Finding Fun on the Drive to the Lost River

We're 15 minutes into a 35-minute wait for construction. There's not a traffic flagger in sight. There is, however, a man selling tortillas and some sort of beverage walking down the long line of cars. This is exactly what I was hoping for when I stepped off the plane in Costa Rica's Guanacaste province for two days of driving. Well, not the traffic. Especially since that was the only road to take us to the lost river and hot springs that was our destination that afternoon.

Setting off from our hotel, this small country can see long travel times. And that's not just because of construction. Once you leave the main highway, nearly every road we saw spent more time winding up and down hills and mountains than they did moving you forward. You'll never hear me complain that a road is too twisty, but some of these sure do come close. Especially if you're crammed into the back of a 15-seat shuttle bus that seems to have a 1.5L non-turbo diesel – with a clutch that is just begging to be put back on flat ground. Or to be retired altogether, so that it can at last rest. A fitting end to mark the thousands of turistas whose backsides have compressed its seat foam to nothing.

There are the speed limits, too. 40 km/h on most roads, with some allowing you the neck-breaking pace of 80 km/h. And some having no markings at all, which is why you should at least glance at the traffic laws before driving in any new country. Advice I should have heeded.

But we're not in a tired tourist transport. We're in a wonderfully imposing convoy of Lexus RX models. And a slightly less imposing UX. And we're quickly learning that the best roads keep the higher speed limit on twisty stretches of narrow roads that shoot up and down those hills like a British B-road. But with more elevation and tropical grasses edging out into the tarmac instead of hedgerows and stone walls.

We start out in the UX. Looking rather small compared to the silver and red RXs in convoy, that smallness combined with an extremely high load floor mean that our large Pelican cooler, barely making a dent in the RX's cargo bay, is just about all that can fit in the boot. It's just kissing the rear glass, but we need the water. Or at least I do. 38°C and 95 percent humidity is too much for this Bluenoser.

It's got 1970's GM-grade air conditioning, though. Which means that inside we're able to keep cool and dry. And the large plastic door panels inside the UX stay well below the flesh-frying temperature they reach while the UX sits parked.

The UX is one of the newest Lexus crossovers, and so of course, like the rest of the company's lineup it's intended to be sporty. Because while Lexus doesn't seem like a youthful sporting brand in Canada, in much of the world it is.

The scenery in Costa Rica is beautiful. Those mountains, hills, and valleys that bring sinewy roads also give you excellent vistas. Filled with new forms of wildlife for you to avoid on the road. Monkeys, massive lizards, even horses just meander onto the road. One small group of those horses, and we're not sure if they're wild or just left to their own devices, even distracted part of our group, causing them to miss a particularly acute right turn. When they finally caught up, our chirps of "You didn't turn at the horses, did you?" were met with that embarrassed acknowledgement that comes when you realize that mother nature got the best of your driving skills.

After that turn, though, it was all eyes on the road. These were serious driving roads. Tight, twisty, with the occasional oncoming truck who thinks that it could make better use of your lane than you would. What wasn't on the challenge list was the pavement. All but one of the roads we used, covering several hundred kilometres, was paved. Nearly all seemed to have been paved in the last year or so. The pavement was excellent, letting you focus on the views and the locals, not the pothole-dodging that is my commute at home.

With grasses giving the off-side doors a fresh new polish, the UX felt very much at home. The narrow width gives you a bit more room to play with on the particularly narrow stretches. And while in that crossover my drive partner handled the most challenging stretch, he compared the roads to some of the best tarmac rally stages Canada has to offer. Which explains why he was driving at rally pace.

The UX felt completely planted despite the pace, with limited body roll and plenty of shove, plus quick steering for dodging motorcyclists and monitors.

We then arrived at Rio Perdido, where hot springs mix with an existing river, letting dippers pick how hot they want their hot spring. Those springs, emerging from the mountainside, give the lost river its name. Head up or down the river until you find your Goldilocks spot. Mine was pretty far downriver, since even the cool water was nearing hot-tub temperatures. Of course, while you enjoy the water, the monkeys enjoy yelling at you. And I'm fairly sure that some sort of fish took a nip at my toes. That's nature for you, and offering up some of myself as fish food was worth the views out over the neighbouring hills. Though if you're planning on taking a long hike to hot water on an even hotter day, you should be careful of heatstroke on the way back. Which I learned the hard way.

On the way back, it was time for the RX Hybrid, which had an infotainment system neither I nor my drive partner had ever seen. A dial-based system instead of the Lexus remote touchpad. We both got a bit excited about the knob, which was very Mazda-like and extremely intuitive. Until the Lexus rep in the back seat somewhat hesitantly pointed out that we were talking about a non-nav car that is available in Costa Rica, but not in Canada. It's nav-and-touchpad-only for us up North.

The RX 450h wasn't as good of a fit on these narrow roads, but it still handled with more aplomb than I thought a Lexus would offer. Diving into corners, sharp turn-in, and plenty of power sent to the rear wheels by the hybrid motor to keep understeer at bay. Would I have preferred an RC 350? Maybe. On the good pavement, sure. On the bumpy bits, I'll take the crossover. And spaceship that is the LC 500 would have been far too wide for these narrow roads.

One of my favourite parts of any hybrid is the ability to sit there, engine off, passengers still enjoying the A/C. Like we did in the same construction on the way back. There isn't much in the way of detours available here.

This might have been a short one on the scale of the road trip, but it hit all the best highlights. Getting lost, amazing roads, astounding views, and five good driving partners. One sharing driving duties, one in the back, and the last two the crossovers.

My takeaways were to stop being afraid to drive in a different country. At least if you're not downtown. And while you should make sure to enjoy the wildlife, don't let the horses make you miss your turn.