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Naturally, Mountain Biking Adventure In Costa Rica
Text and Photos by Cliff Krolick
If you're like most outdoor enthusiasts, winter can be a blast,
with skiing, boarding, hiking. Well this "blast" for a lot of us in
the northern climates lasts well into April, often leading to a big case of
Cabin Fever...I want my mountain bike! By February
it was time to "Get Out of Dodge" and head for the
warmth and sun of jungles, unspoiled beaches, rainforests, and some rockin'
mountain biking in Costa Rica. Why Costa Rica? It's a real adventure
destination. There were more backpacks and hiking boots than matching luggage
and golf clubs coming off the baggage carousel at San Jose International
Airport. You can enjoy pristine white beaches and steamy tropical jungles in the
morning and be in cooler, dryer mountains later the same day. Costa Ricans are
open and friendly and take pleasure in sharing their incredible natural
treasures with others.
San Jose is rapidly modernizing, which makes it user friendly, but it has managed to retain some Third World quaintness. One of our favorite downtown haunts is Mercado Central, where you can find most anything for most any price. We stay uptown at Hotel Aranjuez, one funky dig. It was started a number of years back as a private residence turned bed and breakfast. The owners bought all the surrounding buildings and homes, connecting the mish mash together with elaborate walkways. Now Aranjuez is complete with inside, open-air courtyards, birds, and neighborhood roosters to wake you for the killer buffet breakfast (included in the price). You learn quickly the best coffee and fruit in the world is in Costa Rica.
Mountain biking, as defined by Costa Ricans, is riding in the "Mountains" (with a capital M) and since most of Costa Rica's roads are still dirt, the layout of the country easily lends itself to exploration by mountain bikes. The terrain is extremely hilly, and the riding challenge has more to do with the severe ascents and lightning fast, long descents than with the width of the trail.
There is much to do and many places to see, but we focused on three distinct and different locations. My partner Katy and I chose Monte Verde, the Caribbean Coastline, and the Orosi Valley--all within easy reach of each other and San Jose.
We arrived several days ahead of the rest of the group in order to explore Monte Verde's treasures. Katy and I were traveling with two of my latest toys, Dahon folding aluminum, full size mountain bikes (photo), clothes, and some gear. We hopped the 6:30 a.m. bus and headed to Monte Verde, a small village at an elevation of about 3,500 feet, located in Cloud Forest Reserve. Our bus left the traffic behind as we turned off the highway and started up the dirt road leading into the mountains (photos). All the uphill bus riding, with steep switchbacks and hairpin turns, made us think that this was an opportunity for an incredible downhill ride. After several hours on the bus we were just itching to get on our bikes.
At last we reached our
hotel, unfolded the bikes, and set off. Dirt roads and paths led off in all
directions. I noticed most locals were getting around by motorbike, 4WD or walking.
No wonder, this was a hilly place! We were quickly
seasoned back into biking shape. The ups provided a workout, but the downs were
fast. Our flashy folding bikes attracted a couple of young local riders
who let us follow them up into the Cloud Forest. Here we stopped at the
hummingbird preserve and watched hundreds of the tiny birds dropping in to feed
(photo). We also
biked to the local butterfly garden to experience the thrill of hundreds of
butterflies fluttering around our heads.
The hours flew by and it was time to put on the feed bag. We rode down to the next village below, Santa Elena, and ate at a local "soda," a small mom and pop restaurant where you can get some of the freshest local food at the cheapest prices (photo). Our waiter, who just happened to be a mountain biker, noticed our bikes. We began talking about that incredible downhill we noticed on the bus ride up. His eyes lit up, and he was suggested that we take it down, but go down by way of the village of San Louis, while stopping to hike a trail into the rainforest to see a 150-foot waterfall (Catarata). Sometimes "winging it" and listening to the locals can pay off with great adventures. The timing and logistics would be critical, since we'd be riding down the mountain for close to 25 miles, and we needed to time it so we could catch the bus on its daily journey back up and avoid that climbing that long ascent.
It was picture perfect the next morning. We pedaled up the potholed dirt road over to San Louis--then it was downhill from there. Bikes purred through gorgeous passes and past birds, orchids (photo), and wonderful views. We passed through droplets of vapor that were always present in the cloud forest. But we never seemed to get very wet because the sun was always shining, often creating rainbows (photo). This would be a day when the brakes were really put to the test.
After an hour or so of
our descent, we turned off towards the trail
head to the waterfall, left the bikes, and hiked to the falls (photo).
It was hard to leave the power of the
falls, but we finally got going again and headed down toward the sleepy village of San Louis,
while dodging cattle and horses grazing on the edge of the road (view
overlooking San Louis). The downhill en route to San Louis lasted another 1.5 hours! We
arrived at our rendezvous point ahead of schedule with road grit in our teeth (from smiling all the way
down) and a couple of biker-sized appetites. We
hit another soda for a late lunch of fresh fish (from the
local stream) and fresh squeezed fruit juice. While we waited for the
bus a passing car decided that we needed a lift and took us back up the
mountain--what a treat!
On our last day in Monte Verde we took a break from biking and did what any adventurous tourist would do in Costa Rica: A Canopy Tour! Okay, so we were still in motion but this time above the rainforest, on a zip line, moving at thrilling speeds. What a blast! The Canopy Tour is Costa Rica's low environmental impact answer to an amusement park. You're harnessed up, with full gear and helmet, then clipped with carabineers onto a heavy gauge steel cable. You're hoisted up and hooked with another carabineer to the zip line pulley and off you go flying over the treetops of the rainforest (photo). There were 13 lines and some of the lines stretched almost 1/2 mile between towers, 300 feet above the treetops. We were in the air for almost two hours!
Back in San Jose the rest of our group arrived as expected at Hotel Arajuez. Next morning Eric, our driver, arrived with our overland van, so we loaded
our gear (photo) and were off to the Caribbean
coast. Our first riding destination was
Cahuita, a funky, underdeveloped, and only lightly visited spot--very laid
back. It's big drawing card for us was Cahuita National park, an exceptional
black and white sand beach, and an 8-kilometer piece of single track trail that
ran the full length of the park, through the jungle and right along the beach. In the
morning Arlene, our wild Jamaican innkeeper, served up yet another
version of Costa Rica's typical breakfast--eggs, beans, ham, tomato, avocado,
coffee and fruit. We finished and headed for the national park and the single track.
This trail was delightful as it twisted back and forth from jungle to beach (photo). There were just enough roots and smooth, fast cruising sections to keep it interesting, with even a little mud. We spotted a boa constrictor resting in the notch of a tree, enjoyed blue Morpho butterflies and vividly colored birds flitting overhead, and were haunted by the songs of howler monkeys perched in the tree tops. When we got too hot, the beach was always in sight and the temptation finally lured us in. We felt like we were on a deserted island, with the pristine beaches completely to ourselves (photo). When we swam back to shore, "white faced" monkeys greeted us, curious about the fanny packs and what they might contain, especially our Cliff Bars (photo).
From Cahuita we biked south toward Bribri, where we hooked up with a local indigenous guide, Justo,
mountain biker. He guided us well, first taking us to visit an indigenous family
who still lived in the traditional way, then pointing out as we hiked incredible species of
plants and their uses, and then leading us through the jungle toward a
waterfall (while spotting various species of poison
frogs along the way!). We arrived at the waterfall, which gave us a natural
massage to heal the body and mind (photo). Justo even guided some of the more adventurous
up the mossy slope to a cave behind the
falls. Lastly, he led us through an iguana preserve. All in all, it was another day filled with wonder and amazement in
Our next stops were the surfer town of Puerto Viejo and Playa Cocles, where Eric met us with all our gear. Beach bikes were available for rent everywhere and were the preferred mode of transportation. Our lodging was the artsy Cabinas Costapepito, built by Eddie, an escapee from New York City. Pepito was a collection of magical cabins in the jungle, yet practically on the beach. Our plan was to get in some more beach time, do some snorkeling and surfing, and bike down the coast to Manzanillo National Refuge (photo). On our ride to Manzanillo, we were upended by a three-toed sloth crossing the road (why did the sloth cross the road?). Sloths are notoriously slow so you can imagine how long it took the poor guy to get to other side! (photo) Costa Rica is loaded, so expect to see your share of the wild things. Locals love wildlife and everything seems to come to a stop when some animal shows up. Drivers out in the country are very courteous to bikers and wildlife.
The lure of "wasting away in Margaritaville" was tempting, but four days in the
hot Caribbean lowlands was enough. We headed west, back to the cooler
interior hills of the Orosi valley. Now in coffee growing country, we
would ride the steep slopes and terraced coffee bean roads that ran all
through the mountains and villages. This would be challenging terrain
requiring lots of water and electrolytes daily. On our first full
day in the valley we jumped right in, following the road to the "Yellow
Church in the Hill". We knew that we had climb, but how bad could it
be? There were coffee pickers' homes all the way up, right? The
"road" proved to be an unbelievably steep switchback donkey cart trail
ascent which took us almost two hours--1/3 of time riding, 1/3 walking, and 1/3
bitching. Several of our group mentioned that this climb was a personal
accomplishment breaking all previous records (remember, in Costa Rica they spell
mountain with a capital M). At the top, we all stood in awe of the views
of the village of Orosi and the valley below. Happily, what goes up must go down! The downhill took an
hour with bikes humming and brakes a burning. We estimated the
elevation change from the top to the valley below was over 2,500 feet.
That night at Media Libra, our hotel, our bikes once again drew attention. We soon learned that Alan, the night watchman, was a mountain biker and Marvin, the hotel owner, was a fanatic biker, away at a two-day race! We were in for a red carpet treatment. We convinced Alan to join us on our ride up to Tipanti National Park the next morning, and he ended up being our unofficial guide. Initially, Alan protested that he would not be able to keep up, as his favorite bike was broken, but he used his ancient, steel rigid frame bike and kicked our butts, anyway. The ride was a gradual climb up the Rio Macho valley through villages, past coffee plantations, following the river into the Tipanti Cloud Forest. We rode for about 14 kilometers, with a side hike to yet another waterfall and swimming hole. The ride back down was another lightning-fast thriller. We stopped halfway back at Kiri Lodge for a great lunch of fresh trout which we caught in their trout pond! (photo). The rest of the ride back to Orosi was great--we we're flying downhill for close to an hour.
One of the nice things about traveling with a smaller group is the ability to wing it. After two days of riding these killer mountains our bodies were screaming for a rest, and we all decided to do our own thing for the day. Some of us took the van up to nearby Volcano Irazu (photo), while others decided to go back to Tipanti to hike around and look for more wildlife. Katy and I just couldn't manage to stay away from the bike all day, and rode back up again through the village of Purisil, and into the coffee plantations in search of more single track. This exploration became a long hike-a-bike through the jungle on a footpath that the locals used as roads to their homes! If there had been more daylight, we would have followed the footpath to the top, but we had to turn around. What a great piece of single track that was on the way down. We backtracked and continued onto another loop that culminated in an awesome downhill ride (photo) on through Purasil. And this was the first time that we had ever passed a car on the downhill! (These roads are not for the weak-of-heart.) While Katy and I were riding, the rest of the group hiked to another local waterfall and were treated to a show by the local farmer. We all arrived just about dark back at our hotel.
The best thing about staying in the village of Orosi was the lack of tourism. Everyone here is local, and it's easy to get to know the culture and folks. Marvin, the owner of our hotel, returned from his two-day mountain bike race, and was excited to speak with us. My folding "toys" really got us talking, and he invited us to ride with him back up the mountain the next day to see the house he built. Up again! The early bird ride only attracted three of us, and we met Marvin at 6:30 a.m. at the hotel. We joined him for his daily bike ride back home for breakfast. (It seems that Marvin's day started at 5 a.m.; he was a builder and would get his crews all set up, then he'd bike back up for breakfast.) The ride up wasn't so bad--we were finally getting in shape--and the expansive views of the valley from the hacienda were worth the effort. Our final day of riding was off to a good start! When we returned to our hotel we met Alan, who was eager to take us up to the local hot springs. This turned out to be a wonderful series of fresh water pools at the edge of the Rio Macho. What a finale! Later in the day we headed back to San Jose, as our adventure came to an end.
There is a saying in Costa Rica: "Pura Vida," which means pure life. After this wonderful adventure, we understood why this saying is so prevalent. The Costa Rican way of life is simple, and the people live life with joy every day. We now appreciate the natural wonders of this magical place and, more importantly, we appreciate the great warmth and friendliness of the people. Riding a bike is a wonderful way to travel here. We were forced to slow down and smell the roses, or in this case, the orchids. We were able to feel the spritz of the clouds in the rain forest, hear the haunting howl of the howler monkeys in the jungle, and were able to get into places that tour buses simply can't go. The mountain bike is a great tool for exercise, and an awesome way to get up close and personal with the surroundings. Our late-winter escape proved to be warming, both inside and out.
Cliff Krolick is founder and owner of the New England-based Back Country Excursions mountain biking touring center. One of the first and longest running cross country touring facilities in the region. Located in southern Maine, BCE offers trail riding, mtb vacation packages, special events, instruction, and biking adventure. For more info, visit www.bikebackcountry.com, phone 207-625-8189, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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