I love sightseeing on a motorcycle. I’ve always enjoyed riding through hillsides and forests, along the ocean and up into the mountains on a motorcycle. It’s a wide-open feeling where my visual perception is expanded. I feel closer to nature while still enjoying the feeling of flying with the wind in
my face. The Costa Rica landscape is perfect for an epic motorcycle ride. About five years ago I invited a group of friends to join me on a three day tour through five distinct ecosystems of Costa Rica. I’d like to bring you along too, on Day Seven of my bucket list adventures in Costa Rica. Put your helmet on and let’s roll.
We set out with eight riders on BMW in Enduro 1200s, a professional stunt rider as our guide, and a chase vehicle with two mechanics, an extra bike and parts, and our luggage. We departed from San Jose up in the coffee hill plantations on two lane roads. It was a gorgeous day and the weather was perfect. Winding roads took us through small
towns with the church on one side of the square and the soccer pitch on the other. Coffee plantations expanded over hillsides as far as the eye can see. We raised in elevation probably no more than 2000 or 3000 feet but the air grew a little heavier with moisture. We left the central valley and crossed over to the Caribbean ecosystem, staying on small winding roads that saw very little tourism traffic. On these roads we learned a few key driving techniques in this part of the world, like understanding that semi-trucks will take up the entire road on a sharp turn cutting you off completely. So you had to judge whether you would be meeting a semi at the apex of a turn, then decide to accelerate or slow down to avoid a collision. We also had to be vigilant of occasional potholes that could easily swallow up a motorcycle, especially on roads carved out of mountainsides that have eroded in spots down to a single lane. It made for exciting and highly attentive riding. After lunch we continued riding through plantations and forests until we came upon the great basin of the Arenal volcano, one of seven active volcanoes in Costa Rica. We checked into our hotel, dropped our bags and headed straight for the eco-glide zip line (as I mentioned in my previous blog post) with the Tarzan swing.
Day two started out with an early morning ride winding along the shores of Lake Arenal. It was a cool crisp morning and the air felt fresh. We stopped at the end of the lake at New Arenal to check out the German bakery for breakfast and peel off a layer as we were headed to the coast. This day was a very
different ride with long stretches where we could open it up. Later we hit a newly paved road zig zagging the edges of a coastal mountain taking us up 1000 feet or so. At the peak of this route we turned off on a dirt track shifting to off-road technical riding along small winding roads through the Nicoya Peninsula. At intermittent points the road went down from two tracks to one that took us through streams. In one case the stream turned out to be deeper than we thought and resulted in a couple of bike rescues. The road continuing after the bike rescue event was a loose gravel track with a steep descent alongside the mountain, plunging directly to the ocean below. It was a bit of a hair raiser, and a moment when I questioned whether it’s better to dump the bike and walk but the others motored on up, which gave me strength to do the same. At the top of this track we met another
newly paved road and just 50 meters down was the entrance to our accommodations for the second night, Punta Islita, a small mountainside resort with stunning views of the ocean and a great spa. I reserved some well-deserved afternoon massages for the riders.
Day three was planned to be a fun, fast and furious ride. We started off continuing south east, rounding the Nicoya peninsula towards the ferry port town of Naranjo. We crossed the Gulf of Nicoya on the ferry, disembarked in Punta Arenas, caught the Inter-American Highway and continued south
along the coast towards Manuel Antonio. This stretch would sometimes be just steps away from the ocean and other times rising up high on cliffs overlooking the surf. You could feel the warm sun and salty surf on your skin. Temperatures were in the mid 90s, but so were the speedometers so it didn’t make a difference. There were a few stretches in between the resort towns where traffic was light and the road was a straight ribbon alongside the beach tempting us to really open it up and defy gravity. But we of course maintained a lawful pace (I’m serious Mom, we did). That evening we stayed at La Mansion Boutique Hotel in Manuel Antonio with it’s legendary rathskeller jazz bar and fine selection of Scotch.
Our final day on the road took us through three different eco-zone’s and an elevation from zero to nearly 12,000 feet. We headed south along smooth gravel roads cut through banana plantations under a blazing sun. Every half hour or so we would stroll through a sleepy little village nestled under palm trees on the beach. By late morning we had come to our departure from the sea. With a left turn
towards San Isidro we were on our way up to the route called Cerro de La Muerte (Mom doesn’t speak Spanish so I’m not translating this). This narrow and winding road is an astounding part of the Inter-American Highway, what is known to be the world’s longest motorable road. I figured it was the perfectly epic way to conclude this ride but later realized I definitely underestimated the potential this road had to throw curveballs.
The beginning of the ascent was a beautiful ride through little villages, passing by roadside produce stands, schoolyards and soccer pitches. These are little idyllic communities where life was as simple as it gets and it’s residents need not stray too far from home. Riding through these towns made me think about what it is people do to earn a living and feed their families. It seems to me that folks here don’t commute anywhere. And that maybe making a living is more about just living and sharing versus earning an income and building careers. I doubt folks up here in these foot hills punch clocks but they work harder than most. I bet every kitchen is bustling all day preparing three meals for three generations. Thoughts like these would run through my mind and it’s one of the beautiful things about being on motorcycle because there are few distractions to take you away from the environment you’re riding through. It’s easy to get lost in your thoughts but still be an attentive driver on motorcycle; everything is quiet even though the wind is blowing through your helmet.
As we climbed higher the air got thinner and so did the towns. There were longer stretches of forest that were transforming into a growth that resembled a type of cedar tree and filled the air with the familiar scent of my childhood in northern Wisconsin. The temperatures were dropping quickly as did the fog. I could sense we were leaving civilization and approaching an inhospitable area, but still majestically beautiful. The road continued to wind higher and higher, hugging the mountain. On our left, across the oncoming traffic lane, the mountain continued up on a steep course often times with thin veins of water tumbling down and occasionally a full on flash flood stream venting the precipitation higher up. On the right we usually enjoyed an immense vista of distant hills and valleys that came right to the edge of the road’s shoulder, guarded occasionally by intermittent guard rails
that would maybe stop a toddler on a big wheel, but little more. Then we came upon a turn where the guard rail simply disappeared off the edge and as we drew closer so did the roads shoulder. That was the first encounter which seemed to be worthy of DOT orange barrels or possibly even closing the road down. But nobody was there; it just simply wasn’t dangerous enough.
The higher we got the bigger the streams grew on the left-hand side tumbling down the rock wall as did the frequency and girth of the missing patches of road. For added amusement, Cerro de la Muerte threw in denser patches of fog so thick that at times I lost visual of the bike lights in front of me. This added an element of excitement beyond
words as I had to choose between trusting the side of the road and being able to see an eroded patch, or being in the center of the road and reacting in time to semi lights peering through the pea soup maybe 30 meters ahead. On top of these thrills were the chills from temps dropping now below 40. None of us had prepared for these conditions but no one wanted to stop. We just wanted to plow on through. After all, the San Jose Valley was only 2 1/2 hours further down the road… under normal conditions. But these were not normal conditions, and worse they got. About thirty minutes further, everything came to a halt. One of those large cypress looking trees had fallen across the road.
We turned around and went back to the first shop we could find, bought some snacks and had some coffee. Remarkably, the delay only took an hour for a bunch of locals with chain saws, living who knows where, to clear a single lane. We saddled up again, frozen still to the bone, and marched on. It seemed as though the tree had fallen exactly on the continental divide. After passing through, you could feel we were heading down slope again, and the weather improved. We were now re-entering
the Caribbean zone weather system, which is unusually different from the Pacific zone. The ride down slope seemed much easier and a lot quicker. Within an hour and a half we were entering the Cartago city limits, and 40 minutes later San Jose. We reach the BMW dealer in one piece around 4:00 pm, tired and fatigued, and ready for our final night’s accommodation and bar.
It was difficult to believe that just four days ago we were in this same place getting ready to take off for the ride. With the varying landscapes, climates and communities, I felt as though we had been touring for a few weeks. But that’s Costa Rica, a small country about the size of my home state of Wisconsin, but boarded by two oceans and a mountain range running through the middle. Nothing is very far away, but never easy to get to.
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