On the bus to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica

I love Central American public transportation. No, really. I really do. When riding busses across developing countries with not-so-developed infrastructure, one really appreciates the gift of life. I’m not talking about the hijacking or holdups we read about on cnn.com, I’m thinking more about one particular ride I took out of San Jose heading north. We were literally teetering on the edge of death.

I was sitting in the front row of the bus right behind the driver, which may have been a cultural faux pas. This is probably that section of seats we are supposed to reserve for the old ladies. It goes without saying that my travel partner for that afternoon was an old lady with a plastic babushka over her head tied under her chin with white twine. (It was rain season, and of course it was raining on and off all day.) As I said, I probably wasn’t supposed to be sitting there, but being foreign lets one off the hook for a lot of things. It was probably just as well that I was sitting up front with the old ladies, because this woman was so concerned about my welfare. My Merrell hiking boots coupled with my Bear Grylls-inspired zip-off-under-the knee-hiking pants, topped off with my collegiate tech-wick long sleeve top (not to mention hair unwashed for about 4 days give or take) was the tipoff that I was indeed not from those parts. The old lady was making sure I knew where I was heading, and was I sure did I get on the correct bus, were my people up north knowing to expect me, and for heavens sake did I already eat lunch? Etc.

The more the abuelita interrogated me, the more I realized I probably was in fact sitting in the correct section of the bus. The old lady told me it could take us up to 5 hours to reach our destination towards the north, but when she saw my eyebrows dart towards the ceiling, she advised me to calmate because we would stop twice along the way, once for the bano and the second time at a snack stand tienda. I exhaled my sigh of relief and she smiled.

(N.B. There is this weird sort of rule when you take busses throughout Central America, and I’m not OK with it whatsoever. Even if you are lucky enough to be on a charter bus with the bathroom, the drivers do not do not do not want anyone using the on-board can. Whenever I knew I had a lengthy bus ride the next day, I would purposely dehydrate myself. I wouldn’t drink anything the night before at bedtime, and upon waking in the morning I wouldn’t drink. I would drag myself and my pack to wherever the bus stop was in the 95+ degree heat and 100%+ humidity and be nearly dying by the time the bus rolled up. It goes without saying that through some sort of ironic magic I would have to pee about 20 minutes into the jaunt, but what can you do. Anyway, the rule is that most drivers, if they are setting out on a 4 hour or less busride, won’t stop at all for a bathroom break. This is beyond me. I have gone cross-eyed and blue in the face squirming in my seat on these occasions. The discomfort becomes acute and after a long while of this you can feel your kidneys getting pressed up and back against your spinal cord and Depends suddenly don’t seem to be all that preposterous an idea. The good news is, anything 4+ hours and they will definitely stop. There was also that time I had food poisioning on a 10-hour busride full of border crossings. I think it was San Salvador to somewhere in Honduras continuing on to Managua in Nicaragua. Everyone from the bus would be in line at the customs counter like you’re supposed to, [two border crossings but they make you get out of the bus on each side of the border crossing] and I’d be the gringa holding up the whole caravan because I’d be in the loo while everyone else was getting their passport stamped. I’m so lucky they didn’t leave me! But I had been more or less pleasant to the bus driver, so he wasn’t out to get me.)

I looked at abuelita with happy stars in my eyes, as she had laid to rest my fears about the baño situation. She carried on for a couple more minutes about how the last time she rode this route there was a new driver who apparently didn’t know he was supposed to take those two breaks along the way, and she had been sitting next to her sister, and he blew right past the bathroom stop, and she and her sis had jumped out of their seats and instructed him on backing the huge bus backwards down the single lane road. She and her hermana weren’t having any of that. When she paused for breath towards the end of her animated rant, I threw in my commiseration with an !ay caramba! and then this silence sort of descended for a brief moment over our section of the bus as all the other abuelitas shifted in their seats to look at me. A pin dropped, the cricket chirped, and then abuelita totally cracked up and so did the other ladies, and I sat there wondering to myself, dude, did I just utter one of those things they teach us in the textbook but people never actually say in real life? Or, are they laughing at my endearing accent? To this day I’m still hoping for the latter.

But now for the part where our lives were on the edge, and abuelita hadn’t prepared me ahead of time for this one. She probably didn’t want to scare me. We’re on a particularly winding section of road with crazy curves hugging the cliff edges, and all of a sudden there’s this untrustworthy-looking bridge, ie a few 2 by 4s draped across the gaping section of the road that gets completely interrupted by this rushing river underneath.

The driver slams on the breaks, and all the abuelas start gathering up their stuff. I consider panicking, no idea what’s going on, but abuelita has already picked up my bag of snacks and motions to my backpack. I follow her instructions- Vamos.

So we disembark, and we skedaddle as lightfootedly as possible over the wood panels and wait on the other side on a hill. We watch the dramatic bridge crossing.

The middle-aged men signal for the driver and encourage him along. If you look really carefully, there are some young guys, I think they’re about 19 or so still on the bus. They are getting their kicks and have decided not to disembark.

I’m still sort of confused at this point. So I confront the abuelas and ask them what is really going on here.

Abuela, who, together in the light rain huddled with the other abuelas stood there on the hillside crossing herself and counting rosary beads, tells me that the reason for us all getting off the bus is so that not as many people have to die if the bus falls in. I thought about forcing a smile, because I thought she was joking, but when I looked at all the other abuelas and their similarly dire facial expressions, I realized this was dead serious. Abuela explained to me that it is truly a miracle sent from above each time the bus to San Miguel de Sarapiqui safely makes it the twenty feet or so across the wooden-planked bridge.

And that’s the beauty of visiting Central America. Every mundane event is a high-stakes adventure. And you live each day as if it could be your last. Because crossing a bridge like that, it really could be.

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12 Comments on “On the bus to San Miguel de Sarapiqui, Costa Rica”

  1. Victor Hugo Carvajal Rivera September 8, 2011 at 01:56 #

    jeje que buen post!! Es completamente cierto lo que escribes, algo tan simple como cruzar un puente, puede ser lo último que hagas. Lo peor es que se ha vuelto cotidiano las calles del país y la gente le da lo mismo.

  2. Bill September 8, 2011 at 06:21 #

    Looking at the pictures, the bridge’s location is very suitable for a washout whenever a heavy rain occurs. I’m sure the bridge was built to specifications. What’s the worry!! Of course, word is on the street that the bridge is unsafe. And its a miracle when the bus crosses the bridge. I’d worry if the driver didn’t want to drive the bus across the bridge.


  3. cheri29 May 27, 2013 at 13:44 #

    They have since fixed that bridge! I have taken this trip several times as I live in the Sarapiqui area. It is a beautiful ride though.

    • Marisa LaValette May 28, 2013 at 18:16 #

      Thank you for reading! So glad to hear they have fixed the bridge… I am taking my students to Costa Rica in a few weeks and am happy to hear about repairs!

      • monica May 28, 2013 at 19:38 #

        I am happy that they made the repairs. Can you tell me where to catch the bus in San Jose and how long is the trip to San Miguel. I am returning to San miguel de sarapique with my son. Love that town and the people.

        • Marisa LaValette May 29, 2013 at 20:11 #

          Hi Monica,

          Thank you for reading!

          In San Jose, go to the Terminal San Carlos on the corner of Avenida 9 and Calle 12. This goes to northern destinations. The Coca-Cola terminal is a major bus landmark, but you need to go to the smaller Terminal San Carlos, which is just northeast of Coca-Cola.

          I remember the bus stopped once for a snack / bathroom break and that I did the trip in one quick afternoon. I think 3.5 hours. AND this was with a long layover at the untrustworthy bridge. Now that the bridge is fixed, you should have smooth sailing!

          I wish you a great trip! Costa Rica is one of the most magical places on Earth.


          • cheri29 May 30, 2013 at 10:21 #

            Once in San Jose you can tell a taxi driver that you need to go to the Gran Terminal. It is on the north side of San Jose, you can get a bus there that is direct to San Miguel de Sarapiqui. Make sure you tell them that you want the direct bus via Heredia, otherwise you will go to Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui and have to transfer. The trip now takes about 3 hours. There is one stop along the way so you can go to the bathroom and get a snack, it is at a restaurant. It is a beautiful ride, you will think you will fall off the mountain, but you won’t. Pura Vida!

          • Marisa LaValette May 30, 2013 at 13:31 #

            Hi Cheri,

            Thank you so much for the update on the busses! I appreciate you visiting the site. I hope my other articles will be just as helpful! Please also follow me on Twitter @SavvyCitiZen or LIKE the page on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SavvyZen?ref=hl.

  4. Gloria Oliu August 11, 2013 at 08:47 #

    Hope you visit this area again. Great pictures of how it used to be. The road and bridges are now safe and new. Saludos!


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