Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The bridges of Puntarenas Province

While the country’s major highways are certainly an improvement over the streets we drive in town, they are still a far cry from the interstates of the US. It’s not unusual for buses to stop on the highway to pick someone up at seemingly random points. People walk on the extremely narrow shoulders—sometimes three and four people across, they stray onto the highway itself. Women walk here with babies and children, people ride their bicycles, dirt bikes, and horses right down the road. We’ve seen oxen on the highway, pulling carts—and on this trip we met up with a man walking his cows the wrong way on the highway, directly toward us. It’s just hard to believe, sometimes.

There are often few to no line markings, safety signs, or even shoulders on the highway. But there are frequent potholes, drop-offs without guardrails, and areas where the road has fallen away. One time we saw a part of the highway missing and the only marking was a huge stick poking out of the lane with a rag hanging on it.

So back to our trip…the road from Jacó to Manuel Antonio was undoubtedly the best we have seen in Costa Rica thus far. It was wide, lined, and relatively smooth in most places (where the road was bad, there were signs indicating “carretera en mal estado”—highway in bad shape). Yet it wasn’t the road itself that freaked out three of the four members of our family (Lauren is nearly unflappable), it was the temporary bridges. The "You Have Got to Be Kidding Me, I’m Not Going Over That!!!" bridges.

I sent one picture earlier of the suspension bridge between Puriscal and Orotina. We thought this bridge was a bit extreme. We couldn’t have been more wrong. I now think that bridge is a piece of cake.

Moving on…We approached our first true Bridge of Doom on the south side of Parrita. Rumor has it that this bridge has been under construction for many years. We waited in a line of traffic to cross with no idea what we were in for. As we got closer, we saw big commercial trucks going over. Later it occurred to me that (1) if these huge vehicles could cross, the bridge must be safe, and (2) those huge trucks were just weakening the bridge for the rest of us who had to drive across.

Just before the bridge, there is a sign that says “puente angosto.” This means “narrow bridge,” but I really think the “angosto” is a cognate for “angst.” The Bridge of Angst would be a most appropriate moniker: This incredible feat of engineering was truly a one-lane wonder.

Pictures don’t do the bridge justice, nor do words, but both will have to suffice to describe this seemingly ancient—definitely rickety!—railroad bridge, which has rails placed width-wise to use as the driving surface with planks in place for the tire tracks. The rails were not secured to the support beams beneath, and we could see them shifting under the pressure of the vehicles ahead. In some places the rails were permanently bent toward the water 50 feet below—not exactly reassuring to those traversing the bridge. Click here for photos of the suspension bridge near Orotina and more pictures of the Bridge of Doom in Parrita.

The second bridge is further south, closer to Quepos. This bridge was worse than the first. When we saw the sign “puente en construccion adelante” (bridge under construction ahead) we knew it couldn’t be good.

We crossed these two bridges eight times on this trip, but the most unnerving was the final time as we headed north. The truck in front of us stopped on the bridge and the driver got out. I told Dan that if I heard a clanking noise I was going to lose it. Sure enough, the sound of metal hitting metal rang out; the man was adjusting one of the planks which must have shifted dangerously from the previous vehicle. It was so unbelievable that I exploded with nervous, rather maniacal laughter the entire way across.

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