The walls of thick green forest and miles of mountainous vegetation distract from the bumpy and dusty road to the laid back cloud-forest town of Monteverde.
Founded by Quakers in the 1950s, Monteverde is one of the top tourist destinations in Costa Rica. More specifically, the main little town of Santa Elena is the first stop most tourists make. There are approximately 7,000 residents in the cloud forest, according to Monteverdeinfo.com. And approximately 180,000 visitors a year travel to the area, according to Danny Ramírez, president of the Cámara de Turismo Monteverde.
The main road, Ruta 606, leading from Puntarenas and up through Guacimal has a 17- kilometer stretch that has driven residents and business owners to work together to demand a better road.
Their efforts worked. Officials from Consejo Nacional de Vialidad confirmed road construction no later than the end of this month, said Rafa Eduardo Arguedes, resident and local activist. He said the confirmation was made during a meeting last week in San José. Officials from the road agency were called and emailed for interviews, but they didn’t reply.
The lack of tourism sparked business owners to seek a better road. And now residents have sided with the local entrepreneurs because of health and safety issues such as respiratory problems and vehicles falling off the edge.
“Monteverde wants and needs a new road,” said Arguedes.
There were eight collisions and five rollovers on the Guacimal road in 2012, according to the Cruz Roja in Monteverde.
The Facebook page of Foro de Monteverde confirmed that the road construction to a paved road will begin sometime this month. Arguedes said in November when the rain stops is when they can expect asphalt to be laid down. He added there are different steps for a full paved road but Monteverde will have a paved road soon.
The locals have put up with the gravel roads, the damaged vehicles caused by the road and the decrease in tourism. Susu Gray, resident, said the roads have to improve for development since Monteverde is dependent of tourism for iys economy. Ramírez said the roads aren’t wide enough for two buses to simultaneously be on the road. He added one has to fall back in order for the other to go through.
Ms. Gray said that the roads continue to get narrower because of erosion and this make her feel unsafe.
“I’m always very wary. I hold onto the steering wheel tighter and look over the edges,” said Ms, Gray.
In the past two months there have been protests that have raised national attention. Most recently a 500-plus people and a 150-vehicle caravan protest took to the Interamericana highway to demand a better road condition.
“The people feel an obligation,” said Arguedes. “The people can make an impact.”
The protestors demanded for the gravel road to be paved. The caravan drove through the 17-kilometer stretch at a slow pace, what Costa Rican’s referred to as tortuguismo, turtle-like. This caused traffic slowdowns.
“One of the biggest complaints we get here are about the roads, and they ask for a better route. That is definitely a main issue,” said Monica Arguedes Villalobos, employee of Sky Adventures.
Three different routes lead to Monteverde: Las Juntas, Tilarán, and the Guacimal stretch. An approximate four-hour drive from San José, Ruta 606 is the road most taken by visitors.
“The tourists that come here are very valuable because they show interest in this area,” said Naomi Hall, who fields questions at the Cámara de Turismo Monteverde, located in a small cabin-like building on the corner of the main street next to the popular ice cream shop. “People that come here are valuable because they’re choosing to come here and take the extra effort to come to Monteverde regardless of the roads.”
Road improvements are needed, not just to attract more tourists, Arguedes said, but also for health and safety reasons. The unpaved roads kick up a lot of dust causing respiratory problems for the locals. He said there are no hospitals in the area, only clinics, so in case of emergencies the roads complicate residents’s livelihoods, he said.
The roads have also caused cars to go off the side and roll down the mountain, said Ms. Gray. She added that there are no reports about such incidents because Monteverde doesn’t have a newspaper but that it does happen.
“It’s hard to pass other cars and busses… some cars have gone off before… it’s all word of mouth, but you do hear about it… It’s really kind of mysterious but it has happened,” said Ms. Gray.
The price of paved roads would be a one-time $16 million investment, in comparison to the now $1 million annual investment the government is supposed to spend to maintain the gravel roads once a year, Arguedes said. The roads should be maintained twice a year instead of once he added. And each repair costs approximately $200,000, said Ramírez.
The Guacimal stretch is a route that because of the topographic and environmental conditions the gravel doesn’t work, said Ramírez.
Jorge Arturo, a resident of Alajuela, believes the road should be paved. He wore a white bike short-suit covered in mud from his participation in Ecobike Monteverde, a 25-kilometer bike trail along the perimeter of Santa Elena. The bike riders trekked through two kilometers of the Guacimal route at the very end of the trail.
“The trek is very hard and pretty. it’s a beautiful zone . . . but the Guacimal should be asphalted,” Arturo said.