Through Costa Rica with help from God

No don't worry I haven't caught religion. It's just that I wrote 'POR DIOS DESPACIO!' (which means 'for god's sake slowly!' but hopefully without the arsey tone this has in English) on the back of my yellow shirt and it seemed to have a bit of an impact at least on drivers of smaller vehicles who weren't up someone's arse in a convoy and could therefore read it.

You know what? I loved and hated Costa Rica. I loved every moment I wasn't on a road. Lemme write about the roads first to get that off my chest, then I'll come to the good stuff.

Cycling through Costa Rica...

... is thoroughly unpleasant. Despite it being a very 'developed' country in general, the small proportion of its roads that are paved are exceedingly narrow, often absurdly steep, and horrifically busy with cars/pickups/minibuses, big buses and trucks. If nothing's coming the other way drivers of all types of vehicles will typically go wide, but they have no strategy for what to do if something is coming the other way except to HONK. From a driver of a narrower vehicle this honk means 'coming past you too fast and too close' while from a bus or truck driver it effectively means 'coming through you'. I'm writing this from Panama by the way, not that things are much better here.

I've never written a detailed account of a route before but I'm making an exception here for the benefit of other cyclists who - like me - are frantically googling for least-worst route ideas. Obviously I can't comment on alternative routes as I didn't take them!

  • Los Chiles - Santa Rosa (road number 35): Narrow, dead-straight, paved road terrifyingly full of homicidal fruit-lorry drivers. Good luck. (Lovely people at the Red Cross in SR, by the way.)
  • Santa Rosa - La Fortuna UNPAVED: Road surface starts good and ends up terrible. Goes up and down relentlessly but the scenery's nice and at least you won't die.
  • La Fortuna - Santa Elena - LF: Do yourself a favour, leave your bike in LF and take the bus-boat-bus option if you want to visit Santa Elena. It's excellent value, efficient and the scenery's stunning. (You could probably take your bike on the boat, but the ride at the Santa Elena end would be something else!)
  • LF - Ciudad Quesada: I only did this because I had to collect my new glasses. The back road (702) as far as Florencia is very pleasant but the hill climb from Florencia up to CQ should not be attempted by bike. Consider yourself warned.
  • From Ciudad Quesada round the north and east sides of Volcán Poás to Heredia (140/126): Compared to most of the rest of the roads I experienced in CR, I would actually recommend this route. (I can only imagine other routes into the Valle Central are horrific by comparison.) From San Miguel to Vara Blanca it's absurdly steep at times but traffic volumes aren't quite as bad as elsewhere meaning you can even enjoy the scenery from time to time. About 5km from the top someone stopped and offered me a lift (not for the first time I was pushing my bike), which I accepted! Don't miss the waterfall view at the Soda in Cinchona.
  • Into Heredia and San José: Avoid doing this at rush hour as I did! The driving's merciless.
  • Up Volcán Irazú: Take the public bus from SJ or Cartagena - but no bikes allowed.
  • San José to Paraíso: Put your bike in a Turrialba-bound bus and then ride around the lovely valley.
  • To Turrialba: Not the worst stretch to cycle by any means.
  • Turrialba - Siquirres: I took a bus cos it was raining and I'd completely had it with pushing my 40kg bike up hills, but I've heard good reports about the secondary road (415) along the westerly side of the valley via La Alegria.
  • Siquirres - Puerto Limón: Absolutely lethal road to/from the port. Only some of the buses have space for bikes but those that do will take you no worries. If stranded in Siq. go to the Bomberos for the night.
  • Puerto Limón - Sixaola: Relatively fine compared with the rest! I rode all the way down to Manzanillo, doubled back to Punta Uva then took the fairly good unpaved road through the jungle to rejoin the main road. I personally think this Caribbean route is worth doing for the lovely scenery between Almirante and David (Panama) as well as the nice beaches in CR.

For me, really the only thing that made it viable to 'cycle' through Costa Rica was the ease of putting the bike inside numerous buses either for free or for little more than the cost of a seat. Thinking back the zero-empathy driving (and honking-in-lieu-of-taking-care) has been broadly similar throughout Central America, but what made Costa Rica by far the worst was the sheer volume of traffic. El Salvador (coastal highway) was the least worst by a margin, because there are shoulders.

Facebook status update while I was in Costa Rica: "I know my way of life is enviable. I'm grateful every day for many things. But man, sometimes I get so tired. Tired of being visible/ looked at all the time. Tired of being driven at, honked at, hollered at, barked at. Tired of having questions non-consensually fired at me whenever I stand still. Tired of being told I'm in the wrong fucking toilet. Sometimes I'd just like to be in a snug in a quiet pub with people who actually know me. (Just to be clear, apart from the honking none of the above is specific to Latin America.)"

Phew, I feel better for that! Now for the good stuff.

On holiday in Costa Rica

Even though it could be argued I'm on holiday all the time, certain places and sections definitely have more of a holiday feel to them. After my personally-challenging journey from Guatemala to Costa Rica I was in need of a holiday, and Costa Rica stood ready to provide a very fine one! I wanted to recover my equilibrium and also to actually see some of the country. Costa Rica is very well set-up for so-called 'eco-tourism' (wildlife, rainforests, volcanoes, rivers etc) but at a cost, so I had to be selective. In addition to plenty of free activities I chose river-tubing near Arenal (probably my highlight, especially after the guides got the idea that I did not want to go down all the rapids tied to the rest of the group!), a nightwalk in the Children's Eternal Rainforest, Irazú volcano, and one wildlife rescue centre with a range of species (Tree of Life) - I'm very content with my choices!

As I wrote in my last post, I had a week to kill while waiting for my new glasses and sunglasses to be ready, which I spent at a tiny, friendly campsite under Arenal volcano. Here I was able to take my morning baths in a small jungle river and to do some helpful writing. The lovely warm response to this writing reminded me how grateful I am to be surrounded nowadays by folks equally enthusiastic about intentional relating. During that week I booked my flight from Panama to Colombia (you can't cross the Darién Gap by land) and started to think about my summer plans. I also did the river-tubing and the bus-boat-bus trip described above in order to visit the Children's Eternal Rainforest that Lisa and her kids had been reading about. I also caught up with a bunch of peeps, which was very grounding.

When my glasses were ready I set off again as described above. Like I said, I enjoyed every moment of Costa Rica that I wasn't on the bike. The landscapes, people and food are all great.

I didn't actually mean to go to the capital San José but - notwithstanding the traffic - I'm glad I did. It has such a buzz to it I wondered if something special was happening. Some nice city parks, contemporary and street art and I even looked at the outside of a gay bar before retiring to my nice quiet hostel to finalise my summer plans.

Along with good ceviche one thing I enjoyed in Costa Rica was 'casados', which means 'married men'. Wtf? you may ask. A casado is a plate of rice and beans with salad, fried plantains, and a piece of meat/fish of your choice. A very balanced - and cheap - lunch option.

I enjoyed a couple of nights at a beach campsite in Cahuita (where I visited the Tree of Life wildlife rescue centre and stood about two metres from two fluffy sloths eating flowers), but my final couple of days on that (Caribbean) coastline were marred by Semana Santa bedlam and - in particular - relentless rain. My penultimate night was a memorable one: lots of locals were camping along the coast so I approached a family and let them know I intended to camp closeby as I was alone. They were exceedingly well-equipped and Dad came over with a rake to tell me to clear all the mango leaves off the sand due to the hormigas (ants), and he was quite right. In my haste to pitch the tent before dark I put it stupidly close to the sea, which during the night stole my Crocs from inside my porch, eek. It also rained for much of the night, though for once my tent did not leak.

I can't not mention the Bomberos (fire fighters) of Costa Rica who, like their counterparts in the rest of Central America [edit: except Panama], welcomed me without hesitation, just to rather more state of the art firestations (branded bed linen, wifi etc!). However it began, this tradition of hosting touring cyclists is really wonderful and somehow felt particularly surprising in Costa Rica which is a. considered safe and b. brimming with tourism infrastructure! In fact, people throughout Costa Rica - when not driving - were extremely kind and helpful, and certainly lived up to their reputation as a very content nation. Two other things that increased my enjoyment of Costa Rica were the drinkable tap water and the TOTAL lack of litter. For a non-cycling holiday I'd certainly recommend it.