Dualsporting Costa Rica

[A great story from one of our own]

by Milo Juenemann (click on image for a larger version)

Click to see 102-0236_IMG.JPGEight weeks off from work, single, extra cash (see single), and no plans.  What to do?  Ride dirt bikes in the jungles of Costa Rica of course!  Having never been out of the continental USA, family and friends encouraged me to hop on a plane and see the world.  What, without my XR?  There had to be a solution, and with a little help from Google, MotoAdventures (www.motoadventuring.com) delivered!  Sure, it was the rainy season, but it’s a warm tropical rain, and a little soggy underwear never hurt a native Oregonian from the great ”Northwet”.

Within a dozen steps off the plane, I was met by an older “Tico” (Costa Rican man) sporting a MotoAdventures t-shirt, at which point I knew I’d landed in the right country.  Marco Sr., father of head mechanic Marco Jr. who keeps the scoots in tip-top shape after severe thrashings by spodely riders such as myself, speaks two words of English:  “No” and “English”.  Drawing upon a semester of eighth grade Spanish, I proudly came up with an impressive sentence:  “Hola Seńior!”  Fortunately, despite my hideous efforts to try, no further communication was needed for Marco to get me quickly through customs via the express lane (helped by the fact he knew every employee in the airport) and on to baggage claim, where people probably wondered what was in my bags given that I kissed them upon checking the contents.  We motorcyclists get a little attached to our gear, especially half a continent from home.

Click to see ratbike.jpgMaking our way through San Jose, the capital and heart of Costa Rica, I noticed the streets were infested with rat bikes of every cross-breed imaginable, making this just one of many examples of Ticos opting for function over form.   Upon arriving at the hotel, I engaged in some major red-eye flight recovery before meeting up that evening with victim, or rather, “rider” #2:  Bob from Florida.  We had talked over the phone before meeting in person, but only as riders with a common goal.  As it turned out, we were from rather different walks of life, but found enough common ground (dirtbiking being a great starting point), and beer, to break the ice.

Day 1 came early, but the excitement and anticipation of railing the jungle on an XR quickly overcame any second thoughts of rolling over for a few more Zzzz’s.  Within an hour I was showered up, packed up, filled up, geared up, and wound up.  Sporting full moto gear, I made my way through the elegant lobby of the posh Best Western Irazu Hotel.  As I passed the signboard listing the daily eco-tours, the primary draw for American tourists, I couldn’t help but feel a bit out of place, like a lumberjack at a Sierra Club convention.  Never, during my entire stay, did I feel unwelcome though.  I came to find Costa Ricans as very friendly people who love Americans.  Best of all, they are real environmentalists who understand and make the best use of all of the values of their land, not just those preferred by a select group of people.  Not that the world is full of hypocrite armchair environmentalists or anything, like those who leave their SUV parked at home in the garage of their wooden mansion while they fly to Costa Rica in droves on 747s to take tour buses to the remote corners of one of the world’s most biodiverse countries, in search of eco-paradise.  But I digress.

Click to see 102-0227_IMG.JPGOut front I met up with Bob, already on his second cup of coffee.  It felt like high school all over again as I sized up and envied his shiny new digs from head to toe, wondering if my cobbled together ensemble of mismatched second-rate discount rack gear would survive the week, much less make me look like the amateur rider I was.  But the important thing was I had the essentials –helmet, goggles, chest protector, elbow guards, kneepads, boots, and backpack with water – lots of it!

Marco Jr. pulled up with the dumpy white box van that would become a comforting sight as the week wore on.  We loaded all our bags (since we wouldn’t return to the hotel until mid-week), and then spent the next fifteen minutes narrowly avoiding accidents, as far as I could tell, while working our way across San Jose.  “Thank God we’re headed straight for the dirt!” I thought to myself as I watched motorcyclists making passes in traffic that would put Ricky Carmichael or Bubba Stewart to shame.  Eventually we wound our way to the edge of the city near the foothills, and came to a stop at a driveway where three XR400s with fresh meats awaited us, marking the humble residence of Larry Larrabure, the main masochist, or “tour guide” if you prefer.

Click to see 103-0372_STA.JPGAfter a brief introduction, Larry sized me up, “So what kind of rider are you?”  Not knowing the A-B-Cs of rider levels, I made some attempt to describe my purely amateur experience, having never entered a formal event (unless you count racing back to camp for a cold one).  I could hear Bob’s eyes rolling in his helmet behind me.  So, like a good benchracer, I hastened to add that professional or not, I didn’t suck and felt very confident in my abilities.  Perhaps Bob’s impression of me was not really that bad, but this being his second time around, I felt the burden of proof was heavily on me to indeed not suck, at risk of ruining his $3000+ excursion, not to mention my own.  Larry then gave us a brief briefing, “We’ll head across San Jose, then into the mountains to Volcano Turrialba where Marco will meet us to stay the night at a remote lodge.  Watch out in traffic, motorcycles are invisible to drivers here!”  Great, sounds like fun.  It was here that Bob explained to me Larry’s tendency not to wait up for riders, which, silly me, I mistakenly believed to be part of his job description as tour guide.  So I was thankful when Florida-boy kindly volunteered to let me take up the middle position, since Larry was probably less likely to leave a repeat customer behind.  Don’t get me wrong, Larry’s a great guy.  As one of the top riders in Costa Rica who’s job it is to ride dirt bikes week after week (tough job - seriously), I just think he forgets what it’s like for us mere mortals at times.

Click to see 102-0232_IMG.JPGBorn a purebred dirt-biker, little did I know I was about to dive head first into my virgin “dualsporting” experience.  My last road riding stint was a daily five-mile commute to high school on my ’75 Honda XL175, primarily for the purpose of avoiding the stench of the back-seat stoners smoking pot on an hour-long bus ride.  Even pushing that XL to the limits on every corner in an effort to beat the first bell, it was approximately 237 times safer than what I was about to embark upon.

I was right at home on the XR, having spent most of my life on Honda thumpers.  These bikes were mostly stock, with the exception of well-broken-in hand guards, One Industries graphics, and a custom duct tape headlight replacement (they wouldn’t last).  Dual sport kits are simply not a requirement for road riding in Costa Rica, nor license plates for that matter.

Click to see 104-0403_IMG.JPGWithin ten minutes of having met our guide, and a few healthy kicks of the XR, we were on our way!  Larry wasted no time entertaining us, veering to the shoulder to go airborne off a neighbor’s steps cut into the hillside.  As we came to the first “ALTO” sign at the bottom of the hill, I got no response from the rear brake, thinking this isn’t a great start.  I brought it to a stop with the front brake and my concern subsided once I pumped the pedal a few times to build pressure.  I was now ready to do battle – with traffic. The jungle would come later.

Click to see boy on horse.JPGJust as Bob predicted, Larry made an adventure out of attempting to evade us using every means possible short of the sidewalk.  Quite unlike anything I’ve seen in the states, each stoppage of traffic in San Jose meant a suicidal attempt to pass ten more cars by white-lining our way up between lanes via any space large enough to squeeze the Barkbusters through.  Fortunately my experience dodging trees in the tight forest trails of the northwest proved remarkably applicable to cars, with the exception that trees generally stay put.  To add to the insanity, Costa Ricans give traffic signals about the same respect as a politician, mostly ignoring them. After surviving a few miles of this, I eventually began to admit that I was actually enjoying it!

Click to see lizard.jpgAt last, our tires found their way to their first dirt!  We stopped at the trailhead to check out my slipping clutch, easily remedied by un-tweaking the hand guard that was holding the lever hostage.  Meanwhile, Bob sucked down the first of many smokes.  Not a good habit considering the amount of O2 we were about to burn through.  Larry took this opportunity to share his next morsel of wisdom, “This hill up ahead is very slick, like ice.”  By now I’d learned to take what little he had to say very seriously.  “Ok, got it,” thinking to myself how bad could it be considering Oregon is no stranger to slimy muck.  I made a good run at the hill, coming right up on Larry’s tail as he spun to an abrupt stop, leaving me no room to get around, even assuming I could.  As I aborted my attempt, I discovered just how close the friction coefficient of Costa Rican mud is to zero.  Ice would’ve given me more welcome footing.

Click to see bridge.JPGThe bypass trail we took was steeper yet, but stickier mud made all the difference.  A group synergy developed for the first time when Larry and Bob, already waiting at the top, watched me take the hill without a problem, using just the right blend of short-shifting and light clutch work to keep the knobs hooked up.  This technique (unfamiliar to most California desert riders according to Larry, who doesn’t much care for their “feedback” on the conditions) was to become an essential survival skill for the week.  MotoAdventures makes a point of assessing riders’ capabilities early on and adjusting the challenge accordingly.  By the choice of the progressively sick trails, it became clear that Larry wasn’t holding anything back with us.

Our first adventure came after some “sweet” riding alongside sugar plantations, when an unexpected makeshift fence blocked the trail.  Without saying a word, Larry worked a fencepost loose enough to let us pass through, then closed it behind us.  Ok I thought, so we’re now inside some area where someone doesn’t want us, but Larry must think it’s kosher.  A few corners later and there’s fence #2.  This one was going to take a little more work, so Bob and I shut down the mills while Larry scouted a way through.  Meanwhile, a farmer in his field 100 yards down the hill starts yelling what I assumed to be obscenities while frantically waving his machete in the air.  This’ll make for a great ride report I thought, if I don’t die.  Larry calmly continued going about his work, apparently seeing no benefit in communicating with this angry chap, while Bob and I threw our helmets on and fired the bikes.  Larry finally created an opening (not that the fence would’ve stopped me at that point), and we slipped through.  To our relief, Larry would later explain that the man was more concerned with the wire being cut than killing us.  Admittedly, it sure would’ve spoiled the “adventure” if he had told us that in the heat of the moment.

Click to see manuel speaking.JPGBy the second day, I’d convinced myself Scott Summers could eat my dust, able to hang with Larry right through the most challenging terrain and conditions.  I was gaining more confidence in my riding ability than ever, which can only mean one thing.  Fortunately, Bob was too far behind to witness the crash, a product of fatigue, too much speed, and an oh-so-prevalent erosion trench on a steep downhill corner.  I figured out which way was up, re-mounted, and was rolling again before Bob rounded the corner.  I’ve often wondered, “if a bike falls in the woods and no-one else is around to see it, did it really happen?”  There would be many more close calls during the week, including a 5-star flying “W” performance in front of Bob when a rock crawled under my rear tire at 35mph, but this marked the only time I felt the XR should lay down for a breather.

Click to see manuel by river.JPGFor the second half of the week, Larry would have to leave us to tend to his daughter.  Our substitute guide was Manuel, a short fearless mid-20s college student, whose mastery of the XR was a thing of beauty to witness, especially considering he couldn’t reach the ground.  Manuel would turn out to bring a refreshing change to the tour not only in riding leadership, but in the unspoken guide duties like taking a moment to stop and cut some sugar cane for us to chew on, or explaining the history of how the grassy right-of-ways we’d been railing were created by the government in the 1800s to prevent farmers from feuding.

The height of the adventure was day 3, where the most grueling trails tested my desk-job conditioning to the fullest, and left Bob pausing for regular smoke breaks to “take a breather”, oddly enough.  Late in the day and deep into an endless stretch of sloppy wet jungle single-track, Bob was increasingly having trouble keeping the pace.  We stopped near the bottom of a gully and parked our butts in a creek to cool down.  In Oregon, this would mean a cold miserable ride back to the truck. But warm tropical rain means letting go of notions (which I didn’t) like packing around a fanny-pack enduro jacket all week that’s simply not needed.

Click to see mountains cow.JPGWith our batteries now somewhat recharged (as in a dead Ni-Cad bounce), we again hit the bamboo-lined trail to begin the long climb back out of the gully.  As I grabbed a handful of throttle to launch out of a creek, my trusty steed coughed and died, nearly sending me over the bars.  Houston, we have a problem.  A stick with a tapered machete cut attacked my rear wheel, taking with it 1/3 of the spokes.  Somewhat delusional at this point, I was thinking, “Cool!  This is what I call an adventure!”  Bob, on the hand, was thinking more rationally, “We’re gonna die out here.”  Manuel kept a cool head, looked at his watch, and decided we didn’t have time for plan A, which was to remove the tire and redistribute the good spokes around the wheel (something I wouldn’t attempt even with all day, a shop, tools, and beer).  He instead opted for plan B, removing the bent spokes and praying it would hold.

Click to see trashed wheel.JPGManuel swapped scooters with me and babied it as best he could up the wet rocky climbs ahead.  Of course it wouldn't be a complete adventure without another obstacle, so naturally we encountered a washout.  Fortunately someone left a narrow plank over it, just wide enough to walk the bikes across.   The significance of this was not lost considering turning around was an option of a nocturnal nature, requiring Braille (duct tape makes a poor headlight).  Daylight now rapidly fading and Jaco Beach still barely visible in the distance, we cranked it up a notch, noting that the wheel miraculously seemed to be holding.  By the time we slid down into the valley (quite literally at times), we couldn’t see a thing, like the white dog that nearly took out Bob (or vice versa).  But as we emerged from the trees, a surreal scene developed with Manuel out front stirring up swarms of fireflies from the roadside, a sort of guiding light bringing us down the home stretch.  We rolled into the paradise of a Jaco Beach resort, looking worse for the wear, but feeling like victorious warriors.  After slapping emotional high fives all around and sharing our conquest with Marco Jr., I checked in, showered up, chowed down, and melted into the comforts of the resort while I took in the best day riding of my life.

Click to see 103-0316_IMG.JPGI spent the next day working hard on relaxing, giving me and my calloused hands a chance to recover for the final day of riding.  Manuel and I would go it alone, with Bob instead opting to try MotoAdventure’s brand new road ride tour back to San Jose.  While Bob was an adept rider who could leave me crying for mommy in the flat stuff, I was eager to see what pace I could keep in the mountains with just Manuel. The route back was as challenging as anything we’d done, replete with more personal conquests.  I thoroughly loved it, giving my digital camera a workout along the way to help archive the memories.

Click to see river-wade.JPGTouring Costa Rica was a humbling peek into a country of people living simplistic lives without excess.  No matter the hardships, I found a genuine happiness among them, stemming from a culture that seems rooted more in humanism than materialism.  From the coffee plantation farmer deep in the jungle who sprinted down from his meager shack just to shake my hand for taking his picture, to the uniformed schoolchildren clinging to the fence motioning in unison for a wheelie (which I humbly granted), the cultural experience is too broad to describe.  Suffice it to say that it was a major part of the adventure, and the XR provided the means to see it up close and personal in the most remote regions of the country, where no tour bus could go.

Click to see school kids.JPGIf you have anything left after the riding has kicked your tail to the beach and back, there are plenty of other thrills and sightseeing opportunities to take advantage of.  Oh yes, and if you’re fair-skinned and opt for the whitewater rafting, be sure to apply plenty of waterproof sunscreen, or your last night and plane ride home could be more painful than going through life without having dualsported Costa Rica.  Happy trails!