The Americas with Tubby Xplorer: Part 15

Story by Jack Stuhler with an introduction by Paul May.

Jack Stuhler, the founder of Eezi-Awn, is an adventurous man and has spent his entire life exploring the African Continent. After driving from Johannesburg to the UK through the middle east in the early 1999, Jack set his sights on the Americas. He prepared a Toyota Land Cruiser 70 Series Troopy by the name of Tubby for his journey and shipped it to South America. With his significant other, Margaret, their epic journey from Ushuaia to Dead Horse Alaska took over 18 months to complete in 2004/2005. They later returned south to Houston, and shipped Tubby home. Quite impressive for a couple in their 60s. Their adventures are an inspiration for us all.


Touch Down!! Central America – we have arrived.  No sooner had we cleared Immigration and Customs and were on our way towards San Jose the Capital of Costa Rica and our digs for the next couple of days ‘Casa Hilda’ an old timber abode converted into a tiny hotel with only four guestrooms – quaint and very comfortable.  Two days in San Jose nestled in a broad fertile valley, producing coffee and sugar cane was founded in 1737, we soon came to the conclusion that it is a nondescript, aesthetically uninteresting grubby city – nothing much to write home about.  We could only put this down to the frequent earthquakes that have destroyed most of the Colonial city and the modern replacements do little for the imagination.


The containerised Cruiser was due to arrive in Puerto Limon two days later so we arrived sooner hoping to pre-clear the vehicle. Saturday morning we boarded the local bus to Puerto Limon arriving midday at Hotel Park


The Clearing Agent informed us ‘Be Happy!! Be Patient’.  Your Landcruiser has in fact arrived in Costa Rica however the container would be uplifted and transferred in Bond to a Clearing Yard by Tuesday afternoon for opening and inspection by Customs. “Ocho hora” on Wednesday morning we met the Shipping Agent at the Aduana and from there the officer in charge accompanied us to the Yard where the container had already been opened and the Cruiser standing loose of all its tie-downs.  Wasting no time I opened the back door, climbed in, made my way to the front, turned on the ignition key and cranked the engine. Reversed out of the container for final inspection, a thorough check by the Customs Officer, a couple of questions and notes on the Waybill and we returned to his offices to arrange for final documentation.


SA 4x4 651


Back to the yard to re-fit the storage boxes, 3rd spare-wheel and the rooftent atop the Troopie. Slowly we loaded the equipment and moved it carefully to the front and as we were almost ready to make the last haul for final seating heaven only knows what happened.  One minute there I was manhandling my end of the equipment, the next moment I started to lose my balance almost two metres off the ground and began my inevitable tumble earthwards bound.  Letting go of my end of the storage box and halfway down I tried to grab hold of the sandladders which seconds before I had been standing on, hoping to break my fall but only managed to cut my hand, my right foot slammed onto the concrete floor and buckled underneath me as I crumbled on the deck my left knee crashed onto the hard surface. Searing pain enveloped my lower body as I tried to lift myself off the floor. I managed to turn onto my knees and stand up. Giddiness almost overwhelmed me but nothing was going to keep this old cantankerous bugger down!!! Cursing and mumbling to myself “You damn idiot” I went walk about, must keep moving “ When the going gets tough, the tough get going.”  Ha-ha-ha!!


Thank goodness I was well padded, nothing broken, my body took most of the brunt and I was only a little battered and bruised.  I managed to take hold of myself. Hobbling around the vehicle I could direct final installation. Up, up and away we were ready to roll “Muchas gracias – thank you for your help” and we were on our way back to our hotel and safe parking across the road.  By now it was late afternoon and time to call it a day.


SA 4x4 671


Waking up on Thursday morning, a glorious day, my body felt as if it had been hit by a train, aching in every joint.  My left leg I could hardly move and my right ankle badly swollen and blue but what the heck we had work to do.  I managed to limp downstairs and awkwardly walked across the street into the yard where Tubby was parked, undid the side-mounted ladder, climbed up and opened the rooftent which needed ventilation as it has been closed since last we camped in Paso de la Patria almost two months ago.  We took out the mattress, bedding and pillows and allowed these to air all day whilst we returned to our hotel and I spent most of the afternoon with my feet up and feeling not sorry however annoyed with myself, but thankful I was still in one piece – could have been worse.


Here in Costa Rica they celebrate Easter over Easter Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday whereas in South Africa it used to be Good Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Easter Monday. The Ticas (Costa Ricans) were out in their droves as we set off from Puerto Limon.  Cruising through south-eastern Costa Rica is similar to driving through a huge botanical garden although it is the dry season the vegetation all around abounds with greenery and a stunning array of flowers in splendid colours everywhere – Nature at its best!!  The terrain undulating, the road twisting and winding its way up and down hills and dales, north to Volcan Arenal an active volcano.  Finally we pulled into a small finca (farm), Cabinas to let, a most wonderful setting at the base of this reputedly smoking volcano albeit covered in heavy cloud and not visible on this day.


On Easter Sunday Volcan Arenal obliged.  The total cone was visible in sunshine and all of a sudden there was a belch and a rumble and a mini eruption.  The volcano spewed a massive cloud of matter that rose up into the atmosphere like a huge plume and dissipated into the sky above.  Another rumble, then silence.


SA 4x4 726


It was drizzling as we left our digs on the farm at the base of Volcan Arenal. At the end of the driveway we trundled onto the tarmac and north hugging the shores of Lago Arenal the volcano completely shrouded in mist, actually enveloped in its own eco-system.  The lake to our left and fincas (farms) to our right, the potholed road winding and twisting its way through the lush countryside eventually leading into Tillaran northwest of the Lago.  By now the weather had cleared and the heat and humidity almost unbearable.


No sooner had we left the village, the road skirted the lake southwards towards Santa Elena and Monteverde, most probably in amongst the top category of worst surfaced tracks travelled to date. No! Not potholes, not cobbles, not ripio but the worst of the worst bone-jarring, vehicle destroying bed of rocks.  Shake, rattle and roll was the order of the next two hours as we ventured along, up and down, zigzagging along this tortuous trail towards the cloud forests of Monteverde.


This rocky surface led into a small village which was actually strung out along a road between two cloud forests i.e. Santa Elena and Monteverde, a long motley conglomeration of mostly tin and timber buildings – houses, hotels, hostals and restaurants interwoven at the edge of this shocking road, a real mish-mash of construction – their only means of survival, living off tourism. Up in the cloud forests the weather tends to turn foul in the afternoon as the enveloping mist settles over the vegetation and the slopes below.


We decided to leave early the next morning and drove up a steep rutted and rocky track leading high up into the cloud forest and go walk about across hanging bridges overlooking the canopies of giant trees and vegetation from above.  The two mile hike lasted almost two hours.  Except for a few dickies we saw no other wildlife whatsoever but many groups of homo sapiens led by various guides strolling along the raised hanging and at times swaying walkways.  Then to add to this there was a new innovation to a canopy tour – gliding from platform to platform on zip-lines, a slide system slung high up in between the trees the participants hanging in midair as they glide down attached to the cable and pulley system with a specially constructed harness.  However that is not the be all and end all.  These (mostly youngsters) yell and shout as they descend along the zip lines travelling through the air.  Most annoying especially when you are searching the forest below for wildlife. Wished I had a catapult to hand. Ha! Ha!


SA 4x4 728


Three days on and we were westbound and down the valley towards the potholed Interamericana (Panamerican Highway), a short stint north and finally a dirt road west to our destination Parque Nacional Palo Verde.


Leaving the lush high altitude of the cloud forest we entered a terrain never expected of Costa Rica, the Province of Guanacaste which had a wild west atmosphere. One comes across ‘sabaneros’ trotting through town on their horses, saw prize cattle on the ranchos situated on the rolling plains and spotted impressive quanacaste trees dotting the dry landscape  plus the ever present spectacular string of volcanoes in the Cordillera de Guanacaste, Costa Rica’s most northernmost mountain range, surrounded by very dry tropical forest habitat which descends right down to the Pacific Ocean.


Palo Verde situated on the northeastern end of the mouth of Rio Tempisque is reputed to be one of the most important bird sanctuaries in the world with 18,650 ha of marshes with many birds indeed.  In the dry season the vegetation turns brownish/yellow, many trees shed their leaves, the marshes recede, leaving small lagunas (pans) of water inundated with waterfowl e.g. herons, ibis, storks, duck, purple gallinule, jacanas and many other waders.  It is said at any time there are over 60,000 resident birds.


No sooner had we entered this domain we sighted more animals within the first hour than we had seen in two weeks criss-crossing Costa Rica.  There were whiteface capuchin and black howler monkeys swinging in the trees feeding on the half ripe mangoes and those fruits that dropped to the ground the flesh consumed by coatis, aguamundi (a medium size rodent) peccaries (look like small bush-pig) deer and large tall birds called great carassow referred to by the locals as wild turkey and flitting in the high canopy of the trees yellow-naped parrots, lorrokeets, hummingbirds and lastly giant lizards and iguanas basking in the sun on the ground below. A paradise to ourselves – here in the northwest of Costa Rica.  At last we were satisfying our appetite for wildlife that we had come to expect of this country having read and seen so much of on the National Geographic and Discovery Channels.


SA 4x4 736


Before long we had to drag ourselves out of there back to the Interamericana and our last port of call, La Cruz, a village perched high up on the edge of a rim overlooking a valley and beyond the Pacific.  As the sun set over the ocean it was time to say farewell to Costa Rica.  In conclusion we were disappointed in this country, found it overwhelmed by tourists who are grossly exploited, the overrated towns and cities aesthetically bland and tacky.  The countryside is majestic and the people extremely friendly.  However as an Argentinean visitor so aptly put it “When the Ticas see a Gringo they don’t see them as people, but as dollars.”  They take it that if you are a tourist you reek of money and you should be scalped of it. Sad, but that is how it is.  Let us not detract from the fact that Margaret and I have been extremely spoilt as to where we have travelled and what we have seen and possibly had come to expect too much of Costa Rica.


Let’s see what Nicaragua holds for us.


Hasta luego

Recommended books for Overlanding