In my last column I was singing the praises of Costa Rica’s extensive bus system, pointing out the significant amount of money my husband Layne and I save by having no car. For the most part, the buses here are modern, comfortable and safe. If you’ve ever experienced Tico driving, you’d surely agree that riding a bus here is safer by far than driving an automobile. As mild-mannered and charming as most Ticos are in person, put them behind the wheel of a car and many become speed-obsessed maniacs, passing on curves, slipping through stop signs, racing down residential streets.
Our experience with bus passengers, however, has been quite the opposite. As I described in the earlier article, often a helpful Tico rescued Layne and me from our obvious confusion by offering directions in English or even going out of their way to guide us to our bus. Perhaps it’s just that riding the bus cultivates patience whereas driving through congested traffic feeds frustration. It’s certainly true that we enjoy the tropical scenery out the big bus windows and we find that the time the ride takes gives us an opportunity to read or chat with one another.
Not all of our bus rides, however, have been a peaceful cruise to our destination. In our year and a half here we have become quite experienced bus passengers, learning more each time we ride and enduring a few hair-raising adventures in the process. Last spring at the beginning of the rainy season on a trip back to Atenas from San Jose, we experienced our first, and so far only, bus accident. It was a crowded busload with people standing in the aisle. Fresh rains earlier in the day had made the roadway slick and as the bus approached one of the sharp downhill curves, the driver realized he was going too fast and hit the brakes hard, then harder still. As we careened down the slippery slope, the bus swerved and struggled unsuccessfully for traction until abruptly there was a loud bang and bump as we skidded off the road into the embankment. Several passengers who had been standing grabbed for seatbacks as they fought to stay on their feet and a few looked frightened, but no one was hurt. With the bus at a standstill (and fortunately not over a cliff!), the driver set the brake and exited to check for damage. Apparently these vehicles are well constructed because in a short time, we were on our way again, none the worse for the wear. But we did notice that for the rest of the trip, the driver proceeded at a slower pace, for which we were grateful.
Another unexpected incident was on a festive trip to Playa Jaco with friends. Shortly after leaving Atenas heading up the hill, there was suddenly a huge bang from beneath the rear of the bus followed by a few screams from startled passengers. Layne and I turned to each other with an “uh-oh” look. Blowout! With double axles all around there was no detectable swerve, just a gentle slowing as the driver began to pull onto the shoulder. He and several helpful Tico passengers exited and soon we heard the clatter of tools being hauled out and the noise of men getting to work. When our friends and I got off the bus to take some photos, we noticed that the driver of the Quepos bus behind us had stopped to assist in changing the tire. It was quite a scene as the group of beefy Ticos struggled to remove the tight lug nuts. Finally, they used a “cheater” length of pipe for extra leverage and soon we were back on the road, eventually arriving safely in Jaco.
Although these two episodes occurred in the long-haul modern buses that travel between major cities, some of our bus adventures have been in older, more rickety vehicles used on back roads between smaller pueblos. A few months ago we traveled to the little village of Londres to volunteer at an “intentional conscious community” harvesting bamboo for building materials. The last leg of this journey was in a scruffy bus that rattled as it rolled up the steep slopes outside of the beach town of Quepos. As the old vehicle bounced over rutted gravel roads, we smiled tolerantly at the noisy metallic banging, confident we would eventually arrive at our destination.
As we approached the final bridge across the Rio Naranjo, the bus stopped and all the passengers began to disembark. Layne and I sat there with our suitcases, looking befuddled, uncertain what to do. In Spanish, the bus driver tried to explain to us, the only Gringos onboard, that we needed to get off but as we picked up our bags to exit he shook his head “no,” indicating that we should leave the luggage on the bus. At that moment, we recalled our hostess for the weekend had warned us that we might have to walk across the bridge due to worries about its safety because of damage from heavy rains earlier in the year. Smiling sheepishly as we approached the Ticos on the other side of the bridge, we waited patiently while the bus slowly made its way over the damaged span, empty except for the poor courageous driver and our bags.
Layne and I rode another dilapidated bus down the side of a mountain after a weekend visit with friends in the tiny town of La Estrella. In a scene straight out of “Romancing the Stone,” the tires on the colorful antique bus seemed to roll only inches from sheer cliffs and made hairpin turns with little room to spare on the narrow dirt road. Still, the driver never seemed out of control as he wound down the steep mountainside through small communities of a few houses, cattle grazing and chickens running loose. As a reward for our cool nerves, we enjoyed spectacular panoramic views of tropical wilderness. When we arrived safely back in Cartago ready to catch a bus to San Jose and then on to Atenas, we smiled in satisfaction at having survived another Costa Rican bus adventure. Pura Vida!
Copyright 2011, P. Kat Sunlove