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Birding Costa Rica Introduction south pacific slope

The new road to Caldera in Costa Rica is finally open

It was thirty years in the making, but the new road to the coast is finally open in Costa Rica! If the world ends in 2012 as the Mayans predicted, then at least we have two years to zoom back and forth between the crowded Central Valley and the open space of the hot central Pacific coast of Costa Rica. This road has been talked about for so long in Costa Rica that it became legendary long before any of its asphalt was mixed.

People have been saying things like:

“It’s going to take thirty minutes to get to the coast from San Jose”!

“THE ROAD is going to have four lanes the entire way”!

“It will be like taking a thruway in the states”!

“It will be a straight route to the coast”!

“I can see a Royal Flycatcher half an hour after leaving San Jose”!

Ok, that last one was what I had been thinking but in any case, all of us in Costa Rica have been very excited about the opening of the road. In fact, we were so excited that Janet Peterson (a fellow birding friend) and I decided to check out the road last Sunday.

We weren’t the only ones.

Even though we left pretty early, a variety of cars joined us to check out the new road. There were old, slow cars born in the 70s that like mechanical family patrons, carried entire families to the promising coast. There were new SUVs that zoomed along like tanks (and like tanks threatened to drive over the older, slower, smaller vehicles). There were small buses filled with local tourists as well as what appeared to be school buses (because of their size and the fact that they were filled with students). Taking into account the number of break-downs, it was apparent that a lot of these cars hadn’t been out of the garage or front yard for some time. It was one last hurrah for them before heading to the junkyard I suppose.

Translated from the mechanical Spanish, “Please, just one last trip along the new road. I just want my tires to experience one last smooth, pot-hole-less ride before I blow a final gasket (cough, cough)”.

And translated from regular people Spanish, “Ok, let’s take the car for a spin. The road is open”!

“But dear, that car doesn’t even work”!

“Sure it will! I’ll just pour in some water here, a bit of oil there, fill the tires, toss some Salsa Lizano into the tank for good measure and off we go! And if it does break, let it happen on the NEW ROAD”!

And so it did happen. On January thirty-first, many a car let out it’s last gasp of exhaust along the road to Caldera in the form of a black cloud that said farewell and enjoy the tolls…

Yes, tolls, not road. Well, the road can be enjoyable but the tolls sure aren’t. That sort of torturous, constant stopping and going in the tropical heat is probably what did in the older vehicles. From San Jose to Orotina, for a distance of fifty kilometers at the most (that’s thirty miles for us anti-metric Americans) there are at least four different tolls that I recall that will leave you about 2,000 colones lighter. Although it’s a sneaky rip-off that most tourists won’t mind, locals who live near the new road aren’t very pleased (especially because there are few to no options in some areas).

To get to the coast fast for my Royal Flycatcher fix at Carara, I actually don’t mind shelling out those colones but I DO mind having to wait in line at the toll booths. Even though the traffic didn’t seem too bad on the way down to Carara, we were still twiddling our thumbs and wondering why they built so few lanes for the tolls. That wasn’t so bad but on our way back later that same day, the new road was a congested mess because of the toll booths and sections of the road that only had two lanes. The lines were too long for mere thumb twiddling. No, we felt as if we were aging while sitting there. If there would have been birds to look at, we would have been OK but that just wasn’t the case.

So, to sum things up about the new road and in answer to all of those expectations, despite thirty years of planning, it seems that the planners forgot to design the road for the amount of traffic it will get. If you go early in the morning, it will be a comfortable, quick trip that does more or less goes straight to the coast. BUT, it doesn’t have four lanes (it has two or three) so if you go later in the day, expect to have to wait at every toll booth and at some of the two-laned sections.

For birders who need to travel between the coast and San Jose, I suggest using the new road in the morning and the old, curvy, scenic road that goes through San Mateo in the afternoon. I took the old road the other day and it was a wonderful drive with hardly any traffic. Plus, you can stop along the old road at one of two cafes that have stunning overlooks and can be good for dry forest birds.

As for the Royal Flycatcher, we got more than a fix. Along the river trail in Carara, we were seeing them the entire time and one was even attempting to build a nest above the trail.

Other interesting sightings were Three-wattled Bellbird heard, Gray-headed Tanager, and the usual great variety of wrens, hummingbirds, and other flycatchers typically seen along this always birdy trail.

Panama trips

A wild ride in Panama

Many of the buses and taxis in Panama are driven by their owners. This probably explains the absolutely amazing “bus art” so prevalent around Panama City. I wish I had pictures because words fail miserably in describing the visual display involved. Next trip to Panama City, I will make sure I take lots of pictures, maybe even interview someone to see why they named their bus, “Shirley” or “Terminator” or “Mama”. As entertaining and informative such a post would be, alas, it will have to wait for a future trip. Nevertheless, I hope to now entertain readers with this post which is also related to other aspects of owners driving their own taxis. Although only an hour in duration, and not measuring up by any means to “Mr. Toad’s” wild ride, I think it still zooms into that category with screeching tires.

After a pleasant stay in the fresh mountain air of the Lost and Found eco-hostel, it was time to head back downhill into sticky, hot David. Lacking a car, I tried flagging down one of the small buses that zoom between Bocas and David to no avail. A white pick-up acting as a collective taxi stopped though. I said, “How much to David”? The driver yelled, “Three Balboas! Lets go!” Ok! I threw my pack in the back and hopped in to share the ride with two silent, dour-faced fellows in the back and two talkative guys (driver and co-pilot) in the front. I never found out why those guys in the back looked sour; they weren’t exactly open to conversation. Maybe it was because they didn’t like partaking in a race. Can’t say that I did either although I admit that it was pretty memorable. Although the race wasn’t official, we were certainly trying our best to beat the bus to David. I was reminded of the similarities between the words “fearless” and “reckless”. Our driver was both; he would zoom past the bus, then the bus would zoom past us, playing vehicular hopscotch all the way down the mountain. Never mind that it was a two-lane road with solid double lines. Ha! Those yellow lines don’t count- we are exempt because we are in a race! So what if the race is private; we are racing nonetheless! While we sat in the back silently contemplating trials and errors in life such as choosing to take a collective taxi for example, our driver and copilot laughed like mad, honking at and waving to a kid in the bus who just as recklessly stuck his head out the window to laugh back at them. Ha ha ha!! Isn’t this great?!? Who needs a carnival- Lets all risk our lives as we zoom down the mountain! As a curious side note, while the scenery blurred by (reminiscent of how our lives were flashing before our eyes), our driver never ceased to talk on the phone; he kept answering it with a shout, “Hwua!!” while simultaneously honking the horn at all passersby. Old barefoot woman?- HONK!! Farmer on a horse?-HONK!! Young nubile Panamanian girl?-HONK!! HONK!!, the copilot pitching in with a, “HHEEEEYY!!” that would have even made the most effeminate of Neanderthals grunt in admiration.

Somewhere near the town of Gualaca (which oddly enough sounds a lot like “Guacala”! meaning disgusting), we (miraculously) slowed down to pass through. This slow-driving was an all too short respite in our wild ride and was still replete with driver and copilot window yells. It was also fiesta time in town so it was no surprise when we saw a pick-up full of beer-drinking fellows just outside of Gualaca. What WAS a surprise (to me at least) was that we deftly pulled up next to the party truck (on our two lane road) and while both going about 50mph received a can of beer in a highway hand off. Having become used to the extreme taboo that drinking and driving is in the USA, I assumed that our co-pilot was going to drink the beer. After all, HE was the one who got the hand-off; it seemed like he deserved it. Nonetheless, he was merely one more link in the hand-off chain because he opened it and gave it to our trusty taxi driver who upon completing the play, didn’t waste any time in guzzling it down. He followed this up by tossing the empty straight out the window! I could barely keep from laughing at the absurdness of this situation especially because my co-travelers were as nonplussed as ever. I mean did they even see what happened? Was this an everyday Panamanian taxi occurrence along the Bocas-David highway? I don’t know because I wasn’t about to get any answers from those glum riders. As that was the only beer he drank, I did not demand that we stop and instead concentrated on looking forward to arriving in David. Even those expectations were cut short, however, when our taxi sputtered to a halt somewhere along the busy Pan-American highway. Maybe the white collective pick-up just got tired of all that bus racing between Bocas and David.

We waited for a bit on the roadside in the hot tropical lowlands before someone in a small SUV stopped. After some futile attempts in tinkering around with the engine, our driver convinced him to tow the taxi to a nearby repair station; along with us inside of course! Off we went, getting towed down the Pan-American highway, all sorts of traffic zooming past us, the driver and copilot once again laughing like mad-hatters as we came close to bumping into our erstwhile tow truck. On one small hill, the tow rope actually broke! No matter!- it was retied  and onward we went heading towards David. The last step to the repair station was probably the sketchiest because we had to take a left turn off of the busy highway. As we slowly turned into the repair shop, for a moment we were sitting in the lane for oncoming traffic, our only hope being that tow line that had already broke once! It felt like trying to start your engine on railroad tracks with the train horn signaling imminent doom. Ok, it wasn’t exactly that frantic, but it certainly wasn’t comfortable either. Reaching the parking lot of the repair station, we jumped out of the taxi onto sun-drenched gravel; I with relief, my fellow passengers with the same dour and non-plussed appearance. I almost told them, “Hey! We aren’t playing poker here!- show some emotions! I mean, we’ve just come down the mountain partaking in some unknown race and almost dying several times in the process!”, but while I was paying the driver they disappeared into other taxis. Finished with the wild ride, I immediately flagged down another taxi (a car) and finally made it to the Purple House in David without any further racing or beer drinking.

Next time I go to Panama, I sure hope I have my own car!