300 mile detour

Lately, we have been griping about the serious amounts of rain soaking us during what is supposed to be the dry season in Costa Rica. We were lucky that we managed to visit Tortuguero the two days when the rain was intermittent, and downright sunny the morning of our jungle canoe trip. After Tortuguero, our next stop was the small beach community of Cahuita. While it was a very nice Caribbean village on a crescent shaped white-sand beach, we didn’t see much through the sheets of rain that descendedfor two straight days. Hoping for better weather in Bocas del Toro, Panama, we headed for the Costa Rican-Panamanian border. The border was nearby, and then it would be a scant 30 miles to the Caribbean paradise that awaited in Bocas.

Desired Route to the Border

Driving to the border, we passed flooded fields, rushing rivers that overflowed their banks, and houses surrounded by ponds of muddy brown water. We wondered why people were flashing their lights at us as we drove down the road, and quickly realized they were trying to warn us that the border road had been washed out. Not two hours before we arrived, according to the crowds gathered at the gaping hole in the road, the waters overtook the road and washed it away.

We scrambled to look at our maps to figure out our detour. With sinking hearts we realized that we had to drive all the way back to San Jose and across to the Pacific coast of Costa Rica to get to the other border, takings us 300 miles out of our way. Rain, fog, wrong turns and two mountain crossings slowed down our drive, and an exhausting 10 hours later we collapsed into a cheap hotel in the small city of San Isidro. We will forge on tomorrow for the small surfing community of Pavones, Costa Rica on the sunny Pacific coast to rest for a couple of days before continuing into Panama.

Our 300 mile detour

10,000 miles later

Somewhere on the drive between Nicaragua and Costa Rica, we hit a milestone for our trip. Since leaving our apartment in California, we have now driven 10,000 miles. As the crow flies, only 2,973 miles separates us from our former home in Mill Valley, USA to our temporary home on Playa Negra, Costa Rica, but we’re definitely living a very different life. 7 months and 7 countries later, we’ve camped in apocalyptic downpours, blistering heat, and numbing cold, slept on beaches, mountains, and lakes, and driven across small rivers, over rocky mountainous passes, and through some car-swallowing potholes. Our faithful car has handled washboard roads at ridiculous grades and we’ve been grateful on a number of occasions for the 4WD. So, here it is, our greatest hits video of wacky road conditions:

As I said before, Mexican roads are like a box of chocolates. The same seems to hold true for Central America in general.

Mexican roads are like a box of chocolates…

…you never know what you’re going to get. It is not at all similar to driving on US highways, where you can turn up the music and operate on autopilot. In Mexico you constantly need to be on guard. Most highways are smaller two lane roads lacking shoulders, marred by Volkswagon Beetle-sized potholes, herds of animals accompanied by cowboys on horseback cross freeways at will, adults and children bike or walk along the freeways, and freeways end unexpectedly. Maps are outdated: a paved highway we recently took was shown as a dirt/gravel road on the AAA map. Our friend’s map was even worse: it showed the road as incomplete with a 300 mile gap between the two gravel sections. These are not hand me down maps, they were recent purchases.

Adding to this confusion, the signs themselves on the highways are often contradictory. While the highways themselves are numbered, we have found it much more useful to ignore these numbers and pay attention to the endpoint city as indicated on the signs. It wasn’t unusual to have signs pointing in three or four different directions, each indicating a different city, but each also marked with the same freeway number. The distance to cities also seemed to be a rough guess in many instances as well. For example, when driving from Oaxaca to Puerto Escondido, we expected that the distance to Puerto Escondido should decrease in a regular fashion as we approached the city. However, after passing a sign indicating Puerto Escondido was 300 km away, ten minutes later the sign indicated that it was in fact 315 km away. This was not an isolated incident.

The time to drive between two distant locations is seemingly always vastly underestimated when asking directions from otherwise very helpful and friendly locals. I think maybe they want you to get there quickly, so give an overoptimistic estimate. And as road conditions can vary so widely, knowing the km distance between two cities isn’t helpful for estimating the time it can take to travel this distance. Our guidebooks provide bus schedules between cities, which we have also tried to use to estimate our driving times, but the bus drivers must be more willing to risk the lives of their passengers as the buses always seem to beat us by a couple of hours.

All of these variables came into play when we left Puerto Escondido. Our plan was to drive east to Tuxtla Gutierrez, the capital of Chiapas, north through the city of Villahermosa, then east on to Palenque. This would bring us from the Pacific Ocean across the narrow isthmus of Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico. After spending the night in Tuxtla, we were told it would take about 3 hours to get to Villahermosa, and another hour to Palenque from there. Our guidebooks pointed us to a new freeway (slated for completion in 2006) to Villahermosa. The freeway still had large unpaved sections (with unmarked lanes) as construction wasn’t complete. The ‘shortcut’ we then took from this highway to Villahermosa immediately turned into a rutted-out, slightly flooded windy country road, but did improve after a couple of hours. About 6 hours later (double the estimated time) we arrived in Villahermosa and decided to spend the night there, as it was getting late.