San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica's Caldera highway opens, but not without roadblocks

OROTINA, Costa Rica – The Costa Rican government inaugurated the 77 kilometer highway from San José to the central Pacific town of Caldera on Wednesday afternoon, 34 years after planning for the project began.

The roadway stretches across bridges built hundreds of feet above rivers in places and paved lanes rise and descend gently around gradual mountain curves. The new thoroughfare cuts the time of the old San José-Caldera trip in half – from approximately 90 minutes to roughly 45 minutes – and a one-way trip costs four wheel vehicles ¢ 1,930 ($3.47).

Not so gradual and gentle, however, are some of the sharp, 90 degree rock walls that line the route where Autopistas del Sol, the Spanish company contracted to build the road, had to slice through mountains to construct the new toll way. While some steep cliffs have been reinforced with concrete to prevent landslides, others had already begun to crumble. Strong winds that whip around bends just east of Orotina blew jagged rocks, several larger than a softball, onto the freshly asphalted expressway.

The road opens up from two lanes to four near major towns along the way, such as Orotina and La Guácima, and then narrows to three in spots and back down to two before it ends in Caldera. Police, ambulance and tow truck hubs are stationed en route, but the shoulder lanes where emergency vehicles would expectedly travel are the half the width a sedan-size car.

And as is the case with most Costa Rican infrastructure projects, its christening didn´t come without controversy.

Close to 100 protesters blocked the entire highway near Santa Ana and Ciudad Col ón, southwest of San José, holding banners, shouting and refusing to let cars pass. They claimed the project did not consider neighboring communities´ needs, such as stop lights and pedestrian bridges. The residents also were upset about having to pay a toll to enter the expressway.

Another family near Atenas claimed that the government cut off access to the aquifer that supplied them with clean drinking water and slashed their electricity lines to allow for construction of the road through their family farm. They say they have been without both utilities for 10 months.

But for the majority of those who plan to make use of the new vehicular artery, the completion and inauguration of the San José-Caldera highway comes as long-awaited good news.

“It´s beautiful,” said 67-year-old Raúl González of Orotina, as he sat in the shade of his garage and watched from afar Costa Rican President Oscar Arias cut the ribbon. “This will open up great opportunities for Costa Ricans.”

See the Jan. 29 print or digital edition of The Tico Times for more on this story.

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