Just ten days in and I’m already feeling like Costa Rica has given me everything: I’ve ridden multiple days on fun dirt roads, slept numerous nights on gorgeous Pacific beaches, enjoyed the company of some truly inspiring and generous riding partners, battled head winds as bad as I’ve ever experienced, climbed fun hills, traversed jungle and marsh lands, bordered a stunning lake, been given food and lodging by strangers and finally been bought to rest in the shadow of a mighty volcano. Costa Rica is proving so much more than I ever imagined and giving me a whole world of fun.
Blah blah blah.. Costa Rica is really expensive… blah blah… it’s full of rich aging gringos and surf bums… blah blah… If you’ve ever delved into other pan american cycling blogs this is generally what you’ll find. Thankfully the riders I respect also spoke of fantastic wildlife, beautiful landscapes and kind generous people. Now I’ve been in Costa Rica for a bit I can agree with all these sentiments and have to admit that I rather like the place. Sure it’s expensive, but no more so than any of the countries us ‘rich’ and privileged cycle tourists hail from, and yes, the gringo invasion has bought social disparities, higher taxes and a sanitized feel to the place. But I can tell you, it gets pretty tiring travelling through places with a raw edge. The tax dollars (for this is what prices are quoted to foreigners in) that the exiles have bought to the country have helped build a solid infrastructure and police force. As a result I don’t think I’ve felt this safe since I was swimming in amniotic fluid, it’s a great feeling… trust me.
The mood was set the very afternoon I crossed with my riding partners Emily and Scott, into the heat of Costa Rica. The difference from the rest of the Central America we know and love was immediate… clean toilets and quality plumbing at the immigration office. The vegetation seemed more vibrant and lush than in Nicaragua and we found ourselves spinning up and down small hills through land that for once in this part of the world, wasn’t being farmed. In true Pan American highway style the lorry traffic was unnerving and the cross winds a menace but the road surface was good and everyday Costa Rican life offered enough newness for the eyes to feast. At the turning to Cuanjiniquil we encountered smiling (yes smiling) happy Policemen who generously gave us all their water and enabled our diving off the road soon after into a cosy wild camp. A true advocate of the wild camp, I felt at home in this strange and foreign grassland, under the filling moon, protected to the east by the silhouette of Volcan Cacao and with good friends who’d been strangers just a few days previous.
Before I continue to wax lyrical about the Costa Rican leg of this glorified vacation I find myself on, let me break it down and offer a few words on Emily and Scott. As readers of my previous post will be aware, we met on the ferry-boat out of Granada, Nicaragua, a chance encounter dictated by the forces of nature. Emily (27 and from Long Island, New York) and Scott (26 from Seattle, Washington) have been on the road over 15 months having started cycling in Seattle. They travel under the proclamation ‘we go slow’ and I guess they do, just not as slow as me! In April their trip will end with a flight back home from Colombia and hopefully with positive thoughts of a successful pilgrimage to the land of Emily’s birth. I figured pretty quickly that we’d get on well when learning they’d cycled what I christened the ‘Hell Road’ down the north-eastern edge of the Baja peninsular to Coco’s corner. Then we talked about our Mexican routes and it transpired they’s read my blog when looking to ride the Paso de Cortes between Mexico City and Puebla. And if that wasn’t enough, when befriending each other on Facebook (and thus making our union official) it transpired we had a number of mutual friends! All of them people we know through Quetzaltrekkers, Guatemala where Scott guided for some months a couple of years ago and with whom they visited over Christmas just gone.
There is no right or wrong in cycle touring, it’s all generally down to personal preference, priorities and ambition. It is for that reason I insist (foolishly in the eyes of many) on carting around hiking gear, a few too many spare parts and clothing meant for climates incomprehensible given my present location. It is also why my bike is set up how it is; my priority is the ability to be as self-sufficient as possible in riding any type of road I want, in any place at virtually any time and still have the freedom to go off and explore further on foot. Emily and Scott share many aspects of my ethos but their focus places firm priority on food. Where as some ‘fast and lighters’ will survive off dried fruits and nuts, these two carry the largest array of condiments, selection of vinegar’s oils, herbs and spices I’ve ever seen, let alone seen carried on a bike tour! They are constantly searching out fresh fruits and vegetables and value good food above all else. For them this journey is as much a culinary experiment as an experience of mind and body. From what I saw, it is this shared passion that binds a very strong relationship and gives obvious incentive on even the most utilitarian days riding. What’s more, they are a breed apart from other cycle tourists I’ve met in that they are happy to share what they have. Meaning I was treated to breakfast every morning, introduced to the delights of savory mosh and given the odd tug on their Matte gourd (of which perhaps unsurprisingly, they carry two). It may have become quite obvious that I enjoyed their company immensely. I even went out yesterday and bought some Olive oil to carry myself… I still can’t quite believe what I’ve done… I never carry ‘luxuries’ like that!
After a day and a bits utility riding delivered us onto the Nicoya Peninsular and into the dubious coastal delights of Tamarindo, we were all set to hit the coastal dirt south along the Pacific. The next three days proved to be quite the treat. With a plethora of mechanical issues befalling my companions our days turned out to be relaxed (a distinct benefit of the resignation of time to the gods of bicycle mechanics). We’d enjoy thirty odd miles of generally good unpaved surface that meandered, ducked and dove its way along, too and from the ocean. Stopping on the beach for lunch and sleep. We became used to the raucous call of the monkeys and dealt with the dry dust and scorching temperatures. At times it was uncomfortable but always worth it, I mean who wouldn’t want to watch the sunset over the Pacific and camp on beautiful deserted beaches under a full moon?
These days bring with them a number of distinct and happy memories: The crazy (literally so) guy who laughed, shrieked and kind of communicated with us one lunch time before revealing the secret to his (probably fanciful) success with the ladies. As I looked on slightly concerned and certainly bemused, he took my suncream squirted a bit into his hands, rubbed them together and then massaged it into his luscious black locks. Perfect for that glossy, sweet-smelling and incredibly greasy, crazy man about beach look! Another source of humor were the crabs who come out at night and claim the beaches as their own. One evening we got inundated with them and thus started deliberations over whether they can smell. My thoughts that they can were somewhat supported when I woke up in the morning to discover they’d managed to knock my rubbish bag out of a tree and devour its entire contents! Clever, desperate little blighter’s.
The map showed us Samara as a good place to stop for a day off. Although more touristy than imagined it did indeed prove restful and also a good point to end this small episode of Pacific dreams. From there we set off inland, first over the undulating (now paved) road to Nicoya and then south-east out of town. About 10km out is where the Go Slow Freedom Collective disbanded, while Emily and Scott had committed to meeting friends further down the coast, I decided to head inland to higher and hopefully cooler elevations. My feelings were mixed about flying solo again but there was little time to dwell as the sun fell rapidly from the sky. As it did so I found myself in the marshlands of Palo Verde National Park, a place I was weary to camp for the crocodiles. Their threat was soon relegated to a distant second behind ravenous mosquitoes who feasted royally on me the two times I left the road to find camp. My back is still covered in the itchy evidence of this battle. Too long on the road to get anxious about these situations, I knew it would be okay and it was. Having crossed the bridge over the inlet into the Golfo de Nocoya I found a small bar/restaurant that allowed me to shower and pitch camp in an area they had screened off from mosquitoes. A score I toasted with a lonely beer.
The next two days served as a reminder of the finer sides of solo bicycle touring. My elected route took me north and east via Las Canas to sleep in Tilaran and then around the Laguna de Arenal to my present location in Fortuna. That road to Tilaran finally had me taking in some altitude and the weather has since become cloudy and cool, even gifting me a few showers. What I didn’t bargain for were the incredible headwinds that fought me up the climb. It was a challenge to even move forward, let alone move forward and stay upright. The efforts led me to smashing my recent Coke abstention with a 1.25 liter feast and really worked my upper body. Lets just say that my evening stroll around Tilaran was most welcome.
Yesterday the kind climate combined with a gorgeous undulating piece of road around the north side of Lake Arenal to give me a very enjoyable 45 miles of riding. I have been impressed by how quickly my legs are regaining their strength and with the help of a German bakery in Arenal I was over 32 miles into the day and around the lake before lunch. The smells of vegetation, freshness of air and grayness of the sky have convinced me this was the correct decision to make. Although I’ll soon be down on the hot and steamy Caribbean coast, for now I am thoroughly enjoying where I am. Fortuna itself has grown into something of a tourist hub, servicing the various hot springs in the area and the mighty Volcan Arenal that looms above it. I am in no mood for any of this, my day of pannier fixing, laundry and general tinkering is proving quite satisfactory… back to the life of a solo cycle tourist!