There’s an iguana sitting silently on a fallen branch, making eyes at the red crab scuttling across the sand in its shadow. Turning away from the impending duel — where the crustacean will eventually perish — I dig my heels into the sand and face towards the Pacific.
Were it not for the chatter of my fellow cyclists — watching howler monkeys hopping from one branch to another — I could be isolated in the land that tourism forgot.
Beyond this secluded strip of beach lies a rainforest whose dense foliage hides all manner of creatures, including lizards, spiders and sloths. Costa Rica, I’ve realised, is mother nature on acid; a place where giant blue butterflies clip the tip of your ear and mammoth gunnera leaves (the poor man’s umbrella) provide shelter from a storm. Even the birds like to put you in your place — more than once, a passing macaw mocked me with a cackle as I inelegantly ascended yet another hill.
I’m cycling in a small group along this Central American country’s Pacific coast, from the outskirts of San Jose south to Manuel Antonio National Park and towards the Osa Peninsula, cruising 136 miles beside coffee farms, volcanoes, banana plantations and rainforest. But there’s one problem — I’m no cyclist. And I’ve been secretly dreading it. Spending a few hours here and there on an exercise bike does not a cyclist make.
Even though I’m reasonably fit, before coming here I’d received a few raised eyebrows from friends who’d been to Costa Rica. “Hilly,” they’d said. “Steep roads,” they’d said. “You’re mad,” they’d said. Maybe. At this moment in time, I’m silently wishing I’ll twist an ankle; or, even better, the government will ban cycling overnight. But despite missing my connecting flight from the US and, consequently, the first day of cycling, here I am, padded pants and all.
There are 16 of us altogether, including Steve, a south Londoner who protests he’s no expert cyclist either — although his ‘clicky in’ shoes suggest otherwise; and Janet and Graham, who quietly let slip they’ve cycled across India and Vietnam. Then, from Edinburgh, there’s Trish and her husband, Noel (aka the ‘silent assassin’), who, without warning, will quietly overtake without so much as a deep breath, while I limp uphill at 4mph.
The thing about Costa Rica, though, is it makes you do things you’d never normally entertain. Setting the alarm for 6am? No problem. Cycling 30 miles before lunch? A doddle. Racing downhill in a torrential downpour? Why not. Perhaps it’s the fresh air and the beautifully balmy heat. Pura vida (pure life) is Costa Rican for ‘hello’, after all.
I find myself squeezing on my helmet and fiddling with the gears, while Paul — one of our three guides — adjusts my seat; his bulging calves doing nothing to dispel my fears. I’m soon swaying in line with the group, passing ocean on our right and grassy plains and jungle to our left (Christopher Columbus was right to christen the country the ‘Rich Coast’ on its discovery in 1502). I soon drop to the back and, after just 20 minutes or so, take a breather to guzzle the contents of my water bottle — and flick a giant centipede from my forearm. Road trains (lorries with multiple trailers) thunder past, whipping my hair into a frenzy; I pause again to take a photo of an orchid. At my lowest, I feel nauseous and dizzy, and dream of diving into a pool and slurping a cocktail. But I know that’s coming later.
Just as I’m praying for respite from the beating sun, I spot our minibus ahead, surrounded by a smattering of bikes and their owners, nibbling pieces of fruit. I flop to the floor, panting like an over-heated dog and suck on a cooling piece of pineapple, its syrupy juices running down my arm. Red-faced and with matted, wet hair, I’m not looking my best, but I’m slowly realising I’m starting to enjoy it.
Kaleidoscope of colour
The following morning my burning thighs are given a couple of hours’ respite as we take a boat on the Rio Tarcoles, which flows through Costa Rica’s Central Pacific region before emptying into the ocean. We’re here for a spot of crocodile hunting. The murky waters hide the largest population of American crocodile on the continent — an average of 200 crocodiles per square mile — and as we chug along, what look at first like floating logs gradually morph into these prehistoric beasts.
“See, here’s Mike Tyson,” our guide Will exclaims, pointing to the opposite riverbank where a Herculean beast, over 13ft long, is flopped out, his feet digging into the muddy sand. His eyes fix on our approaching boat as an egret wanders past behind him, picking at the foliage with a razor-thin beak, leaving a trail of delicate footprints. “I’d say he’s around 50,” says Will. “He should live another 100 years.” Lucky him, I think. A whole century left to wallow in this land of transcendent beauty.
But I’ve no time to wallow: a 27-mile ride lies ahead of us along the coast, beneath towering African oil palms, to our pit-stop for the night.
I’m slowly coming round to the idea that cycling is one of the best ways to see a country. Travel can often mean you fail to see the whole picture, getting just a handful of fleeting glances and a collection of photos while missing all the bits in between. It’s different on a bike. Here, I’m thrown into an intense world of colour and extremes so beautiful it’s enough to make me want to quit my job and set up an eco-retreat right here, in between the black bluffs and brooding jungle.
Later that afternoon, our guides haul the bikes onto the roof of the bus and we hop in to negotiate some scarily steep hills on route to Manuel Antonio National Park on the central Pacific coast — a traveller’s favourite, with a beach of the same name so spectacular I found myself whispering ‘blimey’ on first glance.
I take a sunset stroll, paddling in the lapping waves as the vast sky transforms to an auroral pinky orange, and watch as couples embrace in the surf and twentysomethings gather for beers on the beach. No one’s in a hurry to do anything. It’s all mañana mañana mañana; a chilled place I’m completely seduced by.
Showered and sweat-free, I join the rest of the group for mojitos and a dinner of casado — a traditional Costa Rican meal of fish or meat with rice, beans and fried plantain. “I really enjoyed today,” I pipe up, and realise that, despite the fatigue and muscle strain, I mean it. “You’ll improve every day, Helen,” our Italian guide, Francesco, tells me. “It’s normal for the first couple of days to be tough — especially in this humid heat.”
The day before, while drowning my sorrows in Miami airport and fending off Hispanic men after missing my flight, I pictured the newly formed group getting chummy and bonding with their bikes; I was worried I’d have trouble fitting in. But here we all were, getting on famously and laughing manically at the thought of tomorrow’s 36 miles.
There’s no doubt I’m one of the unfittest — this trip is aimed at regular cyclists, after all. But each dawn brings moments of wonder. Rice paddies glimmer bright green; the white horses of the Pacific rear their heads without warning; sudden, torrential downpours of rain stop as quickly as they began. Signs reading ‘Pescado Cerveza Viagra’ (Fish Beer Viagra) bring a smile to my face. And just as I’m struggling uphill and about to give up, the thought of another exhilarating descent cheers me on.
It’s not all hard work, either. Setting out on a three-mile guided hike in Manual Antonio National Park, we’re welcomed by the chatter of howler monkeys far above us. This jaw-dropping 4,014-acre area of evergreen forest, secluded beaches and mangrove swamps harbours 109 species of mammal and 184 of bird.
“Somewhere out here is a jaguar,” a guide says with a smile. But few people are lucky enough to spot one of these elusive cats — they stay well away from the tourist paths. We do eye a sloth, though, snoozing in the canopy — its adorable face slumped on its arm — as well as other creatures of the dark and damp.
In the trees
In Puerto Jiménez, a jungle/beach town on the Osa Peninsula, I spend a free morning on a canopy tour. These thrilling zip-lining trips — available across the country — are, for many visitors to Costa Rica, something of a rite of passage. Those with vertigo might disagree, but the views of the sprawling forest, accompanied by a soundtrack of howlers, toucans and macaws, are reason enough to part with $60 (£39) and strap yourself in.
Peering over the edge of the launch platform, Charlie, our rotund instructor, shows me what to cling to and demonstrates the best way to throw myself off. Minutes later, I’m shooting through the canopy, gripping my lifeline as I brush past stray branches, the balmy forest air whistling in my ears. There are eight lines in total, but on the seventh I begin to slow halfway across. Stalling, I find myself hanging 165ft from the ground. Completely stationary. I may not have a problem with heights, but hanging like a moth in a web, with no obvious way to get myself moving again, starts making my palms perspire more than a little. Heart pounding, I don’t quite know what to do.
Much to the amusement of my cycling chums, I play the damsel-in-distress card, shouting, “Help! Help me!” It works. Seconds later, one of the zip-lining guides, whose unblemished face suggests he can’t be more than 15, casually swings towards me. Within seconds, I’m on the move again; helplessly hanging from the line while he pulls us both along using sheer strength alone.
Later that afternoon, we arm ourselves with paddles and head out on a sunset kayak tour along Puerto Jiminez’s coast on the Golfo Dulce — an inlet separating the Osa Peninsula from the mainland. But murky clouds hover on the horizon, bunched together like scoops of Mr Whippy, and it looks like any dramatic sunset will be concealed. No matter though.
“Dolphins,” shouts Steve, beckoning us towards them. But we’re too slow. Further out to sea, the water’s surface ripples as these elegant creatures descend into the depths, and we’re directed instead towards the tidal mangrove swamps. A handful of egrets stand studiously on the bank as we paddle into this ‘forest of the tide’ — “one of the most productive and biologically complex ecosystems on earth,” according to Steve. Tree roots plunge into the deep, like gnarled fingers fishing below the surface, and new spots of rain trickle down the nose of my kayak.
“I think the animals will be hiding today from the weather,” our guide tells us. Ploughing on into the mangroves, the promised dolphins and turtles are yet to cross our path, although we all let out a gasp as a pair of scarlet macaws break cover, and a flash of pink in the corner of my eye turns out to be a pastel-pink roseate spoonbill, waddling along a branch.
Pulling up to the bank, we get out and drag our kayaks over the top and down a slope. A tide of foamy seawater greets us, its buttery sands with just a few reeds for company. But we’re not alone on this isolated beach — it seems hundreds of thousands of mozzies and gnats have heard about the clutch of Brits with their bare arms and DEET-free skin. Before long, I’m smacking myself to fend them off and paddling like mad back to our starting point.
“They’ll like the taste of you, Helen, you have sweet Western blood,” says Francesco over dinner in his thick Italian accent, referring to my bite-covered back. We’re huddled in a beachside restaurant, tucking into plates of garlic prawns and seafood ceviche with plenty of lime and coriander. “You know ceviche is an aphrodisiac,” Francesco tells me, raising his eyebrows. Aphrodisiac or not, I’ve never felt better — muscles toned from all the cycling, lungs accustomed to London smog and grime now revitalised by all the fresh air.
After several drinks — and my best salsa impression — at a ramshackle bar, we start the 10-minute walk back to our chalets. “Stop,” hisses Francesco. I follow his pointing finger and find myself staring up into the disc-like eyes of a large owl, perched proudly on a power line, his head momentarily cocked to one side. It’s a weird moment when you glare at a creature who appears just as curious about you. We stare directly at each other for over five minutes before the beautiful bird of prey gives me a final glance and silently launches itself directly above me, its handsome wings a mere flutter against the star-strewn sky.
Several days after my owl encounter, I’m queueing at Miami airport check-in, surrounded by passengers, all staring at my bites. “Hey Carlos,” a loud-mouthed official remarks, pointing out my insect-ravaged skin to his colleague. “Remind me never to go to Costa Rica.” I smile to myself. Fine by me — the fewer people who do, the better.
There are no direct flights from the UK. Fly via the US or Europe, but factor in lengthy queues at US immigration if you’ve a tight connection. Iberia flies to San Jose via Madrid from Manchester, Glasgow International and Edinburgh. American Airlines and British Airways fly via Miami from Heathrow. With BA, you need to connect to an American Airlines flight. www.aa.com www.ba.com www.iberia.com
Average flight time: 18h.
Many coastal roads are paved and are ideal for cycling. For long-distance travel, domestic flights are the best option. Car hire means a lot of paperwork, while insurance, fuel and border permits can make it more expensive than flying. Cheaper still is journeying by bus.
When to go
If you’re planning a cycling trip, avoid the wettest months of September and October, and try to travel between November and February when plants are in full bloom, although prices rise in the December-January high season. The Caribbean side is wetter and more humid than the Pacific side. Daytime temperatures range from 26-32C in the lowlands, 4-10C in the mountains, and hover around 21C at middle elevations, year-round.
Need to know
Visas: UK citizens can stay visa-free for 90 days.
Health: Visit your GP at least six weeks before travel for immunisations.
Currency: Costa Rican colon (CRC). £1 = 754 CRC.
International dial code: 00 506.
Time difference: GMT -6.
The Rough Guide to Costa Rica. RRP: £15.99.
How to do it
Exodus’ Costa Rica Coast to Coast Ride costs from £2,559 per person, including 13 nights’ accommodation, guided tours, return flights, transfers and most meals. Bike hire from £135 per person. www.exodus.com
Published in the Jul/Aug 2013 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)