Costa Rica 18th – 29th April 2019
I had already been sad for many days by the thought of parting from Chris. It was not very rational, because I knew it would bring many good things with it. He would go on his own adventure that he had long dreamed about and I wanted him to do exactly what he dreamed of, we would get some time apart (which is always healthy when you spend so much time together), I was going to get another chance to cycle by myself and in Colombia time to settle somewhere nice and put some work into a writing project that had been playing in my head for more than a year. He would come back so we could continue our journey, there was really nothing bad about what was going to happen.
But the thought of not having his comforting company, his laughter and good words, his hug in the morning, and not knowing for how long, brought tears in my eyes that I just couldn’t do anything about. Other than cry. So I had already cried rather a lot up until the moment we said goodbye, and so I was somehow done with it as soon as he was gone. I felt excited.
It was always new and different to be travelling alone by bicycle. For example I now HAD to do all my shopping myself. Usually I liked to have Chris doing it, but I knew it was probably good that I kept in practice of doing it myself. I was afterall 32 years old. A street stall owner outside the supermarket reassured me that he had kept an eye on my bike while I had been shopping, and the kindness gave me another boost of joy. This was going to be great.
Loaded with a couple of days food I got started on the 500m climb that would take me up to the Arenal Lake. It was a tough climb on a gravel road that weaved up and also down, which meant even more climbing sometimes on some pretty steep gradients. But it was great to just get all occupied with the challenge, give it all and focus on just one thing. And after the weeks on the flat, busy Panam, I valued the peaceful gravel road a lot. The scenery grew pretty with soft, green hills like waves on the ocean. Tired I reached a town on the lakeside. An incredibly hilly town with awfully steep and long climbs that I had to battle to get to the free campsite marked in iOverlander. In the end I gave up in front of one of these steep hills when a sign pointed down a little path saying ‘recreation site’. That was just what I needed, and I found a beautiful spot with views over the lake, a shelter and young fruit trees growing in thick, green grass.
Then I realised the silence. The silence of being all alone that I had to get used to now.
The next day I cycled around the northen end of the lake on a road that climbed up and down more or less constantly. There was quite a bit of traffic as it was Easter, or Semana Santa as it is called in this part of the world, and all the city people came out here in their big SUVs to enjoy the nature for a few days.
Costa Rica seemed a whole lot different from the previous Central America we had been through. The houses were bigger and better maintained, the cars a lot better, the buses were not falling apart, people seemed more or less content and relaxed, happy with where they were, not desperate to leave for somewhere better. It was nice, it made me more relaxed.
In the evening I had left the lake behind and begun the 1000-something metre climb up to the Monteverde cloud forest. There were fences and hills everywhere and I could not find anywhere to wild camp, so I prepared to ask people. The first people I asked were not very inviting, so I continued and spotted a little field by a house. A mad dog made it very difficult to get my request through to the older woman outside the very simple house, but even before she understood my question she had already invited me inside the house, and when she understood me, she insisted I could sleep in their spare room which was unused now their daughter studied in a bigger town. Fransisca and her husband seemed worried about something or someone outside and made sure my bike was safe inside the house, and I guessed the nasty dog was a result of this fear. Due to my limited Spanish I only grasped fragments of Fransisca’s stream of words, but I definitely felt very safe and welcome as I fell asleep in the left teenage room.
The next morning Fransisca added coffee and some dry cakes to my breakfast of oats and we sat down for a long chat about this and that, which I still only understood a little of. They were Nicarguans and poor people, she said, and rightly was I surprised that the house was basically just one room with separating walls that didn’t reach all the way to the ceiling, so that I could hear everything when her husband had got up at 3.30am to get ready for work. Yet, I felt her care for me, worried about that I was about to cycle up in the mountains and giving me God’s blessing as I left.
Fransisca had been right, it was a tough ride, which wasn’t made easier by a strong wind that seemed to come from everywhere as I twisted my way up and down and some more up the gravel roads. It had been some time since I had cycled in mountains in Guatemala and my legs were struggling now on day three, but up I came somehow.
I based myself in a hostel before I headed out to explore some of the sights of the area. Costa Rica is an expensive country and Monteverde a popular tourist area, so really there were a lot of attractions and activities that were beyond my budget. Luckily there were some free things to see and do, and in the afternoon I went to find a natural wooden bridge. This turned out to be really nice as I escaped the touristworld down a little path into a forest covered gorge. And there a tree had fallen over the gap and its roots had stretched down into the little stream beneath building a row of strong, slim pillars. It was a wonderful thing and my little moment down there got even better when I spotted a little animal sniffing around. It was like something between a wombat and a fox, or a rat and a dog, or like an oversized guinea pig with long legs. It was a Costa Rican animal (and later I learned it was an agouti), and they had many species that were rare and mostly found in this little country where big areas of wild nature was still kept protected. And as if it had no need to fear humans it let me watch it and even brought out its young to show me too. It was one of those little moments when life comes together just right – and boy, had I missed such a moment for a long time.
The next morning I hiked up through a part of the cloud forest that was free to visit and had some amazing views down to the coast and the Nicoya peninsular while the clouds flew in over me from the higher mountains behind. On my way down I heard a sound, a rattling in the bushes, and curious and alert I silently went closer to the sound and saw that it came from an armadillo (I also had to look the English name for this animal up to be able to tell anyone that I had seen it) that seemed like it was searching for insects in the leaves and, like the agouti, it absolutely didn’t bother about me. To finish off my successful free sightseeing in Monteverde I went up a big hill to see a hollow tree which looked a bit like as if one tree had grown on the outside of another tree squeezing the inner one with its web of root-trunks until the inner tree died and disappeared leaving the outer tree standing as a network of trunks that bend slightly, so that people now climbed up on the inside. I’ll show you a picture so you can see what I’m talking about. I’ve never seen anything like it.
It took me all the rest of the day to descend from the cloud forest on another gravel road heading down to the Pacific coast. Once again every square meter was fenced off so I stopped to ask a family if I could camp at a beautiful shaded area by the river next to their houses. They let me stay and step by step we overcame our mutual shyness and language barriers and I was invited in to share their dinner. As it was Sunday the whole family was together in the house of the wrinkled old grandparents, but after dinner the others left, so that in the morning I was alone with the two old people. They were around eighty but still doing their daily physical chores. The man showed me his parrot that he had had for fourty years and I understood that it was his best friend. The woman insisted on making me breakfast of eggs and rice with beans. The communication was very tricky and I don’t know how we ended at the subject, but the woman managed to explain to me how both her daughter and son, as adult, had died, and she cried as she did and showed me pictures of them. It was very sad and awkward that I didn’t really understand the details of what she was saying. The man looked at her patiently as if he had heard her mourning so many times before that he had now teamed up with the parrot instead, as it can happen after two people share a whole life together.When I was leaving the eighty year old man gave me a good push up the steep little driveway and I’m honestly not sure I would have come up without him.
A few kilometers later I reached the PanAm which looked terrible for cycling and instead I crossed it for some small roads I could see on my map. A man let me through a gate into some fields, and I got the feeling that the gate might not be the only obstacle coming my way. But for a start all went smooth, apart from the roads being very rocky and bumpy. It was curious there were either smooth paved roads or horribly bumpy dirt roads in Costa Rica, and hardly anything in between. As if the modernization of the country had went fast and only in parts of the country while the rest was left in a very undeveloped state, thus I passed through little villages where people lived as simple as they had in Nicaragua.
After a while I got to a river that flowed across the road. Luckily someone had laid out a plank that I could only just roll my bike over and continue with dry feet. A little later the road went through a wide, rocky river bed that fortunately only had a shallow stream flowing through that I crossed in my flipflops. Then the route on my map ended in another overgrown river crossing, and as I backtracked the same big river blocked the more main road. I went to ask a man in a nearby field, who explained that there was a third road with a bridge across this river. I found it triumphantly! Then a few minutes later an even wider river blocked the road, but here a narrow walking bridge allowed me across, only I had to carry all my bags and the bike over. Phew. Luckily that was the end of my trials and I made it the rest of the way to the outskirts of the big town, Puntarenas, without anymore troubles.
In Puntarenas I stayed two nights with a warmshower host, Alexander. He was a hospitable man who hosted many cyclists and travellers via Couchsurfing as well, but I sensed that the rest of the people in the family house were less enthusiastic about all his guests, or maybe it was just due to my lacking Spanish skills. As Alexander was really busy and away most of the time I was locked in on the porch, which I must say was the nicest place of the house with a hammock and rocking chairs and a mild breeze, and could only go out when someone else with a key was home. I made the best of it using the wifi to talk to Chris who announced that the 100 Countries Challenge was cancelled, which moved me deeply and made me so happy. I never wanted to stop him in pursuing his dreams, and I had always known and respected how much his challenges meant to him. But how wonderful it was that his biggest dream now basically was ‘us’.
I was looking much forward to the next section of cycling as I would be following a smaller main road with a shoulder along the Pacific coast. It was of course not so often it was actually right by the water, but by taking little side roads it was possible to get to many more beaches than I had time to visit, and these beaches were public, clean and free to camp at. I really liked Costa Rica for that. Not only because it gave me some magical campspots, but more so because it showed a country that cared about quality of life for the people and that was a deed I had felt missing in many of the other Central American countries.
With a gentle tailwind at my back I easily cycled the 50-60 kilometres between the beaches I had chosen in 3-4 hours which left me with plenty of time to just enjoy the beach and free space there. I would read, listen to podcasts, write, go swimming, make coffee on our new MSR stove (thanks Mike!) and my Costa Rican-inspired coffee filter and in the hours around sunset I would join the gathering people for the golden hours. It really seemed like everyone in the area came to the beach just for this and that they easily spent two hours there, doing nothing but enjoying the beauty. That was to me another indication that Costa Rica was different with a special sense for enjoying life. Something which is also evident in the countries general slogan: Pura Vida (Pure life).
In a little beachtown I met a local man, a member of one of the few groups of indigenous people of Costa Rica, who was eager to explain to me why Costa Rica is different from the other countries in the area. Basically he said that it had to do with the colonial history, because the area was colonized much later than the more northern countries and therefore the people that lived there had time to prepare for the coming of the foreigners, learn the language and meet them more knowingly. The colonizers were not as aggressive this late in the process either and the people of Costa Rica, who were also not as numerous as in other places, were willing to cooperate as they could see advantages in the modernization the Europeans brought. The people mixed over the next generations and no real conflict or suppression ever occurred. It made a lot of sense to me that people here were not scared and formed by fighting and unfairness, and that that made so many things different.
I was hosted again by a Warmshower host in the small town of Uvita. Victor was a young man who had done some bike trips in South America and we quickly got into the bike talk as he installed me in his little cabin. Then he got busy with helping his sister out in the restaurant the family owned where a concert with dinner guests was being held that night. I stayed in the background during the night, not wanting to get in anyone’s way and socially a little deflated and not in the mood for partying, but I thouroughly enjoyed the concert where talented musicians passionately played rock classics many of which took me back in time to my life back home where I had music around me everywhere and all the time.
From Victors place the road soon left the coast and became one of those narrow un-cycle-friendly Costa Rican roads, but luckily they were not as busy in this most southern part of the country. Now the reunion with Chris spurred me on and I just cycled and cycled and covered the 200 kilometres across the border to Panama to the town David, where Chris was waiting for me. Wet and dirty from an afternoon rain I arrived in front of his door and knocked. No answer. I knocked again, but nothing happened.
The girl in the reception was pretty sure he hadn’t gone out, but she found me an extra key for the room and I opened the door. And there he was, confused and only just woken up from a deep sleep, exhausted as he still was. But it would all be alright, now we were together.
Monteverde – Puntarenas – beaches – Uvita – David (Panama)
574 kilometers cycled