You know, sometimes it takes a bad thing to emphasise something that’s really good. The bitter taste and sourness left by the bad experience merely serves to spice up the good times to come, heightening the pleasure and delight to be had from them. So it was with Panama and Costa Rica. After Panama, Costa Rica is a taste of paradise. It is a land filled with idyllic vacation dream-spots and we both feel like Lottery winners as we sit here on Tamarindo beach, in the shade of a Palm tree, sipping on ‘Pipas’ – ice-chilled coconuts – watching the sky go through a fantasy colour change from golden yellow to bloodshot orange, marbled through with royal purply red clouds as we witness yet another Pacific Sunset. Fan-tailed blackbirds chatter noisily in the trees behind as they settle in their roosts for the evening. The gentle rush of the ocean, an oily mirror reflecting the sunset colours, completes our dusk panorama. Wish You Were Here!
Like any good paradise it’s a place full of birds. Birds-of-many-colours flitting across orchid festooned greenery! Riding up into San Vito, we were welcomed by Scarlet Chested Tanagers scooting across the road, their bright red body plumage contrasting so vividly with their jet-black wings. Our little wooden cabina there had mosquito nets only over unglazed windows with a pleasant overlook on to a jungly gorge that was choking with birds. The chorus line at dawn and dusk was just breathtaking. From San Vito we rode on into the Central Valley, stopping amidst hilly coffee plantations at a place called Orosi, from where we went out to see the nearby Volcanoes of Irazú and Poas. They were quite unlike any of the other volcanoes we have encountered on the trip, lacking the classical pointy snow-capped volcano cone shape. Irazú and Poas are merely rounded mountains that appear unremarkable from the approach. What is remarkable is that both are active and both have amazing craters, accessible from the road. Irazú is Costa Rica’s highest volcano at 3,400m and most recently erupted in 1994. To climb to the top we rode fantastic switchback roads through alternate bands of thick cloud and sunshine. The road eventually pulled up out of the clouds carpeting the landscape and making it feel we were peering out of a high altitude airliner at the skyscape below. It was strange too to see that the slopes were farmed almost all the way to the summit, the rich volcanic soil yielding crops of potatoes, cabbages and corn. The higgledy-piggledy arrangement of the hedge-lined fields again reminded us of home. At the top of Irazú there are 3 major craters. First off was a stroll across the Crater Playa Hermosa (beautiful beach), a shallow basin of grey volcanic ash beyond which lay the inert Crater Diego de la Haya and finally Crater Principal, a spectacular 1000metre diameter bowl with its bright green acid lake a startling contrast to the dead rock and lava surround. Poas was a similar experience but with more people (it’s closer to San Jose – the capital) and an even more vivid green lake, his time with sulphurous fumaroles giving it the appearance of a vast witches cauldron.
A days riding took us from Orosi to La Fortuna, our base for the third and final volcano we would visit in Costa Rica – Volcan Arenal. Arenal is an extremely active beast and on a clear day you can see the orange red lava streams from fissures in the rocks. On the Tuesday before we arrived, it blew enough for a Volcano Alert to be issued, warning of further possible eruptions. By the following weekend when we arrived it had settled back down. We are here in the rainy season and the grey weather was to hide the lava streams from us, so we were a little disappointed. We did spend a wet day hiking around the base of the Volcano where the cloud occasionally parted to reveal the pointy cone with it’s smouldering top. We followed one of the signposted trails that lead us out to the 1993 lava field, looking like two drowned Hobbits (or should that be leprechauns!) approaching a rain sodden Mordor. Suddenly out of the misty gloom, we heard a deep threatening rumble that stopped us both dead in our tracks. Fantasy novels describe the roar of dragons that strikes ‘Dragonfear’ in the hearts of would be assailants, paralysing them and making them easy prey for the scaly monster. So we were struck today – ‘Dragonfear’ rooting us in our tracks, struck by the deep resonating roar out of the mists, telling us there was something very dangerous nearby – in this case, the living mountain up ahead!
From Arenal we rode around the lake of the same name on ever deteriorating roads. Costa Rica is pothole heaven and some of the small roads on this run had more holes than tarmac. It’s not too bad on the bikes as you can usually thread your way through on pavement but it does demand constant attention as some of the holes are big enough to seriously dent a wheel rim or take out a few spokes. Our target was a little town called Santa Elena, near the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve. The last 30 miles were on stony tracks, not too bad for riding on as they had been well compacted by traffic over the years. Here we found one of the best accommodations of our whole trip. The Cabinas ‘Vista Al Golfo’ (Gulf View) is a delightful wooden lodge perched on the valleyside of Monteverde with stunning views over the Gulf of Nicoya. There was a fully equipped communal kitchen and we had some memorable candlelit dinners in the view-side dining area, a glazed balcony kitted out with furnishings carved from tree sections. All this can be yours for a mere $10 a night!
The cloud forest is the big attraction here and we would spend a pleasant day hiking jungly trails, taking in all the greenery. For an alternative view of the forest we went Sky-Trekking, a high altitude zip-line adventure ride that took us over and through the jungle, suspended from a series of steel cables that ran anything from 130 to 2,500 feet in length. At the reception area, we were kitted out with safety harnesses, helmets and gloves and introduced to our steel block pulley that would tear us along the cables (the zip-lines) on our ride. Mags was really unsure about the whole thing but the organisers were brilliant, offering her the chance to do the first 4 lines for free. If after that she didn’t like it we wouldn’t have to pay. Xavier, our guide, was excellent reassuring everyone and settling any nerves or apprehensions until we got going. To be honest, the most frightening bit was right at the start, climbing a huge steel spiral staircase to take us up to the first line. Vertigo kicked in big time and had the old adrenaline going as we approached the first run. Xavier explained how the pulley worked, how to brake and what to do in the event we stopped halfway across one of the lines. Then we were off, hurtling across the treetop with the forest canopy hundreds of feet below! Mags went first and a massive grin beaming back across that first chasm told me she wouldn’t be dropping out after the 4 lines! Successive runs (there were 11 zip lines in total) had us flying through the trees, down awesome green tunnels of rainforest (check out the website at www.skytrek.com). It was one of the most exhilarating thrills of our entire trip and a beautiful experience to boot!
From Santa Elena we left the mountains for the Pacific coast and more specifically for the beach. The mountain roads out were atrocious, with mud from the recent heavy rain to contend with now as well as the potholes. On arriving at Tamarindo I found that the shuddering vibrations on this road had snapped the cross brace on my pannier rails and we had to get it welded locally. Checking Mags bike, her cross brace was failing in the same spot so we had the area likewise welded as a preventive measure. So far on the trip we have not found any real ‘paradise’ beaches with clean water good for swimming. Playa Tamarindo would soon remedy that! We found another excellent cabina just across the road from the beach and settled in for a few days rest after the bad roads out of the mountains. We both remembered back from our childhood, the television ads for ‘Bounty’ coconut filled chocolate bars, advertised as a ‘Taste of Paradise’. The ads showed people running out of the sea and onto a palm lined beach, where they found ice-cold coconut shells full of Bounty Bars. Well, we’re here now! On arrival in Tamarindo I was waiting out on the road whilst Mags sorted out the accommodation, when a Mitsubishi 4 Wheel Drive truck pulled up behind the bikes and so we met Clara and Alberto, a couple from Buenos Aires who have settled here in Tamarindo. They had spotted the Argentine flags on some of our pannier stickers and a quick chat soon turned to an invite for dinner and a day out to explore some of the other fabulous beaches along the Pacific Coast. They were lovely people and their easy banter and manner reminded us of why Argentina has been our favourite travel destination. For lunch we ate at the Perro Plano (The ‘Flat Dog’ – a slang term for a crocodile) at Playa Brasilito. Here we met Clare Mayne who hailed from Ballynahinch in N.Ireland. With her husband Charlie and two kids, they packed up a life in England to come and run the Flat Dog and their progress is being monitored and filmed by the BBC for a series called ‘Get a Life’. It was fabulous to sit and natter with folk from back home and an opportunity to shower our Argentine guests with some of that wonderful Irish hospitality here in the tropics!
Back in Tamarindo, the golden sandy beach runs for miles along the coast in both directions and is lined with palm trees ideal for stringing a hammock. The weather is perpetual summer with the inland rain clouds not often making it this far (even in this, the rainy season). It is such an easy going, laid back place – friendly locals, great food, best coffee in the world – as I said at the start a veritable paradise and one that we will find very hard to leave! The local motto is ‘Pura Vida’ loosely translatable as ‘take it easy / life is good!’ As an example of how laid back Costa Rica is, they have no armed forces – they were disbanded as an unnecessary burden in 1948, when the last civil unrest in the area ended. The ‘Ticos’ (as the locals are called) now have only a 7,000 strong Civil Guard and this exists more as a police force. Why can’t more of the world follow this example? But leave we must as Nicaragua beckons next and we are keen to get at least as far as Mexico before the summer ends! All that remains for us to say at the close of this piece is… ‘Pura Vida’ from Costa Rica!