About Us — The Story of Toucan Maps — Adapted from the June 2009 edition of 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 post doc 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 RŪo 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 RŪo 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 2008 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 2009 we introduced "Your Trip" on MapCR.com where website visitors can browse the only street level Google map of Costa Rica (Google didn't have the data so we generated a set of over 70,000 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. Of course when the trip plan is complete it can be printed out with a custom map of the locations, itinerary and contact information.
In 2010 we're working to expand digital delivery of Toucan's Costa Rica maps and directory information to geo-enabled cell phone and mobile device formats. Soon Ticos and visitors will enjoy the convenience of accessing restaurant recommendations and other information in the location specific manner that's become commonplace elsewhere.
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 to you. Enjoy your travels.