Dispatch from the Road

Costa Rica Lesson: Drive with Confidence

by Daniel Murphy

The view from the front seat was not promising.

Despite the fact that we had reserved a car weeks prior, when we got to the rental agency in San Jose, Costa Rica (Dollar Rent-a-Car, spread the word, they have herpes), they had “run out” of the model we reserved. I immediately think of Seinfeld: “You know how to take the reservation, you just don't know how to hold the reservation, and that's really the most important part.” And that was over a decade ago. How has this system not been changed by now? We can send dogs into orbit, but renting a car involves Middle-Eastern peace-talk style negotiations? I wouldn’t even mind if they continued doing it this way so long as they called it a “request” or a “maybe” instead. (e.g. “Did you book the car?” “Yeah, I made a maybe.”) But they insist on calling it a reservation, which has a very specific definition, one that, under normal, non-corporate douchebaggery practices, indicates a level of security and permanence.

Of course they offer to remedy the situation by giving us a better car for more money. Incredulous, Brooke (the girlfriend) steps in demanding a car for the same price. They have one, but it is smaller, and a manual transmission. (It’s here that I realize for the first time that I rented a car from a place called “Dollar.” I was asking for it, really.) Brooke pulls me aside and tells me not to cave to their hostage negotiation tactics. Just because we’re already in Costa Rica and a tram took us outside the airport to their off-site rental location and we hardly speak the same language as everyone around us and right now these two rental car guys are kind of in charge of OUR LIVES doesn’t mean we should play their game.

Thankfully, in what we would later refer to as “The Decision that Saved the World,” we opt to pay the extra $10 per day for the bigger, automatic SUV. Our first lesson in why Priuses will never catch on in Costa Rica came swiftly and forcefully. Fifteen minutes into our three-hour drive south we hit traffic. Dead stop traffic. Here, we have two options:

1. Be smart. Stay on the only road we are familiar with in a country we have never been to and have only been in for half an hour; or

2. Be stupid adventurers. Follow the many cars ahead of us that are veering off onto a dirt road.

We think, “They can’t all live down that twisted, dusty ravine. It must be a shortcut.” Five minutes later, we had lost sight of everyone we were following as they either peeled off down various, even narrower and more dirt-laden roads or turned into driveways at shanty homes. (What are the odds?) We start doing that thing where we get to intersections and, for some inexplicable reason, instead of turning around and going back the way we came, we decide which way “feels right” and turn that way. I tell Brooke to look at the map. “This road isn’t on the map,” she replies. “Probably because it’s made of dirt.” Solid point.

We stop to ask for directions, but no one speaks English. We pull out some of our Spanish knowledge, but unless someone is telling us to go “right” or “to the bathroom,” the language barrier remains. (Further proof that a Spanish-English dictionary still has a place in the world, if not in my suitcase.) Brooke tries to mime “lost” by shaking her head and putting her hands up in the air. The farmer we are asking directions from seems scared.

Just about the time we start resigning ourselves to the possibility that this is it for us, that our last remaining option (not an option at all, really, just a reconciliation) is moving into an abandoned home and living off the land and whatever gifts our neighbors may offer, we see a main road up ahead. It is backed up with bumper-to-bumper traffic. We exhale a sigh of relief. Somehow, we stumbled upon the road we were previously driving, perhaps even avoiding some of the traffic, as was our initial goal. We have, it seems, against the wildest of odds, succeeded.

EEENT. (That’s a buzzer making the “wrong” noise.)

Because all roads in Costa Rica look the same (bumpy pavement, no signs, drivers swerving with the recklessness of terminal cancer patients), it was a solid two hours before it was determined we were going the wrong way. Wrong as in north. We wanted south. What finally tipped me off was a sign for Nicaragua. You see, while planning for the vacation I had done some research, looking up Costa Rica on Wikipedia. I remembered few details about the country itself other than the fact that it was bordered by Nicaragua (to the north) and Panama (to the south) — two countries that I have always thought of as scary, the kinds of places where people are kidnapped for sport and killed for mistaking libro for a feminine noun.

While the chaos that ensued was tragic in many ways, we would come to look back fondly on this as “our impromptu driving tour of Costa Rica.” The seven-hour driving tour. Down erroneous unmarked roads. Stopping every 20 minutes for Brooke to harass another person who didn’t speak English with her inexplicably disturbing “We’re lost!” mime routine.

Finally, hours later, we find our way onto the right road. No the originally right road, but a different right road, one that has been described to us as both “scenic” and “bumpy.” The sun has already set at a confusing 6:15 (it has to do with the equator — I looked it up) and I tell Brooke that I need a break from driving. We switch; I immediately fall asleep. Mere moments later (or so it seemed) I am awakened by what feels like a mortar shell exploding under our car. I jump up.

Me: “What happened!”

Brooke: “We’re off-roading.”

Me: “Shouldn’t we get back on the road then?”


We presume a road this rocky, a truly primordial road, cleared by the hands of men who removed everything save the cratered bedrock beneath us, could last but a short amount of time. This is, after all, no road at all. It is a clearing, a piece of earth there to remind man of his small place in a world where he can do so, so much, but he cannot smooth out this tract of land, not in any way. It was a brief piece of perspective, and nothing more.


We drove 68 kilometers. Converted to American measurements, that’s way-too-many-fucking miles, miles that the human body wasn’t meant to endure — SUV or not. Asses catching air off seats, heads whiplashing from side to side. Mechanical violence.

We speak to each other as little as possible, like workers trapped in a mine shaft conserving energy and air. “You okay?” “Yup.” More staring straight ahead, eyeing the trembling horizon, fighting back vertigo. It starts downpouring. “Good thing we upgraded the car.” “Yup.” Every once in a long while, another vehicle passes us. I think, “I know why I’m here, but why are you? I’m here because my American middle-class background makes me rebellious against structure, craving adventure and glimpses into worlds in which I don’t belong. But you?”

We approach a clearing and see a group of cars collected up ahead, taillights glowing in the night. We stop behind the cluster, staring ahead at a bridge. Turns out, the bridge is one-lane. And it’s not our turn to go, it’s the other side’s turn to go, so we have to wait there patiently while huge trucks carrying God-knows-what rumble over the bridge past us into the night.

The cars on our side start filing over the bridge, and we follow, oblivious to the process and its inner workings. There are no signals, no signs, no attendant watching the bridge. Somehow locals know whose turn it is and when. You can’t get this shit in Pasadena, that’s for sure.

Finally, like a gift from the pitch-black night, the rumbling stops and everything goes smooth. Perhaps we’ve died, and, in an improbably ironic twist, heaven is just a paved road? But wait! In the compilations of malinterpreted directions we’ve collected throughout our journey, there seems to be one coincidental fact: Once you hit the paved road, you’re almost there. And lo and behold, not 18 kilometers away, we roll into a town, make a left, and start down the road to the resort. Except you’ll never believe what the road was made out of. Dirt. More rocky terrain, and I’m not sure Brooke can handle it. Physically? She needs a chiropractor. Mentally? A whole lot more. It’s come to the point where we stop in the middle of the road, roll down the window, and ask the first person who happens by if they know how we can get to the hotel.

First Person Who Happened By: “Are you Brooke and Dan? We’ve been waiting all night for you.”

Shit. We really are dead, and St. Peter is an older gentleman who speaks good English with a thick Spanish accent.

His name was Javier, which doesn’t exactly rhyme with “savoir” but, damnit, it was close enough for me. Javier jumps in our back seat and says, “Our driver will lead you up to the resort, but first your back tire is flat. We should fix that. Have you eaten? Let’s get you some dinner and cerveza while they fix your tire.”

Brooke leans over and whispers in my ear, “I would totally make out with Javier right now.”

After taking us to the only restaurant in town for food, the only grocery store for beer, and the only gas station to fix the tire, Javier leaves us with the resort’s driver and says, “You follow him. Remember, just be confident. Drive with confidence.” At face value, I take this as a bit of folksy advice, maybe even a metaphor for life. “Drive with confidence.”

The driver leads us down the dirt road leading to the resort. There are no street lights, which I suppose isn’t really a problem because there’s nothing around to light up, proper road included. But then the driver veers off to the left, up a narrow, steep hill. “What a dangerous driveway,” I think. And it was. An incredibly steep, curvy, dangerous, two-mile long driveway up a dark mountain of death. Adventure went out the window 500 feet back: My vacation is officially terrifying.

Before I know it, probably because I blacked out from the stress, we are sitting in our room at the resort. We eat our food, wash up, and go to bed.

The next morning, we wake up with the sun and look out the window. Turns out we are perched on the side of a mountain (who knew!), looking down over the ocean and the coastal road that we drove to get here.

And you know what? They were right: The scenery was fucking beautiful.

This story was reprinted with permission from Daniel Murphy's blog, Redacted.

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