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   the bad roads of the Nicoya Peninsula
Sunday, January 27 2019

location: north shore, Lake Arenal, Costa Rica

Today Gretchen and I would be driving to the Nicoya Peninsula, but before that we had a breakfast of toast with vegan butter. In Costa Rica, the only real choice for vegan butter is a product called Probiotic Melt, which (judging from its flavor) is made almost entirely of coconut oil.
After saying out goodbyes, we hit the road, heading northwestward on Route 142. Taking Steve's advice, we took a shortcut over a windmill-encrusted ridge on a very rough road just southwest of the west end of the lake. This was the first occasion we were driving on a road that probably would've been impossible to take in a Prius. I should mention that I find something menacing about the nearly-mute industry of a ridgetop of windmills, and (according to Chris) I am not the only one.
After we crossed past the windmills and started heading down the west side of the ridge, we found ourselves in a completely different countryside. The lush jungle of Lake Arenal had given way to a semi-arid big-sky landscape (perhaps like Montana, though I've never been there). Gradually the road was upgraded beneath us, first with asphalt, then with an additional lane, and then finally we were on Route 1, "the Inter American Highway," a big four laner, perhaps the only one in Costa Rica. It was completely devoid of potholes and there had even been low bumps placed progressively closer and closer together on the pavement to signal (via tire noise) that we were approaching things like crosswalks. The presence of such things (as well as watermelon vendors) showed this to be something other than a limited-access highway, though at one point I saw a sign saying that cycling was prohibited.
Gretchen had read in the Lonely Planet guide about a can't-miss waterfall called Llanos de Cortés, so we drove out of our way to the northwest on Route 1 to visit them. This destination was only about six miles shy of the city of Liberia and, this being Costa Rica, required some driving on rough roads. For some reason Ways or Google Maps directed us not to the official waterfall parking lot but to an off-brand private one that required considerably more driving on rough roads. Initially the signs were saying we had to drive 2.5 kilometers, but then after driving that distance came another sign saying we had 2.5 kilometers! At that point some woman waved us to a stop and had us pick up some guy for whom we initially thought we were doing a favor. So then, after this big long drive on a terrible dirt road, we came to a parking area. And at that point we were charged $4 each, which was cheaper than the $10 each one pays at the official waterfall parking area. But then they wanted to tack on these other charges, including some unspecified fee to the guy we'd picked up, who was to be our guide, and a $2 fee for "security" for our car. Wait, security? The only people there at that isolated parking lot were part of the operation, and they were just sitting around. If there was anyone to worry about breaking into our vehicle, it was them. That's the kind of "security" that mobsters provide. The whole thing felt like a shyster operation, and it soured us both on the experience. But we went with the "guide" down a short trail to the waterfall, and Gretchen even swam around a bit. There were a fair number of people down there (most of whom had come from the official parking lot), but it wasn't quite as impressive as the Lonely Planet people had said. And, unlike in its description in the guide, barriers had been put up to keep people from going "backstage" behind the falling water. We made it back to our vehicle without the guide and didn't pay him for his services or anyone for the "security" that had been provided.
Gretchen had been all the driving so far, but at the waterfall I took over. It was the furthest south I've ever driven in the New World, though not in the entire World (I drove in South Africa back in 2003).
The roads were good well out onto the Nicoya Peninsula. We tried stopping somewhere for lunch, but at the one place we checked out, there was nothing a vegan would want to eat. We got gasoline not far beyond that (perhaps in Pueblo Viejo), which was a good idea given how few gas stations we saw further south on the peninsula.
As we turned west near the Playa Naranjo ferry, the roads rapidly disintegrated. The landscape was hilly and rugged, though none of the mountains were especially tall. What seems to have happened was that the road had been destroyed in multiple places by mudslides. In many places, there was active work being done on the road, perhaps to unbury the road or remedy long-standing problems. Much of the highway was narrow, completely unpaved, and bordered by treacherous voids. But I actually think the paved patches were even more dangerous, as they were full of car-swallowing potholes that were easy to hit if one became overconfident. There weren't any such potholes in the sections of gravel road; I suspect any such holes quickly self-heal, filling with gravel flung by the wheels of passing vehicles.
Frequently when I drive, I eventually settle on some other vehicle being driven in a style that suits me and I just follow them. That happened today on the Nicoya Peninsula somewhere well north of Playa Naranjo when I began following a white SUV (which was initially two vehicles ahead of me, though eventually we lost the intervening vehicle). I continued following it all the way to Cobano. As I did so, I joked with increasing frequency about my "relationship" with it. This include jealous put-downs of other vehicles that tried to get between us.
In Cobano, we stopped at the MegaSuper (a fairly big grocery store by Costa Rican standards) and bought provisions for our casita. We concentrated on things like alcoholic beverages, juices, starches and shelf-stable sauces and beans, as the MegaSuper had terrible produce.
As we drove in on the kilometer-long access road to Agua Vista, where our casita would be, Gretchen began to have her doubts we were in the right place. She also had to poop really bad. When we arrived at a chained gate across the access road, that was it, she had to poop then and there on the side of the road. Meanwhile, I discovered that the chain wasn't locked and it was a simple matter to open the gate. After a few more bumps and sways, we were parked in front of Casa Trogon, our casita. It came complete with a full kitchen, a bathroom, a semi-outdoor shower, a washing machine, two outdoor "living rooms" and a small 58 square foot plunge pool. We quickly moved in our stuff and made it our own.
Later while exploring the grounds, we ran across one of the guys who operates Agua Vista [REDACTED]. He gave us a quick introduction to our casita, which included information about the pool cleaning schedule and how the water is heated (electrically and on-demand). But there were a couple points about Agua Vista that didn't match up with how things had been advertised. That might've been fine for some people, but it wasn't fine for Gretchen, who, after our experience at Llanos de Cortés, was in no mood to be the frayer two different ways on the same day. The first of these points was that we weren't allowed to use the big "infinity pool" near the center of Agua Vista; this, we were told, was for the exclusive use of one of the other cabins. The second was that our house wouldn't be cleaned as often as initially promised. Gretchen was like, oh no, I did lots of research and picked Agua Vista because of the maid service and the infinity pool, and if the deal had changed since she'd made the reservation, it hadn't been communicated to her, and it wasn't her problem. She stood her ground, and some hour or so later she received an email from the woman who runs Agua Vista saying of course she could use the infinity pool and the maid service would happen as originally understood.
This evening, Gretchen and I drove into "downtown" Montezuma, which lay at the bottom of a series of dramatic switchbacks in a narrow strip between the Gulf of Nicoya and steep (but low) mountains. Without much deliberation, we found our way into a fairly large restaurant called Sano Banano and ordered dinner. I ordered a vegan version of the house veggie burrito and Gretchen ordered something like a salad. I also ordered an Imperial beer, which I sucked down in record time and then ordered another. As for the burrito I'd ordered, it was pretty good, though I wouldn't actually call it a burrito. It was more like a giant raviolo. The salsa actually tasted more Italian than Mexican. I was so struck by this realization that I kept bringing it up, and of course Gretchen eventually flagged the subject matter as repetitive.
Montezuma also has a big grocery store called the Super Montezuma, and we went in there hoping to find things we hadn't found at the MegaSuper, such as tofu or (better still) tempeh. We managed to find a variety of vegan cheeses and good bread. But no Asian soy products.
On the drive back to Agua Vista, we saw a tall young woman hitchhiking on the edge of town. When we picked her up, she spoke a European Spanish, though she soon switched to English. She was, she told us, from Paris. She was going to some place a little beyond the road to Agua Vista, so we drove her all the way there. When she got out of our SUV, she was immediately embraced by a male tico friend who looked to be about half her height.
It wasn't late, but (as I've said), in the tropics I want to go to bed early. So I took 50 milligrams of diphenhydramine and climbed into bed. I think Gretchen stayed up a bit longer, reading.

Cows in the road near the wind turbines just west of the Lake Arenal.

Older-style wind turbines along the "shortcut" west of Lake Arenal.

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