On my last visit to Costa Rica, I had the crazy idea of driving from Montezuma to Samara on the coast road. I say “crazy” because most guidebooks tell you it’s a really bad idea.
I know I should have done the proper research before putting this trip together, but Michaela’s the organized part of this team. I like to fly by the seat of my pants, and I was in charge of planning this trip, which meant there was little or no planning.
It wasn’t until we arrived in Montezuma that I cracked my guidebook and learned that the road is often washed out, has numerous river crossings, and is generally not recommended unless you know what you’re doing, have a good four-wheel-drive vehicle and great insurance.
I had rented a tiny Suzuki Jimmy (all they had), which, instead of eliciting the kind of rough-and-ready, safari-type feeling we were looking for, looked more like a “light” SUV whose four-wheel-drive is designed to help suburbanites navigate a gravel driveway. (Btw, click here to see how we offset our carbon footprint when traveling by car.)
I also had opted for minimal insurance and had already put a dent in the hood of the car driving the treacherous steep dirt road that brought us down to Montezuma.
Perhaps not the best start, but instead of bailing on the idea, we decided to forge ahead. Probably because none of us wanted to go for the other option: a many hour-long detour on a tarred road inland.
Anyway, Michaela had done a year-long, four-wheel-drive adventure in the outback of Australia and assured me “we’ll be all right, mate!”
Driving from Montezuma to Samara begins with an angry tamandua attack
There are a number of routes you can take when driving from Montezuma to Samara. Most have river crossings and other challenges, and there are not really any good road signs or accurate maps. So, you kind of have to follow your nose and ask directions from whomever you meet along the way.
We wanted to stick as close to the coast as possible, using it as a rough guide (keep heading left until you run out of road or drive into the ocean). Of course, we got lost a bunch of times, but that’s part of the fun.
Our first destination was Cabo Blanco National Park, only a mile or so north of Montezuma. We stopped there because we had heard there was a very nice beach you could hike to, and also because we wanted to postpone the potentially disastrous four-wheel-drive drama as long as possible. (Perhaps we thought we might come to our senses, but that never happened.)
A potential attraction in this park was the chance to see some of Costa Rica’s famed wildlife. The guidebook claims that Cabo Blanco is home to “white-tailed deer, pacas, armadillos, anteaters, howler and capuchin monkeys, coyotes, porcupines, raccoons and coatis, ocelots, jaguarundis and margay cats.”
All I can say is: don’t hold your breath. We only saw a couple of bats sleeping under a tree and a small rodent that looked (and smelled) like a skunk.
Needless to say, I was so excited about this “skunk” I chased the terrified little guy into the woods with my camera, cornering it in a tree. Anyone who has attended “wildlife photography 101” knows that you don’t approach a bear with cubs and you never corner a wild animal, but as I already mentioned, I’m not good at sticking to the rules.
Predictably, the animal changed from a timid, little, furry thing into a raging beast, as it spun around and charged me like a bull (well a kind of small bull).
What I didn’t know at the time is that this was a species of anteater known as a tamandua. These guys have incredibly large sharp claws and not only smell like a skunk but will spray you with a nasty funk as they claw you to ribbons — not a good way to start our trip.
Putting your car to the test while driving from Montezuma to Samara
Our first four-wheel-drive challenge was a rather steep hill we had to climb that had some good-sized ruts, loose gravel and rock, and a ditch on either side to get stuck in. I have to admit, we were a little skeptical our Jimmy would stand up to the test, but she did just great. We had pretty darn good traction and managed to keep her on the road.
By the way, don’t try driving from Montezuma to Samara along the coast road in the rainy season (from May to November). Look at the picture below, and you’ll understand why. A good downpour and this road would be washed out and probably not repaired until spring.
When we finally arrived in Mal Pais, there was no rest for the weary as we needed to find a place to crash (as I said, I did very little planning on this trip). After chatting it up with some locals in my rusty Spanish, we somehow stumbled upon an amazing bungalow on a large empty property with no neighbors. It had a secluded beach, kitchen, fridge, outside shower, porch, and hammock—all for only $60 a night; what a score!
We loved it so much we stayed there a couple of nights. We could surf right out of our front door… theoretically. Because truth be told, the waves were pretty big there for beginners like us. So, we opted to drive up to Playa Hermosa, just north of town. It’s a sleepy little beach with 2-3 foot waves that were perfect for our level. And since small waves don’t attract the mainstream surfing crowd, we had the place all to ourselves.
Get wet and wild in the river crossings when driving from Montezuma to Samara
The road heading north from Mal Pais hugged the coast until we reached Playa Manzanillo. Here we turned right and headed inland to the first of our major river crossings at the mighty (at least for a first time river crosser) Rio Ario.
This was a sizable crossing, and I was more than a bit concerned. In fact, it looked so wide and foreboding I was sure the real crossing was further downstream and turned left first. But Michaela assured me that this was it, and surely, the road I had just taken ended.
Unlike those so-called river crossings where there’s pavement laid down and you just have to deal with a couple of inches of water (hardly a challenge), this is a big-ass wild river — wide, deep, and ominous.
As I got ready to wade into the river to scope it out, Michaela casually reminded me that Costa Rican rivers are inhabited by crocodiles, which gave me more than a bit of pause, remembering a recent video of a wildebeest being chewed up by a crocodile while trying to cross a river in Africa’s Serengeti.
Keeping this in mind, and scanning the waters for signs of movement (I later learned there wouldn’t be any, that’s why they are so dangerous), I gingerly entered the water.
As I examined the river bottom with my feet, I found out to my dismay it was all loose stones. I tried to assess the route taken by other vehicles, feeling for where the stones were a bit firmer, but it was not hard science.
In the end, I made a couple mental notes, climbed out of the river and into our Jimmy, and started the engine. (By the way, I wouldn’t try this alone. Not that two are less likely to get stuck than one; it’s just that if you do get stuck — and trust me, a lot of folks do — it’s nicer to have someone else along to share your misery.)
A cold sweat forming on my brow, my hands griping the steering wheel, revving the engine, I let out the clutch. Michaela’s only advice (and good advice it was) was to always keep moving at a steady speed. I had also heard that you don’t want to go too fast and splash water on the engine, as this could stall it you out.
Keeping all this in mind and trying to visualize the path I had mapped out, I dropped down the steep muddy bank and entered the water. The stones felt squirrely under the wheels for the first half of the crossing, but soon I realized I had good grip and was not sinking. Before I knew it, we were up on the other side’s bank and free and clear.
After a bit of a celebration and a beer (we had agreed that after every successful river crossing we’d share an Imperial, the local Costa Rican brew) at a bar in the middle of nowhere (sometimes drerams come true), we continued on to meet our second major river crossing at Rio Bongo.
The crocodile fear had sunken in by this time and I decided to forgo the visual inspection and just went for it. The loose stones felt a little more squirrelly than at Rio Ario and suddenly I slipped off line and the rear wheels started to bog down. I was losing grip and was sure I would get stuck.
But you gotta love that little Jimmy! She took the challenge, dug in, and spit out those wet stones. Soon we were on the shore, high and dry, and on to the next challenge.
By the time we reached the Rio Ora, we were seasoned pros (or just to exhausted to care) and didn’t even pause before diving in. It probably was not wise, but we felt a bit cocky, and made it through without an issue. Soon after, the road turned to pavement, and we thought we could relax. But the adventure was not over yet.
Expect the unexpected when driving from Montezuma to Samara
Just south of Samara we were suddenly joined on the road by a large, white, galloping horse. I guess it must have just escaped from a farm or something and was making a break for it.
We thought about stopping, but what do you do with a wild horse? So we carefully passed him; luckily he let us go by. When I looked out my rear view mirror, he was still racing along — run, buddy, run!
A little exhausted from all this excitement, we stopped for a break on top of a hill to enjoy the view and stretch our legs. To our left, down the hill, was a small river and what looked like a tiny fishing enclave. We had been hankering to get some local fish and we figured maybe the fishermen down there would sell us some right off the boat. Anyway, it was worth a try.
We found a road that led to a couple houses where the river met the beach. Driving it as far as we could, parking the car, and wading through a mangrove swamp finally got us to the huts.
We met a very nice family who showed us their catch of the day, which included fresh lobster tails. Without hesitation, we bought a dozen. Now we just had to figure out how to cook them. Which added another requirement aka. kitchen for this night’s un-booked accommodation, but we managed …
Driving from Montezuma to Samara on the coast road with its river crossing and other unknowns was a true adventure that added spice and excitement to an already fantastic trip. It also gave us access to parts of the country that one can’t find in a guidebook. The reward: beautiful beaches, sweet lobster tails, great accommodations, and an escape from the mundane!
For some, this kind of adventure might seem a bit extreme. And even though this wasn’t what I had in mind, it totally made our trip! It’s obviously more convenient and predictable to have a carefully planned out holiday, but what’s the fun in that?
What’s your favorite story about driving from Montezuma to Samara on the coast road? Let us know in the comments.
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