CRC Daily: Does Cerro de la Muerte live up to its name?

Names don’t get much scarier than the “Mountain of Death”

As far as geography goes, the name Cerro de la Muerte (translated literally, Mountain of Death) is about as frightening as they come.

The scare might be amplified if it’s your first time in Costa Rica and your GPS, hotel or guidebook has casually instructed you to drive over the Mountain of Death. Maybe you’re here for an adventure, but most people would like to return home in one piece!

Cerro de la Muerte is part of the Talamanca mountain range, southwest of San José. The Pan-American Highway crosses the cordillera, meaning thousands of people each day brave Cerro de la Muerte as they drive between San José and Costa Rica’s southern Pacific.

The mountain’s fear-inducing name predates the highway by decades. Before the road existed, traveling from San José to the South Pacific took several days on foot. There were no shelters, meaning people would spend the entire trip exposed to bitter cold, strong winds and dangerous wildlife. Many didn’t make it, hence the “Cerro de la Muerte” moniker.

(By the early 1900s, the Costa Rican government built three shelters along the route. One of them was appropriately named La Muerte — death.)

With the Pan-American Highway, the journey between the Greater Metropolitan Area and Perez Zeledon is a comfortable three hours on a paved road. Easy, right? Not quite.

Your first bit of unease might come when you see the signs reading Peligro (danger) that don’t specify exactly what the danger is. Or you might get nervous when you pass the mechanics and their tow trucks waiting expectantly as you begin the first uphill.

Cerro de la Muerte is far from imminent death, but the mountain is still deserving of its name. Drivers face heavy rainfall, blinding fog, winding roads and the persistent threat of a landslide:

It’s common for the highway over Cerro de la Muerte to close for hours or days as workers clear debris. (A couple years ago, a series of landslides trapped two buses on the mountains for 42 frigid hours.) The road itself is ever-changing as sections are wiped out, rebuilt, and wiped out again.

And you have to deal with Costa Rican drivers, who speed and overtake as if they were competing in a time trial. (Ticos seem to lose their patience and well-mannered nature when they get behind the steering wheel.)

All of this has made the Pan-American Highway over Cerro de la Muerte one of Costa Rica’s most-dangerous roads.

Of course, Cerro de la Muerte isn’t the only nervy stretch of road in Costa Rica, a country characterized by its mountains, tropical weather and seismic activity. Just last night, a falling tree killed two people on Route 32, a highway that bisects Braulio Carrillo National Park.

If Google Maps asks you to traverse Cerro de la Muerte, you don’t need to be afraid. After all, you’ll be in a car, not embarking on a weeklong overland trek. But do show some respect: drive during the daytime, take it slow, and don’t be afraid to take a break if the journey is stressful. With some luck, you’ll enjoy clear weather and the stunning views Cerro de la Muerte can provide.

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