Artec and I flew into Liberia, Costa Rica on New Year’s Eve. We knew the trip was off to a good start when a cab driver in a tiny red economy car strapped Artec’s bike box to the roof and gestured for me to squeeze into the backseat and position myself on hands and knees behind my bike box. Back home in Arizona, one of our favorite past times is proving to fellow mountain bikers that gas guzzling trucks are not necessary. We get a kick out of loading $20,000 worth of mountain bikes to the top of the sun stained beige Corolla we bought off Craigslist for $1,700. Squeezing into a Costa Rican fuel-efficient cab was just our style – plus, it gave Artec the opportunity to warm up his Spanish with two phrases directed at the cab driver: “Ella es pequeno!” followed by “Feliz Nuevo Ano!”
The cab driver sped through the twisty, potholed streets of Liberia with confidence – passing trucks on the right, dodging pedestrians, and rolling through stop signs. I braced myself in the back seat – still on hands and knees – and peered over the edge of my bike box at the bright lights of the city whizzing by. It looked like a really unpleasant place to ride a bike: narrow roads, no shoulders, and cars weaving all over the place. Our biggest challenge, I was convinced, would be getting out of Liberia.
The driver dropped us at Hotel Javy, a sanctuary on the edge of the congested city. Javier – the son the hotel is named after – and his mother praised our poor Spanish and encouraged us to keep practicing. We spent the next day under the lush canopy of the hotel putting our bikes together and discussing our navigation plans. Our hope was to piece together dirt roads and trails from Liberia to the top of the Nicoya Penninsula before working our way down through Parque Nacional Santa Rosa, then along the coast from surf town to surf town, and finally looping inland up and over volcanoes back to Liberia. The navigation of this route seemed daunting because the only road included on the base maps I’d downloaded on my Garmin was the busy, twisty and terrifying Highway 1. I’d also brought a map with excellent reviews, but it didn’t include anything useful like topographic lines or street names. Not that street names would have helped – most street signs in Costa Rica were stolen for scrap metal years ago.
The night before we left, Javier shared some information with us that saved our trip: you can download areas on Google Maps and your phone will navigate without cell phone service. The next morning we carbo-loaded on pinto gallo and fried plantains prepared by Javier’s mother and set out on our adventure with the hope of making it fifty miles to Parque Nacional Santa Rosa and then up to the beach community – and kiteboarding mecca – of Bahia Salinas. Within twenty minutes of navigating colorful neighborhoods, lazy dogs, and giant iguanas sunbathing in the street, our wheels rolled onto a quiet dirt road hemmed in by trees and cows and offering postcard-worthy views of Rincon de La Vieja sitting under a layer of clouds. Soon the road became potholed and washed out and my hopes for this adventure began to materialize: we did indeed need our mountain bikes.
The chunky dirt road turned into a footpath skirting along the top of a wash, with sections of the trail entirely eroded away. We hopped across a short chasm and then carried our bikes around a tangling of barbed wire on the other side. A farmer greeted us moments later. He was interested in where we were headed – Canas Dulces for lunch, we told him – and he offered route suggestions in the form of three lefts and then a right. Two hours later I was still reveling about what an awesome route we’d chosen – no cars, stunning mountain views, occasional houses with dogs, kids and chickens to greet us, and fun, ledgey limestone to bomb down.
Then, Artec’s front fork went flat. This was the first of many mechanical woes for him on the trip. Several days later, before we were able to even fix his fork, on a secluded stretch of beach in Bahia Salinas, Artec would get a flat tire while walking his bike across a short stretch of rock. He was glancing out at the ocean, mesmerized by the pelicans and the calm water, and suddenly with a loud hiss Stan’s NoTubes sealant gushed out of his rear tire. The rear wheel tapped a barnacle and the barnacle ripped the sidewall. It took all of the self-control I could muster to not say, “you’re not using tires with EXO sidewalls? You realize we are on a remote bikepacking trip, right?” Instead, I pedaled in circles on the firm beach sand and then amused myself by riding along the side of an estuary looking for crocodiles. Artec posted up under the shade of a few coconut trees and tried to patch his tire.
The tire patch didn’t hold, so we walked our bikes up the beach and then up a dirt road to the Blue Dream Hotel. On the way, I explained to Artec it’s best when he gets the mechanicals because it makes me a lot less emotionally stressed out, which is better for both of us. Artec didn’t reply, but he had a healthy laugh later that evening over beer and pizza with a group of kiteboarders. It happened to be pizza night at the Blue Dream, which meant the Italian expat who owns the hotel fired up the outside brick pizza oven. I had elevated us to celebrity status among the kite boarders (and won a free beer!) when we arrived because I pedaled my bike to the top of the 30-degree cement path paralleling the hotel without falling off. According to the owner, I was the first person to ever succeed at this.
When Artec’s fork went flat outside of Liberia on the first day, I had assured him I’d read about a woman who led mountain bike tours in Bahia Salinas. We’d be there tomorrow, I insisted. If he could tough it out, I was sure she’d have a fork pump. But moments after his fork went flat we missed a turn and ended up on some of the steepest, most technical and loose single track we would encounter the entire trip. This was the beginning of why my promised day one day of pedaling to a fork pump turned into three days, and the beginning of our favorite part of the trip: we had to be spontaneous in Costa Rica. No amount of pre-planning would get us where we thought we should be, and there were surprises—and howler monkey’s to greet us—almost everywhere we ended up.
The single track from our wrong turn outside of Liberia shot straight down the edge of a hill along a pasture, back up another hill and then right back down, over rocks and ledges, and into an overgrown babbling creek. Artec rode it like a champ with his bottomed out fork. The trail led us straight into Canas Dulces, where Artec headed for the small convenience store to recover. This would become the highlight of the trip for him – convenience stores in the most rural areas, with cold drinks and cheap calories, very important things for a tall, skinny cyclist who doesn’t do well in the heat.
In Canas Dulces, I pounced on the opportunity – afforded by the exhaustion of my boyfriend – to take over the navigation. Google Maps made it look like we would need to ride on Highway 1 for about twenty miles. No matter how much Artec assured me 20 miles would go by quickly, I did not want to do it. “This is a bikepacking trip,” I demanded, “not a bike tour.” Finally, Artec caved in, and I lead the charge out of Canas Dulces to a dirt road appearing to dead end on my map. “It might go through,” I muttered as we pedaled out of town, “we need to see if it goes through.”
We never found out of it went through. After riding along an old cobblestone path we ended up at a seven-foot tall moss-covered stone fence and a no trespassing sign. We hopped the fence and explored the other side on foot for a few minutes, said hello to two grazing horses, and then Artec’s reasoning won out, “we’re here to ride our bikes, not to trespass.”
Back on the edge of Canas Dulces, I seized the day one last time. There was another road on my map that looked like it might connect to Highway 1, close to the road we wanted on the other side. Five miles of exploring past acres of For Sale signs and one pepper farm lead us to another dead end. The road simply stopped in the middle of a briar patch surrounded by rain forest. I unclipped from my bicycle and for the first time all afternoon felt defeated – by the navigation, the extreme humidity, and the impact of traveling under the direct Costa Rican sunlight. Artec glanced at me, “you need more sunscreen,” he said. Then he rested his bike on the ground and took off toward the sound of a stream.
I found him a few minutes later, sitting on a rock in the middle of the creek watching two giant iguanas chase each other along the bank. This would become routine for us in the following days: we’d be concerned about a dead end, a broken bike part, a navigational mistake, or an occasional domestic disagreement and then moments later we’d be soaking our feet in a secluded river, swimming in a remote ocean bay, or watching baby sea turtles hatch and everything about the trip would seem better than we had imagined.
Artec and I spent just over two weeks pedaling down the Nicoya Penninsula. We connected towns by way of less traveled dirt roads and footpaths. On one particularly awesome day, we cut through Parque Nacional Santa Rosa by way of an unmaintained road park officials described as “muy peligroso.” We got lost more than once (it turned out to be a maze of roads, not just one road, leading through the park) and took a memorable break at a waterfall with crocodiles. Several days later we tried a similar looking route. After miles of rolling through rainforest, we slogged up a giant hike-a-bike that rewarded us with spectacular ocean views as well as the longest and steepest paved descent we had ever seen (five miles with sections as steep as 30 degrees!). The unmaintained road had popped us out at the top of a mega mansion development. The guard at the bottom of the development was more than a little confused to see us but offered us tips on the next section of our route. Another highlight was rolling into the small town of Ostional after dark and learning that the sea turtles were hatching. Because of time-consuming navigation (we chose a lot of indirect routes!), we were not able to complete the inland part of our trip. We ended up in the small town of Santa Theresa at the bottom of the Nicoya, spent a day surfing, and then rented a car back to Liberia. It was an awesome trip. Send me a message if you’d like more detailed route information or ideas for a future trip!