© 1996 by Kathleen Kemsley, published in Motorcycle Tour & Travel
The dirt road twisted upward, climbing the side of a mountain. I dodged boulders and powered my way out of ruts that threatened to swallow my bike’s knobby tires. At the top of the hill, the road disintegrated into a livestock trail, then disappeared altogether. With one eye scanning the grass for snakes, I carefully turned the motorcycle around. Brian pulled a topographic map from his backpack. Sweat poured off of us in the tropical sun as we searched the surrounding valleys and sugarcane fields for a landmark. Nothing looked familiar. Our first day touring Costa Rica, and already we were hopelessly lost.
From a gated driveway to our left, a beat-up Toyota truck appeared, three young Tico men crammed into the cab. They stared at the pale North Americans fiddling with a compass. Eventually, one of them emerged from the truck and asked us, in Spanish, if we needed help.
“¿Habla Inglés?” Brian asked hopefully. The Tico shook his head and said something in Spanish. We showed him the map, and asked – for the first of many times – “¿Donde esta aqui?” Where is here? The young man pointed and gestured. His two friends joined into the action, arguing among themselves about the best route to Grecia. “No comprende,” we said.
Finally they pointed to the truck and the motorcycles, getting across to us the idea that we should follow them. They all watched with great interest and humor while I kick-started my motorcycle. We followed them down the mountain and along a back road which crossed a river, ran underneath the Pan-American Highway, and emerged at pavement.
The Tico driver pointed north. “Diez kilometres a Grecia,” he said, “y derecho a la iglesia.” With an easy smile, he pulled a U-turn and went back the way he had come. Grateful for the assistance, we accelerated on the paved road toward Grecia. It took only a few minutes before we lost our way again.
Getting lost in the jungles of Central America was the only one of my fears about touring Costa Rica by motorcycle that actually came true. Robbery, deadly snakes, colliding with a crazy driver or chicken, crocodiles lurking at river crossings, and the lack of bathrooms along the route: these fears never materialized. Exploring Costa Rica by motorcycle proved to be an extremely challenging journey of lost and found.
It began when I spotted an ad at the back of a motorcycle magazine for a company called Motorcycles Costa Rica. I called the number, in Virginia, and talked to Jim Thompson, a man whose calm, soothing voice assured me that my scant two years of riding experience in Alaska was adequate to tackle Costa Rica.
Three weeks later, we stumbled off the red-eye flight in San Jose, Costa Rica and were whisked to a bed-and-breakfast called Villa Tranquilidad in Atenas. Coming from a sub-zero January in Alaska, I immediately realized that I was overdressed. Quickly I changed into shorts and went to sit on a terrace next to the pool. Unseen insects buzzed in the trees; brightly colored birds flew beneath the tropical sun. I relaxed that afternoon, trying not to think about the winding, traffic-choked road we had traversed between the airport and Atenas.
The next morning Jim fitted us with Honda motorcycles. Brian took one of the XR250L’s, while I chose the XR200, mainly because it was the only one small enough to fit my 5’ 5” frame. Jim gave us some maps and suggested a couple options for loop trips, then we were on our own.
Eventually, after the young men in the Toyota set us back on track the first day, we found our way to Sarchi, a town known for its beautiful wood and leather crafts. We continued on some distance past Sarchi, until growling stomachs led us off the paved road to a restaurant called Señor Pollo, Mr. Chicken. The waitress babbled in Spanish; we nodded weakly and waited to see what she would bring. The result was a delicious lunch consisting of half a roasted chicken (one that was, no doubt, crossing the road yesterday) and a fresh strawberry milkshake.
The next day, Sunday, was, Jim advised, a good day to stay off the paved roads. Costa Ricans, or Ticos, as they called themselves, worked six days a week. Sundays they were off, and half the population of San Jose drove to the coast. At his suggestion, we skipped the highway and instead followed a rough route over a mountain south of Atenas.
Views of coffee plantations and cattle rangeland unfolded around every turn. In what seemed like the middle of nowhere, we rode around a corner and suddenly found pavement beneath our wheels. The pavement lasted for a couple hundred meters, then ended abruptly at a driveway leading into a beautiful whitewashed house. Flowers filled the yard; the tile roof shimmered in the heat. Beyond the driveway, the dirt road returned. It was a reminder that, though the rural countryside appeared desolate, a lot of people lived tucked away in the hills.
Creatures on the road also reminded us of civilization hidden behind the wild veneer of the mountains. Cattle ranged freely, often wandering onto the road. Chickens waddled right into our paths. Small dogs, cats, and pigs came into view. Children ran along the road, playing; mothers walked sedately behind them, umbrellas shielding them from the tropical sun.
The road followed some train tracks for several kilometers before plunging down another steep hill to the Rio Tarcoles. There a wooden bridge, one lane wide and none too sturdy, spanned the river directly above a radical stretch of whitewater. As I eased my Honda onto the bridge, I looked up to see a date etched on the span: 1928.
Rising from the river canyon, the road led to San Pablo, a sleepy town arranged around a grassy plaza. I felt all the Tico eyes upon me as I dismounted and removed my helmet. I could almost hear the collective gasp: That’s a woman!! In my travels through Costa Rica, I only once saw another woman on a motorcycle. Wearing a skirt, she sat behind her man – side-saddle!! Apparently the people of this conservative nation viewed motorcycling as a man’s sport. Intent on doing my part to raise feminist consciousness, I pasted a smile on my dust-covered face. Perhaps someday, I thought, some Tica girl might tell her father that she, too, wanted to ride a motorcycle.
After a lunch of tortillas, cookies, and Coca-Cola, we climbed a paved road out of San Pablo to a ridge top. From the summit, we rode along the spine of a mountain which divided the river valley to the left from the coastal plain to the right. For thirty kilometers, we leaned into peg-scraper curves. Across a valley dotted with villages, a distant volcano flanked by cloud forest was visible. It was difficult to keep my eyes on the road.
Eventually we glided into a good-sized town. I spotted a sign pointing the way to San Jose, only 43 kilometers away. “Yikes!” I exclaimed, motioning for Brian to pull over. We stopped in front of a church and retrieved the maps to figure out where we were.
The name of the town did not match anything on the map. “We’ve ridden off the map!” I said. Donde esta aqui? Lost, once again, in Costa Rica.
“We could ask directions in the store there,” Brian suggested.
“But they’ll answer us in Spanish,” I countered. The people of Costa Rica, when told we didn’t understand Spanish, responded by talking faster, waving their arms, and shouting. Unprepared to deal with this routine again, I suggested that we turn around and go back the way we came.
Brian assented, mostly, I suspect, because he wanted another go at the curvy road between the mystery city and San Pablo. We headed back over the wooden bridge and, after a stop for a Coca-Cola in a tiny village near the tracks, made it back to the bed-and-breakfast just before sundown.
Jim accompanied us the following day on our trip to the beach. He said he needed to complete a business transaction, although I got the feeling that his errand was just an excuse to go riding. Out of Atenas, the main highway toward the coast followed an ancient route used during the Spanish colonial days. Like every other road in Costa Rica, it skirted cliffs and sported potholes. Huge sugarcane trucks and busses barreled around hairpin curves on the way down the mountain. One-lane bridges appeared without warning. A truck with its hood up sat right in the middle of the road. Its owner grinned at me as I roared past, then went back to the leisurely task of adding a liter of oil to his engine.
At Orotina the air temperature and the humidity both climbed by 20 points. The size and frequency of potholes increased steadily. Just after we crossed the Rio Tarcoles, I felt my bike wobble. A mile later, Brian motioned me into a roadside restaurant parking lot and told me the bad news: my back tire was flat.
We proceeded to a gas station nearby. There, Jim, using broken Spanish, obtained a new tube, which he helped the attendant install. I stood in the shade sipping a Coca-Cola and wondering how we would have handled this minor crisis without Jim. He assured me that all the gas stations fix tires. Still, I mumbled to Brian what had become a refrain: “We’ve got to learn some Spanish.”
Once in Jaco Beach, we cruised the main drag, stopping while a three-foot-long iguana crossed the road. No one hawked souvenirs on the sidewalk; no one tried to steal my bag. Though Jaco was said to be the most popular beach in the country, it seemed low key and tame compared to Puerto Vallarta or Mazatlán.
We went into the mountains above Jaco Beach the next morning. Within the first 20 kilometers of the ride, we made four river crossings. Veteran off-road riders would probably not term them rivers, but for me, inexperienced in crossing anything bigger than a garden hose, the streams looked swift and terrifying.
I put the bike into first gear, took a deep breath, and plunged in. With white knuckles I hung on as the tough little Honda forged its way across the gravel riverbed safely. Brian’s luck was not so good. Starting in second gear instead of first, he lost momentum in the swift current and his motor stalled. Plunk! Down went his booted feet into the river. But the water was warm, and he quickly got the bike restarted.
Roads in the mountains inexplicably branched off, seeming to go every which way. We had to stop three times in a five-mile stretch to consult the map. A truck going the other way stopped. Hanging his head out the window, the driver inquired in Spanish something to the effect of, “Do you have any idea where you are?” Brian waved the map at him and smiled. “Turista,” he explained. The man nodded and disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Vast coffee plantations lined the road. Leather-skinned men working in the fields waved as we went by. Children in the tiny villages peeked at us shyly; I wondered if they had ever seen North Americans before. Certainly they had never seen a blonde, sunburned Alaskan woman on a motorcycle.
Passing over another mountain range, we were treated to a spectacular view of the Pacific Ocean and, in the distance, the Nicoya Peninsula. I stopped to take a picture, and instantly regretted it as I realized the difficulty of kick-starting a motorcycle facing downhill next to a suicide cliff. But Costa Rica had improved my riding skills; wiping the sweat from my forehead, I squeezed the front brake, pulled in the clutch, and hit the kick start. The engine roared to life, and down the hill I went, brakes squealing.
On the last day of the motorcycle adventure, we followed the paved road back to Atenas, stopping at the Carara Biological Reserve to watch some crocodiles recline lazily on a river bank. Then it was up the hill, dodging potholes and runaway cows and crazy drivers all the way back to Villa Tranquilidad.
Five days, 600 miles of riding, and I had only seen a small portion of Costa Rica. Remaining were more than a dozen national parks, volcanoes, jungle rivers, rain forests, and pristine beaches. So many more roads to get lost on! So many grinning Ticos to ask directions from! As Jim rolled the Honda into the garage, he casually mentioned that his company was running a trip down the Pan-American Highway from Costa Rica to Patagonia next year.
“I’d love to go!” I said, my blistered hands and sunburned nose forgotten. “But first”— I turned to Brian, grinning – “We have got to learn some Spanish!”