A Pedacito of a Road Trip through Costa Rica
Updated: Jul 1, 2021
We rented a 4x4 with a rooftop tent from Nomad America. They offer complete camping setups; our car came with portable wifi, a local phone, two gas stoves, dishware, a shower hose, a machete, high-powered flashlights, and just about anything else that we might need to survive while camping out in the jungle.
My boyfriend and I would drive one 4x4 while our best friends drove another. A camping convoy. Before we could get started, we had to agree on a plan. Our friends were visiting from California and had watched a Nomad America documentary where a couple just drove around and parked in the most random and remote parts of Costa Rica. After living in Costa Rica for a couple of months, my boyfriend and I were wary.
Although we hadn’t heard of any crime in our surrounding area until recently, we didn’t feel safe parking just anywhere. A few nights before, one of our friends got her purse stolen by a member of the cartel, and another girl was chased out of town and threatened. I don’t know the entire story, and I don’t say these things to scare anyone, but I believe they were the subtle reminders we needed. Costa Rica is a paradise but just like any other country, it has a darker side, too. Best to be safe.
We met in the middle and planned to camp at remote yet established campsites, which we could find in the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve. Google estimated a travel time of six hours, but the trip was taking much longer. We stopped midway in a small town called Uvita; we planned to camp at Marino Ballena National Park until the guard told us it was closed on Tuesdays. He pointed us either left or right, to reach Playa Hermosa or Playa Ventanas.
Starving, we dropped into a cafe to load up on ceviche, fish tacos, and casados (white rice with black beans) before making a decision. It was getting dark and we wanted to make it to the campsite with daylight to set up camp. As the sun set, we arrived at Playa Hermosa; but the campground was closed there, too. Through iOverlander, the Costa Rica camping app, we found another spot nearby. It was dark when we arrived. And it was a hotel. Confused, I asked the receptionist about camping; he said we could pull in for $15 per person. None of us were in favor of that idea, so we accepted our fate: we’d be setting up in the dark. We routed to Playa Ventanas with high and desperate hopes.
We pulled down a dirt path towards the beach where we drove along the water; the moonlight shining, illuminating the ocean. An even cadence of palm trees created a border between us and the beach. We saw another camper van, of what seemed to be a dad and his daughter, so we felt safe. We parked, set up camp, and took off into the night to explore our new campground.
The ocean roared under the moonlight; it was louder in a particular area, and we followed the sound. The waves barrelled against the cliff and through it: the water plowed through a gaping hole in the rocks. A cave. The crashing, roaring water eventually squashed all of our desire to wander inside, and find out what was inside. We ventured back to the moonlit beach, where we swam under the stars.
The next morning we swam again, cracked open some coconuts, and explored just a bit more. Originally, we wanted to drive south into the remote Cabo Blanco Reserve. Unfortunately, the journey was taking twice as long as planned; we only had four days and so many places we wanted to see around San Jose—between the Cloud Forest, Arenal, and hanging bridges. We headed north instead.
We drove all day and made it to the Heredia Province, just north of San Jose. We took a longer route, through the San Isidro mountains; where we drove through misty clouds and forest. It was hard to see through the cloudy fog, but we’d peer over rocky cliff sides into a pool of what looked like smoke. It was getting darker and again, we started looking for a campsite.
The app showed only two valid camping sites: one behind a cemetery in the city, and the other in a women’s driveway just outside the city. We decided to go with the latter. There were no photos, website, or contact information: our only hope was a number that someone left in the reviews. We called and an older lady answered. When I told her we planned to arrive at 10pm, she said she was going to bed. If we drove straight there, without stopping for food, we could make it there by 8:30 pm. She agreed to wait.
Traffic was horrible while driving through the city. We were nervous about losing our friends; they were following us right behind us, dodging frustrated drivers. I struggled to send them our destination address; we lost service. Soon after, we lost our friends. At the same time, our GPS rerouted us around the traffic but onto some sketchy backroads. We held our breath while passing through the alleyways and stares.
Finally, we made it out of the city and met our friends at a nearby restaurant. Phew. Back on track...But with no real idea of where we were going or who we were staying with. We were nervous. My boyfriend and I approached the gate first and met an older lady; Hello! Hello! Welcome. She seemed so sweet. Her house was simple yet beautiful; with a trendy 90s camper van parked to the side, a twinkle-light-lit patio, and potted plants decorating the space. Once we were oriented and roof tents ready, we took off to the only market open for taco supplies. We had a “family dinner” with our friends and laughed at the craziness of the day.
We parted ways the next day: my boyfriend needed an Airbnb with reliable wifi to work, and our friends were off to sightsee. We drove to a random town, and it ended up being the most romantic town I’ve ever seen in Central America. It felt like we somehow crossed the border to Italy; with rolling hills of farmland, it eerily resembled Tuscan countryside. Crosses decorated the town and front doors to homes. I assumed it was a very Catholic area.
We spent a magical day there; laying the sun and grass with the dogs, and cooking outside with our camping gear. At sunset, we took the trail behind our house to the river; it ended up winding through the jungle and by nightfall, we found a waterfall. Who knew that farmland and jungle could exist in the same area.
The next day we made our way to the Cloud Forest. Upon arrival, we ran into a coati. Later that night, we took a night tour with a guide who found a sloth, huge tarantula, and headlight beetles. The beetles had two lights on their head that looked exactly like headlights; they’d use the lights to see at night and could turn them off or on as needed. It was hilarious.
The next morning, we walked the hanging bridges in the Cloud Forest. For me, the most amazing thing about the Cloud Forest was watching plants grow on plants. Sometimes, there’d be four different plants all growing on top of each other. The wealth of life was refreshing and inspiring. It hurt to think that all of this beaming life could be destroyed in the next generations.
Finally, it was time to return the car. Although there were a million places still on our list, it was time to hit pause. I’ve already started planning our next camping trip.
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