While checking email at the pizza shop we slept in the back of the night before, a Wesleyan church group are assembling in front and discussing how the road is shot and how they plan to try the other way around the lake. Alright, their 4WD is a lot more capable than El-BP so that’s a decent indication it’s a no-go. We do a loop around town to find some breakfast (dry cereal only at the pizza place?), gallo pinto it up and grill some locals about the road. “PELIGROSO!” Okay, I’m sold. Let’s take the other way around.
We get back to Tilaran and take a wrong turn towards Monteverde, a bigass mountain with a bunch of EXTREME! sports available like zip-lining and guided ATV tours (urm…) and which Murphy had been to a few years back. Near the top is a cloud forest that we can hike to. We forget about Arenal for the time being and book it up the mountain to the cloud forest instead. Murphy had been warning me about the road since Mexico, telling me a skid plate might not be a bad idea. It really wasn’t too bad as long as I took it easy, but going over 20-25 km/h wasn’t an option in a lot of places – mostly dirt roads with a lot of large, loose stones kicking around, plus the occasional eroded spot with a jagged boulder the size of my head sticking out. The incline was pretty severe as well, and when it wasn’t we were usually dealing with an equally severe decline, engine-braking in 1st or riding the real brakes when that wouldn’t cut it. We take her easy and it’s not too bad.
The sign at the bottom of the climb indicated 40 km but it takes us almost two hours to get to the top, including a quick coffee break. At the entrance to the reserve’s walking path is a souvenir store selling license plates and keychains with slogans like “I survived the road to Monteverde”. We grab a couple bottles of water, ask the guy at the entrance about a route he’d recommend and head down the trails.
Monteverde is a surreal place. Shrouded in a constant mist and vibrantly green with mixed foliage, moss, immense trees with vines, and eerie sounds from the native birds and insects. Budding flora supplied spots of color smattered throughout and we took some time here to get all of the best pictures of the trip so far (which unfortunately are now all lost). Even though MacKay and I knew Jane Goddall was observing us from a distance, we tried to act as natural as possible.
The trail wound it’s way to an observation point overlooking the continental divide where water flows to the Atlantic on one side and to the Pacific on the other. On this particular day it was so foggy up there that we saw nothing but a wash of grey, which was cool in it’s own respect as the greenery popped against the sparse background like dandruff under a black light. It was like the end of the world up there, no light or sound, just an endless void.
Back along the trail we passed by ferns larger than ourselves and in the trees above we could see monkeys traversing the canopy. At one point a tapir ran straight at us from the underbrush and scared the living bejeebus out of us. We also spotted a large, luminescent blue butterfly flutter-drift slowly in the mist as we crossed a large red suspension bridge over a rushing river chasm in the center of the forest. White, brown and neon orange mushrooms exploded on every available stump. Life’s circle was alive in the humid density of Monteverde.
Along another path we came to a cascading waterfall….Holy shit!! I just remembered sending a few pics to Tha Queebs over facebook messenger…daaaaaah let me check…Yes! (Kind of). It’s a small fraction of what we captured but a glimpse nonetheless.
(Try to spot James in this first one. I doubt if camo on camo will ever be unfashionable.)
We exited Monteverde much more moist than we had entered and took up El Burro’s reigns for a skillful descent down the mountain. We made our way to Tilaran again and nabbed some lunch/dinner (linner?) from a spot in the main square. MacKay had a beef burrito notable for it’s unchewable gristle, and I went for arroz con pollo which I tang-ified with a gallon of salsa lizano.
Back on the road and heading to Arenal via a tertiary route, it’s starting to get dark but even if we have to crawl at 15-20 km/h we should get there before it’s stupidly late. For the first while it’s not too bad, we’re on dirt roads but there are houses, people, utility poles and even a few streetlights around. We’re hugging the southern edge of Lake Arenal and we catch a pretty amazing sunset before heading into real darkness. At the edge of one village we tumble down an extremely steep slope where I’m pumping my brakes fast and furiously but still manage to lock it up as we slide down the gravel. No way we can go back that way but no worries, the road we slide onto looks a lot better… initially. As we predicted we do end up in some 15-20 km/h creeps but at some other parts I’m getting her into third so it’s not terrible. Keeping an eye out for road animals, motorcycles with no lights and the occasional pedestrian and I have to swerve to avoid all three several times. After about an hour of darkness Murphy looks at his phone – shit, we’re going the wrong way, somewhere back in the last village was a turn-off over the river that we missed. Swing her around, head back and see what we missed – a hand-written sign saying “La Fortuna 40 km”. “40 km” is a bit of a running joke by this point in the day.
We veer off the road, through a muckhole and towards an incline that’s obviously a bridge. I get a twinge of Mongol Rally deja vu and stop the car. At this angle we can’t actually see the surface of the bridge and it doesn’t have guardrails… Let’s take a walk over it to see if it’s sound enough to support a car and whether it has any massive holes we need to avoid. Also, whether the other end actually connects to a road or just to a field. Jumping up and down on the bridge it’s definitely questionable but El-BP is a light car, other than a few gaps that aren’t as big as the tires I gauge we’ll be fine. The other side has a big mudhole at its base but as long as we hammer it through there at 4000+ rpm it should be no problem, there’s definitely a path on the other side of the mudhole. Here we go!
As we walk back to the car a gentleman from a house nearby has come out to speak to us. He informs us very slowly and methodically, in Spanish a child can understand, that what we’re about to do is a very bad idea. Beyond this bridge is a second bridge… which no longer exists. And, our car is far too low to be able to cross the river sans bridge. Well shit. Given that it’s dark, this guy lives here, and he looks as serious as cancer, we trust him. I guess we have to turn back.
Or do we… Before we’d realized we were going the wrong way, we’d seen a patch of pavement directly ahead of us that looked promising. Murphy whips out the phone and the apparently-paved road gets us back in the direction we want to go, and can it possibly be worse than the way we came? Fuck it, let’s go!
Almost immediately we realize a fault in our plan – the road isn’t paved, it’s just one extremely steep stretch that’s been paved, with angled drainage curves no less, to keep the road from completely washing away. It takes first gear and a heavy foot to get to the top, where the pavement ends and the situation gets super shitty. Massive rocks. Huge potholes. Mudholes. What the fuck. Well, it can’t get any worse, right?
A few minutes later we navigate down a precarious drop with all of the same obstacles – rocks, potholes, mud – as the rest of the road. The speedo isn’t even registering at this point. As I grit my teeth I growl, “We’re making a LOT of bad decisions today!” I’m sweating now because there’s no turning back, we’re not getting back up that hill. Murphy says “It’s like we’re crossing Mongolian again” and it really is, except we’re far less prepared – we have very little cash on hand, less than half a tank of gas, and no water. As we climbed higher and higher we also had to contend with a lack of visibility, because we were back in the impenetrable cloud forest, this time without the sun’s help.
The pinnacle (pun intended) of shitty driving for the day, and possibly the trip to this point, was reached when we had to climb an extremely steep hill for a very long distance, right up the side of Monteverde. In first gear it required my foot to the floor to even have a chance of making it, while also dodging huge rocks. I snarled “YOU’VE GOTTA BE FUCKING KIDDING ME” when I saw a huge hole near the top of the ridge. I briefly let off the gas to avoid destroying the car then punched it back to the floor to avoid being stuck in the mud that was at the bottom of the hole. When we crested the ridge I stopped the car and calmly told Murphy I needed to take a breather, and the car did too. The thermometer in the dash was normal but the evil smells from under the hood were undeniable. I killed the engine and put on the 4-ways for a minute or two, then proceeded.
I was pretty angry at myself by this point – I’d made a sequence of poor decisions that could have seriously fucked us several times over. Tearing out the sump would’ve been one of the better possibilities; brake failure like we experienced at Lake Atitlan very easily could have been fatal. We really had made it up the back side of Monteverde, in the dark, in an 07 Wave with 14″ wheels (fuck you and your “I made it to Monteverde” vanity plates), but I can’t help feeling like some part of it really was luck. I also can’t help but feel like I’m going to start taking the driving part of this trip a lot more seriously. I’d let my guard down after getting out of the Central American Murder Corridor in one piece and it won’t happen again.
We crept through the small town of Las Juntas where there was nowhere to stay and got back onto the PanAm highway. We tried a couple other small towns – kind of shitty, smelling like old fish, as we’d gotten to the ocean by now – with no more luck than in Las Juntas until we reached Puntarenas, where we found a small hotel to stay in. We also grabbed a dozen beers and a pack of smokes to try to cool off with before we crashed. There was a kitty too. It slept on the hood. So fucking pretty.