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Our Winch Works, But We Lost a Shovel


November 18th, 2016

We have been to CR before; we took Serena back in 2008 for spring break. At that time, we flew into the city of Liberia and explored the northwestern part of CR and down the west coast as far as Playa Jaco. Serena had been taking honours Spanish for four years and was our precious translator. We understand from other travelers that despite all the tourism in this country the road infrastructure is not good which we had experienced eight years ago.

Fun facts: Christopher Columbus came to Costa Rica (CR) a few years before us, in 1502 on his fourth and final voyage to the Americas. The gold and riches he thought the land held were not in abundance and the Spanish used the cheap labour in the country for farming. The country is about the size of West Virginia with an abundance of topographical contrasts. It borders only two countries and has volcanoes, rain forest, alpine peaks and lovely beaches on its two coasts. CR became independent in 1824 and with the introduction of those red caffeinated beans transforming the nation into the wealthiest in the region; the next boom crop was bananas. CR withdrew from the Central American Federation in 1938. In 1949, voting rights were granted to women, blacks, the indigenous and Chinese. The constitution taxed the wealthy heavily which gave birth to a modern welfare state and extraordinarily, the military was abolished completely.

While much of the rest of the world has suffered tumultuous economies in the last decade, Costa Rica has remained pretty stable, mostly due to tourism. The tourism industry now surpasses agriculture as the biggest part of the economy. “Green tourism” has been a major focus and reason for this. The national slogan is “pura vida” (pure life).

Further CR has had a stable democracy (unlike its neighbours) since the 1950s, and not suffered much from social unrest, civil wars or dictatorships. CR is quite advanced as the country gets more than 90 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources, and ecotourism is promoted strongly. Approximately 27% of the country is protected including biological reserves, 26 national parks and many nature reserves. CR boasts a literacy rate of 96%.

Upon finally exiting the chaos that was the Nica border crossing, we made the short drive to Costa Rican immigration/customs where we met Omar’s friend, Steven, on the other side (Joe & Josée had used him the day before) and he had us park and walked us to the immigration building where he began to fill in forms with Doug while Fran hit an ATM beside building to get some colones. The colone exchanges at about 550 to one USD so the bills here are large denominations. The money is colourful like in Canada so it’s easy to tell the bills apart.

Upon completing the immigration part of entering CR, Steven met us again outside and told us he was going to charge 10,000 colones for his help; Joe & Josée had messaged us that they paid only 5000 so we declined his help. We went looking for the place to make copies of the stamped pages in our passports and a local pointed in which direction to go; there was no sign; the copy place was actually a Tica bus ticket booth! How are you supposed to know that one!?

Then we found the Aduana (customs) building and they gave us two forms to complete and asked for copies of everything; The officer left while we filled in the forms, a woman came in, then she left and then she came back and took our documents; it was all in order so she walked us to the truck to confirm VIN and advised where to go to get insurance next. We drove there, got the mandatory insurance $40 for 3 months (different price from what we read), then headed to the border only to find we had not gone to the second customs office so we turned around and that agent looked at our papers again, and then gave us the printed TIP document and we could then cross the border. The CR side took slightly over an hour and was less confusing than the Nica exit had been.

After passing the barrier, we encountered the same long ass line of trucks trying to get into Nica only this time it was over nine kilometres (six miles) long. Ridiculous; we stopped and spoke to a couple of drivers who say it usually takes two days to cross this border. Man, what a job to have to be a Central American truck driver.

So our destination today was a little finca (ranch/farm) just inside CR but first, we wanted to get some cell service (ugh!) and fruit and veggies (as we’d been advised not to try and bring across the border in case we get searched). Well we didn’t get searched and have no idea if that “scan” would have picked them up. Oh well. Friends also told us that stuff is pricier here, so before leaving Nica we had stocked up on dry goods and toiletry items like shampoo, TP, canned goods and the like.

We went past our turn off five kms to the small city of La Cruz for cell service; after some research and talking to locals, we decided on using Movistar and got two sim cards and two plans to activate when we need them – best cell service experience so far. The attendant spoke some English and had actual brochures with plans and prices in them. And bonus: if you got sim cards you got free gifts so we received two play doh sets to bring home to Arya and Cyrus. We know: toys for prizes but they will get used.

We arrived at Finca Cañas Castillo in the later afternoon and checked in for two nights. We are able to park on level ground right next to the bathroom/sitting area and there was actually a washing machine there for people to use. The cost was $5 but it’s a machine that has no spinner, so it really washed two loads of laundry at once.

We walked over to the reception area after setting up and there is a river running down the side of the property where we saw a crocodile lounging.   We did see two different crocs in the river near reception at two different times; one time had no camera, second time used Fran’s phone so it’s not a great photo.

there's a croc in the riverThe finca is owned by a Swiss couple who have been here 20 years now and they run a nice set of cabanas and a restaurant; they seem to get a lot of German and Swiss visitors as we were the only North Americans until the next day. There was a young Dutchman named Paul whom we chatted with for a bit that night and the morning we left we met, Dave, from Courtney, BC. He is a disabled man who travels Latin America working for NGO’s helping countries became more handicapped accessible. He travels alone in his truck which he can sleep in and even surfs!

So Saturday morning we did our load(s) of laundry and took a chance on hanging it all outside to dry because it was only partly cloudy. After brekkie the sun came out we went hiking. This finca has four marked hiking trails through the large property and other overlanders had raved about all the animals/birds they’d seen while visiting this place.

We hiked for about 90 minutes tops and saw a flock of parakeets right at the beginning of the hike and three howler monkeys midway; but we were not so lucky as others. The trail is well marked and you take a brochure with you that points out trees/shrubs and viewpoints. As it had rained a fair bit recently, the trail was pretty muddy and sometimes slippery but it was doable. We heard a lot of birds and there were some nice vistas up top looking as far as Lake Nicaragua and the volcanoes on Isla Ometepe – we could even see some of the windmills we’d driven by before crossing the border.

beautiful-flowering-shrub Me, Jane monkeyAfter walking and doing a Spanish lesson later on, we had lunch and then went to sit in the reception area to use the internet. The laundry was almost dry by 3pm when the skies opened and it poured for about 20 minutes. We dashed over and grabbed it all off the two lines we’d strung. Fran’s sheets were dry but one of Doug’s wasn’t so we hung it in Tigger and had the AC blowing on it so we could make the bed tonight. Doug rigged up two clothes line under the shelter area beside us and we rehung the rest of the laundry. Naturally, it rained some more and was too humid for anything to dry at all. The owner said she had a dryer we could use in her home but was going to charge another $5 and it seemed pricy for half dry clothes. We’ll see how the weather goes tomorrow.

Sunday morning we awoke to sunny skies and rehung everything out in the open and it all dried in about two hours before we packed up and hit the road again.

We are heading to the coast (surprised?) to check out Playa Papaturro on Bahia Salinas for a few days. We stopped again in La Cruz to pick up more veggies for the next few days and made our way westward. We arrived at the hotel where we thought we’d spend a few days only to discover it was not practical for Tigger; driveway was super steep with low hanging branches and the maneuvering needed didn’t seem worth the possible damage and it wasn’t that close to the beach. So we decided to head to Playa Hermosa a little further down the coast where friends had stayed.

Both our GPS and directed us to take this dirt road from the hotel back to the PanAm highway (we often compare routes and consult our paper map and guide books as well). Having travelled in CR before with a 4×4 we expected a lot of dirt roads with creek/river crossings so we felt comfortable taking this type of road. Fran thought she saw a turn that had a sign that said “Liberia” but Doug couldn’t see that road on any map so we proceeded as directed. The dirt road route was shown as being about 8km/5m long to hit the highway. Doesn’t sound too bad does it? Well after nine small creek crossings and one shallow river crossing, it began to deteriorate (there were already poor sections to this point, but nothing impassible). We did encounter a pedestrian at one point and Doug asked about the road; turns out he was drunk so we didn’t believe him when he said the road was closed ahead.

another creek crossingAs you know, Fran does most of the driving unless it’s tough 4×4 or horrific city traffic and we did reach a point was she felt more comfortable trading seats with Doug. Very shortly after that, when we were a mere 600 metres from the highway turn, the road got quite muddy and began to climb. Fran offered to walk the balance of the way to see if the road was in fact open and if it was passable. It was a tough uphill slog up the muddy steep sometimes slickrock road but, yes, in fact the road was open, so she turned around and came back. By this time, Doug had attempted to backup to get better traction, but the right side of the track gave way and Tigger’s back passenger side tire was good and stuck when Fran returned.

angled in the holeSo out came the high lift jack and Fran began collecting rocks and sticks to put under and in front of the tires while Doug dug a hole next to the tire to enable the use of the jack. After a few attempts, the plan was not going well as the rig was on a slant leaning towards the jack so the jack would have gouged the coach wall. We could hear monkeys in the trees above us running around – probably checking out the sweaty humans stuck in the mud! Knowing we had a winch, we decided to avoid damage and possibly making things worse and go that route. There was a good sized tree about 50 metres in front of us and we unwound the winch and Doug wrapped the winch line to that tree. Fran got out our tarp which we laid on the floor of the coach; we brought in the jack, shovel and other dirty, muddy items and laid them inside in case we needed them again. Fran had built up some road out in front of Tigger for better traction and into Tigger we went (didn’t want to stay outside in case winch line decided to snap).

attached to the winchSo as the title of this entry goes, the winch worked and we got out! We drove ahead a short distance to where Doug could see how the road looked and decided it was smarter to turn around as there was a small flat area right behind our new position. After rewinding the winch, we backed into the opening on the side of the “track” and we got ourselves pointed back the way we came. When we reached the spot where we’d been stuck, we got out and built back up the road (ie filled in the hole where the tire had been). Doug pulled out the shovel and tried to use some of the muddy clay but we gave up on that idea and just gathered rocks to fill it in and build up around it. Upon reaching better road, we stopped at a small school and cleaned up the “tools” to put them away. That’s when we discovered we’d left our shovel behind at the road building site. Oh well, we were NOT going back!

Despite getting stuck, we were pretty fortunate that the weather was not bad; don’t misunderstand, it was HOT but it was not raining. We had our own cold water in the fridge and all the supplies we needed if it took us a long time and most fortunately, having a working winch was such a godsend. Only time we’ve ever used it but so glad we had it.

We made it back to the main road we’d been on and saw there was in fact a paved road that went to Liberia that our maps didn’t show! It’s now midafternoon and it’s still 90kms to Playa Hermosa so we decide to only go as far as Liberia to spend the night.

Now strangely enough there’s an actual RV park on this side of the City. Other overlanders had stayed and commented and said it was in need of some TLC but was an okay place to spend the night if you needed to; it even has a pool.

We pulled into El Delfin and were told we could get power, water, have a shower and even DUMP (we’ve not had access to a real dumping place since Mexico last March!) for $10US a night. It was now 4:30 and we just wanted to veg for a bit. It began to sprinkle so instead of paying the extra to use the pool (which actually looked very clean), we sat inside, had a beer and read.

Monday morning we drove into the city, got gas, propane and a new shovel before heading to the coast again. The road to the coast was paved but in bad shape until we go to the airport – there we encountered road crews resurfacing the road. Just past the airport we came upon a German bakery and stopped to pick up some goodies. Yummy!

Note: Costa Rica’s beer is Imperial and it comes in three varieties: regular, silver and light.  Gas is about $3.85 a US gallon.