On the Edge in Costa Rica

By Linton Weeks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2004

As our rental car skittered down an extremely steep stone-and-gravel road near the Turrialba Volcano, I silently wondered if we were going to get out of Costa Rica alive.

We did.

It took us hours to descend just a few miles into the valley of the lost city of Guayabo. The whole time I was thinking: Surely we can find a safer way to get out of here.

We did.

Costa Rica can be hard. And it can be easy. It can be perturbing and paradisiacal. It can be restrictive: No nudity on the beach. And it can be permissive: Prostitution is legal. The country has a split personality and the ironies make the "rich coast" even richer.

If you know of Costa Rica only for its ecotourist traps, volcano tours, butterfly farms and zip lines through the rain forest canopy, you don't know the half of it. Not the half that we discovered, anyway.

Here are four discoveries.

Puerto Viejo de Limon

My wife, Jan, my 15-year-old son, Holt, and I landed in San Jose. We were meeting old friends -- Billy and Jacqueline, also visiting Costa Rica -- on the Caribbean side of the country, which is about the size of West Virginia. So we made straight for Puerto Viejo, a beachy village about 120 miles southeast of the capital. The thoroughfare to that part of Costa Rica was long, slow, tortuous, hauntingly beautiful and both uncrowded and crowded at the same time.

It's a double-edged country, remember.

At various times we shared the road -- the road -- with casual strollers, horseback riders, bicyclists, children sitting cross-legged and potholes the size of hot tubs. The drive took more than five hours.

We were going to the seashore during Holy Week, a popular time for Costa Ricans, but as fortune would have it, we still found inexpensive and rustically elegant lodging at La Costa de Papito.

Just south of Puerto Viejo, the hotel is a landscaped compound of 10 bungalows and a reception area, with a few old board games, a lending library, a bamboo bar, a pool table and honor coolers full of soda, juices and Costa Rican beer.

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