The Pan American border crossing from Nicaragua to Costa Rica announced itself with huge ques of stationary trucks traffic kilometers before the border. I was really beginning to question this whole border phenomenon, practically and more philosophically. What value do they add, and to whom…? But I waded my way through and was soon enough speeding past stationary trucks pointed the other way.
I was in Costa Rica, woop woop, which roughly translates from the indigenous language to mean ‘place with the richly decorated paper money’. And they nailed it. Here payment wasn’t an act of cold commerce, instead it felt like parting with a piece of favourite art. Costa Rica was also the first of the southern American colonies, so it meant these acts of commerce became heftier on the wallet than in the lawless north I’d just emerged from, unscathed and thankfully not that much poorer. Equally annoying I was assumed to be a gringo wherever I went, except in the actual gringo places where I was shunned as a smelly cyclist of destinct non gringo, and therefor, of inferior status.
I’d done my normal share of research and prep for this new country chapter, which is to say none at all. And here I was suddenly flummoxed. My prior security motivated modus operandi of smashing out the kilometers on the main roads south carried little legitimacy here. Costa Rica was deemed safe, and if you made the careless mistake of opening a travel guide you’ll be overwhelmed to the point of dispair of touristy things on offer. Like the Nicoya Peninsula, described a veritable coastal Garden of Eden. But I’d seen the end of that movie before, and sweaty mosquito filled nights were high on my ‘not to be repeated’ list of mistakes. And seeing sloths doing nothing, the staple ingredient of sloth behaviour, was not sufficient justification of enduring nights of misery.
Thankfully the travel guide did a reasonable job of selling the northern highlands, so I set forth in keeping with my one and only guiding criteria: stick to the mountains.
My body was less interested in turning a new page at the border, and I continued to struggle to gather any momentum, peddling squares along route 4, into the persistent headwind. By nightfall I realized I was in trouble looking for a camp spot. Everything was either impenetrable dense vegetation or very exposed cultivated fields. I ended up in a small village squatting on a family’s front porch and even wangled a shower out of the deal. Bonus. But the change was hugely noticeable: This was a rural village, well off the main track, yet the houses were very well kept, solidly built and surrounded by neatly tended gardens. I’d venture as far as saying this was the highest level of rural development since the US. Geez, the houses even had seperate rooms with dedicated functions and furniture to match. It might come as a surprise reading this in your lifestyle estate back home, but in the vast majority of the world this is not the norm. Far far from it.
Days of riding past high intensity orange and pineapple farms followed, interspaced with deforested pastures for cattle grazing. Capitalism 3: Indigenous Forest 0. But a nagging thought kept getting louder in the back of my mind: ‘Jissie Retief. You’ve come a long way to see where Walmart gets it’s fruit from’. So I decided to find out why Walmart shoppers and hordes of other US tourists come to Costa Rica. Seems one of the reasons is Lake Arenal which gets it’s name from the towering Volcano Arenal on it’s eastern shore. It was pretty nice all round, with it’s American styled holiday homes lining the lush green hills of the lake. And one notable German/ Swiss establishment complete with mini railway line lent a brief Euro flavour.
Talking about flavour, here is a rare insight into the real, at the coalface, in the trenches world of no budget cycle touring. Costa Rica felt like the real tropics for the first time. And by felt I mean sticky. Sticky clothing as in my cycling shirt, socks, shoes, pants. Everything, sticky, all the time. Naturally this hot moist environment became a petri dish of villainous proportions. The full effect can easily be duplicated in more hospitable climes by taking your favourite training outfit, working up a multi hour feverish sweat and then leaving it all, shoes included, in a plastic bag in the sun untill the next training session. Then repeat. Indefinitely. In what was a shock even for me was that I found it quite a challenging being in my own company, smelling like a moist homeless person and what not. I’d come to time my entry into shops when the minimum occupants were inside. I banned myself from confined public spaces fearing a mob would spontaneous form and drive me from town like an old testament leper.
But here’s the rub: unless you can shower every night, and put on dry clean clothing every morning, you are fighting a lost battle. I tried it. Showered, rinsed out my clothing in what had been my usual successful regime. But here, come 10am the next day and you’re back where you started. Moist. Smelly. And still homeless.
So you can understand my absolute delight when I stumbled, by chance, accross a geothermally heated river, access gratis and for free. I swam and splashed around the pools fully clothed, hoping to get a good rinse out of the deal. But by mid afternoon it was back to par for the course, as expected.
I was more successful in riding some backroads through the forrested hills but was unable to escape into any real isolated backcountry. In short the reality firmly remained: Central America is a very populated place. People and their livelihood sustaining activities are hard to escape. Here there are no Pitsonderwaters served by a 60km dirt track traveled by one farm pickup once a week. Which is how I imagined it…
My next stop was the active Volcano Poas on the outskirts of San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. It is easily accessible since you can basically ride up to within a very short walk of the 1.7km wide and 300m deep crater which contains one of the most acidic lakes in the world. Apparently liquid sulphur lurks at the bottom of the near 0 pH lake.
It was a monster 2200m climb to get there coming from the north, but I could spread it out over an afternoon and the following morning, camping the night on the distant flanks of the mountains playing host to the volcano. It was a misty affair from midway on in the climb, and little had changed by the following morning. And here the guide book is quite clear: Arrive as early as possible to avoid the mist. With some hours left before getting there and the mountains still veiled in mist as from the night before, I knew the chances of seeing the huge crater were slim. But above all I had mentally committed to the climb, regardless of what awaited me at the top.
The scenery leading to the National Park was stunning, with picture perfect dairy farms dominating the landscape. It was easy to see why some call it the Switzerland of Central America. The final approach to the park entrance showed clear skies and I powered past a multi kilometer que of cars all playing the same gamble as me. I was getting hopeful: surely all these people would not have made this trip in vain?
At the park entrance I was dealt a double blow. Speaking to exiting visitors they confirmed it was a whiteout on top, and secondly the cost of entry was ridiculously high for foreigners, as in a couple of hundred rand. I spent a good while in a state of complete indecisiveness, having come all this way do I simply turn around, or follow the example of the crowds by paying and hoping the weather clears. By my 3rd approach to the ticket office to confirm the discriminatory pricing structures the young guy took pity on me and offered me the much reduced local resident ticket. And that is the backstory of how I came to stand on the looking platform, blinking away sulphur fumes and staring at a great white nothingness. At least I was about 75% sure it was not my musky odour, but rather the sulphurous atmosphere causing the other visitors to blink away the tears. I had a nice late picnic lunch in the recreational area playing for more time, but in the midafternoon accepted my defeat. Can’t win ’em all I guess..
Heading south down the volcano and the northern mountainous border I dropped through the tidy and manicured coffee plantations into the so called central valley that contains San Jose. In reality this valley is a huge long strip of continuous urban settlement comprising of the capital and many other cities with ill defined borders and limits. Camping was again going to be a challenge, with people being everywhere. I asked at a police station and was well warned about the risks of camping but given no alternative suggestions. I found an actual camp ground asking $18 for the night, which I literally laughed of as ridiculous. With night falling I sped past the unlocked and unguarded gates of a housing estate that was all laid out with roads but had no houses yet. I snuck inside and was soon on my way to an uninterrupted night of stealth camping.
I was again staring at the map wondering where to next. The one huge unexplored area of this part of the world was the Caribbean coast and having exerted so much energy on the Continental Divide, the time had come to visit the extreme eastern boundary after many visits to the western terminus.
In touring cycling talk, one of the prominent talking points about Costa Rica is traffic. Up untill now I’d been largely ignorant of and unaffected by it. But as the next day unfolded it rapidly escelated into the only thing I was aware about. In the unending urban stretches of the central valley it was the usual jostling for space on the road, but nothing that ever feels dangerous. But as I hit the highway over the mountains to the east things took a sinister turn. Suddenly it became a game for survival. I’d seemingly picked the main commercial highway to the coast and to my dispair it had no shoulder for the vast majority of the way. The next 200km or so was by far the most stressful riding of the trip so far. My flock of guardian angels had their work cut out and I experienced many miracles as my timing during certain dodgy sections coincided with brief lulls in traffic. Eventually I made it over another Divide crossing and found some respite from the traffic as I bombed downhill through an unending sea of green mountainous jungle. As vertical meters were traded for horizontal kilometers the terrain transitioned to flat coastal plains. I flew along the flat road running out to the coast making near effortless progress.
I reached the coast at Limon and I was impressed to discover the novelty of being at the coast, albeit the other side of the continent, lasted for at least an hour. I ate a whole papaya to celebrate the occasion. Heading south the road hugged the endless beaches of the Caribbean shoreline and made for pretty good riding. Do to a vast number of slaved settling here from the Caribbean islands there is a definite different look and feel to the place. I quite enjoyed the change. I reached the tourist alcove of Cahuita and decided to call it a day with a near perfect camp spot right off the beach, complete with all the bloodthirsty nasties I’d forgotten about. But hey, I was within striking distance from the Panama border on the side of the continent never visited before. So after a celebratory swim I had to admit that life was treating me pretty kindly.