only Bryce’s impatience and bravery would break the hold. So we hopped back in the Jimny and gritted our teeth for our drive across the Rio Bongo, not knowing if we would get stuck halfway.
We ended up crossing safely, as the family of the other vehicle watched nervously until we were three quarters of the way across and then changed their nervous expressions to smiles, occupanied by thumbs up until we reached the side they were on.
We continued driving on, feeling on top of the world and like we could accomplish anything or cross (almost) any river Costa Rica threw at us. We thought the worst was behind us until not even a couple of minutes later we came upon yet another river that seemed even deeper.
Instead of getting out and doing an assessment of this river like we had with the Rio Bongo, Bryce charged on, with the premise that the other vehicle had just come from this river crossing and made it just fine, so we would, too. While this subsequent river wasn’t quite as wide and intimidating as the Rio Bongo, it turns out it was even deeper than the Rio Bongo. Bryce later confessed that he was nervous going through it after he realized it was slightly deeper and was relieved that we made it okay. Bryce always makes everything look easy!
In one sense, we understood why the family in the other vehicle had stopped to take a smoke break at the Rio Bongo – they had just crossed a deep river that they probably thought they would get stuck in, only to come upon yet another ridiculous river to cross. But on the other hand, they had just crossed a river than was deeper than the Rio Bongo so we didn’t know why they seemed more afraid of the Rio Bongo – perhaps the Rio Bongo just looked more intimidating because of its width.
Nonetheless, we crossed safely and continued on our adventure… only to come upon yet another river! This was getting old by this point. We no longer felt excited and ready to conquer the world. We felt ready to build some bridges ourselves!
None of these subsequent rivers had appeared on our smart phone’s map as anything major so we became increasingly frustrated at each of these surprises and wondered if one of these surprises would cause our trip to be a whole waste and we’d have to turn around back home. It was possible that the unrelenting August rains that day had caused the rivers to be flowing more than usual. Perhaps, on a normal day, the rivers were easily passable and not even rivers at all, but shallow streams.
One look at this river, which was about the same width as the last one, and we could tell it didn’t seem as safe to cross due to its heavier flow. We stood out in the rain for a while scratching our heads and wondering if the other vehicle had seriously crossed this river because it seemed like the worst of the three big ones we had come to.
Bryce trudged through the water and before even getting halfway, the water was already up to his knees. He also noted that the ground was not rocky like the Rio Bongo but very muddy. From the middle of the river he flashed me a “thumbs down”, no-go signal and we jumped back in the Jimny feeling defeated.
The other vehicle had to come from somewhere so there was a small glimmer of hope of being able to go around this river, but since we wanted to travel along the road closest to the coastline, we didn’t want a new route to ruin our scenic route plans. After several minutes of re-planning, we found a different route that would take us out of the way and along this same river for awhile until it crossed it again at a point higher up, but we crossed our fingers that the river would not be as bad there.
We were in luck, the river crossing further upstream had a bridge (a real bridge!) and according to our map, we would not have to cross anymore rivers, so we could finally relax.
Wrong. We came upon, still, another handful of smaller rivers and streams not noted on the map, but were fortunately easy to cross.
We able to enjoy about an hour and half of uncomplicated driving when we came upon another large river crossing noted on the map that we were nervous about, the Rio Ora. Judging from our map’s scale, this river crossing looked as bad as the Rio Bongo.
Since this river crossing appeared to be near more popular tourist beach towns we were optimistic that it would have a bridge. We also noticed that the wide yellow road that was illustrated on the map, turned into a narrow white road, so we were fairly confident this indicated a bridge.
We were wrong, but only half wrong. Rio Ora had a bridge, but it was not completed. Only the posts to the bridge had been built and because of this, huge mounds of rock and dirt had been piled in the middle of the river to support the posts and were somewhat in the way of driving across.
The dirt and rock they used to build the posts must have also mainly been taken from the riverbed itself because, despite the fact that it was not flowing as fast as some of the rivers we had past, we noticed that at some points the water went above the knees of a local man forging the river as we waited there.
We knew we could not cross the river but we did not know what we could do next because, unlike the previous uncrossable river, there was no easy drive around this one. To add to this dilemma, we were running very low on gas as many of the small towns we drove through that day did not have gas stations.
After trying to communicate with the local guy who had crossed the river and who also agreed that we should not cross it in our vehicles, we found out that the closest gas station was either back the way we came or in a beach town called Samara that was just past the river.
This was so disheartening for us because, as the afternoon got later and later, we had pinpointed Playa Samara as our stopping point and late lunch spot and it seemed like a stone’s throw away on the other side of Rio Ora. We were so close (and so hungry) and yet so far away now.
We begrudgingly retreated to our car for the hour long detour route up north to a river crossing on Rio Ora with a bridge and traveled back down south to the coastline and, at last, reached the the beach town of Carrillo that neighbored Samara, our stopping point. Carrillo had paved roads and this delighted us greatly after spending seven hours driving on bumpy dirt roads.
The only issue lingering at the back of our minds at that point was how we were going to get back home, because we surely did not want to navigate through that maze of bumpy dirt roads and rivers all over again later.
We dined for a late lunch at a restaurant located right on the sandy beach cove of Playa Samara called Lo Que Hay Taqueria, noted in our guide book as a good place for tacos.
After drinks, tacos, and quesadillas, Bryce decided to take advantage of the sandy beach and great waves by going surfing. I opted to relax on the beach. While we were in Playa Samara, we were fortunate enough to enjoy our time on the beach without rain for the first time that day, but clouds on the western horizon made it impossible for us to see one of the only sunsets we might have been able to see while on Peninsula de Nicoya.
Although Playa Samara would have been a great place to spend some time at, we were unable to enjoy it for very long because we knew we had a long drive ahead of us to get back home.
We mapped out another route back home that was inland and appeared to more of a main road that might be paved. Since it was getting late in the day and would be dark soon, we didn’t care about taking a fun scenic route anymore. We just wanted an easy ride home.
The alternate, uneventful route home ended up being a lot easier than our previous route along the coastline and was also mostly paved, which we were very thankful for. When we arrived home after 9pm that night we were ready for bed right away.