Riding through paradise

  • by crv.staff
  • 05.10.09
  • 7:00 AM UTC



Originally published: Saturday, November 19, 2005

Source: Canada

When my husband, Niels, and I were making plans for an organized motorcycle tour of Costa Rica last year, friends who’d once travelled there warned us that the roads were poor, and the drivers erratic.

Niels and I remained unfazed. We knew that by March we’d be eager to escape snowy Quebec weather and get out on a motorcycle again – our Honda ST1100 usually goes into storage in November. We’d ridden motorcycles elsewhere in Central America and figured that Costa Rican road conditions couldn’t be worse than Guatemalan and, given Costa Rica’s relative prosperity, could be much better.

In fact, we’d read that this small, mostly Spanish-speaking democracy between Nicaragua and Panama was a “motorcyclist’s paradise” – at least during the more-or-less dry season from December to April. We were also aware that it was an ecological paradise, with more than 500,000 species of flora and fauna. We wanted to witness its remarkable biodiversity and learn what we could about its culture, economy and history.

The one-week tour we’d chosen offered an intriguing mix of destinations in the northern and Pacific Coast regions and a guide who spoke Spanish, had lived in Costa Rica for seven years, and was an accomplished motorcyclist – former U.S. flat-track racer Paul Furlong.

We flew to San Jose a couple of days before our tour began and then took a 30-minute taxi ride to Atenas, a town northwest of the capital and the headquarters for Motorcycles Costa Rica.

When we reached our rustic mountaintop bed-and-breakfast, the stress of our long flight vanished. The courtyard outside our cabin was fringed by plants, shrubs, and trees with blossoms of every colour, from the palest purple to the deepest red. A gentle breeze was stirring, pet parrots were chattering, wild birds were singing, and a lizard was basking in the sun. Once we’d unpacked, I lay in a hammock outdoors and let the environment wash over me.

The next morning, we borrowed one of the motorcycles in the company fleet to investigate the surrounding area. Motorcycling is popular in Costa Rica, but “Ticos,” as the 4 million inhabitants call themselves, generally own motorcycles that are smaller and more stripped-down than North American models. We’d known beforehand that we’d be riding two-up on a Suzuki 650, an overgrown dirt bike designed for one. To give me a comfortable perch, Niels had brought along a backpack-turned-backrest and bolted this onto the Suzuki’s luggage carrier.

In venturing out on our own, we discovered that the steep, twisting paved roads were narrow, but in good repair. We also discovered that the drivers, of necessity, honked frequently but behaved courteously, indicating when it was safe for us to pass at blind corners and waving us ahead in lineups at single-lane bridge crossings. Things had improved, we concluded, since our friends had visited Costa Rica.

Nevertheless, when Paul Furlong convened our first riders’ meeting, he reminded us not to be complacent. We were seated at a picnic table in a commercial orchid garden on the road to Palmares, sipping cool drinks and admiring the dazzling variety of Costa Rica’s national flower. “Have you seen Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” Furlong asked. There were four of us on the tour – two Canadians, two Americans – and we all nodded. “Well, this is Toon Town.” We all laughed. “A piano could drop down in front of you.” His tone became more serious. “In other words, you’ve got to expect the unexpected.”

Once Furlong had assessed everyone’s riding skills and confirmed our appetite for adventure, he modified our itinerary, eschewing main thoroughfares for back roads, whenever possible. Initially, we remained in Atenas and made daily excursions from there. We revelled in the mild temperatures, exotic landscape, unfamiliar birds, and near-vertical grades and hairpin turns that we regularly encountered.

Along with tourism, agriculture is vital to the Costa Rican economy, employing 20 per cent of the labour force. We passed hillside pastures with beef cattle enclosed by “living fences” – the posts were severed tree limbs growing up into trees again. We also passed coffee plantations on rich, red soil, and dropped in on a co-op to find out how the beans are processed.

We took a day trip to Poas Volcano National Park, where the mist lifted long enough for us to view the 1.6-kilometre-wide crater, the second largest in the world.

On our way to and from Poas, we stopped in various towns. We rolled our own cigars in a tobacco shop in San Ramon. We strolled around a topiary park in Zarcero, while a local “Edward Scissorhands” clipped the shrubs, including one in the shape of a monkey on a motorcycle. We toured an old-fashioned woodworking shop in Sarchi that produces the kind of full-size, gaily painted ox carts that traditionally plied the roads.

Everywhere we went, people waved or smiled from the roadside. “Hola, Santa Claus,” one boy shouted when he spotted Niels’s white beard.

After packing our bags and leaving Atenas, we proceeded farther north to La Fortuna and stayed in a lodge overlooking Lake Arenal. Late at night, Niels and I stood outside our room and watched red-orange lava erupting from the Arenal Volcano – a spectacle rarely visible in the daytime because of heavy cloud cover.

In the morning, we rode west around the lake and then south toward the much hotter, and much more touristy Pacific Coast. A motorcycle breakdown delayed us en route, and we had to forgo our leisurely pace, ending up in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Pan-American Highway after dark. We could hardly wait to check into our beachfront hotel in the resort town of Playa de Jaco. We normally paid for our own supper; that evening Furlong’s boss picked up the tab.

The next day, after an idyllic ride to Quepos under sunny skies, we followed a walking trail through the rainforest of Manuel Antonio National Park. Although this small, beautiful park is home to three-toed sloths and different kinds of monkeys, we found only a raccoon-like coati and assorted iguanas on the sandy shoreline.

While returning to Jaco, a downpour drenched us, and one of the Suzukis broke down. Again, it was supper on Furlong’s boss.

The following day, we were free to do as we pleased. The beach at Jaco was overrun with tourists and garbage, and locals had a noticeable “edge,” as Furlong put it, because of the crush of foreigners. Niels and I fled into the countryside and undertook a long, sweaty hike to see the 183-metre-high Tarcoles waterfall. In the end, it wasn’t the waterfall that impressed us; it was the procession of leafcutter ants on the path, intently carrying their little green loads back to their colony.

After a recuperative lunch, we headed to a nearby reserve that reproduces endangered species of butterflies, frogs, and snakes. Biologist Luis Fonseca, clearly passionate about his work, guided us around for two hours.

I’d been hoping to see a red-eyed tree frog, an emblem of the lowland rainforest that is rarely observed by tourists. Happily, Luis was able to show us one. “It was born two weeks ago,” he explained. As I was photographing the tiny amphibian close up on a leaf, it surprised me: it hopped onto my camera. Niels snapped a picture, and then carefully set the frog down again on the leaf.

Although our trip was almost over, our wildlife sightings continued. Back in Atenas on our final night, I noticed a salamander in our bedroom, and shortly after, a nasty-looking creature in our shower stall. “Niels,” I said loudly, trying to muster a sang-froid that I didn’t feel. “I think there’s a scorpion in here.” Niels verified its identity and dispatched it with a shoe.

Furlong was right, I thought, as I bathed warily. You’ve got to expect the unexpected in Costa Rica. But the unexpected, after all, is part of the lure of travel and part of the reason that Niels and I had already begun to talk about exploring other parts of Costa Rica by motorcycle in the future.


Due to its appealing climate, astonishing biodiversity, relatively inexpensive food and lodgings, political stability, and generally hospitable nature, Costa Rica has become an increasingly popular destination for North Americans and Europeans escaping winter at home. To avoid disappointment, you should make your Costa Rican holiday plans well in advance.

Several airlines fly from Montreal’s Trudeau International Airport to Juan Santamaria International Airport about 20 minutes from downtown San Jose, the Costa Rican capital. Their flights, however, include at least one stop in the United States. To bypass lengthy, potentially frustrating waits in lineups for security checks in Miami or other U.S. hub cities, book a direct flight from Toronto Pearson International Airport. Consult www.expedia.ca and airline websites for schedules, fares, and e-ticket purchases.

Before going to Costa Rica, you should get a typhoid vaccination and ensure that you are up-to-date on routine immunizations, including tetanus-diphtheria-polio. Hepatitis A and B shots are also recommended, except for the very young. Mosquitoes that transmit malaria and dengue fever are present in certain areas of Costa Rica, and insect repellent should be used as a safeguard against infection. Ask a nurse or doctor at an international travellers’ clinic about the advisability of taking anti-malarial tablets (chloroquine). There are a number of international travellers’ clinics in Montreal and elsewhere in the province. For the address and phone number of the clinic closest to you, see the website of the Canadian Society for International Health (www.csih.org) and follow the links to Quebec. For additional health-related information, go to www.mdtravelhealth.com and follow the links to Costa Rica.

Although many tourists drink tap water in Costa Rica without any ill effect, you can avoid possible risks by drinking bottled water and specifying that you don’t want ice in drinks served in restaurants. In case you get stricken with travellers’ diarrhea, you should carry an anti-diarrheal drug, like Imodium, and an antiobiotic, like Cipro, available by prescription.

Motorcycle riding on Costa Rican roads, particularly unpaved ones, can be challenging; only experienced riders should attempt it. Motorcycles Costa Rica (www.motoscostarica.com); Moto Tours Costa Rica (www.mototourscostarica.com); MotoDiscovery by Pancho Villa Moto-Tours (www.motodiscovery.com); and Costa Rica Motorcycle Tours & Rentals (www.motoexpedition.com) all offer motorcycle rentals and self-guided or guided tours. Tour guide Paul Furlong, it should be noted, is now working for Moto Tours Costa Rica, which owns a fleet of new motorcycles.

Rating 4.00 out of 5

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