Costa Rican Quest

Mountain Biking from Sea to Sea
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Photo © Costa Rica Experts - Frog
 (Costa Rica Experts)

We were fishing for crabs in the lagoon when the storm started. The wind came first: Skidding over the waves and slamming into the palm trees, it turned their fronds inside out, straining them inland in a single balletic swoop. The rain followed in quantities that could not rightly be called drops. Half-cups of water splashed off our faces; we were soaked in seconds.

The wall of jungle, the beach, waves, everything was obscured in the gray void of a Costa Rican rainstorm. We leaned into the wind while a first-time realization made its careful way through our North American synapses. We were standing in a storm of tree-bending violence and we were warm.

But this tiny country between Nicaragua and Panama had started astonishing us as soon as we got there; there was no reason it should stop now. My friend Peter and I had arrived months before, a pair of gringos with the modest desire to ride our mountain bikes through a place that was warm, pretty, and inexpensive. A place, our families had discreetly suggested, that wasn't engaged in a civil war.

We started pedaling in Santa Rosa National Park, a few miles south of the Nicaraguan border. It took less than hour for the wonder to set in. Even in the parched northwest corner of the country, the place boomed with life. An enormous, jacked-up gopher motored across the trail. A white-faced monkey tried to pee on our heads from the high branches of a tree. Purple and orange land crabs zipped to their holes, cocking themselves in the entrance until we passed. A pair of huge, blue iguanas sprawled in the shade, grinning at some Pleistocene joke.

Peter stopped his bike, leaned over, and stared at them. "Hey, you guys," he said conversationally. They blinked. Iguanas haven't made it from prehistory into the latter part of the 20th century by wasting energy on anything that wasn't absolutely mandatory. Reacting to a North American bicyclist was evidently optional. We kept riding.

Then the forest opened up onto the Pacific Ocean. We stopped, dumbfounded. Naranjo Beach was deserted; white and wide, distantly curved. The green, glassy waves crashed for miles. The forested hills mounted endlessly inland. A cloud of shrieking parrots crash-landed into a shuddering tree, their wings glinting green in the evening light. The shells of turtles who hadn't made it back to sea after laying their eggs littered the shore. It was then that we realized that we had, indeed, spent most of our lives in a part of the world covered with pine trees and little brown birds.

Spanning both coasts of the spindly isthmus that connects North and South America, Costa Rica is home to a disproportionate number of species—an estimated half a million. The national territory covers everything from steamy mangrove swamps and lowland rainforest to cold, misty mountaintops. Its highest point is 12,500 feet above sea level.

Beset by one of the most rapid deforestation rates in the world, Costa Rica's government is mobilizing to save the country's remaining forests. About 12 percent of the national territory is protected in an internationally-celebrated system of national parks and biological reserves. Another 15 percent surrounds the parks in "buffer zones" where government agencies and international conservation groups promote the sustainable use of forests and farmland.

Costa Rica's conservation efforts are built upon a political tradition that has arguably demonstrated more humanity in the last century than any other country in the hemisphere. It abolished its army in 1949. "Peace," noted former Natural Resources Minister Alvaro Umaqa, "is the first prerequisite to conservation." Its biodiversity and political stability act as a magnet for both foreign aid and expertise for conservation projects. It is friendly. Its coffee is superb. Outside San José—a polluted, cinderblock city—it is all dependably beautiful. For travelers who would rather be outside than in shops or museums, Costa Rica is pure magic.

On Naranjo Beach we discovered the flip side to the wonder of tropical remoteness. It is called nighttime.

Above the high-tide line, the air was hot-house still. We pitched our tent to catch the wilting breeze, then lay sweating in the dark. I thought of the long, passionate food chain that slinked and waited in the miles of dark forest between us and the Pan American Highway. I thought of stinging ants, vampire bats, wild pigs, jaguars. Crocodiles that live in the estuaries near the beach. No emergency phone. No information booth. Just oversized blue iguanas. Just pounding white surf under an impassive moon.

Then I had a dream: Little claws were feebly pinching the nylon, whispering against the tent wall next to my ear. Ping-pong balls were pushing their way under the floor. The problem was, I wasn't asleep. I shot out of the tent into the moonlight. Hermit crabs were everywhere. Our tent was a little ship in a sea of crabs making their way to their feeding grounds on the beach like a herd of tiny, meek buffalo.

Oh, blessed joke. Wonderful bottom rung of the food chain. Oh, friendly moon, that looked the same as it did from the parking lot of my office in New Hampshire. Orion was up there, too, swinging across the sky. The sea had retreated, booming distantly on the dark sand.

Days later, we heaved our bikes up the rutted road, heads pounding, finishing our water in the first two hours. Near the top I fixed my loopy gaze on a distant, cloud-shrouded volcano. Like a magnet. Like a mirage. Streams. Shade. Relief. To my heat-addled brain, it looked only a day away.

It was. Costa Rica's diminutive size allows you to pedal from a likeness of Baja California to something that feels like Oregon in a wonderfully short period of time. The next day we biked into the cool mist of Rincon de la Vieja National Park. From its dappled forest floor we looked down on the parched province of Guanacaste. Far away, we saw the Pacific Ocean.

On a bike, you can be silently joined by a group of early-morning bicyclists pedaling to their jobs at a slaughterhouse. You can ride into the middle of a family reunion on a remote beach and spend the day talking politics and drinking rum and Coke. Our mountain bikes were perfect for negotiating the dirt backroads we shared with farm trucks and ox carts. With our bicycling shorts and zinc oxide-smeared noses, we were alternately treated as something to be giggled at, helped, or fed. When we camped near a tattered fishing village on the Gulf of Nicoya, some fishermen found us in a café a mile from our tent to tell us the high tide might get it wet.

We stopped in front of a farmer's house. Peter was hunched over his front tire, which blew out with stunning regularity, usually as soon as we had put a respectable distance between us and the last café that could have offered the solace of a roof and a cold Fanta.

I was leaning against the fence, holding the patch kit, watching the dusty road grow white in the midday sun. Suddenly, two tiny fists came through the slats, holding a pair of peeled oranges. The fists belonged to one of the half-dozen children who had been silently watching us from the porch with their parents. By the time we had the tire fixed, another pair of oranges and a couple of whole coconuts cut for drinking had been hefted over the fence. Barely a word was passed; it was too hot.

We met Manuel, the happiest man in the world, in the coffee farming town of Orosi. Everything that happened to Manuel made him feel just a little bit better. He shook hands with the smallest boys he met in the street, bought rounds of beer for everyone in sight in the bar. He worked at a local chicken farm, which he showed us with—what else?—unmitigated glee. When I jumped at the sight of a spider the size of my hand on the wall, he grinned: "Yep, those are really dangerous."

Manuel didn't care that our Spanish was so bad we couldn't hold our own with a reasonably articulate two-year-old. Tears of joy would come to his eyes when we spoke Spanish. He'd put his hands on the bar and convulse with laughter. We cemented our friendship by singing "La Bamba" and "A Whiter Shade of Pale" to each other.

He insisted we attend his upcoming wedding and we accepted. After three days of intensive Spanish, whirling disco lights, and gallons of social lubricants, we were exhausted and ready to do something simple. Like ride our bikes over the mountains on the old highway to Manuel Antonio National Park on the Pacific coast.


Published: 29 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication
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Volcano Lodge and Springs
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Pumilio Mountain and Ocean Hotel

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