Adventures off the beaten path

I’d been in Costa Rica for two months already. I’d seen lava coming out of Arenal volcano, looked at a quetzal through binoculars in Monteverde rainforest, sped down a zipline in the jungle canopy, and of course, seen monkeys on the beach at Manuel Antonio. What I hadn’t done was go off the beaten path, so I suggested to my roommate Jill that we take a trip up to the very un-visited town of Upala up by the Nicaraguan border, and see what we could see.


We rented a Toyota Tercel, drove up the Interamerican highway past Liberia, turned right on an unmarked road, and about an hour later were in Upala, where there was… well, not much. We found the town’s only hotel, a concrete building painting pale green, with rickety fans and rusty bars on the windows. Then we set out on foot to explore the town. And we found an striking wood-slat, hanging footbridge people told us was the main connection between Upala and the neighbouring villages. It was missing a few slats, but that just made it all the more exciting to walk across as we watching the foaming water about 50 feet below us in Río Zapote. After crossing a couple times, we saw two young boys coming on bikes and stood back to let them walk their bikes across. To our surprise, they didn’t get off, they just zoomed across as the bridge shook from side to side under them and the slates jumped up and down under their tires. We held our breath and didn’t let it out till a couple locals started laughing at our frightened faces. They said “Eso no es nada… tienen que ver la pasada por el Río San Juan.” Which is exactly what we decided to do.


We got up early the next day and looked at our map (this was before smartphones and GPS), and it looked like there was a highway, Rt. 728, that led directly up to the border through the towns of Delicias and México. Perfect. We got in, started driving, and within 20 minutes the dirt road had gone from bad to worse, and we were starting to worry about whether our little car would make it. We decided that if we’d come this far we weren’t going to turn back, so we pushed on, scraping the underside of the car a little and driving through puddles, until… boom. What had looked like one more mud puddle turned out to be a small pond, and there was our car stuck in the middle of it like a rubber duck. We got out, leaving on our flip-flops, which immediately got sucked down and quickly disappeared into mud. After standing there for a while hoping a car might come by, we realized that given the state of the road and the lack of any houses, that probably wasn’t going to happen. Instead, we decided to keep walking towards Nicaragua and make the most of the day. We’d figure out what to do with the car on our way back.


After about an hour walking beneath the hot sun and thinking we’d been less than prepared by not bringing any water or food, we suddenly came upon a little hut on stilts with an old lady sitting on the tiny porch. Phew! We walked up and told her of our predicament. After all, we’d had two months of intensive Spanish courses by then and could pretty much describe the whole thing. She started laughing, invited us to a glass of water, and asked what we were going to do now. Well, we said, we wanted to see if we could get to Nicaragua on foot without going to an official border crossing. Why? She asked, are you in trouble with the law? Then it was our turn to laugh. And we explained that no, we just wanted to venture out of the regular tourist routes a little and see something different than your everyday volcano-beach-rainforest. She turned around and called to her daughter, said something we didn’t quite catch, and told us to follow her, that she’d show us what we wanted to see. We walked behind her until we got to a river, where she pulled some logs tied together from the bank and told us to get on, put one foot on each log, and balanced as best we could while she stuck in the pole and got us across. All I could think about was a similar scene in the Wizard of Oz, except on this river I knew there were probably crocodiles not far below us. I held on tight to Jill, who held on to Xiomara (our impromptu guide), who rapidly got us across the river and told us to keep following. We took a path that got progressively swampier, leading to a narrow plank bridge propped up on stumps that led us angling back and forth all the way through the swamp. Then suddenly she said “¡Agáchense!” and threw herself down on the ground. We quickly followed suit, and looked where she was pointing to a shack about 100 yards away through the woods that a man had just come out of. “El está loco” she told us, then went on to describe how he liked to shoot his rifle and how they had to crawl through the bushes to get past his house and into the village, where there was a pulpería that had really cheap popsicles. We were in Nicaragua.


After reflecting a little more on the possibility of getting shot at, and thinking about getting our car out of the mud before nightfall, we decided that we’d done what we’d set out to do, and told Xiomara we could go back if it was alright with her. She told us to follow her a different way back, but to watch out for the “minas”. Minas? We shrugged and said sure. We went across another rickety wooden pathway, then turned through a field with nothing except a few stumps here and there with the tops painted yellow. We asked Xiomara what they were, and she said again “Minas.. de la Guerra”. Mmmm, still no clue. When we were almost back at her house, she pointed to a stump off to our left that in addition to being painted yellow, and a rusted red sign hanging off it. “Peligro MINAS”… Gulp. Suddenly we understood. Mines, from the war.


We got back to the hut and drank what seemed like a gallon of water, whether due to heat or the after-effects of adrenaline, I couldn’t tell. The family invited us to eat, generously sharing what little they had with these two strange and not very sensible “gringas.” And because Costa Rica is how it is, and people are as nice as they are, they told us they knew someone who’s brother’s wife’s father had a tractor that they’d told him we were stuck, and  that he was on his way over to pull us out of the mud. The whole family walked us back to the car and waited for them to get us out. The driver refused our offers of payment and told us we were the first foreigners he’s ever met and that it was a pleasure to help us. We felt humbled, a little foolish, and more than anything so grateful to this lovely family who had taken us on way more of an adventure than we had bargained for, and gotten us home safely at the end of it. That, I thought, was Costa Rica in a nutshell. 

written by Elizabeth Peiton - former student at Intercultura Heredia