Discovering Costa Rica Via Two Wheels
DAYS OF FREEDOM AND BLISS
The first set of wheels I ever purchased with my own money was a 125cc 1970s Kawasaki Enduro. As the world's worst paper boy, I had worked hard slogging through the ice and snow to earn enough cash for the bike.
I was thirteen years old. My father was in a quandary, he told me I could have a motorcycle if I paid for it myself, but I don't think he really anticipated the degree of my drive to acquire said dirt bike -- until I had actually bought it. At the time, Pops was riding a sweet Harley Davidson Super Glide, one of many bikes he owned during my youth.
The freedom of being on the open road in the wind was quite intoxicating to me in those formative years. So he shouldn't have been surprised when I showed up with it one day. He was due to rotate off Marine Corps recruiting duty and leave behind the gritty coal mining town of Scranton, PA. Along the way I would be spending the summer in Idaho with the grandparents while the Gunny set up the family in Camp Pendleton. With the promise of an Idaho driver's license at fourteen years old I was slightly mollified as I rolled my new prize into the garage.
Tearing across the foot hills on a hot July day I discovered my bliss, but it was not to last. At the end of the best summer I ever experienced, it was time to leave the farm and move to Cali. "Time for the bike to go." Visions of riding down golden beach dunes evaporated quicker than the sweat on my brow. Father knows best but this really sucked. California was just too dangerous for a fourteen year old kid on a motorcycle, license or no license. As a consolation, I would be getting my own transportation in the form of a well-worn Subaru Brat.
Just a few short years later I too, would join the Marines and was soon shipping out to Japan sans vehicle. It wasn't until after my enlistment that I would get the bug again, and this time it was an all American Harley Davidson. The next decade flew by as I built and rebuilt a couple of bikes and rode off on adventures. Back when the Oxx was tiny, it was easy to shut the doors and head off into the wind. I counted myself lucky on surviving thousands of miles without a serious accident and cashed out before getting crunched.
THE SCENE: GUATEMALA 2012
I found I was astride a rented Suzuki Enduro with no license and a big smile on my face. Riding around the perimeter of Lago Atitlan with my friends for the day was the highlight of my trip to Guatemala. After returning to the states I even visited a couple of dealerships but nothing felt quite right. As the new factory project consumed me, I forgot about motorcycles again. Eating dirt and steel for a few months during a Montana winter will give anyone a hankering for some palm trees.
My friend Jordan and I had been slaving away on the demolition and the metal work for the factory renovation here in Montana. We were finished with the worst of it when his cousin called with a brilliant idea. He'd been taking a group of Carolina boys on semiannual trips and we were invited to join the fun. You don't have to ask me twice to go to the beach and luckily we had some down time while they were polishing the concrete flooring inside the building.
This trip would be a quick jaunt and required no excessive equipment or clothing. I began with the basics, my trusty C-Ruck and a Tri-fold shave kit. Then as I was sorting my gear, I spotted our now defunct fanny pack lurking in the back of my bag closet. Yes, I have a huge collection of Red Oxx bags from the past and present, all stashed in their own little home.
One thing you learn early on about riding is that you're going to get rained on. Time to hit the outdoor store for a waterproof pack cover and a small waterproof bag for my camera gear since the Oxx does not build these type products. I find these items to be somewhat disposable in nature when used hard. One tiny little hole or tear and the waterproof bag becomes a water funnel. With a wide assortment to choose from I was on my way in ten minutes with the "latest" in waterproof kit from Sea to Summit. A few extra bungee cords and we're ready ride. Minimalism is the credo of the motorcyclist and we had certainly trimmed our gear back to the bare essentials.
Arriving in San Jose, Costa Rica without reservations, we soon found a nice little three star hideout at the Hotel Colonial. We had been instructed to meet there; one problem, it was the wrong Hotel Colonial. Well who needs air conditioning and cable TV on vacation? Stashing our Rucksacks we set out to find a cousin somewhere in San Jose.
Everybody has a cousin in Miami, or so goes the Jimmy Buffett song. I have mine and Jordan certainly has his. Cousin Benji could be the long-lost brother to my own nefarious relative. Pilot, fly fisherman, and all around Renaissance man as fate would have it.
Crossing Costa Rica by motorbike.
We quickly spotted him smoking outside a seedy bar. Someone was trying to sell him a condo at the beach and he was working a reverse deal for a share of his practice. He had brought along a couple of fellow motorcycle enthusiasts who really knew their stuff when it came to building and riding classic Harleys. Josh Siler and Ben Jordan are both accomplished fabricators and both have an unbridled passion for old bikes. With introductions made, we all planned to meet at Wild Rider in the morning to rent our steeds.
Exiting San Jose on an underpowered multi-sport motorcycle is certainly a wild ride unto itself. Gone was the throaty rumble of the Harley's I had known, only to be replaced by the high pitched whine of a high revving angry bee. Somehow it just feels like you're really small on one of these rice burners. The Carolina boys weren't even sweating as they eclipsed the speed limit while darting between semi-trucks and taxis. This was about as much fun as going to the dentist; it even felt like one of my fillings was rattling out.
Jim Markel takes a time out.
After such an exciting launch from the city we found a roadside café and pulled up to check maps. Our timing couldn't have been more perfect as an afternoon deluge ensued shortly after ordering our Casado. With the rain starting to slack, we remounted and tried to beat sundown in a race to Fortuna. It felt great to work the gears and take the bike around verdant curves as we climbed towards the Arenal volcano. We swooped into Fortuna just as the last rays of light disappeared into our rear view mirrors.
Chaining the bikes up, we set up on the porch of our deluxe two star accommodations and spent the evening getting to know each other. The Carolina boys were a tight group of friends and family. I got the feeling that cousin Benji was the chief instigator when it came to running amok. I quickly nicknamed him the maestro and the name just seemed to suit him. Listening to the stories of how the boys would all get injured on some half-baked stunt, I couldn't help but smile and think of my own dear cousin.
Colorful sidewalk mosaics.
Seems that most of these stories began with tying a rope onto something powerful and ended with a broken bone or two, of course, the maestro is never injured in any of these escapades. The next statement would be something like, "Don't tell mom." Ah yes, I think we all have a friend or relative like this one. Forewarned is forearmed and I listened carefully as the orange glow of Josh's cigarette silhouetted the scars on his brow.
If there is one thing I love about life in Central America, it has to be the outdoor cafés. You can hardly swing a cat without hitting one. Not two doors down from our lodgings we found an outstanding place for morning chow and high octane coffee on the cheap. Fortifying ourselves for the long day ahead we scanned the map of our proposed route. The plan was for a nice casual putt across and then down the Nicoya Peninsula while finding a place to overnight along the way. By the twinkle in the maestro's eye I decided to order an extra round of bacon just in case.
Cutting around the north side of Lago Arenal on a bright sunny morning, I soaked up the warmth of the day. The greenery is enough to cause a visceral reaction for those of us that live well north of the equator. The Carolina boys were hardly fazed and couldn't wait to leave the pavement behind as we turned south towards the coast. Rocks the size of cantaloupes were strewn on what appeared to be our road. Bouncing along doing my best to stay upright, I lagged well behind the rest of the crew.
As with all motorcycle trips it's not a matter of will it rain on you, it's when. Climbing up through the rainforest on a slick rock road I did my best to keep my bike moving forward. The drizzle of the rain was fairly tolerable and our speed was such that wind chill was negligible. Just the cold comfort as the rain slowly crept into my jacket and my glasses began to fog.
Ah yes, I remembered, exactly as before as the first rivulet ran down my spine and I let a wry smile creep across my face. We weren't far from our planned stop for the day as we descended the mountain into a rustic village. We rolled up to a sorry excuse for a cantina and took shelter under the eve. Staring at the stray dog sitting next to me I could almost hear him thinking "you don't want to stay here gringo."
Walking the beach at last.
Time to reassess the situation and plot out our next move, we could push on and make the coast but it was going to be a long day in the rain. I tossed the rest of my beef jerky to the sullen mutt and we got the hell out of Dodge. Back on the trail things went from mildly uncomfortable to downright miserable as the rain intensified. The next few hours were a clinic on riding in the rain as we worked our way over and down to the coast. The sun had abated but it was still a tropical rain and therefore not the typical bone chiller. The truly amazing thing was the intensity of it pouring from the sky.
Before long we were cutting a wake in the pavement as we negotiated the winding roads down to the sea. I have ridden in some nasty storms before in the Rockies, but this one was epic. You know it's bad when you're practically riding by brail and squinting through soaked goggles one eye at a time.
Pulling into Playa Sámara like a pack of half drowned rats we pulled up under the first tin shed that would accommodate our bikes. I could smell the pork tacos roasting and spied a fine beach break just through the palms. Paradise found and it was well worth the extra effort of pushing on in the rain.
Koombie rides again!
We spent the next couple of days going native but had to leave after cleaning out the supply of food from the hotel. One cannot live on nachos alone they say. Besides these boys had come to ride, for me I was just getting comfortable. With promises of another beach hotel in my near future I reluctantly stowed my gear and fired up the rice cooker.
By now I had truly come to despise this gutless wonder, not only was it slow, it was also incredibly uncomfortable. Kind of like riding on a two by four while having your leg hairs pulled out ever so slowly. I had taken to standing on the pegs just to get some relief; ditch my kingdom for a decent saddle.
The drier conditions had brought out the speed demons and the boys twisted the throttles as far as they would go. Sliding around gravel turns while pegging out the bikes; we made pretty good time to our next beach oasis. The only thing I noted about this one was the abundance of belligerent tourists. I counted twenty nine sleeve-tattooed arms among the crowd surfing the souvenir shops. Kind of like Sturgis goes to Costa Rico except they were all too interested in checking their reflections in the shop windows. I suddenly remembered why I sold my Harley in the first place.
Red Oxx Belt Buckle takes a break.
You can't beat the scenery in this part of the world--if you don't like what you're seeing just turn towards the Pacific and find perfection. Another sunrise, another day on the misery machines, well for me at least. The Carolina boys loved every minute of it, at least until we had our first break down. Fortunately it had happened at one of those swank resort hotels that are all inclusive and reclusive.
Cokes might be four bucks, but for any port in a storm, this was a nice as place as any to breakdown. I hadn't turned a wrench on a bike in fifteen years and I wasn't going to start now. I had two awesome bike builders along and they had that sucker working again in fifteen minutes. Riding is much preferred to pushing, so I was thankful to be on the road again.
We were making our way north on the peninsula to catch the ferry to Puntarenas. I had caught the boat here for my Coco's Island dive trip. While for a small city, it certainly has the daytime hustle and bustle of traffic. After several days spent on the wild and free Nicoya Peninsula, it was a bit of shock to be back in heavy traffic. If I have learned anything about motorcycling, it's right-of-way goes by gross tonnage. Watching my friend Jordan cut in and out of traffic I began to wonder if I was going to witness the end of him.
I tried to warn him about the machismo of the drivers in this part of the world but racing through the mid-day rush I could see that the thrill was too much for him to let pass. Of course, right about then an oncoming 5-ton truck decided not to back down. After a slight contact to his mirror he cooled his jets rather quickly. Pulling up beside him I could see he was visibly shaken, yeah "bonehead" they don't care if they kill you here.
We spent the rest of the afternoon working our way down Jaco for another stay on the beach. Jaco is Costa Rica's top tourist destination; plenty of surfing and fishing along with the nightlife. Not quite Cabo since it's a little bit more of a journey, but I get that California feeling nonetheless. After spending the majority of our time out of the limelight, it was like hitting the big city. With plenty of beach rat related activities to occupy us, we had a nice change of pace.
Time was running short, so we gathered to make a plan about how to get back to San Jose. Our options were the road less taken or the new highway -- I was leaning towards highway. Anything but those rutted roads over the mountains would suit me fine. Careful what you wish for, as the blessed Hell ride is what ensued.
Costa Rica had just completed a beautiful new highway back from the beach. Speeds along the road are far in excess of what the bikes were capable of. At one point I looked into my rear view mirror and all I saw was the windshield of a Toyota Land Cruiser. In it I could see a smoking hot woman putting on lipstick while ignoring the road ahead; the road on which I was flogging my pathetic little dual-sport for all it was worth. Her sparkling eyes flared a bit as she bombed the brakes, narrowly missing my rear tire. At this point I was wishing I had opted for the rough ride in the hills.
Wild Riders survive Costa Rica.
The next two hours were pretty much the same except for the variety of vehicles driving like fiends; rice rocket Hondas with turbo exhaust systems screaming by at mach two. We were at least faster than the dreaded container trucks, but not much! By luck, or divine providence, we finally made it back to the city where at least the pace was slowed. Somehow we even managed to find the Wild Rider rental shop. We'd been instructed to bring the bikes back with tanks full or else our German friend would make us pay...
Screw that, I hadn't survived this long only to be taken out by a taxi here in the city. I felt like dismounting and shooting my ride through the engine block to spare the next person. Dry-mouthed and saddle-sore, I parked it in front of the shop and stretched out on the sidewalk. It had been a fast and furious kind of week here in Costa Rica.
We spent our last night enjoying a fine meal at the little steakhouse just across from the Colonial. Sitting around recounting some of the close calls and highlights of the trip I thought it would be fun to make another run with these ridge runners someday. Next time we need to try one of those ugly BMWs or maybe even a Harley.
Jim Markel, CEO