Costa Rica Diary: Highway From City to Cloud Forest

by Rachel Creager Ireland

Costa Rica Journal

We had a van chartered to take us from San Jose to Monteverde. We were joined by Kevin’s brother Korey, who has lived in Argentina, and his partner Valeria, who is a bona fide native Spanish speaker, from Barcelona. That was nice, because the driver didn’t know a lot of English. We needed to buy a few things, but the stores weren’t open yet, so between Valeria and the driver it was decided that we would take a slightly longer route through San Ramon, where there is a mall that would open about the time we got there. But there was a need to get going.

Central American city driving is exciting. My father-in-law Mike gripped the handle on the back of the seat in front of him, from start to finish. I didn’t hold on, but my hips got sore from leaning into the seat belt as the van swerved and wound through narrow streets. Even when we got onto the main road, the lanes were narrow, and motorcyclists frequently rode the median, just inches away from moving cars and trucks.

“What does ‘Alto’ mean?” my mother-in-law asked. It was obvious that those signs had the international design of a stop sign, but nobody stops for them. She wondered if “Alto” meant “slow,” or “caution.”

“Welcome to Central America,” said Valeria.

Graffiti tells about a city what tour guides will never tell. “La nacion esta miete y quiebra.” With a swastika. Valeria told me “quiebra” is “broke,” but had no clue what “miete” was. I can’t find it in any dictionaries. If you know what that means, tell me in a comment. Another one: “Zombies en la vie [something] policia ¡No!”

The mall in San Ramon was shiny and expensive. Stores were supposed to open at 10:00, but at 10:20 most of them were still dark and gated. Kevin wanted some sunglasses, so he picked out a pair, but it turned out we had misread the price by a factor of ten. $117 went against his usual rule of never paying more than $10 for sunglasses, so he didn’t buy them.

Getting seven Irelands in and out of a mall quickly, even when half the stores are closed, is no easy task, but Valeria urged us on as the driver insisted we couldn’t stay long.

San Ramon is smaller than San Jose, but it still feels urban. Traffic continued to be heavy as we drove through countryside. We were on the Panamerican Highway. After a while, trees gave way to cleared pastures where cattle grazed. The fence posts were stalks of yucca, which looks like a sapling, grows into a small tree, and is harvested repeatedly for food.

Then we were climbing into mountains. Though the road was gravel, it was smoother and wider than I remembered rural roads being from our last visit. Still, it was very curvy and sometimes steep as it hugged the side of the mountain. I noticed traffic had fallen to nothing. I didn’t see other cars for miles. The only people were construction crews, sitting by the road in orange vests with styrofoam carry-out containers on their laps. I said a silent prayer for their safety, sitting on the edge of a mountain highway. Valeria explained that this was why the driver had been in a hurry: this stretch of road was closed for work—widening the road–as long as the workers were working; but vehicles were allowed to pass when the workers were on lunch break. The driver didn’t want to take the alternate route, which was more difficult. We had just made the cut.

Winding and climbing higher, we could see between mountains Lake Arenal on one side and the Pacific Ocean on the other. There was mist over the ocean, and the tops of the mountains were enveloped in clouds. Here the mountains were much less cleared and cultivated. It felt like we could be the only people for miles.

I watched a massive bank of clouds rolling relentlessly in from the east. But hard as the clouds pressed, they never cleared the top of the mountain, and the west side where we were driving remained serenely clear. We were near the continental divide, where weather coming from the Atlantic Ocean meets weather from the Pacific Ocean, in a perpetual stand-off.

And suddenly we crossed a line, and we were in those clouds. It was cool and moist and the muted light made the greens of the forest more vivid. And on we climbed, up to La Colina Lodge.

I got out of the car and almost cried with relief. Though I hadn’t felt weighed down by the city, coming to the mountain felt like a weight lifting off me. I wouldn’t say it’s light there, with the air thoroughly saturated with water, and the forest dense with life; but there is a lack of the heaviness of the city’s smell of diesel fumes and endless pavement. I like San Jose, but maybe I don’t belong in the city.