Auto123 takes you on a road trip of discovery as our intrepid journalist recounts his two-week road trip through Costa Rica in a 2020 Lexus RX 450h.
When it comes to escaping winter, nothing beats the beach and a hot sun. Swath me in the motherly attentions of an all-inclusive resort, and I’m as happy as a clam at high tide. Except if you visit Costa Rica, a Central American country that lends itself to a whole different kind of adventure. It would be almost sacrilegious to head all the way down to that joyous, colourful country and lock yourself up in a resort.
Back at the beginning of February, in another epoch it feels like, two couples, of which I made up one-quarter, landed at Daniel-Oduber-Quiros Airport in Liberia, with a plan to head first to the beaches of Samara in the northwest part of the country – thus the flight to Liberia instead of the capital, San Jose.
Once our bodies sufficiently toasted, we would hit the road in direction of La Fortuna, spread out at the foot of the Arenal volcano in the heart of Costa Rica. From there, the last part of our trip would take us to the famed Manuel Antonio park located further south along the Pacific coast.
Yes I know, that meant missing out on the Caribbean coast to the east, the fantastic quetzals (birds) of Monteverde and the tapirs of Corcovado park near the Panamanian border. All of that would have to wait for another trip.
And in what, you may ask, were we going to undertake our 1,000 km trip? Our ride was waiting for us under a murderously hot sun as we left the airport.
Well taken care of
Sign in hand stood Jose, a representative from the Purdy Motor Group, founded in 1957 and the fourth oldest Toyota distributor in the world. Once the introductions made, Jose got on the horn (his smartphone) with a colleague, who magically appeared minutes later in our home on the road for the next 14 days: a 2020 Lexus RX 450h F Sport.
Decked in white with scintillating chrome, and embellished inside by red leather seating as befits its sportier role within the model lineup, our RX also features a 12.3-inch touchscreen and a multitude of accessories. It’s all very modern, and yet this midsize SUV dates back to the time before utility models came to dominate the automotive universe.
That this particular model was a hybrid seemed only fitting as we set out to discover the charms of Costa Rica, a country that prioritizes the concept of ecotourism.
In fact, a quarter of Costa Rican territory is given over to reserves and protected parks, around 30 of them in all. Flora and fauna as varied in type as in colour abound, making for a level of biodiversity that helps explain the two million or so visitors who are compelled to make their way here every year. Tourism reigns at the top of the country’s revenues chart, ahead of banana and coffee exports.
Not that all is peaches and cream, of course – it never is. Costa Rica’s natural riches and the bustling tourism industry have not managed to eradicate the poverty that persists among nearly a quarter of the population of Costa Ricans (more popularly known locally as Ticos and Ticas, by the way).
Multinational companies make liberal use of pesticides banished in most other corners of the planet, while the roads, ports and cultural sites of the country could clearly do with some TLC. Good thing there’s la pura vida.
Which, literally, means pure life. This concept can be applied in any other number of ways here, depending on the situation. The words can be used to salute one another on the street or to say goodbye, to signify that is all is well, to defuse a tense situation, to exhort one to take advantage of life without dwelling on the dumb stuff, etc. No better way to reach a state of zen wellness, in other words, than to adopt pura vida as one’s mantra.
Beaches, beaches, beaches!
Once the 695-litre cargo hold of the RX filled to the brim, accomplished without recourse to folding down the 40/20/40 split seats but at the cost of banging my noggin on the power rear liftgate, I set out to familiarize myself with our Lexus during the 115-km drive taking us to our AirBnB located in Samara. The salient points, you won’t be surprised to hear, were the quietude and gentleness of the ride.
Degraded as we were by a winter’s worth of sun deprivation and the accumulated fatigue induced by going through customs and then five hours of flight, and the shock of being ejected suddenly into 33-degree-Celcius temperatures, the climate-controlled cocoon of the Lexus was the perfect environment for our semi-comatose state. The impeccable cabin fitted with sophisticated materials acts like a sumptuous decompression chamber. Did I mention the massage and ventilation functions of my seat?
Jammed up against the Pacific Ocean, the town of Samara was initially “discovered” by 60s-era hippies, before being gradually taken over by North American ex-pats. In the market stalls and shops, run mainly by Chinese vendors, you’ll find prices not far removed from those you see back home, but the freshness and abundance of the fruits and vegetables are in another league.
Whenever we directed the RX and its futuristic frame onto the town’s main avenue, it was to advance at snail’s pace. Here, pedestrians rule, and cars are merely tolerated. It was all the same to us, our destination was the beach! And once we got a taste of the one at Samara, gorgeous as it was full, we wanted only to discover more of them.
We entrusted our fate in part to the Lexus navigation system (which is not always simple of use, and is accessed using a cursor controlled from a pad), and in other part to the (smartphone) map-reading talents of my co-traveler, who preferred that method to using the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto apps integrated in the RX. Thus properly guided, we ventured out on trails built more with ATVs in mind. At one point we encountered a series of power-line poles that had fallen, domino-like; the cables hugged the ground.
We then came to a sliver of water that had crept in from the sea and split the road in two. A quick inspection showed the water level posed no risk to the RX and its modest all-terrain capacities, and we forded it easily, me trying valiantly to raise as big a splash as I could. So much for a pristine white vehicle.
The point of our trek on this day was to reach the serene beach at Buenavista, known for its multitude of turtle nests. After parking the RX in the shade of a palm tree, we headed for the water and its rollicking waves. A little further, we actually drove the beach at Barrigona.
The country’s 1290-km coastline, massaged by both an ocean and a sea, features a myriad of coves and inlets each of which has its own visual and sensory pleasures to offer. Sandy beaches are often deserted save for the occasional solitary fisherman, standing waist-deep in the surf, throwing and pulling back in his net with indefatigable optimism.
By the end of each day, our white Lexus was powdered from bumper to bumper with an ochre dust that gave it the airs of on old-time all-terrain adventurer. Safe to say we were putting its AWD capabilities to a much sterner test than the average Lexus RX owner.
From the sea to the clouds
And that abuse would only get more grievous. We traded in the astonishing heat of Samara for the much cooler temperatures – on the order of 12 degrees lower – that came with a 200-km climb up to higher elevations, to occasional floods, breathtaking mountain vistas, and to the thousand-and-one activities at our disposal in and around La Fortuna, in the shadow of the Arenal volcano.
During our five days in that neck of the Costa Rican woods, we never got a glimpse of that volcano’s cone due to the persistent clouds and fog, even when the intrepid RX took us closer to the thing.
The Arenal erupted in 1968, killing over 80 local residents, and it remains active today. Costa Rica, in fact, contains no fewer than 116 volcanos, each one a humble component of the great Pacific Ring of Fire.
Once upon a time, when the local farmers realized that gringos found it a pleasant activity to dip their bodies into the river waters that had become too hot for their livestock to drink from, they lay down their pitchforks and developed thermal baths and other lucrative attractions designed to lure in tourists ready to spend. And so you have ziplines, kayaking and fishing excursions, suspended bridges, visits to coffee and cocoa plantations, horseback riding, and on and on.
In the midst of the awesome, lush vegetation all around, it’s easy to sprain one’s neck trying to catch a good look at a toucan, monkey, parrot or sloth. The large panoramic sunroof certainly helps with this, but we found it better to simply roll down the tinted windows to really get a good look around. Though of course, we had absorbed the warnings: the more colourful the frog, the more poisonous it is. And then there are the jaguars…
Are we on the right road?
The toughest test for the RX proved to be near Zapote, some 140 km beyond La Fortuna. The road slalomed endlessly up a mountainside, and while I was itching to play the professional rally driver, the queasy looks on my passengers’ faces was warning enough for me to take it easy. Suddenly the zig-zagging stopped and the pocked asphalt surface gave way to an even rougher “road”; it felt like I was driving the RX the length of a stegosaur’s back.
Erosion of the road had left in place torture instruments that punished the 20-inch tires of the RX relentlessly. For a moment, I doubted we were in the right place. Had I veered off the correct road without realizing it, onto a side track meant for tanks or donkeys? A check of the nav screen showed that, no, we were still on Ruta Nacional 713. Oh my.
Its magnificent grille pointing defiantly at the mean rocks and craters, its safety belt protecting my forehead from a nasty argument with the windshield, the RX held firm. During our descent we passed a Jeep heading the other way, and I wondered what its driver thought we were up to in our fancy-pants “urban” SUV.
Fortunately for us, this F Sport version includes adaptive shocks with upgraded settings. The steering performed reasonably well in the circumstances, but the truth is the RX hopped around like a fakir who’s finally started to find the coals just a little too hot. Meanwhile, the inclined A pillars of this sporty-looking vehicle did obstruct my line of sight on the more hazardous curves.
At long last, the ground leveled out and we ended up in a little hamlet, where local youths played by the side of the road. They stared wide-eyed at this otherworldly vehicle that had just survived the murderous descent into town.
All we wanted was to go do it all over again!
It’s only passing madness! Continue to next page for more…