Motorcycle Trip Costa Rica

Having previously done a motorcycle trip through Ecuador a few years ago, we convinced our friends Lauren and Naomi to do a similar trip in Costa Rica. 
 On the 4th of July we did the least patriotic thing possible and flew out of the USA. After 16+ hours of traveling (with a layover in LA that allowed us to visit In-N-Out) Johanna, Naomi, and I arrived in San Jose from Seattle. It was early morning and the hotel wouldn't let us check in yet, but we stored our bags and explored the city a little. 

Mmm... In-N-Out!

Street contortionist

One of the famous Las Bolas

In the afternoon we stopped by Wild Rider and did all our paperwork so we could get going early the next day. Everything seemed to be going smooth, and as soon as you think that, it will stop. Lauren emailed us to say she had missed her flight out of Austin. She was getting the next one, but it meant she would be getting into San Jose late at night. At least she was still going to make it. We tried and failed to fight our jet lag while waiting up for her, but I at least managed to rally a bit when she arrived.

Not sure what these are... except terrifying

Johanna doing her pre-ride inspection
The next morning we arrived at Wild Rider right as they opened and Lauren began the paperwork process. The staff let me know something had happened, and the bike I expected to be on was no longer available. But they upgraded me to a Honda NX4 Falcon while the girls had Honda XR250 Tornados. They let me know there were no GPS units available for the bikes, which I had expected anyway. We were armed with a waterproof map, what could go wrong? We got our reflective sashes and were soon on our way. During our walk around the city the previous day, I became apprehensive about Costa Rican traffic. Based on my observations I had done worse, but was less sure about the others, and my ability to keep us all together as a group.

Ready to ROCK!

Luckily getting out of San Jose was not as difficult as it appeared, and we soon passed through the small town of Alajuela. From there we headed North up some steep winding hills to the top of th Poas Volcano. When we arrived at the entry gate, the attendant told me not to bother with the $15 per person fee, as the clouds had moved in and there would be no visibility anyway. I thanked him for the advice and turned us around to head back down. Naomi's bike had been struggling up the hill and we all stopped for a moment so I could test ride it. It was definitely sputtering and struggling, especially in the lower gears. I assumed it was just the elevation and the carbs needed rejetting. I gambled that we wouldn't be at such a high elevation again, and we decided to continue on.

We descended quickly, and got lost several times trying to find the correct road. With a lot of gesturing and all 3 words of Spanish that I know, we managed to find the correct road. After riding for a while we came across a hotel that would let you pay a fee to see the La Paz Waterfall Gardens. Not wanting to waste money, we just rode a little further down the curvy road and found a pull-off that was free. Once we had our fill of photos here, we continued on only to get stuck behind a Turismo bus that made sure nobody could pass him. It was slow going for a long way before we finally had the opportunity to pass him in a small town and then it was high speeds to try and make it to the hostel we were hoping for before sunset.

Johanna really likes taking photos of people taking photos.

A little west of the tourist trap town of La Fortuna there is a turn off to a dirt road that leads to the Parque Nacional Volcan Arenal. We passed the park entrance as the sun was quickly setting, riding towards the "town" of El Castillo. At a fork in the road there is a sign naming our hostel and leading us over a small bridge. I'm glad it's not raining, as the bridge looks like it could get really slick. We continue on and climb up and up until we arrive at Essence Arenal with minutes of daylight left. I go in to ask about a room and they have 2 left. Lucky us. We move our gear into the room and quickly jump in the hot tub with some beers to celebrate the first successful day.

Day 2

Packed up and ready to roll
I awoke early the next morning to the sound of howler monkeys in the distance. Then something scurried across the tin roof, banging back and forth loudly. Maybe the monkeys are closer than I realized. The howling and banging continues for a while and I consider getting up to see if they're messing with our bikes, but the comfortable bed keeps me down. Finally the rest of the group starts moving and we quickly get up and pack before grabbing a quick breakfast. The weather is not in our favor, with heavy clouds dominating the landscape. I make the declaration that it's not raining all that hard, and don't think I'll need my rain gear. I am mistaken. 

As we set off down the steep hill, we take our time with the wet muddy roads. This is Naomi's first time ever riding off road, and it's been several years since Ecuador for Lauren. Everyone does fine, and even the slick bridge I worried about the day before is no problem. Once we hit the paved road again we continue West around lake Arenal to the town of Tilaran. The rain continues to come down harder and harder, thoroughly soaking through all our gear. But there are no real shoulders here to pull over, so we continue on. The views would be amazing here if not for all rain on my glasses. At the edge of Tilaran we stop for gas and throw rain gear on with shivering hands. As soon as we set off the rain stops.

It's a universal dance
We grab a quick lunch at a soda (small Costa Rican restaurant) and then head down a dirt road towards the small town of Santa Elena (we've heard it's cheaper than neighboring Monteverde). By my estimation we're making good time, and should find lodging with plenty of sunlight left this time. The road starts out as packed dirt, but after a few kilometers starts getting softer and wetter. Eventually we crest a hill and the downside of it is deep, slick mud. I advise caution and roll through it slowly. It grabs my tires several times, trying to pull them in opposite directions. My height is an advantage here and I use my legs to keep the bike upright. I make it to the bottom of the hill and through the worst of the mud only to look up as Johanna informs me over the headset that she's going down.

It was a low speed fall, and Johanna managed to jump out of the way of the bike before it could pin her leg underneath. But even on a flat surface she sometimes struggles to lift her bike, especially when weighed down with her bag while on a slick muddy hill. I rush up the hill to help her, slipping and nearly falling a few times. I'm out of breath when I get to her, but together we get the bike back up. Except now it won't start. Lauren and Naomi make it past us without incident and I manage to use the hill to bump start the bike. At this point I remove my rain gear as the rain has mostly stopped and I'm already soaked in sweat anyway.

Despite being fine in the fall, Johanna still got a nasty bruise

We continue on, hoping the worst of the mud is behind us. And for a while it is. Until we come around a corner and find a giant tourist bus spinning its wheels in the mud. He has apparently given up on going any further and has tried a 20- point turn in the middle of this mud filled road. At this point my subconscious is wondering if it was stupid to bring a group of inexperienced off-road riders to this, and if I will need to take each bike through until I die of exhaustion.

I find an opening and squeeze past the bus and get through the worst of the mud. During this time Johanna and Lauren have slipped in the mud and I run back to help. Lauren manages to pick her bike up on her own while Johanna and I get hers through the worst part. Meanwhile Naomi, the first time off-road rider, makes it through without getting any mud on her like a pro. I invite her to lead our group for a while, as I'd rather be at the back in case of any further incidents.

The rest of the ride winds up and around the lush green hillsides but is uneventful as dirt has replaced the mud. After a little while we make it to the triangular center of Santa Elena and pull into a hostel that has parking. The room rates are reasonable, and they encourage us to bring our bikes into the back yard so they'll be right by our room. Lauren settles in to study for a test she will have to take online in the morning while we walk around the tiny town and find local candy and beer to sample.

Day 3

The next morning Lauren is up early for her test, while the rest of us drag our feet. I do some quick maintenance on the bikes while the hostel dog tries to get me to play. We have a quick breakfast then take a shuttle up to the Monteverde Cloud Forest. We hike through the forest and cross 8 suspension bridges scattered throughout the dense, green forest. This feels like one of the most western activities we've done here, as the trail is well maintained and clearly marked. More so than most of their roads in fact. We see a number of strange plants and insects in the forest before the hike is over.

When we get back to the hostel it's a bit of a mad dash to get all our gear on so we can get on the road. We've used up the first half of the day already, and still need to get to the beach town of Jaco by nightfall. It doesn't help that we go about 10km on the wrong road before realizing our mistake and backtracking. This will become the theme of the day, as I proceed to get us lost several times. Heading South from Santa Elena, we drop a considerable amount of elevation before seeing pavement again. Once we do, I find my happy place. The road we've found is freshly paved and one of the curviest I've ever ridden. I frequently shoot ahead of the group, pushing my limits and scraping the pegs on some of the sharper turns.

At one point I see something coming at the road from the corner of my eye. I slow down and see what I assume is the strangest raccoon I've ever laid eyes on. After a little research we discover it was a Coatimundi. Unfortunately I didn't have any cameras on for this moment though. We continue on at a safer pace, wary now of animals wandering into the road, and find a fancy soda to have lunch at. After lunch we turn onto what looks like a major road and start making good time. But after a few kilometers traffic comes to a complete stop. We wait there for a while, our view obscured by a large truck. Vehicles are passing us in random groups on the other side, but nobody on our side is moving.

Eventually we decide we don't want to grow old on this road, and as a group we move into the left lane and begin passing the huge convoy of immobile vehicles. This action was demonstrated numerous times by locals, so I figured "when in rome". We make it a long way before seeing vehicles coming towards us. I see an opening and squeeze back into traffic. Minutes later we're moving again and finally get past the accident that has blocked traffic in both directions for miles. After several more instances of wrong turns and backtracking, we make it to the Rio Tarcoles. We cross the bridge and park immediately after so that we can walk back to the center. This bridge is famous for the crocodiles that hang out below it. As expected, there are a large number of them laying along the river bank. They don't move much, if at all, and since they are coated with mud it can take your eyes a minute to realize how many are there.

After getting some shots we jumped back on the bikes and moved with the increasing traffic to the beach town of Jaco. We arrived right as the sun set, and asked around at several places looking for a room. Unfortunately, a lot of them were not as great of a deal as we expected, but we managed to find something reasonable that had secure parking. We then decided to explore the town, which was the most tourist oriented place we had been to yet, and then had a fancy dinner before retiring early.

Day 4

The next morning we managed to sleep in a bit, as we expected a shorter ride for the day.  We hit the beach and slowly packed up, with the oppressive heat already nearing 100 and the humidity level at maximum. We were nice and sweaty when we finally started the bikes up and hit the road towards Manuel Antonio. The ride was fairly uneventful, but when we arrived in town we discovered it was a Costa Rican holiday and lodging would be difficult to find. I rode around to various hostels checking on availability while Johanna and the girls relaxed in the shade. I was not having any luck and returned to them ashamed. Johanna informed me she had found a room online that was across the street from the restaurant they were waiting at. I was happy to have that headache out of the way and we moved into our room and quickly changed out of our riding clothes.

We walked a short distance down the narrow road towards the beach to have dinner at a restaurant we had read about before we took this trip, El Avion. Built around a C-123 Fairchild cargo plane, this multi-story restaurant had great views of the ocean. The food was good, and priced about the same as places in the US. So, actually about the same as the rest of Costa Rica. After our meal we picked up the public bus in front of the restaurant and rode down to the beach where the ladies swam as the sun set. After dark we had a quiet evening by the pool before passing out by 9 pm.

Day 5

The next morning we were up early. We had to ride back to San Jose, and were taking a dirt route the guys at Wild Rider had recommended. We backtracked North-West for about 30 miles before turning off onto a small, barely marked dirt road named RT-239. This was everyone's favorite route of the trip. It was dirt and gravel, had tons of switchbacks with little to no traffic and was a great time on the bikes. We also got some amazing views along the way. Before we knew it we rolled into San Jose and our hostel. We dropped off the bikes at Wild Rider, which was a really simple process, and spent a relaxing night in the city.

The cover of our 90's album

Day 6-10

The next morning we were up early once again and took an Uber(!) to a bus station a few miles from our hostel. From there we boarded a large passenger bus and rode for about 3 hours North-East to the small town of Cariari. From there we took a much smaller bus that required standing for another 1.5-2 hours. There was no air conditioning on this bus, and conveniently no suspension on the dirt and pothole covered road, which reminded how much I dislike traveling without a bike. We used to spend full days on buses like this in Asia, but after discovering motorcycle travel it is hard to go back. We finally arrived at La Pavona, which is not really a town so much as the end of the road. There we boarded a small boat and navigated the overflowing river for another hour until we reached the tiny town of Tortuguero. We had uncharacteristically booked a hostel in advance, which was good because we were too tired to walk around asking for room rates. We settled in and finally had the chance to get some laundry done for the first time on the trip.

We spent the afternoon walking around the town and visiting the beach. Unfortunately the current is very strong and swimming isn't allowed due to people getting dragged out by the undertow. The mindset in Tortuguero is to take it as easy and lazy as possible. And after multiple days of riding it was a pretty great change of pace. Each day we would wake up whenever we wanted and have no plans, which made this part actually feel like a vacation. One night we hired a guide to take us out on the beach and show us a sea turtle laying its eggs. There are strict rules about going to see the turtles, especially since they're endangered, so unfortunately there are no photos. After several days relaxing in Tortuguero we finally had to head back to San Jose and fly home. We had a great time in Costa Rica, and can't wait to ride more of Central America. Special thanks to Lauren Bruce Lund for the use of her excellent photos.

Hostel cat

Turtle tracks

A really creepy spider hanging out with our laundry. It's about as big as it looks.

This puppy was surprisingly aggressive for his size