By 9am, after a nice breakfast of volcano-shaped gallo pinto (traditional rice and beans dish native to Nicaragua and Costa Rica) at a local soda, we were on the road with the intention of circling counter clockwise around the north side of Lake Arenal, then heading west on the Interamericana, up into the mountainous Diria National Park and down to the Pacific Coast on the Nicoya Peninsula.
The dark clouds overhead kept us on our toes and were a constant reminder that we were perpetually just minutes away from the skies opening up on us. Of course they wouldn’t have the courtesy of doing so when we were on nice paved roads around the lake; they’re far crueler than that.
Lake Arenal’s northern side is a Harley rider’s dream-come-true. With excellent pavement winding endlessly right up to the edge of the lake then quickly back up into the trees, it’s a real gem of a ride, if not a bit annoying due to a local proprietor’s tireless hand-painted signs that appear every 100 yards advertising “the world’s best bloody mary” and “the best fish tacos on the planet”. I’m no food critic, but my guess would be that Toad Hall, an American-run establishment up in the hills north of Lake Arenal, probably doesn’t warrant the accolades they’ve impressed upon themselves.
Once off the lake road, we jammed towards the Pacific coast, passing through the transit town of Las Cañas for lunch, and up into the hills skirting the north side of Diria National Park. The road gained an obscene amount of elevation in no time as we swung back and forth around endless hairpin switchbacks getting higher and higher into the clouds that we’d been trying to outrun all day. As Murphy’s Law would suggest, as soon as we got into more technical, rocky dirt roads, the skies finally let go of the water they’d been holding out on us. We stopped under a couple thick trees to put our $20 Coleman rain suits on and continued on at a painfully slow pace, artfully dodging all of the potholes whose depth were camouflaged with water. Even in this drier season, when it rains in Costa Rica, it doesn’t just rain, it rains. Picking our way along a ridge between Santa Cruz and the coast along the edge of the national park, the rain finally subsided as we started our late descent onto the Pacific side of the Nicoya Peninsula.
I had planned to stay in a town called Osotional which, relative to the size of font of other towns printed on the map, should have been a great spot to stop and grab a hotel for the evening. Unfortunately, as we arrived in town we quickly realized the mapmaker used the wrong font size, as there was nothing in the town for us – so we had to keep heading south into the peninsula as dusk turned into night.
Following the sporadic signs, we arrived in a town called Playa Guiones. Mike and I are both happily married, but my suggestion to any single guys out there is to get on the next plane to Playa Guiones. Unlike most of the towns along the coast that are frequented by hippies cruising around barefoot, and average looking girls accompanied by surfer dudes with ironic tattoos, Playa Guiones is a yoga retreat town and literally the majority of the people that we saw were mid-to-late twenties, far-above-average girls either hanging by themselves or with a couple other similarly attractive girls. We got a hotel and enjoyed some of the best sushi that we’ve ever eaten, went to bed and scurried out of there in the morning. I seriously suggest that all of you go visit and learn the downward dog.
[Day 2 Stats // 178 miles, 64.8 mph max. speed, 6h 40m moving time, 316.54 miles total]
Playa Guiones, for all of its attributes, lacks any banks or gas stations. Since we putted into town on fumes, we needed to fill up and the next town of any size, Samara. In my original plan, we were going to stay in Samara for a night as it sounded like it had a good vibe from the reading I had done. The 20 minutes we spent there could not have ended quickly enough. Samara embodied everything I knew I wouldn’t like about Costa Rica. From its kitschy trinket shops, to the cleverly named hostels, to the uber-douche we saw that was super buff, with long hair, an outback-style hat, no shirt, a tribal tattoo spanning the full side of his body, walking a pitbull and pounding an energy drink. The juxtaposition of this guy’s mere existence against the serious amounts of natural beauty to be had all over the peninsula left us bewildered, bummed out, and very, very eager to move on.
The Nicoya Peninsula astounds with a seriously diverse set of microclimates. The ocean was never far enough away that we couldn’t smell it, but the scenery and the landscape ranged from looking like the little pueblos (tiny towns) in Baja to more Jurassic Park-esque jungles within a few miles from each other. We really enjoyed the variety and the wildness of the areas on the Nicoya Peninsula. The whole stretch of road from Osotional, where we hit the coast coming out of the mountains, down to the southern tip at Mal Pais (arguably the best name for a town ever, literally “Bad Country”) was a rough, unmaintained, rocky dirt road – and it was awesome. We had read about a bunch of water crossings on this road, but our timing was such that many of them were little more than wet dirt strewn across the road. I can definitely see this area swelling up like crazy and more or less trapping residents between rivers in the rainy season.
We hit Mal Pais and got out the Lonely Planet guide to see what it was all about. It turns out some gnarly celebrities were married there recently, and the unbelievably high number of surf shops per capita sort of deterred us from having any interest in sticking around. A route directly east across the peninsula and north along the Gulf of Nicoya would bring us to a reportedly much more laid back town called Montezuma. The road out of Mal Pais wasn’t on the map nor in the guidebook, but it did appear as a faint line on Google Earth, so we pointed the bikes east and headed into the forest on the southern tip of this wild region. Instead of heading all the way to the east side of the peninsula though, we turned north about half way across and rode through some spectacular vistas on mountains with great views of both coasts and along some remarkable fincas (estate, or large farm). This brought us into the backside of Montezuma which was a very charming little beach side town, full of what I would call travelers rather than surfers and hippies like we found in Mal Pais; definitely much more our vibe. We shacked up at a hotel which doubled, tripled, and quadrupled as a school for language, surfing, and fire dancing, respectively. If there’s one thing Costa Ricans are known for, it’s definitely fire dancing – similar to native Thais all having their hair braided really tightly in weird patterns – oh, wait…
[Day 3 Stats // 90.6 miles, 53.6 mph max. speed, 3h 52m moving time, 407.2 miles total]
Our fourth day would take us across the Gulf of Nicoya aboard the famed Tambor II ferry back to the mainland. With an early breakfast, we set out north along the weaving coastal road comprised of nice pavement and myriad twisties. As we approached a decent sized group of policia at a checkpoint, my heart began to race, recalling all of the stories I’d heard from travellers of being shaken down as well as Thorsten’s warnings about simple traffic tickets costing upwards of $300 US!
I called on my research and prepared myself to act as stereotypically American as possible, acting as though I don’t understand the simplest of Spanish, and pulled up to the hombre in charge. “Hello! How are you?!” I yelled in my best southern drawl. “Hola. Documentos, por favor” he requested. I thought I was headed down the right path; he would get frustrated with my obvious idiocy and just send me on my way. “I’m terribly sorry, sir, I only speak English! How’s it going, though? Are you having a good day?” Peppering him with speedy English, hoping to confuse him. “Yes, I’m having a very nice day, may I see you passport please, sir?” Damnit! Like a huge part of the population in Costa Rica, he speaks brilliant English, fortunately he just wanted to see that we actually had our passports, and wished us a safe journey.
Back on the mainland we got out of the armpit of a port town, Puntarenas, as quickly as possible and turned due south on the highway, headed for Quepos, the jumping off point for Manuel Antonio National Park. As the miles racked up and we continued south, my mind started to drift, thinking about what we’d already had the fortune to see and how excited I was to see the rest. I was searching the crevices of my underperforming memory for whether there was anything of interest between the ferry and Quepos. And like an apparition, we approached a bridge with tour buses on both sides, touts at each end trying to sell coconuts, and a hundred plus tourists with their cameras out taking pictures of the river below. Yes folks, this is where the crocodiles hang out. I remembered reading about this spot and when we rode onto the bridge and looked over, it looked just like the photos, around 20-30 pretty massive brown crocodiles lazing around in the mud, soaking in the rays, and gladly accepting tips for their posing of pictures. We took their photo and bid them adieu.
This brought us to a hard east turn off the highway and up into the mountains just north of Tarcoles. We had planned to stay in Tarcoles this night but ended up getting there much earlier than anticipated, the ensuing loop up into the mountains and away from most civilization seemed like the only rational option. Here I subscribed to, and quite enjoyed, the art of riding to a town and asking which road out of town would take us to the next town on the map in the direction we wanted to go. Local knowledge is always hit and miss, one person will tell you a road goes through and is perfectly fine, the next person will tell you that it’s impassable and you have to backtrack 50 miles to get around to where you’re headed. I typically find someone who agrees with what I’m looking for and take their word for it.
This sort of riding is so fascinating to me. Riding a motorcycle out in the sticks in a foreign country with no idea where you’re going apart from the directions offered by the last person you passed, will make even the most grown of men feel like an infant, dependent on their mother, and unable to survive without the will of those you’re surrounded by. It’s one of my favorite things about traveling and I suspect is one of the greatest fears instilled in those skeptical of embarking on such a journey. This recalls one of my favorite travel quotes by Paulo Coelho, “When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don’t even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to attach much more importance to the things around you because your survival depends on them. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favor with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life.”
Our descent from the Northwestern corner of the Cordillera de Talamanca brought us into a bizarre town called Finca la Palma (literally, “The Palm Farm”). It was clearly built to support the local industry of palm oil production, and it was the best smelling town I have ever been to! It wasn’t without its apparent ill-conceived attempt at a resort destination, with its soulless all- inclusive-looking developments. It was here that the skies finally decided to unleash their tropical wrath on us and it rained all the way in to Quepos, our outpost for the night.
After checking out a couple lower end hotels, we decided on the German-run Villa Romantica with its Hearst Castle-style pool, secure parking for the bikes, and A/C located inside the closet (so weird!), and it was a great choice. I have to say though, the hotel’s best attribute was its close proximity to Dos Locos, the town’s premier Mexican food restaurant with sub-par quesadillas, above average flautas, and literally the best pico de gallo we’d ever had!
[Day 4 Stats // 142 miles, 65.3 mph max. speed, 6h 4m moving time, 547.75 miles total]
There have been a few days in my 10 years on a motorcycle where everything just clicked and have become truly memorable experiences; a day in Ecuador riding from Salinas de Guaranda around Volcan Chimborazo to Baños, a day of following former Paris to Dakar pistes in Morocco, a spectacular day of riding in the woods with good friends in Bend, riding through the Sacred Valley en route to the mighty Machu Picchu, and now I can add this day in the interior of Costa Rica to that list. What started with the best breakfast of the trip (and yes, this is a legitimate metric by which I judge a day of riding) ended with finding ourselves at a closed Turrialba Lodge at dusk 90 minutes from the next hotel, and everything in between was what makes these trips worth the effort.
We left Quepos and quickly found ourselves amongst palm fields for days; literally rows and rows of well maintained palm trees as far as we could see in all directions at times. This created a great sense of remoteness despite starting only a mile off the Interamericana highway out of town and it quickly set the tone for the ride.
The palm fields gave way to some seriously epic valleys, lush with very dense vegetation as green as I’ve ever seen, and led us back up into the Cordillera de Talamanca and through twisting double track under the forest’s canopy higher and higher into the clouds. The rocky sections were just rocky enough, the skies just blue enough, and the hills were just steep enough. It felt surreal at times as Mike and I boasted to each other through our intercoms about the great view we just snagged as we rounded a corner.
Pavement arrived just outside of the seemingly upper-middle-class town of San Marcos. Of all of the towns we had visited to this point, San Marcos was by far the winner in the “I Could Live Here” category. It seemed to have the accessibility and industry of a town ready for expatriation but lacked the western creature comforts like McDonalds, Starbucks, and god-forsaken WalMart. I used to measure the remoteness of the country I was in by the presence of a McDonalds (I arrived in Bosnia 30 days too late, as Sarajevo had just gotten their first of many), but after Costa Rica I may shift my feeling of having arrived off the grid to whether or not I can shop at WalMart. Heads up Ethiopia, they’re comin’ in hot.
Of all the awesome things about San Marcos however, one of my favorite things about this quaint mountain town was the ubiquity of late-60s and early-70s Toyota Land Rovers, most in pristine condition. I’m not a big classic car aficionado by any means, but I’d be lying if I didn’t confess to having searched Craigslist for one of these on my return.
In line with the morning, San Marcos led us to the best pavement we’d ridden yet. The jungle gave way to pine trees, and with the crisp mountain air and bluebird skies, I can still smell the genuinely pleasant aroma of the region. Fast, sweeping, freshly paved turns took us higher in elevation, up and over a few passes, and delivered us at the trailhead of a rugged double track
that was equally as steep as the pavement had been fast. Feathering both front and rear brakes with the clutch all the way out in first gear had us still descending at a borderline uncomfortable clip. By the time we reached the valley floor neither of us had any rear brake left. At first I thought mine had broken, which given our remote location would have been annoying at the very least, so I was relieved when Mike reported his were shot too – too much braking, not enough feathering!
This valley snaked along a deep valley, following a winding Rio Navarro, as these roads usually do. It brought us to a place where my GPS track had us hanging a left, doing a big loop up and around to the town of Orosi for lunch, but I spied a bridge that led to the right with what looked like a continuation of the road we were just on heading down the valley on the other side of the river. A quick chat with a heavily-musked hombre confirmed my thoughts and we backtracked to the bridge.
One of the infinitely many great things about riding here is that for most of the bridges that exist, there also exists a water crossing, ranging from a little puddle to a raging rapid (season permitting). In this case, I was still sitting on top of the world from the beginning of our day, and opted to go for the water crossing. The first half was fine, but where the basketball sized rocks were keeping me elevated off of the river floor for the first half of the crossing, they disappeared as I approached the second half and my front wheel plunged an extra 6 inches down to the river bottom. My heart started racing, and as I was committed at this point, my only viable option was to give it all the throttle I had and hope the exhaust didn’t let any water in. It definitely made that ominous gurgling sound as my front wheel started up the far bank, the rest of the bike in tow. A few solid twists of the wrist, and you wouldn’t have noticed my bike was about 50-60%
submerged. I probably should have walked across this one first.
With Arroz con Pollo (a traditional Latin American dish of Rice with Chicken) consumed, we left Orosi for what Thorsten circled and said, “This section will be really hard.” There were a couple sections in this bit that, had Thorsten not mentioned he takes tours through, I may have considered turning back for fear of getting too far into a section and finding ourselves in the rain, after dark, and unable to get back the way we’d come. That said, we pressed on, conscious of
every abandoned farmhouse we passed as the miles crept along, assuming, if need be, we could post up in one of them for the night and eat cliff bars.
This was hands down the least traveled, densely forested section that we traveled on the trip. The fact that it started raining while negotiating a couple rocky bits didn’t help, but that’s why this is an adventure, not a vacation.
Speaking of which, who needs reservations at hotels? Only once have I ever tried and failed to find a hotel (sorry honey, we probably should have made a couple reservations for the honeymoon). Without fail, if hotel number 1 doesn’t have any rooms, hotel number 2 certainly will. With this as my guiding philosophy, we arrived at Turrialba Lodge at over 9,000 feet and 90 minutes from the next town at dusk, and it was an absolute ghost town. We joked about accepting the idea of possibly having to break into a room to sleep and leaving some money on the bed for repairs.
As we stood around, aghast at the idea that this highly recommended lodge may in fact not be open when, out of nowhere, a couple of young guys appeared. After talking amongst themselves and then going to fetch an older brother, they told us that they weren’t closed but they just didn’t have any guests and would be more than happy to set us up with some rooms and some food. While both were pretty expensive, given the circumstances we didn’t have much of a choice –
which of course has a lot to do with their pricing model – the rooms were very nice, complete with their own wood-burning stoves. The food was definitely above average, and the views of the Turrialba Volcano were absolutely stunning. These days are what motorcycle riding and traveling are all about.
[Day 5 Stats // 132 miles, 51.7 mph max. speed, 6h 38m moving time, 680.94 miles total]