Two years ago when I visited Los Chiles , a remote end-of-the-paved-road town near the Nicaraguan  border, I pushed on for the frontier along a skunk of a dirt road that deposited me by a padlocked gate and a vacant Immigration/Customs post.
Word was that the road was soon going to be paved and a border post opened. (Currently the only passage is by road at La Cruz , or by river from Los Chiles.)
President Laura Chinchilla  responded by hastily announcing construction of a new highway along the entire length of the Río San Juan and the Nicaraguan border. Ostensibly the road would provide a means to sponsor economic development and bring electricity and other government services for the isolated and impoverished communities of the region; and provide an alternative to boat travel along the river, which lies entirely within Nicaraguan jurisdiction.
No doubt the Juan Rafael Mora Porras 1856 Highway (which is named for the three-time Tico president  who successfully led the effort to defeat an invasion from Nicaragua by William Walker  in 1856), or Ruta 1856 , will primarily serve as a thinly-veiled means of providing for rapid deployment of security forces, if needed.
The initial phase paralleling the river will stretch 160 kilometers from Isla Calero, on the Caribbean  coast, to Los Chiles. A second phase will connect Los Chiles with La Cruz, in the far northwest of Costa Rica.
For travelers, the road promises to finally make accessible a magnificent region heretofore relegated to the margins of ecotourism. Nonetheless, environmentalists were immediately up in arms, claiming that construction of the road would lead to deforestation and other ills.
Less than a year after the road was inaugurated, the environmentalists' fears have come true...
The greatest ill, reported in-depth by the Tico Times  and other Costa Rican media, has been large-scale corruption and its corollary—shoddy construction the length of the as-yet-unfinished road.
The road project was declared by Chinchilla using emergency powers, and funded by an $40 million appropriation from the National Emergency Commission (CNE). The emergency powers invoked permitted construction to go ahead without the normal environmental impact studies—a process that normally would take many years.
The deal was done. Thirty-five private construction companies (many with no experience in road building) were awarded contracts. On February 3, 2012, Chinchilla and government officials formally inaugurated the road and work was hastily begun.
Alas, as Costa Rica’s chief newspaper, La Nación , reported, construction was launched without sufficient structural planning, including lack of bridge reinforcements and adequate ditches to handle the region’s heavy seasonal rainfall. Added the Tico Times , inspectors “warned that at the first sign of rain during the rainy season the road would likely collapse, because drainage systems were inadequate and poorly designed.”
Meanwhile, locals reported that some contractors were cutting the forests to illegally traffic the timber.
In May 2012, agents from the Organismo de Investigación Judicial  (OIJ, or Judicial Investigation Police), Costa Rica’s equivalent of the FBI , raided the headquarters of the National Roadway Council  (CONAVI) and National Emergency Commission. Large-scale corruption was revealed. Transport Minister Francisco Jiménez was forced to resign.
In July the nation's environmental enforcement watchdog, the Tribunal Ambiental Administrativo  (TAA), issued a damning report documenting extensive tree-felling for lumber (including of protected species), in-filling of protected wetlands, diverting of rivers, and such irregularities as bridges made from shipping containers topped by wood and a veneer of asphalt.
As predicted, when the summer rains hit, at least five bridges collapsed and large sections of the completed road have already washed out.
The TAA demanded that CONAVI and other agencies come up with a plan to fix the problems, while AM Costa Rica  reports that the Tribunal ordered that construction be halted.
Then, earlier this month, CONAVI’s former director, two other high-ranking officials, and three private contractors were arrested for malfeance, including payment of bribes to inspectors.
What a mess!
Hopefully the situation will improve and the road will be completed in good order so that travelers can journey with ease along the border to discover such ecological wonders as the Lacustrino-Tamborcito Wetlands  and Maquenque National Park .
For complete practical and background information to Costa Rica, buy the latest edition of Moon Handbook Costa Rica .
If you're traveling only to San José and the Caribbean, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Caribbean Coast  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to the beaches of Nicoya, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Nicoya Peninsula  pocket guide.
If you're traveling only to Arenal and/or Monteverde, buy Moon Spotlight Costa Rica's Arenal&Monteverde  pocket guide.
Learn more about Christopher P. Baker .
Disclosure: I occasionally accept free or discounted travel when it coincides with my editorial goals. However, my opinion is never for sale. The opinions you see in Cuba & Costa Rica Journal are my unbiased reflection of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Copyright © Christopher P. Baker