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.
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