*We loaded into our white Toyota RAV-4, which, I’m pretty sure, is the official rental car of gringos traveling through Costa Rica. Chris was our driver and Brian sat up front to co-pilot, leaving the three women in the back.
We had directions from a hand-drawn map in a binder at the Holiday Inn reception desk explaining how to get to Puntarenas (or, “Punch Your Anus” as the guys liked to call it) where we would catch our ferry.
If we missed the 11am, we would be stuck taking the next one, which wasn’t until 2. If that happened, we wouldn’t arrive on the Nicoya Peninsula until after 3, and we would risk possibly having to drive in the dark.
Aside from getting used to traffic signs in Spanish (CEDA = “yield”), driving out of San Jose was just like driving out of any other city. We made jokes about the billboards and looked at the landscape. We passed a factory that said Dos Pinos—which translates as “two pines” and is the name of Costa Rica’s largest dairy producer—but, of course, in our car it became “Two Penises.”
We were probably laughing at something related to the Two Penises Factory when we completely missed the on-ramp to the highway.
Eventually, we realized we had overshot the exit. Unfortunately, the road was short on both signage and places to turn around. In order to make a U-turn, Chris had to pull over as far onto the shoulder as he could, wait for there to be a break in the steady stream of Suzuki Samurais and mid-90s Toyota Tercels coming at us, and then gun it across four lanes of traffic.
I can only speak for the women in the backseat—but—yeah—we were pretty freaked out. Chris was cool and collected. We circled back and stopped at a gas station for directions. The guy said to turn left just after the football stadium. We made the obligatory jokes about not seeing any “football” stadium, just a bunch of dudes playing soccer. Then we turned left and followed the road.
We went a couple kilometers before hitting a roundabout where we could see the highway rushing above us—we just couldn’t figure out how to get on it. We veered right, onto a frontage road that we thought, surely, would merge with the highway. The road was narrow and rough, with nothing but a couple of farms jutting off of it. Chris was taking us along at a pretty good clip when we suddenly saw that we were about to dead-end right into a dirt hillside.
Chris hit the brakes, then executed a tight turn to get us going back the other direction. At the roundabout, we turned right again, this time under the highway, hoping to find another on-ramp. We went a few blocks into a tiny town, where we passed a corner store with 8-10 rotisserie chickens rolling behind a plate-glass window, alongside a bunch of household appliances and tires for sale. We thought about stopping for some tire chicken, but we were in a hurry.
We backtracked again, and finally got on the right highway. We had just under an hour’s drive left to Puntarenas. If everything went right, we could possibly still get our car onto the ferry. Everyone relaxed, knowing that at least we were headed in the right direction.
The landscape was mostly agricultural—ranch land with some big factories here and there. We knew we were close when we saw the water. We drove along the shore, past rows of vendors selling fruit and barbeque. This was not a tourist attraction. We saw local families out for their Sunday picnics: teenagers playing music; kids running into the water; grandmas with umbrellas; dads in starched church jeans.
We reached the ferry around 10:30 and had to make a quick dash to get the tickets. The ticket office only accepted cash in Costa Rican currency—called colones. Before leaving for the trip, I debated whether or not to have some U.S. dollars changed to colones, and decided that I’d wait until we got to Montezuma to withdraw cash from the ATM there. This was a mistake.
I was given the task of buying the ferry tickets—and I assumed I could pay with a credit card. I got up to the window with minutes to spare, only then to discover that I needed colones from Chris, who was way down the road, sitting in the car line—which was now making its way on to the ferry.
I had no choice but to get out of the ticket line and send Joy running to the car to get colones. By the time I made it to the ticket window again, the attendant was not happy to see me. I was panicked and probably sounding like a typical entitled American tourist—I butted in front of the guy in front of me, begging, “Lo siento, lo siento …” He gave me a sort of stunned look at how rude I was being. I felt terrible, but the vehicle line had moved quickly and we risked losing our spot on the ferry. The attendant seemed purposely to be moving as slowly as possible. As soon as she handed me my change, we made a mad dash and got the vehicle ticket to Chris just in time.
We all boarded the ferry, breathed a big sigh of relief, and went in search of some much needed mid-morning cervezas.
Ferries like these can accommodate a huge load. The lowest level is reserved for cars—people drive on, park, and then come up to the passenger decks. There is a mid-deck that holds larger vehicles such as buses and tour vans. Then there is an indoor seating area, where most of the families stay. Finally, there is the upper deck, which has a bar that sells some snacks and beer. And where, we discovered, some people like to get a little boozy on a Sunday morning.
We each got a Pilsen at the bar. The bartender/DJ was blasting dance music at maximum volume. About a dozen Spanish-speaking dude-bros were already noticeably drunk and encouraging each other with the universal call of the frat guy: WOO-HOOOOOOOO!
There was a group of 10-15 twenty-something women dancing to the deafening music near the “Woo-hoo” guys. They were drawing quite a bit of attention from the rest of the ferry passengers. They started out dancing provocatively with each other in a circle, which then escalated to one woman hanging from the rafters with her legs stretched out spread eagle—this should have been our first sign that something was different about these lady travelers.
The ferry had barely pushed off from the dock when all the dancing women started stripping down to thongs and string bikini tops. Many of the male passengers—and the ferry staff—were holding up their smartphones, snapping pictures and video.
We found seats on the other side of the deck, where we could hear the music and see some of the crowd, but we couldn’t see the dancing. We were right outside the bathroom, so we watched the steady stream of scantily clad women going back and forth to adjust their—outfits.
Was this the normal Sunday morning ferry crowd? We didn’t know. Was our entire vacation going to be like an episode of Spring Break Miami?
As we were exiting the ferry, we got the answer to our all our questions—in the mid-deck area, where all the buses were parked, there was a shiny gray van with pink lettering stenciled on the side. It said “Glam Pole.”
Of all the ferries we could have taken, we ended up on the one with the strippers. Of course, Chris and Brian found this to be quite fortunate, and assured us that the Glam Pole ladies (or Glam Hole, as we came to refer to them) undoubtedly were a positive omen for the rest of our trip.
Aside from some sharp turns and narrow passages, the drive from Paquera to Montezuma was a piece of cake. We stopped off in Cobano because we’d been told that the market was better and cheaper than the one nearest to our house. We stocked up on pasta, processed cheese, milk (in a tetra-pak), jugo de naranja (also in a tetra-pak), some bread, beans, tortillas, salsa, chips, carne asada, cereal, bananas, coffee, Coke, beer, tequila, rum, and a package of chicken hot dogs, or salchiches, which we all agreed was more fun to say en espanol.
It wasn’t until we turned onto the private drive toward the rental house that I started to panic. The road from Montezuma to the house was steep, bumpy, pothole-y, generally treacherous and extremely long—or, at least, that’s how it felt to me the first time we drove up it. It was clear immediately that none of us would ever be walking up and down this road at night unless we wanted to become an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive.It was obvious that none of us would be walking up and down this road, which meant that my plan to stay in Montezuma at the hostel just got a helluva lot less convenient. I had visions of myself sadly sitting at the community table at the hostel, eating free pancakes across from a white guy with dreadlocks.
All we could do was get those guys checked into their house, eat some lunch, and hope that we came up with a better housing arrangement for me. Otherwise, my primary activity of the trip would be shaking down the hippies at the hostel for some weed.
Stay tuned for Vol. 3, wherein we meet the Coatis, discover the Koi Pond of Knowledge, and experience the horrors of the Depression Table.
*Thank you so much to Jenn Superka for the beautiful pictures of the view from the ferry ride and the macaw. And thank you for capturing, in the background of another picture, the Glam Hole girl. Otherwise, I would not have had photographic evidence of just how “fortunate” we were to be on that particular ferry.