Potholes of Costa Rica
The majority of visitors to Costa Rica stay in the popular beach towns, perhaps with excursions to nature parks and volcanoes. But for those who choose to explore a little more, a little advice on driving conditions may be useful.
In many ways, the more-travelled streets and highways of the country feel very much like Europe in the 1950s or 1960s. The city streets are narrow and congested – sometimes extremely so – and vehicles pass close to each other while negotiating the flocks of pedestrians. Not for the faint-hearted, but take it slow and acknowledge that you will certainly be lost for a fourth of the time, and it can be enjoyable driving despite the nervous moments.
The main roads between cities are mainly two-lane blacktops, both lanes typically narrow. Underpowered and overloaded trucks are slow-moving obstacles and passing in safety is dubious. Be patient. But again, at suitably low speeds you can enjoy the breathtaking scenery; and after all, the country is small so there are no marathon long-distance journeys to undertake.
The visitor must be ever-alert for the notorious, almost mythical but ever-present potholes on all but the very best highways. These potholes bear only a vague resemblance to the worst you might find in New York or Los Angeles, where the really bad ones are coned off and the others are unlikely to do more than give you a jolt and possibly break your suspension. Costa Rican potholes are to these as an angry elephant is to a timid mouse. They are big, they give little or no warning, sometimes they are camouflaged, and they are categorized locally into four groups. The smallest, known as ‘bocas pocitas‘, might be no more than a foot or two across and equally deep. Watch out for them especially on the southern stretches of the Pan-American highway and take care to swerve around them. Look out also for vehicles coming the other way who do the same, usually without warning. Remember, this is a two-lane highway.
The second group is found most frequently on secondary highways but also often on city streets. They are big enough that most two-wheel-drive cars and trucks, if unfortunate enough to drive into one, can only get out with the aid of a tow truck. Sometimes, especially in the rainy season when water can fill them and disguise their extent, they are marked by the stalls of roadside vendors who sell refreshments to the trapped occupants while awaiting their tow trucks. If in doubt, stop and ask before proceeding; no Costa Rican would be so uncivil as to minimize the size of a water-filled pothole, even to a gringo.
After these there are the vehicle-swallowers. These are just what the name implies – entire vehicles can drop into them, retrievable only by crane. On well-traveled highways these are quite rare, but during the rains new ones can appear with no warning. Your best defense is to follow at a safe distance behind a local vehicle, whose driver will be alert for the tell-tale signs of a new subsidence. And if he fails, you should be able to stop before you follow him into the crevasse. It is considered polite in such a case to stop and offer assistance; usually it is impossible to continue in any case, since the whole road will now be impassable.
The fourth and largest type of pothole is the ‘barrio subterraneo‘, the impromptu settlements formed when multiple vehicles are swallowed in a single pothole. In at least one recorded instance on a less-traveled road where the occupants were unable to scale the sides of the hole, they decided after a few days that they must grow their own food. The rich soil and ample rainfall permitted this to succeed and when help did arrive some months later they held a democratic vote and decided to stay where they were as permanent squatters. Let the tourist beware, since his or her visa may expire before he or she can extricate himself or herself from such a situation.
Let none of this deter the intrepid traveler, who must merely be prepared for whatever he may encounter. Buenos viajes, senores.
Copyright 2016 Flight of Eagles