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Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 – Top Travel Adventures

This post is part 1 of 4 in the series Best of 2016

Jaguar spotting in Brazil, trekking the Andes in Peru, mud slogging and (really) close-encounters with condors in Ecuador, tapir sex, and more! Welcome to Part 1 in our Best of the Trans-Americas Journey 2016 series–our guide to the Top Travel Adventures of the year. Part 2 covers the Best Hotels of 2016, Part 3 covers the Best Food and Beverages of the year, and Part 4 tells you all about our favorite Travel Gear of the year. But now, in no particular order, here are our…

Top travel adventures of 2016

Raimbow Mountain Ausangate Peru

Peru’s Rainbow Mountain which we visited during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate.

Best mountain trek

Andean Lodges Ausangate Trek Peru

Karen hoofing it up an other Andean slope during the Apu’s Trail hike around Ausangate in Peru.

Everybody knows about the Inca Trail hike to Machu Picchu, that’s why it’s so crowded you have to make your plans and reservations months in advance. But Peru is full of other even more spectacular ways to trek in the Andes. If you’re seeking time in the mountains, spectacular scenery, and difficult but rewarding trails then trekking around 20,945 foot (6,384 meter) Ausangate Mountain is hard to beat.

There are many ways to get into this region which is not far from Cusco. We went with Andean Lodges, which has built a string of comfortable lodges (wood stove for heat, no electricity, good beds in private rooms with bathrooms that offer hot water during certain hours), on their 4-day/5-night Apu’s Trail route around this massive and sacred mountain. It delivered everything we were looking for and then some, including visiting Peru’s increasingly popular Rainbow Mountain, then continuing down the trail to an even more spectacular high-altitude landscapes which nearly no one visits.

We haven’t loved a multi-day hike this much since we were tramping around the Himalayas.

Best slog through the mud

El Altar Trek Ecuador

The crater lake in El Altar volcano, our reward (plus condors!) for the muddy slog up.

El Altar is an extinct volcano so named because someone thought its nine peaks looked like nuns and friars worshiping. Nuns or not, it is a beautiful volcano with a lovely crater lake and it sits at the head of a wide, wind-swept valley. It’s the kind of beauty that needs to be earned, which may explain why the hike to El Altar (there are no roads, though you may see left over materials from one ill-fated attempt) is so difficult.

The trail starts from Hacienda Releche in the tiny town of Candelaria and almost immediately it is a steep, slippery slog up an increasingly muddy trail. We wore our rubber boots  (and you should too) and there were points on the trail when they were almost sucked off our feet by mud. The stuff was nearly knee-deep in places. Around six hours later we arrived at the Collares plain with El Altar just ahead of us.

This is where the owners of Hacienda Releche have built Refugios Capac Urcu (Capac Urcu is another name for El Altar) with plenty of dorm rooms with bunk beds and shared bathrooms and a big kitchen. You can carry up what you need (sleeping bag, food, etc) or hire a horse and horseman from the hacienda. After such a slog up we recommend spending at least two nights in the refugio. The plain and the volcano are lovely places to explore on foot but the weather at more than 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) is changeable so you’ll want to hang around for good weather for as long as you can.

Did we mention that El Altar is also condor country? When we hiked up the flank of the volcano to the crater lake we had an extremely close encounter with a condor that flew by at eye level no more than 10 feet (3 meters) from Eric. Check out our condor fly by video, for proof.

Best XXX wild animal encounter

Tapir sex

You can’t unsee this: tapir sex.

We hadn’t been in the boat for more than five minutes when our boatman from Pousada do Rio Mutum in Brazil’s Pantanal Norte cut the engine and our guide pointed out two tapirs swimming a few hundred feet in front of the boat. Though big and clumsy looking, tapirs are great swimmers and we watched in silence as they made it to shore. That’s when the male decided it was sexy-time and, after appearing to give the female a kiss (truly), he got down to business. Turns out they’re way more graceful in the water than they are in the bedroom. Cue Barry White.

Best horseback riding to an archaeological site

horseback riding ruins chiclayo peru

Riding easy-gaited Peruvian horses through protected dry forest to an archaeological site.

Peru is full of archaeological sites and we visited most of them by car and on foot. However, at Rancho Santana, near Chiclayo, you can visit way off-the-beaten-path sites on horseback. Swiss owner Andrea has about a dozen Peruvian Paso horses and offers a variety of rides (S/55, about US$17, for a three-hour ride to one site; S/75, about US$23, for a five-hour ride to three sites, or multi-day rides).

We chose the three-hour ride to Huaca Sontillo (sometimes written Santillo), passing through the Pómac Forest Historical Sanctuary, an enormous protected dry forest, via a private entrance that Andrea has special permission to use. It was hot and dry but the scenery was great and it was fun to experience the unique ultra-smooth gait of these horses (when horse and rider click it’s like riding a moving sofa).

The Sontillo site is only minimally excavated and when we walked to the top of the only visible structure there were still a lot of bits of pottery around. There is also basic accommodation at Rancho Santana (fan, bathroom) for those who want to hang out or do multiple rides.

 Best mystery from the air

nazca lines

The Nazca Lines are a unique combination of art, culture, and mystery and they’re best seen from the air – something their creators could never do (unless you subscribe to the alien artist theory).

No one truly understands how the Nazca Line in Peru were made or what they were for. That mystery makes them even more compelling. The best way to see massive earth art like the lines is from the air. Our thanks to Alas Peruanas for taking us on a 30 minute flight over the lines. The plane was small, the altitude was low, the turns were many, and the lines were amazing. We recommend staying at the new B Hotel Nasca Suites. It’s right across the highway from the airport and out of the hub-bub of central Nasca. A pool was going in when we were there too.

Best cave float

Bola do Quebo is about a 1-hour drive each way from Bom Jardim town in northern Brazil (about 40 minutes of the drive is on a dirt road, parts of which are very washboarded). The small operation at Bola do Quebo supplies beefy and smartly designed tubes, helmets, life vests, and water shoes for a 30 minute adventure down a 1.2 mile (2 km) stretch of the clear and fairly shallow River (R$75, about US$23 per person).

The highlight of the float is a 1,000 foot (304 meter) long cave which the river flows through. The heart-pumping entry into the cave takes you over two small but startling rapids which plunge you into the darkness of the cave. The combination of the bumpy ride and the sudden pitch blackness is dramatic and disorienting.

Need to know: As with 99% of the amazing watery attractions around Bom Jardim, you really need your own vehicle to get there. There is no food or beverages available on site. There is a passable toilet. Put on sunscreen. Don’t take anything that’s not waterproof with you on the tube. Put your sunglasses on a lanyard because you’ll want to take them off while you are in the dark cave. Wear a long-sleeve shirt or a skin for sun protection and to keep your arms from chafing on tube as you paddle and steer.

 Best drive for wildlife

Jabiru stork Transpantaneira Highway Pantanal Brazil

Huge jabiru storks, just one of the many species we saw at very close range while driving the Transpantaneira Highway in Brazil.

It took us eight hours to complete the 90 mile (145 km) Transpantaneira Highway from Pocone to Porto Jofre in the Pantanal Norte in Brazil. Why? Well, this dirt road is in pretty rough shape even under the best conditions. But the main reason the drive took so long was that we spent a lot of time stopped to look at and photograph wildlife. Here’s a short list of what we saw: hyacinth macaws, about 500 caiman, capybaras, great black hawks, cappuchin monkeys, cocoi herons, black-collared hawks, white-capped herons, jabiru storks, wood storks, crab eating foxes, rhea… We felt like Marlon Perkins (look him up, millennials). This critter-filled drive was worth every pothole, rut, and all 120+ of the (often super sketchy) wooden bridges along the way. 

 Best wild animal first

Jaguar pantanal brazil

You never forget your first time.

We spend a lot of time and energy trying to see wildlife. It’s one of our favorite things. Yet, despite years of looking and hundreds of miles of walking, we had never seen a jaguar in the wild. The pantanal region of Brazil is said to be one of the few places on earth where jaguar sightings are virtually guaranteed. We are skeptical of wildlife guarantees. Still, we headed to Hotel Pantanal Norte in Porto Jofre on the Cuiabá River at the end of the Transpantaneira Highway with high hopes. We were not disappointed. After a few hours on the river we saw a female jaguar and two older cubs on the bank in tall grass and we were able to observe them from our boat for a few minutes before the trio slipped deeper into the forest and out of sight. Sometimes you can believe the hype.

 Best drive for scenery

Sondondo Valley Peru

Part of the Sondondo Valley including slopes with Incan terraces which the locals still use to grow crops.

On our way to Puquio we missed the turn off for the Sondondo Valley and we’re very glad we returned later to explore it. The road into the valley is narrow but well paved and the valley itself varies from wide and semi-lush with herds of llamas and alpacas roaming around to narrow and cliff-lined, perfect for the condors who live here. There are also Incan terraces still being used by farmers, hot springs, and waterfalls. The tiny town of Andamarca seemed to have basic guest houses. The road through the valley appears to go all the way to Ayacucho, but we did not go that far so we don’t know if the paving continues or if the road quality worsens.

Best South American safari vehicle

 Refugio Ecologico Caiman safari vehicle

Safari in style at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in Brazil.

The open-sided, high clearance vehicles used for driving excursions and night safaris at eco lodges in Latin America are usually cobbled together rattletraps with uncomfortable seats and jarring suspensions. Not so at Refugio Ecologico Caiman in the Pantanal Sur in Brazil. The custom trucks used to transport guests on wildlife spotting excursions at this extraordinary private protected area  and eco lodge are brand new customized Toyota’s that are quiet, have comfortable padded seats, good suspension and are rugged enough to go off-roading where the animals are. There’s even a cool guide/spotters seat off the right hand corner of the front bumper. Seems like the jaguars like the vehicle too. We saw loads of them during our stay at Caiman.

 Best guide

Puma Tambopata Reserve Peru

Look closer. No, CLOSER. There’s a young puma looking back at you.

Rainforest Expeditions has been leading the eco way in the Tambopata area of southern Peru since they started as a macaw research and rescue center in 1989. The organization continues to do serious science (including brand new interactive Wired Amazon programs) and now operates three surprisingly upscale lodges in the area.

With chops like that it was no surprise that we had the best guide of the year during our stay with Rainforest Expeditions. His name is  Paul. He  grew up in remote village nearby on the Manu River and he knows Tambopata and its inhabitants intimately. True story: he had a pet jaguar growing up. He’s also funny and easy-going and willing to go the extra mile. For example, when he noticed cat prints and scat on a trail during a morning walk he suggested that we return to the same trail for a night walk to increase our chances of seeing the animal that left the pug marks.

The return visit paid off and we all got a (fleeting) glimpse of a young puma at night, something we never would have seen without Paul.

 Best THIRD visit to the Galapagos

Mating Blue Footed Boobies Galapagos

Blue footed boobies doing their bill-clacking mating dance in the Galapagos Islands.

Yeah, it was a Galapagos embarrassment of riches in 2016 with our third visit to Ecuador’s most iconic destination. You won’t believe us when we tell you it was work, but it was. Look! We did this travel guide to the Galapagos for Travel + Leisure magazine and this review of the fantastic Pikaia Lodge plus this piece about a new extra eco luxury boat.

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Where We’ve Been: June 2016 Road Trip Driving Route in Peru & Chile

With nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 km) driven, June was our biggest driving month in years. It was also one of the most dramatic with two tire blowouts, a missed border crossing, an Incan rope bridge re-building festival, a traditional vicuña round-up and miles and miles of gorgeous coastal, Andean, and Altiplano scenery. It’s all captured in our drive-lapse road trip travel footage shot with our Brinno time-lapse dash cam at the end of this post.

Making a run for the border

The primarily reason we drove so much in June was because we had to make a border run to renew our Peruvian vehicle importation permit which requires that we exit the country and re-enter. This called for an 800 miles (1,300 km) drive south into Chile. We expected it would take us two long days of driving to reach the border from Lima. What we didn’t account for was a pair of blowouts that left us stuck on the side of the highway for more than seven hours struggling to get over-tightened lug nuts off due to some careless work that was done on our truck in Lima.

This caused us to arrive at the border a day late. Did we mention that in Peru if you overstay your permit they have the right to confiscate your vehicle? Many tense hours, a day of waiting and lots of paperwork and explanations later we finally got special permission to cross the border with our truck and re-enter Peru with a fresh permit.

Incan festivals galore

Then we made a 450 mile (725 km) bee-line from the coastal border to a village high in the Andes to catch the Q’eswachaki Bridge festival which is the annual rebuilding of the last traditional Incan rope bridge in Peru. The drive from Tacna to Monquegua to Puno to Juliaca and then to the bridge took us up and over the high Andean Altiplano where we spent four hours driving between 13,500 to 15,500 feet (4,115 to 4,725 meters), not an easy task when you aren’t acclimatized to the high altitude. Luckily the road was spectacular, the pavement was good, the views were epic and there was almost no traffic. Just the way we like it.

Following the bridge festival we carried on to Cusco, then drove to Abancay and then to Puquio which we used as a base to attend an annual vicuña roundup and shearing festival called a chaccu that takes place near the Pampa Galeras National Reserve. This all happened at around 13,000 feet (2,200 meters) so once the chaccu was over we decided to warm up in Nazca (at a mere 1,700 feet (520 meters) where we finished up the month of June by visiting area archaeological sites and the famous Nazca Lines.

Check out all of the gorgeous scenery in one month of driving in Peru and Chile in our drive-lapse road trip travel video shot with our Brinno time-lapse dash cam.

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End of the Road – Yaviza, Darién Jungle, Panama

For all but the craziest among us (more on them later), driving through the Darién Jungle overland is not within the realm of possibility. But that doesn’t mean you can’t travel to the end of the road in the Darién and visit a town called Yaviza where the pavement of the Pan-American Highway stops and ass-whupping jungle begins.

Welcome to the Darien Panama

Our truck entering Darién Province, home of the Darién Jungle, on our way to the end of the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

The only break in the Pan-American Highway

The Darién Jungle, which straddles the border between Panama and Colombia, covers 10,000 square miles (26,000 square km) just on the Panamanian side. The region’s dense vegetation and marshy expanses create the only break in the Pan-American Highway which otherwise runs around 16,000 miles (25,750 km) from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska to Ushuaia in Argentina along the length of the American Continents.

The 60 mile (96 km) break in the action caused by the Darién Jungle is called the Darién Gap and it’s a pain in the ass for overland travelers like us who aren’t certifiably insane and, therefore, are forced to ship our vehicles around the Darién Gap from Panama to Colombia rather than driving through.

Welcome to Yaviza, Darien Panama - End of the PanAmerican Highway

Welcome to the town of Yaviza where the Darién Jungle forms the only break in the Pan-American Highway.

Oh, sure. Some crazies have attempted to drive through the Darién Jungle. A handful have even made it starting with the Trans-Darién Expedition in 1960 during which a husband and wife team spent five months hacking a “road” through the Darién Jungle and averaging about 600 feet (200 meters) per hour. Good times.

It was 12 more years before another team made it through the Darién Jungle, but just barely. Back axles on Range Rovers driven by members of the British Trans-Americas Expedition broke and new parts had to be air dropped in. Clothing rotted on their bodies from the humidity. About half the team suffered serious injury and illness.

In 1975 some dudes on Rokon motorcycles tried four times before getting through the Darién Jungle overland. In 2015 a fresh crew of crazies plans to attempt to drive through the Darién Jungle and for US$4,400 you can join them. Send a postcard.

Literal end of the Pan American Highway - Darien Gap, Panama

A bit anticlimactic, perhaps, but that’s the end of the road for the Pan-American Highway in Panama.

Mother Nature’s border

“Why don’t they just close the Darién Gap by connecting the highway through the Darién Jungle?” you may wonder. First of all, building a road through a jungle is never easy. Think about it. Then consider the fact that the remote Darién Jungle has proven to be a good hideout for all kinds of bad guys who have moved in over the years and they don’t take too kindly to bulldozers and work crews getting in the way of their lucrative, totally illegal business. So, if the snakes don’t get you the narco traffickers and FARC guerrillas will.

Yaviza Panama end of PanAmerican Highway. Roadless Darien Gap

This bridge in the town of Yaviza goes over the Rio Chicanaque, the longest river in Panama, and marks the end of the Pan-American Highway and the beginning of the Darién Gap created by the road less Darién Jungle.

There are also political reasons why the Darién Jungle remains a vast, road less expanse: it’s Mother Nature’s border and a really excellent buffer zone between Central America and South America.

In the early 2000’s Alvaro Uribe, then President of Colombia, proposed a road through the Darién Jungle to complete the Pan-Am and make trade between nations easier. That idea obviously never got off the ground and we wouldn’t be surprised if there’s never a road through the Darién.

Darien bus terminal, Yaviza, Panama

Someday there will be a bus station at the end of the road in Yaviza, Panama. Someday.

Drive to the end of the road in the Darién

We were in Darién Provence at the end of four days of hiking in the Darién Jungle with Panama Exotic Adventures. Rather than return immediately to Panama City, we decided to drive to the end of the road in the Darién.

Rio Chucanaque, Yaviza Darien Panama

Yaviza at the end (or beginning) of Pan-American Highway in Panama is a port town and villagers bring there produce, including these plantains, to town so the goods can be distributed to other parts of the country.

The road continues until you reach a town called Yaviza, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy to get to. It’s not the predictably lousy quality of the road that makes this little drive hard, it’s the hoops you have to jump through to get there.

Bringing produce to Yaviza on the Rio Chucanaque, Panama

Space is money so plantains are packed into boats like sardines in Yaviza at the beginning of their journey to other parts of Panama.

As we mentioned before, the Darién Jungle has become something of a hot spot for illicit activity. Therefore, Panamanian officials are anxious to keep tabs (as best they can) on who goes into the region. This means that everyone, including day tripping tourists, have to follow the rules and regulations of Servicio Nacional de Fronteras (Senafront), Panama’s border police.

Loading plantains in Yaviza Darien

We’ve never seen produce packed more precisely than these plantains on their way out of Yaviza.

Senafront officers control access to the Darién region with multiple checkpoints along the Pan-American Highway. At these stops, everyone’s documents are checked and rechecked. At any point a traveler may be turned back.

Luckily, we weren’t turned back though we did have to sweet talk our way past some officials especially when we wanted to park the truck and walk around Yaviza on foot. For some reason officials were worried that we were going to abandon our truck and wander off into the Darién.

Fried fish lunch & Balboa beer in Yaviza Darien, Panama

Lunch of champions (and everyone else) in Yaviza, Panama where the road less Darién Jungle brings the mighty Pan-American Highway to a screeching halt.

Not that there was much to see in Yaviza where reportedly less than 2,000 people live, but, hey it’s the end of the road.

Yaviza Darien Panama

There’s only one way to go from Yaviza, Panama.

A new way to stay in the Darién

It’s not exactly a hotel boom, but it is worth noting that in 2014 the folks behind Canopy Tower and two other hotels in Panama opened Canopy Camp in the Darién Jungle offering luxury safari tents from South Africa and some of the best bird watching in the country.

Canopy Camp, Darien Panama

In 2014 Canopy Camp opened in the Darién Jungle offering travelers luxury platform tents and plenty of rainforest immersion.

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Around Granada – Lake Nicaragua, Mombacho Volcano & Lake Apoyo, Nicaragua

Granada isn’t just another pretty face you know. When you get done appreciating Granada’s Colonial ambiance, shockingly good value boutique hotels and super-friendly locals Granada also makes a good base for exploring nearby natural attractions including Lake Apoyo, Mombacho Volcano and Lake Nicaragua (aka Lake Cocibolco).

The weird waters of Lake Apoyo

Just 20 minutes or so from Granada lies the Apoyo Lagoon Natural Reserve not far from the Pueblos Blancos handicrafts region. Established in 1991, the reserve protects 8,648 acres (43 km²) of jungle and geology including Lake Apoyo, a crater lake formed in the extinct Apoyo Volcano more than 200 years ago.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano panorama

Lake Apoyo, near Granada, Nicaragua, with Mombacho Volcano in the background to the right.

Lake Apoyo is said to be the cleanest place to swim in all of Nicaragua (but you still can’t drink the water) and it’s home to some species of fish that are found nowhere else. Despite the fact that the lake is more than 600 feet (200 meters) deep at its deepest point, the water is warm since the lake is fed by active fumaroles below it. The water is also slightly salty and is said to contain healing minerals. It just felt like slimy bath water to us.

You can hike, kayak, swim, go bird watching and get real familiar with the dinosaur-like call of the areas many howler monkeys. Thankfully, motorized craft (jet skis, boats) were recently banned on the lake. There are also some volunteer opportunities, Spanish schools and a few restaurants and hostels and hotels around the lake.

Laguna de Apoyo Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Apoyo with Mombacho Volcano in the background near Granada, Nicaragua.

We stayed at Apoyo Resort (which used to be called Norome Resort & Villas) in one of their 60 villas in the jungle, all with full kitchens. We watched a small troop of howler monkeys pluck flowers off a tree near our deck as homemade pasta sauce simmered on the stove. Heaven.

Our timing at Lake Apoyo was accidentally perfect and one night we got to enjoy views of a rare super moon from the hillside pool without the interference of any light pollution.

Laguna de Apoyo Full Moon, Nicaragua

A rare Supermoon in the dark skies above Lake Apoyo in Nicaragua.

An epic drive up Mombacho Volcano

The Mombacho Volcano is considered extinct. Its last eruption was in 1570. That’s given the cloud forest in the area plenty of time to re-forest the slopes of the volcano which means that unlike more recently active volcanoes, the hiking trails around Mombacho are shaded and travel through more than just rocks and scree. But first you have to get there.

Reserva Natural Volcan Mombacho, Nicaragua

Entering the Mombacho Volcano Natural Reserve near Granada, Nicaragua with one epic road in front of us.

We paid US$5 per person to enter the Mombacho Volcano Nature Reserve that surrounds the volcano itself. You can pay an additional US$15 per person to take official transportation up the paved road from the entrance to the volcano or you can pay US$18 and drive yourself and a carload of friends up to the top as long as you have a 4X4.

They aren’t joking about that 4X4 part. Though the road is paved and in good shape it is wicked steep climbing more than 3,000 feet (900 meters) in four miles (6.5 kms). Even in 4-low our truck huffed and puffed all the way up and down was no easier.

Once at the top we found a respectable visitor center with an impressive diorama of the area.  There are a number of trails up to four miles (6.5 kms) long that you can hike alone. The longer trails require a guide (US$10).

View from Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua seen from one of the trails around Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

We hiked the crater trail down to some fumaroles along a shaded trail that was in excellent shape. At various points on the trail we also got excellent views of Granada and of Masaya Volcano in the distance.

Mombacho Volcano Nicaragua

Mombacho Volcano in Nicaragua.

Volcan Mombacho Nicaragua

Clouds stream off the top of Mombacho Volcano near Granada, Nicaragua.

Eco luxury on Lake Nicaragua

Granada was settled on the shoreline of Lake Nicaragua, aka Lake Cocibolca. It’s possible to book a boat tour of the lake and its dozens of small islands or even kayak around.  We toured the lake on our way out to Jicaro Island Ecolodge which occupies its own small island. Jicaro Island is one of our favorite green boutique hotels in the country and home to one of the best pools in Nicaragua. There are more tempting reasons to make a reservation in our full Jicaro Island Ecolodge review.

Jicaro Island EcoLodge, Nicaragua

Welcome to Jicaro Island Ecolodge in Lake Nicaragua.

Jicaro Island Lodge pool, Nicaragua

Lake Nicaragua still has a few bull sharks in it so we stuck to the pool at Jicaro Island Ecolodge.

Villas at Jicaro Island Lodge, Nicaragua

We’re not carpentry geeks, but the woodworking in the structures and furniture at Jicaro Island Ecolodge stunned us.

 

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How to Have a Costa Rican Road Trip

There are good reasons why so many people rent a car when they visit Costa Rica. As we discovered during our nearly six months and more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km) of driving in Costa Rica, the country really doesn’t have an adequate public transportation system and the best parks, activities and adventures require wheels. With that in mind, here are our top tips about how to have a Costa Rican road trip and how to rent a car in Costa Rica without getting ripped off.

Costa Rica animal crossing sign

The mind boggles at the number of hazards on the roads in Costa Rica.

Road rules in Costa Rica

In October of 2012 a new schedule of driving violation fees was established in Costa Rica. Many of the violations seem to go unpunished. For example, there is a US$40 fine for littering from your vehicle in Costa Rica, though it’s unlcear how frequently that law is enforced given the amount of roadside trash we saw. Speeding and drunk driving rules, however, are strict and fees are expensive at US$568 per violation. That said, we saw very few cops on the road and only a handful of vehicles pulled over.

As in most Latin American countries you must carry a fire extinguisher and reflective triangles in your vehicle.

Costa Rican law requires a front and back license plate but we were never hassled about our missing front plate.

Ox cart Costa Rica roads

Costa Rican bus? Not quite, but close.

Navigating in Costa Rica

There really are almost no road signs in Costa Rica so don’t bother looking for signs on the highways telling you where and when to turn or signs in towns telling you what street you’re on. When we left Costa Rica there were rumors of a campaign to improve signage in the capital, San Jose, but that’s not gonna help you out on the highways and in the small towns.

Unlike most of its Central American neighbors, dependable GPS data for Costa Rica seems to actually exist. Sadly we didn’t have a GPS unit when we were there.

We managed to find our way around Costa Rica thanks to a combination of Eric’s genetic GPS, asking locals and our ITMB maps which are detailed, accurate and cover the entire country which is head and shoulders above any map you’ll find inside Costa Rica.

Estimated drive times are almost always much shorter than reality so if someone says it takes four hours to drive from there to there plan on six. Or seven. As we’ve mentioned, road quality is poor and even “highways” in Costa Rica are generally only two lanes (one in each direction with no passing lane) and they nearly always wind through mountains unless you’re driving along the coast. This adds up to slow going, especially once you get stuck behind a slow-moving 18 wheeler, and you will.

Costa rican driving yield sign - Ceda El Paso
Many bridges in Costa Rica are single lane so look before you leap. Specifically, look for triangular signs that say “Ceda el Paso” which means you need to yield to bridge traffic coming in the opposite direction.

 

The drainage ditches along many roads are 2-3 feet (1 meter) deep and there’s no shoulder on the roads. It’s best to think of them as moats.

Key Costa Rican road trip tips

We never found a car wash under US$10.

The whole country is the size of West Virginia yet we somehow managed to drive more than 5,000 miles (8,000 km).

All those intriguing peninsulas usually require taking the long way around so be prepared to put in more miles (and time) on the road than you think.

Cop shakedowns are not common in Costa Rica but police checkpoints are. However, we were rarely questioned at any of them and the officials just wanted to take a cursory glance at our paperwork.

Costa Ricans are the slowest drivers in Central America. Sometimes infuriatingly so. For example, the guy you get stuck behind as he crawls through the hills always seems to speed up just enough on the straight-aways so that you can’t pass him.

Gas prices are regulated by the government so all stations charge the same price. The price of diesel ranged from US$4.27 to US$4.85 when we were in Costa Rica and gas was even pricier.

Costa Rica's poor quality roads - Carratera en mal Estado

This sign is no lie: roads in Costa Rica really are in an unexpectedly bad state.

One of the first things representatives of the Institute of Costa Rican Tourism (ICT) did when we met with them was apologize for the shameful condition of the roads in Costa Rica. They are far worse than in neighboring Nicaragua and El Salvador with pot holes, buckling pavement, narrow sections and a chronic lack of street name signs, directional signs or street lights. Oh, and did we mention the unmarked topes (speed bumps)?

If you are driving your own vehicle keep your fingers crossed that nothing breaks. For the most part, only crappy Chinese-made replacement parts are available for the makes and models of vehicles that are commonly sold in Costa Rica. We learned this the hard way after needing to have a bunch of steering components replaced.

Related tip: If you do need to see a mechanic in Costa Rica don’t take your vehicle to a chain called AutoPits. Yes, the name should have tipped us off but it seemed like a modern chained and it’s owned by Grupo Q, a large vehicle dealer with a presence in several Central American countries. However, AutoPits sold us inferior parts not made for our truck and installed them incorrectly. No wonder the parts failed after just a few hundred miles, rendering our truck undriveable. After a lengthy battle between AutoPits and our credit card company we were left paying the full AutoPits bill (US$1,200) and needing to replace the parts with the good stuff (thanks Rare Parts).

Welcome-to-Costa-Rica

At the border with your vehicle

You and your vehicle with get a 90 day permit when you enter Costa Rica overland. However, even though tourists visas can be renewed for an additional 90 days by simply leaving Costa Rica for 72 hours then returning, foreign vehicles are only allowed to be in Costa Rica for 90 days out of every 180.  If you want to get a new 90 day temporary importation permit for your vehicle it has to be out of Costa Rica for at least 90 days.  Also be aware that you can “suspend” your temporary vehicle importation when you drive out of the country. This means that whatever time was left on your importation when you left the Costa Rica will be available to you when you drive back into Costa Rica.

It now costs 17,216 colones (US$35) for 90 days of mandatory vehicle liability insurance (Poliza Turista) which is a considerable increase from our 2012 crossings when the price was only 8,365 colones (about US$17).

Get complete details about procedures and customs requirements for driving a foreign vehicle into Costa Rica in our Border Crossing 101 post about traveling overland from Nicaragua to Costa Rica.

How to rent a car in Costa Rica (without getting ripped off)

Rental car companies can be super aggressive about buying very expensive in-country insurance when you pick up the car you’ve reserved. They will insist that it is mandatory. They will NOT let you off the hook by simply saying that your credit card company provides rental car insurance. Do yourself a favor and get a letter from your credit card company on letterhead stating the details of the rental car insurance coverage your card provides. Also get the appropriate toll free phone number you can use to call your credit card company from the rental car company desk in Costa Rica should the agent in front of you still insist that you need to buy expensive additional insurance.

It’s worth splurging on a GPS unit for your rental car (offered by most rental companies for a daily rate) and be sure to reserve a 4X4 vehicle. As we’ve noted, the roads in Costa Rica suck and you’re going to want the extra clearance, power and durability even if you’re not planning on doing any off-roading.

When we left Costa Rica we heard that some car rental companies were considering adding more environmentally friendly rental cars to their fleets.

Monkey crossing Costa Rica

A hand made monkey crossing sign in Costa Rica.

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Where We’ve Been: March & April 2012 Road Trip Driving Route

Thanks to our SPOT Satellite Messenger you can see a map of our exact Trans-Americas Journey road trip driving route for the months of March and April 2012. And don’t miss the time-lapse video of our travels created using pictures taken every 10 seconds by the GoPro Hero HD camera mounted on our windshield.

We only drove 745 miles in March since we spent the first two weeks of the month on the Bocas del Toro Islands in Panama while our truck was parked on the mainland. After our time on and around Bocas, we returned to Almirante, Panama to collect our truck, then drove to beautiful Boquete before crossing the border back into Costa Rica where we drove up the coast and into the Central Valley. From there we traveled high up into the cloud forest of San Gerardo de Dota to check out (more!) quetzals.

In April we racked up even fewer miles since we spent 10 days on a boat 300 miles off the coast of Costa Rica, bobbing and SCUBA diving around Cocos Island National Park.  Upon returning to dry land, we reunited with our truck and drove into Nicaragua. We stayed on the beach in San Juan del Sur, then explored the volcanic island of Omatepe in the middle of Lake Nicaragua. From there we drove to the beautiful colonial city of Granada where we ended the month of April.

We’ll blog about it all soon. In the meantime, see what we saw! Our entire driving route in Costa Rica and Panama in March 2012 has been condensed into the short video, below. And here’s our exact road trip driving route on a map generated using GPS data gathered by our Spot Satellite Messenger.

March 2012 Driving Route – Panama & Costa Rica

Our entire driving route in Costa Rica and Nicaragua in April 2012 has been condensed into the short video, below. And here’s our exact road trip driving route on a map generated using GPS data gathered by our Spot Satellite Messenger.

April 2012 Driving Route – Costa Rica & Nicaragua

 

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