The Road to Carate, Costa Rica

One of several water crossings on the way to Carate from Puerto Jimenez

In a country, Costa Rica, renowned for terrible roads, this might be the worst of the lot. 42 kilometers is all that separates Puerto Jimenez from Carate, one of the 3 entrances to the spectacular Corcovado National Park, situated on the isolated Osa Peninsula. But it’s a hellish drive with 13 major water crossings, thousands of crater potholes and various other terrain problems capable of gutting any oil pan. Every article or report I’ve read in every guide book states that even with a high clearance 4wd vehicle, the potential for disaster looms large. The National Geographic Expedition catalog, while touting an excursion by boat, declared that the park was ‘unreachable by road’, certainly a misrepresentation of the facts. So, when the opportunity to try it with a 2wd Nissan sedan presented itself, there was no question.
We had to give it a go.

Make sure the windows are up

Leaving Puerto Jimenez, heading south, the dirt road is semi smooth, with multitudes of potholes and deep ruts, rolling through beautiful country and several ranches. About 5 k from town, the first water obstacle is reached, a small stream which is only troublesome during rainy season. The next crossing is much the same, shallow and flat, but the third presents a new degree in difficulty. This one is steep on both sides of the water, with an abrupt ridge that could stymie a tentative driver. But we didn’t have that problem, and kept on thrashing up and over a long muddy hill that climbs several hundred feet. Momentum is essential here, as a spinout could result in a stuck vehicle that would have no alternative but to back down , all the way to the water, to attempt it again. There are 3 large hills that need to be negotiated like this, so a slow truck could really get in the way at the wrong spot. Shortly, two more crossings are met, both of minimal difficulty, before another challenging spot of a wide river, flat but deeper than any before. Walking across before driving is highly advised at the worst of the crossings, both to find the shallowest line and to remove potentially problematic rocks. Number 7 is the most daunting of all, a deep river with steep banks up both sides and about 2 feet deep at it’s lowest. This is the one that requires careful study before committing, as any lack of momentum and you’re floating downstream. This crossing provides an alternative route, favored by motorcyclists, just upstream but the start is deep rutted mud, a very easy place to get stuck. If the river is running any higher than it was on that December day, the possible peril is accentuated, and we gave this barrier an 8.5. On the return trip, we had the great fortune of having a skip loader tractor scraping and then dumping gravel on the crossing to aid in underwater traction. Never the less, a couple of locals watching here were summarily amazed watching the Nissan emerge again.

Momentum is key

There are 6 more water crossings, none worse than 3.5 on the gruesome scale, but a thunderstorm can change everything. The Osa Peninsula received almost 400 inches of rain that season, the most ever recorded, so the condition of this road is variable at best. But besides mashing the plastic cowling underneath the front bumper on a couple of rough pitches, no damage was done to the rental, and even that was quickly re rigged manually. However, a lame driver could get a Hummer stuck in a number of places, so driving expertise and finesse trumps superior equipment. Due to rental car liability and possible repercussions, our driver shall remain anonymous, but his ability and experience driving challenging roads is prolific. High clearance is certainly useful, and 4wd will come in handy, but there are no guarantees here, and no insurance for poor judgement. One round trip here brings a new appreciation for roads, period, and just how bad some can get. There’s a heck of a payoff at the end of this one.
Go, and then make it back………



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