March 19, 2015

Further Adventures of Death Ride Grandma: Costa Rica!

Cranky Fitness "regulars" may recall that Death Ride Grandma came to fitness late in life, but eventually got into bicycling in a big way.  She is a treasured blog commenter here, and has been generous enough to share several of her challenging rides with us--allowing us all the vicarious thrills without the airfare charges, sunburn, or burning thighs. Curious about what it might be like to bike across Costa Rica?  Here's a chance to find out! --Crabby

Guest Post By Death Ride Grandma

Well, what did you expect?

A bit of history: several years ago, we went on a fairly small boat in Costa Rica. We had naturalists on board, and saw incredible wildlife and beautiful places; it was enough to make us realize we would love to know more about what may well be the eco-tourism center of the world. So when, 11 years later, I spotted the Companions Wanted ad in a cycling magazine (no, not Craigslist!), not a commercial ad (no reason to expect that the writer knew anything) seeking a few like-minded people to ride bikes from coast to coast in Costa Rica, we decided to do it.

Some more recent history: Do disasters come in threes? And if so, does this list mean we could safely count on a perfect trip?

We planned to fly out on a Tuesday. The previous Thursday, my husband broke a tooth (didn’t hurt – made an appointment to get it fixed when we returned). Friday I made an unplanned visit to the house we plan to occupy when we retire only to find the main water intake had broken, and there was a raging torrent coursing down the adjacent hillside. Not in the house, thank goodness. But yeah, we’re in California, and yup, we’re in the midst of a serious drought. Got it fixed. And Sunday, I spent 5 hours in the local ER thanks to increasingly insistent irregular heartbeats (I’ve had them forever, but it’s usually a flutter here, a flutter there. This time, it was constant and getting stronger.) After a few hours of energetic debate, we persuaded the ER doc and the cardiologist that a (long, possibly challenging bicycle) trip to Costa Rica two days later was a reasonable thing to do.

So we did it.

We arrived on the west coast, met our 11 cycling companions and the 5 support crew members, assembled our bikes and were ready to go. We learned that 4 of our co-cyclists had ridden across the US together in 2013, and thought another coast to coast ride together would be cool, but that perhaps Costa Rica, where the ride would be 300 miles rather than 3000, would be the perfect destination. And that one of them was the guy that we had answered originally, and he has recently become a permanent resident of Costa Rica. And that in December, as he was hoping to visit and review the route and the hotels we were to stay at, he’d come down with dengue fever. He had obviously not been able to do much review. He was just hoping that he’d recovered enough to do a fair amount of the ride.

Our first few days were taken up by a warm-up (heat-up?) ride to be sure we were all ok with the tropical conditions, and a three day tour across the country in our little bus. Then we landed near Puerto Limon on the Caribbean coast, where we were to start the cross country route. By the end of those three days we had learned a few things:

  1. Don’t think the speed of travel in CR is anything like it is here. Our first drive covered about 120 miles on one of the biggest roads in the country; it took 5 hours. The big roads are paved, have one lane in each direction, rarely have shoulders, and often have big trucks.
  2. Just use the DEET. You do not want dengue fever.
  3. You can use US dollars almost anywhere. But not quite everywhere.
  4. The water is safe.
  5. The electrical system uses the same size & shape plugs as we do – no converters needed.
  6. One of the support crew – not sure what his official job description was - could have been a caricature of a shady tour guide.

And so we headed out to learn a lot more.

Our first day, we had been told, would involve 22km (about 13-14 miles) of gravel road. Most people had mountain bikes. I was hoping to bump along on my road bike - had the bus to rescue me if necessary. Gravel road turned out to be a generic term that actually covered: gravel, rocks, mud, huge puddles (dry season does not exactly apply to the Caribbean coast; it began to pour just as we were about to start), sand, and railroads. Not rails-to-trails – that’s what we all assumed, too. No, it was actually just a railroad track. An active one. I am glad to be able to say that I only know that thanks to the stories of the two riders who, along with the local lead rider, actually made it that far. I turned tail and hurried back to the bus as soon as we reached the sandy beach. My skinny tires buried themselves in sand after a single pedal stroke.

So three other sensible riders and I took the bus to the first paved road stop scheduled for the day. Two others followed the leader through the whole thing, including a trestle bridge about 100 feet high over which they had to carry their bikes, stepping cautiously from one irregular railroad tie to the next. The remaining riders, along with the local guy who was sweeping, got lost in the rain forest. We eventually had to take the bus back to rescue them, which we were able to do just as it was getting dark. Things could only get smoother and easier after a start like that!

The next day took us to Guapiles, a bustling town. It involved starting out on another stretch of unpaved road which only two of us chose to tackle. The rest waited at the hotel until we (yes, I was one of the two – slow learner, I guess) got there. Our lead cyclist, Santos, is well named. He is a pro rider, and a hero in the country; he led at a very gentle pace, and saw us through all sorts of challenges, such as: that railroad, and the river we had to cross in this section I had rashly decided to do.

When we got to the river, Santos walked easily across carrying his bike, and told Jack and me to stay where we were. Then he took both of our bikes across for us. Then he let Jack walk across (did I mention the water had been about waist-deep on Santos?) but told me to wait - he’d help me across. Well. I am usually pretty defensive about my ability to take care of myself, but this time I was not-so-secretly relieved to be the beneficiary of his protective attitude towards a little old lady! That river was about 30’ wide, and when we got out there, I realized just how strong the current was. Santos pulled me back to a solid footing a couple of times. Made it - shoulders and head not even wet. Eventually, we got back to the pavement, regrouped with the rest of our gang and headed off on a mostly peaceful ride to our destination.

That was where we reached the low point of our respect (ok, so there was never much of that) for our tour guide. I’ll call him “R.” By this time, he has: lied to us about the price of one hotel (he hoped we’d just pay and he’d keep the difference); taken us to another hotel owned by his relatives where he had not even reserved enough rooms; given us some more or less random, and entirely incorrect information about Cartago as we passed through (didn’t seem to worry that the local signs offered the correct information which totally contradicted his); abandoned us for about an hour in town, having told us he was running for senator & needed to file some papers (I so hope that was as inaccurate as his Cartago history!); had a tantrum when one of the riders expressed frustration at our long wait for him…and more, but that gives you the picture. You can see that anything that further diminished our respect for him would have to be pretty special.

It was.

Hotel Wilson. It took us a few minutes to get the rusty, loose key to open our room. Then we were sort of sorry it had worked. The room was small. It was dark. It was grimy, buggy. There were no towels. The shower was a pipe hanging from the bathroom ceiling – no shower head. The sheets – well, I guess that’s what they were – were made of a shower curtain liner or some similar material. There were bottom sheets, and some other bit of similar fabric folded on top of them, but no blankets. Even R felt the need to stick his head in the door and apologize for the place. It soon became evident that this was a place that rents, uh, by the hour. My husband and I sneaked out and found a different place to sleep.

But after this, we riders were getting more comfortable with one another, and learning to laugh at R’s antics. We didn’t have to do what he said, after all, and actually several of the hotels were charming. A few I hope to return to for longer stays so I can explore more thoroughly. For the next few days, the riding was mostly pretty easy, the weather was great. We were getting into the countryside and seeing colorful birds, oxen towing carts, charming towns, beautiful little bridges over rushing streams.

I had one uneasy moment wondering why the sticker on my bathroom mirror at one of the hotels assured me pointedly (well, it felt that way) that Jesus could get me off drugs…I mean, it’s a big deal when I swallow a Tylenol…but generally, all was well. We found some relentlessly steep, I mean lovely, hills to climb – an optional out-and-back ride that a few of us could not resist. We found a wonderful walking tour at an environmentally protected zone (La Selva just outside of Puerto Viejo de Sarapiqui). It was led by a young, enthusiastic scientist who works there and who was able to find us monkeys, sloths, iguanas, toucans, parrots, little red frogs, peccaries, river turtles, and all sorts of other great stuff. This was what we’d all come to see!

We spent an extra day at La Fortuna at the base of Volcano Arenal. That’s another spot I’d love to see more of. We made another escape to a different hotel – R’s choice for this stop was not terrible, but it was gloomy and not air conditioned, and this time several other riders also rebelled and found better options. Ours had an area where the staff put all sorts of fruit out on sticks and platforms just before we had breakfast. It attracted a wonderful assortment of colorful tropical birds.

Next we rode along the somewhat hilly shores of Lake Arenal where we got to experience a wide range of local weather conditions. It poured. It was chilly. It dried up. It was hot. It was windy. It was still. It was perfect. At one point, we were concerned when, during the downpour, we saw one of the cyclists ahead of us stopped behind a few cars that were scattered across the road at odd angles. He was bent over, and we were afraid someone had crashed. Fortunately, our fears were groundless. He and the drivers had all just stopped to take pictures as soon as they saw a large group of coatimundis (sort of a variation on our raccoons) wandering out to the road. Santos thought perhaps we should all take the bus after lunch. The road definitely got hillier, and some riders from flat places, or from places that have been enduring that awful winter weather so much of the country is dealing with were not too ready for climbing, but as usual, we stubbornly insisted on riding it, and I loved it!

That night, we stayed at the best (and, as the owners add in their material, the only) microbrewery in Costa Rica. Comfortable rooms, laundry service, good food, long, unpaved, uphill driveway with plenty of brewery customers roaring along it. We saw howler monkeys in the trees along with toucans, and parrots. We had a nice view of the lake.

Then we were ready to cross the continental divide, which at this point is only about 3000’ high, and to enjoy a long, fun descent. About half way through that descent, of course, some of us just had to take another out-and-back detour which wandered up to some wind farms along the ridge. Fantastic views, along with a gusty reminder of why those wind farms were at that particular location. From Las Canas, we had to get in the bus for the first few miles thanks to major construction on the main road. There really are no alternative routes in Costa Rica. One day, that road will have a bike path/lane, but it’s not going to be right away.

Soon we turned off the big road to one we could ride on, and met the crosswind. Tradewinds were great for explorers in the age of sail, but for us? Not so much.

We’d been more or less blown down our descent the previous day. At one steep downhill stretch of straight, smooth road one rider had managed to reach 50mph. Yikes! But we were headed north and uphill most of this morning, and the wind was from the east. We had either headwinds, annoying but not scary, or crosswinds, which are both. At one point, I suddenly found myself perpendicular to the lane I was trying to ride in. I truly cannot picture how wind could do that. It’s not unusual to be pushed a bit to one side or another, and I would not have been terribly surprised to be knocked over, but no, I was upright, just riding the wrong way. Fortunately, no cars or trucks were close. I walked for a while to recover my nerve. Just after I got back on the bike we reached a turn. Hurray! But then, oh, no! The new road was unpaved. Seriously unpaved. Several of the mountain bike riders took one look and put their bikes up on the bus. I joined them. The bus – did I mention how fantastic our driver was? I would never have dared to drive roads like this, but he took them in stride, and knew to an inch how much height he needed, even with all the bikes on top. And he never seemed the least bit ruffled. Anyway, the bus took us a few more miles to a very charming lodge on the side of Rincon Volcano where we saw even more great wildlife.

Our last riding day involved a little of everything: 10 miles downhill on a not-so-bad unpaved road, a hairy few moments around a very busy traffic circle in Liberia, a nice long stretch with (imagine!) shoulders and a tailwind (and an ice cream shop), where I was coasting along at 20mph, then a bend which created a fierce crosswind at about the same time as the shoulder disappeared and the truck traffic cranked up a bit. Try to picture riding along, fighting to stay on the road as the wind does its best to push you off the edge, when a 16-wheeler comes along and roars past (close – it really has nowhere else to go), blocking that wind which had kept you pulling so hard to the left, which means you are now pulling hard towards the truck, which…well, you get the picture. My husband screamed, so we pulled over onto the grassy area to let the adrenaline rush wear off, and to figure out what to do next. We eventually got back on the bus to finish the busy stretch. That took us to Santa Cruz, where we had lunch and set off on our final stretch – the same one as our initial trial ride – mostly flat, mostly tailwinds, mostly without traffic, mostly paved. We made it to the Pacific!

A few other Costa Rica lessons:

  1. Don’t think that R was in any way representative of the country. He could be found anywhere in the world. Everyone else we met was terrific
  2. The west coast, where we enjoyed the dry season, also has a wet one. The local saying is that if you plant a rock in the wet season, it will grow.
  3. It helps to like rice and beans. This is not exactly a foodie destination.
  4. A “soda” in Costa Rica is a tiny diner serving local food.
  5. Why did I never before try an empanada?
  6. Costa Rica, which is maybe about the size of West Virginia, has about 900 types of birds. North America, from the Mexican border through the Arctic Circle, has about 900. Theirs are more colorful, too.
  7. I would do it all again tomorrow. Yes, including R.


  1. Yes, I know that isn't a howler monkey. It's a white faced capuchin. We saw those, too.

    1. Oops, that was Crabby's error! She will move the photo and repost! Sorry. :)

  2. Replies
    1. Yes, it was quite a trip. I am really looking forward to my next trip, though: Phoenix, where I know which restaurant to head for...

  3. Great write-up, DRG! Thank you for sharing your adventure with us! I love beans and rice (and birds), but am still a bit too terrified of riding in heavy traffic like that. Maybe one day... :-)

    1. Well, I actually don't think I will bring a bike next time I go to Costa Rica - unless I learn to manage a mountain bike off road. That would offer better choices in a country where most of the roads are not paved. But I do intend to go back, maybe even next year!

  4. Yikes! Eek! I thought I was a nature girl but you lost me at wear your Deet. That stuff just eats my skin right off. Then there are the other horrors. Although as long as I could find a way out like take the bus or get another hotel I guess I could role with it. Maybe? Nope!!!
    Its good to read about though!

    1. Yes, it was a little weird to pass signs announcing the battle against dengue fever. But I know there are cases in Hawaii, too, and I never think twice about going there. CR is a pretty wonderful place to see. Maybe you could wear long pants and long sleeves and put the DEET on your clothes or something. In spite of the DEET, I got bitten plenty of times, and seem to have avoided any resulting illnesses.

  5. It sounds like a grand adventure!

    1. Yes, it was. And as some of the riders pointed out, a real adventure is bound to have a few surprises, and not all of them will be wonderful! They provide better stories that way.

  6. DRG, this sounds likes a fantastic time…the sketchy lodging had me laughing out loud and I am so happy you were able to find somewhere else to stay (I stayed at a sketchy place once…we actually drove by it many times before realizing it was our hotel and not a condemned building, LOL!)

    The scenery and wildlife must have been fantastic to see and I am glad you had a wonderful experience regardless of R!

    Thanks for sharing your adventure!

    1. Hmmm. Well, yes, I am laughing now, but at the moment we had some serious misgivings. It sounds like you have a pretty similar memory! Fortunately, the place we found about a mile away was very, very nice & comfortable. It's a wonderful country to visit.

  7. Thank you, DRG, for taking this marvelous trip on our behalf. I have no desire whatsoever to do it myself but the more I read of your adventures the more I think I'd better get myself a bike and try riding to the grocery (not quite two and a half miles of very quiet roads with no shoulders or sidewalks, but quite roomy.)

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Yes, get that bike! But I have to warn you, it can lead you to unexpected adventures. It was not so many years ago that my husband dragged me out to a road much like the one you describe. I was nervous, and when it actually went up what I now think of as rather a small climb, I felt I'd been asked to ride up Mt. Everest. Then, bit by bit...well, it turns out to be a really great way to get out and see things. Sort of like your walks.

  8. Grandma,
    Thanks for writing that intense, vivid story. Costa Rica has so many natural wonders, as befits its name. Frankly, it's also great to hear the mishaps as well as the gorgeous stuff.

    It made me think of our trips to Canary Islands and Mexico, although we usually don't bike on our trips. Because of our Spanish knowledge (and music) we tend to focus on countries where that is spoken.

    Thanks, Dave

    1. Oooh - Canary islands! that sounds like a place to add to our list. You're right about the mishaps. Even as they are happening, I realize they are what will make the trips memorable, the stories my friends will really want to hear, the real adventure elements in our rather tame lives.

      Since you are up on your Spanish, Pura Vida! (Actually, my Spanish is ok, and I did not realize until this trip that Costa Ricans use that expression continually in honor of their wonderful country and way of life.)

    2. ¡Que bien!
      Las Islas Canarias offer a lot. You can do the 100% relaxed super-touristy thing in the cities, OR get way out into beautiful nature, hiking, swimming, climbing, and so on. We did both.

      Quick story: There are many German and British tourists (very few US people). Germans are often very relaxed about being outside in the altogether! ;) We were hiking in a tranquil remote forested area. At one point, we stumbled on a young couple taking a break from their hike. They both took all their clothes off in seconds while we were about 100 feet away. They were extremely fit and attractive, so it was no undue hardship for us to see this. They quickly changed into their other outfits and went on their way.

      Smiling, Dave

  9. ((((addding to my IM SAVING FOR A TRIP TO _____ notebook as well))
    Ive always pined for Costa Rica.

    1. Yes! Definitely worth saving and pining for!

    2. Sounds like a great trip! I'm planning a trip to Costa Rica for next year. I hope we have as great a time as you.

  10. A childhood friend of mine sold everything and moved to CR a couple of years ago. He, his wife, and their golden retriever are living the dream. Lucky guy.


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