OROTINA – Raúl González remembers when he could see only mango trees from his home in this small town, where he has lived most of his life. The 67-year-old retired bar owner swayed in a rocking chair at his new home on the outskirts of town, recalling the days when a man by the last name of Araya used to chop down the fruits, throw them in a cart and send them to San José on a small, rocky dirt road. “It was mangos, mangos everywhere,” he said.
Now, a four-lane highway cuts through the farm where Araya used to work, fewer than 100 meters in front of Gonzalez’ home. The mango trees are gone, but González doesn’t mind the new view.
“This town has always been a sleepy little place,” he said as he rocked gently in his chair and sipped lukewarm coffee. “But this highway is good. It’s a change, but I think its going to bring us business, open up space for us. People will finally know where Orotina is.”
On Wednesday, the Costa Rican government inaugurated the new 77-kilometer highway from San José to the central Pacific port town of Caldera, a route that passes tiny townships that not even many Costa Ricans knew existed. The opening represents 34 years of planning, estimating, contracting and building.
Inauguration day was accompanied by some roadblocks, but most welcomed the new thruway with open arms.
“We were a country of five-star hotels and one-star highways,” said Costa Rican President Oscar Arias at the highway’s inaugural ceremony. “But with projects like these, our highways and infrastructure will no longer be a national embarrassment.”
The road 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 highway.
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 softballs, onto the freshly asphalted expressway this week.
The road widens from two lanes to four near major towns along the way, such as Orotina and La Guácima, narrows to three lanes in spots, and then 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 supposedly travel are half the width of a sedan-sized 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 Colón, 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 pedestrian bridges and sidewalks. 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.
“This is a public path and they completely cut it off,” said Mario Valverde, 45, who owns the property. He pointed to a stream on the other side of highway, where he now crosses three lanes of high-speed traffic, collects water in buckets and carries it back to his home. The family has presented a complaint with the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, but has yet to receive a response. 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,” González, the Orotina resident, said as he sat in the shade of his garage and watched from afar as President Arias cut the ribbon. “This will open up great opportunities for Costa Ricans.”