Leaving Costa Rica turned out to be harder than expected.
As we boarded the bus to San Jose, the airport and home we had no idea we were about to be stranded at the top of the highest mountain pass in Costa Rica.
It was another warm March morning as we boarded our Musoc bus in San Isidro. We were the gringos with the most luggage. Our excuse was that we had packed for a season rather than a short vacation and we had really used that 8 pound Vitamix blender every morning. A kind person helped place our bags in the belly of the 50 passenger bus that was about to head to San Jose. We paid our incredibly small bus fee – something like $7 for both of us for a 3 hour trip and boarded the Mercedes bus. (Buses in CR are not converted school buses – they are the real thing – nice but without bathrooms)
Things went smoothly at first as we climbed the most infamous road in Costa Rica, the Cerro de la Muerte, or ‘Mountain of Death’. The Lonely Planet guide states, “Every year, cars plunge over the side of this twisty, foggy mountain highway, often while driving in heavy rain, or after trying to pass a slow vehicle and ending up face-to-face with an oncoming truck.” Inspires confidence does it not?
Minus the head-on collision this is what happened to us. We had just arrived at only passing lane we had seen since coming to Costa Rica. You know, a third lane that magically appears when you need it the most – passing a large propane truck and a slow but sturdy looking tarp covered delivery truck. Intuition or whatever, it suddenly was clear to me that our bus would run out of room at the end of the passing lane and would have to move over to avoid a collision with multiple vehicles coming downhill at a good clip.
This passing situation happens all the time “todo el tiempo” in CR. Everyone is supposed to follow the Unwritten Rule of Passing. Here it is (drum roll). “When you have to cut in after completing a close pass, the vehicle you are passing will slow down to avoid pushing you into the on-coming traffic.” So common is this “rule” there appears to be no “road rage” in CR and the expression “he cut me off” does not appear in the Tico – English dictionary.)
Back to the scene…. Not only were we running out of passing room on our precariously temporary three lanes, but there was an extreme drop off on the right side of the 11000 foot pass with little in the way of a shoulder.
There was a distant “crunch” as our bus driver swung into his lane to avoid a head-on collision. The crunching and grinding of metal was felt more than heard as our bus lurched toward the abyss. Momentum carried us both to a shoulder that miraculously appeared (a wide grassy shoulder is that’s what you see in the photos). We were safe – sort of – as vehicles coming towards us and behind us now had a half lane to navigate.
Again, it is always impressively to see how little Ticos think of all this. A slight tremor of surprise, a glancing around as our bus slowed and stopped, straddling both remaining lanes then….a lot of glad-to-be alive people got out to wait for the Policia. Very anticlimatic.
Discussion ensued gradually and calmly, Costa Rican style. Everyone agreed our driver had done the right thing and the other driver had failed to yield. A couple of tourist seemed indignant that there was a delay and surprised (since our bus was only scratched) that we couldn’t drive away with a simple exchange of insurance information. They obviously didn’t know that in Costa Rica NOTHING can be moved after an accident. Both lanes of an interstate highway can be blocked in both directions and nothing can be moved. There is a ritual that starts with the two drivers getting off and cutting tree branches (like olive branches) to lay at each end of the accident scene. Then the Polica are called.
In a country of “tranquillo” where no one rushes around (except in the capital San Jose) waiting has evolved into another opportunity to get to know your neighbors. This is kind of sweet unless you happen to be trying to make your boarding time at the airport (we were not, we had left a day early simply because of the likely hood of this very thing happening.) Passengers who were in a hurry (all gringos) were casting about for blame and looking at their watches. Fortunately they were a minority.
When the Policia arrived after a couple of hours, they were also in no hurry. People hung out leaning against the police car (think about that – no one leans against the police cars in the USA unless they are being pressed against the car while being cuffed.)
Our driver was then asked to back the bus up to the point of the collision while the officers took notes and measured things.
The other driver spoke to the officers keeping his arms crossed and studying his shoes. His truck was not in a driveable condition but could be prodded off to the side of the road.
There were no sirens, no flashing lights. Vehicles did slow down to look and some young guys in sports cars slowing down to smile at a couple of attractive young women passengers, but they were driving slowly anyway when they saw the branches.
After two and a half hours of this a new bus arrived. All the bags were transferred. We boarded and headed to San Jose. Now our driver must have felt he had to make up all the time we spent at the accident scene because he drove twice as fast as before. The normally smooth highway gently rise and fall was transformed into swaying, jouncing bounces and near airborne conditions as we swayed around turns. I found myself gripping the arm rests and praying a lot. Fortunately we soon got behind some slower moving vehicles which, much to my surprise, our driver did not pass. But I am sure he was thinking about it.