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Travel hints for Costa Rica,
Yet another trip report "whingeing" about the lack of signs in Costa Rica moves me to write these directions for crossing San Jose. My usual response, "You should have seen it 20 (or 15, or 10) years ago!" isn't much help to the independent visitor.
The major highways are now rather well signed, but San Jose is growing rapidly and its infrastructure is not keeping pace with the number of cars. Urban directions in my book Site Guides: Costa Rica are out of date.
Good luck, and if you get lost don't blame me.
Directions to cross San Jose:
Airport-Braulio Carrillo highway (Guápiles, Limon)
(Returning a rental car you will probably need to follow the first part of these directions.)
Ideally you will be picked up at the exit from customs and taken to a rental car depot on the road to Heredia. If not, or if arriving from Guanacaste or Atenas, go towards San Jose and at the killer intersection just off the end of the 07 runway take left lanes marked "Heredia". You have the right-of-way over traffic merging from the left. With the light, cross the main westbound lanes towards the Hampton Inn and bear right, again towards Heredia. Most of the rental car companies are here along the first kilometer or so.
About 9 km on you will enter the one-way grid of Heredia proper, with a gas station on the left. After a few blocks go left/north/uphill two blocks to the next eastbound street and go right. After about 10 blocks cross Heredia's northbound main drag (Burger King on the right, university on left). Signs will be "San Isidro" and eventually "Guapiles." Another 9 km, arrive San Isidro (where I live). Crossing the town requires a jog north (left) about 100 meters then east again, both signed for Guapiles. Another 2 km from San Isidro, bear left at a fork by a church and football field. After another 4 km or so, north on the highway.
Travel time to highway junction about 45 minutes, to Quebrada González 75 minutes.
There are some good sites for Cabanis' Ground Sparrow near San Isidro, feel free to call me at 268-1097 for info.
Airport-Cartago (Cerro de la Muerte, Tapantí)
Exiting airport follow signs for "San Jose" on to freeway. After about 15 km bear right towards "Hatillos." This will put you eventually on the southern ring road. Go straight through all the roundabouts, towards "Desamparados" and then "Zapote." By the time you reach Los Hatillos and Desamparados, signs will direct you onwards towards the next reference. At a roundabout with statues of Saddam Hussein and his two sons, bear right into Zapote. The obvious main thoroughfare with most the cars will deposit you at the end of the Cartago freeway after about 5 km.
Travel time to Cartago in good traffic about 1 hour, sometimes twice that during peak hours.
If by some miracle the Orotina-San Jose highway is finished before you arrive, and you wish to go from Orotina (Carara or Guanacaste) to Cartago, don't go towards the airport but continue through Santa Ana and Escazu to the juncture with the ring road. Signs will probably be Hatillos and Cartago.
Cartago-Braulio Carrillo highway
Take the Cartago freeway until it ends at a T in Curridabat.
Go right at the T, then bear left with most of the traffic at the first stoplight. This is the main Zapote road. At the roundabout with the statues, go right towards "San Pedro."
The next intersection has a flyover (cell towers on left), use it towards "Guadalupe." At the roundabout with a CR flag in the center, continue straight. The next intersection is a converted roundabout with traffic lights, go straight and get in the right lane. When the 3-lane segment ends, bear right and pass the large tan Supreme Court buildings on the left, with 3 stoplights mostly for crosswalks. (These folks are powerful enough to stop traffic.) Get in the left lane, and at the next light go left with most of the traffic.
Straight will take you to a T (Banco Cuscatlan) where go left. Another km (Automercado on left) bear right (no stop) through Tibas about 2 km. Highway on-ramp is signed "Guapiles."
Travel time from Cartago to start of highway about 45 minutes in good traffic.
This is the reverse route through the southern roundabouts. Take the Cartago freeway until it ends at a T in Curridabat. Go right at the T, then bear left with most of the traffic at the first stoplight. This is the main Zapote road. At the roundabout with the statues, go around and left towards "Desamparados." Continue through the roundabouts towards "Hatillos" and beyond. I don't remember what the signs say as you approach the San Jose-Alajuela freeway and can't be bothered to burn gasoline to go look, but eventually you will see something about Alajuela.
Shortly after the toll plaza going down the mountain towards San Jose turn right at a junction marked "San Isidro" and "Heredia." The path through San Isidro is fairly well marked for Heredia. Upon arrival in Heredia proper (Burger King on left), you'll need to jog one block right to continue west. When possible, go left two blocks and then right (west) again. If you come face-to-face with a large gymnasium, be sure to go down (left) to the next westbound street and not the side road just beyond the building. This street will take you out of Heredia and after about 8 km to the rental car depots and the Hampton Inn. The intersection here is counterintuitive and rather dangerous even by local standards, so for the uninitiated I recommend continuing straight past the Hampton a few hundred meters (old road to Alajuela) and doing a U-turn. This will allow you to bear right on to the freeway on your return.
If coming from Limon take the old highway through Turrialba.
Leaving BC National Park, passing the toll plaza and downhill about 8 km, just after bridge (football stadium on right), take exit for "Tibas." Proceed to right under freeway overpass. After 1 km at fork go left. Get in left lane shortly after the bridge; it may take several rounds to get through the stoplight. (Palms with oropendola colony on right.) After 1.5 km turn right (Banco Cuscatlan). After about 2 km turn right on to the main Guadelupe road, just before a park on the left. About a kilometer on is the intersection with the ring road; prepare to go left. It may take several cycles of the left turn light to get through. At the roundabout with the flag continue straight. Take the flyover bridge (large mall on right) towards Zapote. At the roundabout with the statues, go around left into Zapote and continue (signs for Cartago) to the start of the freeway.
Some notes on Braulio Carrillo National Park
Access to this important site close to San Jose has suffered of late. The Quebrada Gonzalez station has a gate, and doesn't officially open until 8:00 am. Mostly the management doesn't care if you go in early as long as you pay, so it's possible to jump the gate and quietly walk in. I don't recommend leaving a car on the highway, however, so you'll really need to go by bus to do this. You might get away with leaving a car by the gate with absolutely nothing in it. The first Guapiles bus leaves at 5:00. There are also trails across the highway from the station, but the area is second growth and not nearly as good for birding.
An alternative is the old "Botella" trail, which is no longer maintained and is only for the hardy. Yes, this is where birders were being robbed at gunpoint in the late '90s. There is no parking here either. It is rather easy to locate now, as there is a cell phone tower at the start of the trail. Tell the bus driver "la torre del ICE" (that's eee-say).
An area of Stachytarpheta shrubs just below Quebrada Gonzalez has been good of late for hummingbirds including Snowcap and Black-crested Coquette. It's an old butterfly garden at the first wide spot below the park boundry.
Notes on Carara National Park
Birding access to the most important site here is also under seige. It appears the park service, primarily in the interest of revenue again, would like to cut off access from the highway to the river trail (road) along the west side of the park. That will mean a trail from the HQ a couple of kilometers away opening at 8:00, about when the best 3 hours of birding in CR is finishing up. They'll try to tell you the birding is good around the station but it's really lousy second-growth. There's also a trail in decent forest by the old park station a couple km towards Jaco but I don't know the present status.
There have been many problems with break-ins here too so leave the car by the bridge at the police post. If you arrive at dawn when the macaws are starting to come in there will be a cop asleep inside. I doubt it's really possible to get there early enough by bus. Go pay when you get out. C'mon, it's only $6.