The Story of Costa Rica Guide & Toucan Maps
Adapted from Desafío Magazine
“You do What?” is the predictable response when Sue or I tell anyone that after years training as biochemists we ended up making maps of Costa Rica.
After a physical biochemistry post doc using nuclear magnetic resonance to study protein structure at Albert Einstein Medical School in New York we wanted to return to our northern Colorado hometown where our best job prospects were at the university. Somehow the professor’s life cycle didn’t seem appealing – writing grants to train graduate students to do research to get more data to write more grants. We decided to try something completely different.
Sue and I were captivated by Costa Rica a decade earlier bicycling around the country on our Luna de Miel. We returned regularly and had learned so much about travel there that our first thought was “we could write a guidebook!”
If a product is going to be successful it should fill an unmet need and unfortunately for the guidebook idea several good ones existed. However, after thousands of kilometers on our bikes, getting lost frequently, we knew there was need for a good map of Costa Rica.
The existing maps all reflected the poor quality of the available data and after searching high and low for better information we decided that the only way to know for sure was to go see for ourselves. We thought we two can simply travel the country collecting data in person and Toucan Maps was born.
Later we learned that we weren’t the first mappers to decide that it wasn’t acceptable to trust the veracity of data and seeing for yourself even has a name. Among cartographers it’s know as “ground truthing,” and we do it each year when we visit Costa Rica for a couple of months to gather gps data and other information for updates to ensure the map is current.
After hearing this people inevitably enviously ask “So do you spend all your time hanging out on the beach and hiking in rainforests?” While we do have fun, it’s hard work and sometimes it can actually be stressful.
In March we were exploring an un-named stretch of road that parallels route 826 closer to Río General. We had information that work was progressing to improve it from a rugged rutted track into a good gravel road complete with bridges and culverts. We left the Pan American highway north of Palmar around lunch time and were encouraged by the graders and other equipment working near Terraba. We figured we’d reach the pavement at Aguila south of Pejibaye in an hour or so and would rejoin the highway well before dark.
As the sun started to dip towards the coastal ranges we had left the improved road far behind. Much too far to consider retreating and as we were pushed sideways along the gravel bottom of the third and deepest ford yet on the Río Las Pilas we wondered exactly how much it would cost to replace a nice mid-sized SUV. It was getting late and we were crawling along with four wheel drive engaged knowing we couldn’t proceed either direction on this route after dark.
We hadn’t seen another vehicle all afternoon and were starting to look around for a likely place to park for the night. Road construction had started from both ends of the route we were following and would eventually meet somewhere in between but the long abandoned grey weathered church we’d just passed was not a good sign that we were nearing civilization.
Fortunately for us the northern road crew was making faster progress than the southern and few nervous km later we rounded a corner to find a bulldozer and line of heavy dump trucks dotting the side of the wide smooth highly improved road to Aguila. An hour later in the bar of a comfortable San Isidro hotel we clinked our Imperial bottles together in a toast to the night we didn’t have to spend in the car. We noted in our update file to keep the current 4WD required designation on the map.
Ground truthing expeditions teach us a lot more than where the pavement is appearing or disappearing (unlike in most places Costa Rican roads actually sometimes actually get “de-paved” but that’s a whole other story), which river fords have been spanned by bridges and how the new highway from Colon to Orotina is progressing. We also learn a lot about travel and discover great hotels, restaurants, parks, reserves and adventure activities.
In 2007 with a couple of editions of the printed map under our belt we started to think about ways to get all of that other information in the hands of tourists and travelers. About the same time we met Beatrice Blake the author of the first guidebook for Costa Rica “The New Key.” She’s always innovated and helped create the travel style that would grow to be called eco-tourism. She’s currently busy defining the emerging community conservation concept. As an information pioneer she was thrilled when we suggested converting the New Key into a geocoded interactive internet application for planning travel.
In 2008 we introduced “Your Trip” on where website visitors could browse the only street level Google map of Costa Rica (Google didn’t have the data so we generated a set of over 140,000 custom tiles), read informative reviews and comments from The New Key and Toucan Maps for thousands of hotels and attractions, see what’s nearby then simply click to add their favorites to their trip.
In 2011 we worked to expand digital delivery of Toucan’s Costa Rica maps and directory information to geo-enabled cell phone and mobile device formats.
In 2013 Google caught up with us adding roads restaurant recommendations and other information to their Costa Rica maps and simultaneously eliminated the API we were using to fill in the gap since 2009. We had always planned to stop updating the interactive online maps when one of the mega corporations started and now there are a few good options for routing, GPS and points of interest available.
In 2015 we refocused on content and began the production of a series of e-books and downloadable maps for a more in-depth and comprehensive picture and to use when live online data isn’t optimal or available.
All along we’ve researched and published a new version of the Waterproof Travel Map of Costa Rica every year with major updates in a new edition every other year. There have been a few improvements to the cover, design and layout but the goal has always stayed creating the most useful map of Costa Rica possible.
So whether you come across our toucan logo in your glove box, on your computer or the phone you rented for your trip we hope you have a better picture of the journey that brought that map and this website to you. Enjoy your travels.