From luxury yoga-retreats that fetch upwards of $200/night to $10/night bug-infested cabinas (little, side-of-the-road hotels frequented by locals); from 3-week old freshly paved twisty mountain roads to endless stretches of riding right on the beach; from sweltering tropical rain at sea level to near freezing, 11,000 foot, crisp mountain air; Costa Rica has an exceptionally diverse range of literally everything and can find a way to accommodate literally everyone who visits.
Two years ago my good friend Mike and I visited Nicaragua, which is commonly referred to as “Costa Rica 20 years ago – before the gringos arrived,” and rented some sweet Yamaha AG200 agricultural motorbikes, did a 10 day loop of the beautiful country, and sufficiently had our minds blown by virtually everything about the trip. Riding a motorcycle around a country versus bussing it, or even renting and driving a car, is very much a visceral experience; it’s entirely consuming, it requires that you’re completely present at all times, you see far more of the country itself, rather than the specific places listed in Lonely Planet, and you get a greater amount of local interaction by orders of magnitude. People the world over seem to have a common and mutual respect for motorcycle travelers. There is a feeling that they accept you more quickly and have fewer reservations about opening up to you; and it has wholly changed the way I look at both travel and at the world itself.
When the opportunity arose for Mike and I to get away for another motorcycle adventure, I hit the interwebs, comparing and contrasting possible destinations. I considered cost, weather, flights, accommodation and, perhaps most importantly, compared the prospect of this new trip to our amazing trip to Nicaragua. India, Iceland, Ireland, Chile, Bolivia, New Zealand – they were all up for grabs, but no matter how many metrics I could come up with, ultimately I kept deferring back to “but will it be as good as Nica?” With our schedules aligning in mid-April, and that coinciding with the end of Costa Rica’s “dry (less-rainy) season”, and all other things taken into consideration, we chose Costa Rica for the simple fact that we enjoyed Nicaragua so much and feared a vast departure from that experience would leave us longing for the most Central of American countries.
This decision came with great trepidation – not just because I know how awesome a trip to Iceland would be, but because I have always had a bit of an aversion to traveling to Costa Rica. Having had the fortune of traveling to several other Latin American countries, I have spoken with other like-minded travelers only to get an eye roll at the mention of Costa Rica. With its idyllic beaches, thumping house music into the wee hours, tribal tattoos, and surf and yoga bums that I try to stay away from, the general lack of authenticity comes with the ability to cross the street and go to Walmart (no, I won’t include a proper link for them!). We like to eat at local restaurants, visit smaller rural villages, and see what life would be like without globalization, and feared that these things were no longer available given the gringo takeover of this bi-coastal gem in Central America. With that we resolved to just pass through the big towns, try as best we could to stay away from the throngs of tourists, and promise not to get our hair braided like all of the hippies who at one time were just passing through and then never left – and we booked our flights.
An avid reader of adventure motorcycling blogs and reports, I turned to ADVrider.com as a starting point to gather as much intel from a rider’s perspective as possible about the country; its people, climate, places to visit and stay away from, its roads, and most importantly, where we could come up with some good and reliable bikes. Enter Thorsten at Wild Rider, a German expat 13 years in the country with a 16-bike fleet and local knowledge that would make your head spin. In my research around ADVrider and from other people’s blogs and ride reports, Thorsten was resoundingly the man to go to for a fly-and-ride adventure to Costa Rica.
I ride a Honda CRF450X at home and have had a Kawasaki KLR650 for a long time. With some notions about what type of riding we would be in for, we settled on the Suzuki DRZ400; possibly the perfect all around bike for adventure travel as it’s big enough to get you around the omnipresent semi that you need to pass and small enough to get you through the technical rocky sections that haunt the mountainous single track throughout the country. I rode a Suzuki DR650 around Ecuador last year and was amazed at its ability to climb from sea level to a volcano at over 13,000 feet without the slightest indication that it wasn’t fuel injected. Facing similar changes in elevation and a need for general and overall reliability, we knew the DRZ was the bike for the trip.
With a rental spot and destination locked down and flights booked, it was time to put together a game plan. I envy those that have the mental capacity to not have any idea where they’re going on a trip like this. The old “I opened up a map on the flight and circled some towns I’d heard of” idea would keep me awake for weeks leading up to the trip. Not because I need to know where I’m going to sleep, or what sites we’re going to see, but because I don’t want to miss out on any legendary rides that would be on the other side of a valley we might find ourselves in.
That said, I purchased the quintessential Costa Rica road map which shows everything from the Interamericana down to seasonal trails that I’m pretty sure have skipped a few seasons in their existence, along with the budget-travelers bible, Lonely Planet, Google Earth, my GPS, and Base Camp on my Mac and MapSource on my PC, and I set out to create the most technical, all-encompassing loop of Costa Rica ever done in 8 days on bikes – only to be told we were crazy by Thorsten when we arrived at Wild Rider. My research wasn’t without its upside though, we were able to stick about 60% to our plan, taking a couple of Thorsten’s recommendations into account and spending a lot of time asking hombres “Donde es la via a la [next town on my map] (Where is the way to blank)?” I spent no less than 2 nights trying to find a route that I was sure existed from the west coast to the east coast at the southern end of the country and reached out to several people with local knowledge only to be told, “you’re not getting through there without two weeks and a horse – not possible.” With many a late night spent matching a thin grey line on my map to the actual trail on Google Earth, we had a rough outline of a plan.
Toting just a small backpack and a small tank bag, I resolved to bring one pair of pants, two t-shirts, one pair of shorts, one pair of shoes, two pairs of socks and two underwear, flip flops, a fleece base layer, rain suit, toiletries and misc electronics. Less is definitely more when traveling on a bike and we both kept our packing to a minimum to keep things light, simple, and compact for the tight squeezes and bumpy rides.
We landed in San Jose, Costa Rica’s beloved metropolitan capital located dead in the heart of this mecca of adventure, and were blown away – not in a good way though, not in the way that we had been throughout Nicaragua, and definitely not the way we had hoped to be landing in a new country with a grand adventure about to unfold. What globalization has done to this town is atrocious. On one street by our hotel I spotted KFC, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Walmart, strip malls galore, and the looming Golden Arches advertising El Mac Grande. We were skeptical of our choice, reconsidering our plan and second-guessing our ability to get away from all of this international commerce.
After we got our gear all loaded up on what would become our homes for the next 8 days (you lose 2 days of your 10-day trip flying in and out!) Thorsten got out his map and started quizzing us about where we were going, what routes we were going to take and what we hoped to see. My plan for our first day had us doing 160+ miles, 85% off road, heading north west through the Cordillera de Tilaran (Tilaran Range), up through Santa Elena over a notoriously bad road through Tilaran and then hooking South east around the south side of Lake Arenal, spending the first night in what sounded like a great town, El Castillo. I knew there were a lot of river crossings in Costa Rica, and I knew there was a good river crossing on the south side of Lake Arenal, but unfortunately Google Earth doesn’t tell you how deep the rivers are (Google, you listening?). Thorsten said this river is only passable 10-15% of the days out of the year, and even then requires 2-3 guys to cross. We hadn’t even pressed the ignition button before we had to change my meticulously planned route, something I was just going to have to get used to.
We thanked Thorsten for his help and set off on our new path, destination: La Fortuna! Our first bit of dirt came about 30 minutes outside of San Jose when the path I had tracked was blocked by a ubiquitous orange “trabajando (working)” sign, indicating that the furthering of paved roads into the remoteness of the country was underway. We were diverted off course and had to navigate up and over a few hills just outside the town of Alajuela before tackling a seriously steep, rutted, rocky hill climb with no less than 7 hairpin turns ascending higher and higher out of the Rio Alajeula Valley we’d found ourselves in. We were already in the throngs of the adventure we sought, and it was only 30 minutes outside of San Jose!
Something that never ceases to amaze me is how you are truly never alone in developing countries. No matter where you are, if you hang there long enough, someone inevitably pops up. Like the Berber that literally came out of nowhere when I had run out of gas in Morocco and offered me tea, help found us when we turned one of the hairpins and Mike lost his rear wheel in the turn and went down. It didn’t take more than 15 seconds for a guy in an orange fishnet shirt wielding a machete to pop around the corner and help us lift the bike up and push as we got it started in a rut, propped up on a rock.
Our adventurous sentiments returned and our concern about the country’s infrastructure subsided almost as soon as we climbed out of this valley. We found ourselves at the base of Poas Volcano, one of many semi-active volcanoes that looms over the beautiful country and is allegedly a spectacular site, although we wouldn’t know because, after navigating through lush canopies on twisty paved roads up to the entrance to the National Park, the nice lady confirmed when I asked “Es la vista muerto? (Is the view dead?)” A question I had to ask due to the cloud cover that rolls in like clockwork around noon every day and covers any hint of the park’s existence.
While we’re not big on site seeing on these trips, who can turn their nose up at a massive waterfall right off the side of the road? A couple of these beasts popped up seemingly out of nowhere and we had the good fortune of pulling right up to them and being the only people checking them out for a short time. At well over 100 feet, from the bottom looking straight up, these things are quite extraordinary, both in the sheer power that the falls produce and with how much the landscape looks straight out of Jurassic Park. Then, out of nowhere, the quintessential pink bus arrives and a small faction of the tourist clone army descends on our waterfall, all wearing similar shirts boasting which zip line they’d survived, and all longingly watching as we departed on our own time and at our own pace. I looked back over my shoulder and saw all of them lined up taking photos of not just the waterfall, but unavoidably of the waterfall and their 100 closest friends. Times like these make me feel giddy about our preferred mode of transportation.
Thorsten told us that it gets dark at 6 p.m. and that we should never, under any circumstance, ride after dark due to myriad of large potholes that would gladly swallow a DRZ whole. With that on our minds, we hurled ourselves north up and over hills, through small river crossings, and finally crossed the mighty Rio Burrito (surprisingly not sponsored by Chipotle) and pulled into the birder and nature hiker haven, La Fortuna, just as night fell.
[Day 1 Stats // 139 miles, 54 mph max. speed, 5h 47m moving time, 138.75 miles total]
David Brundage (Brundy) is a friend and motorcycle adventurer first featured on our site with his Failed Vegas Ride. Stay tuned for part 2 of his trip and more of his adventures.