As I came up for air and blew a bit of water from my nose, I laughed like I hadn’t in months. Maybe in more than a year. I’d just come down a water slide at the resort where my group was staying near Volcano Arenal in Costa Rica. I was there for a bike tour, but I was nearing a scary possibility, one I figured I could hold off on for the time being.
The water slide dropped a good 30 feet before depositing its visitors in a pool the temperature of a warm hand. The view from the top was all I needed to tell me that the legal team for any stateside resort wouldn’t allow such an amusement to be constructed, let alone allow guest to plummet down the thing without a lifeguard and notarized liability release form. Stepping onto the slide, I’d passed under a waterfall fed by a nearby hot spring. The water was hot as a post-ride shower and splashed on the concrete slide with such a racket I couldn’t quite hear what my companions below were yelling at me. It seemed encouraging in that, “Don’t be a chicken,” way. So I boosted myself down and, somehow, just as I reached the launch point for the slide, I rolled backward ever so slightly and proceeded to skip across the surface of the pool. A stone thrown by a child at the edge of a lake.
I may have started laughing while I was still underwater. There was some spluttering among my assorted cackles and guffaws. Four of us went down the slide so many times I lost count of my own trips. As we alternated with kids and other guests, a group of us began to congregate near the entry point and we began to hold up imaginary scorecards and shout, “Eight!” “Nine and a half!” “Six.” That Russian judge was always difficult.
I’m not sure if we ever tired of the slide, but we did eventually decide to head for the bar and get pina coladas served from cored pineapple. By head to the bar, I mean we swam to another part of the pool and sidled up to stainless steel stools attached to the pool floor and situated around a table that sat mere inches above the lapping water that glowed azure in the underwater lights.
We laughed. Not for any particular reason; there wasn’t actually anything funny. But with the stress of jobs, family and bills at bay, we had all decompressed some, even though we were only two days into the trip.
Our first two days of riding left me wondering just what the trip was going to be. I’d read the description before departure, but it was just thin enough on detail that I didn’t bother committing any significant part of it to memory. There was, ‘Ride; blah, blah, blah, zip line. Ride. Ride again, beach.’ That sort of thing.
The tour operation was a tag team effort by Grasshopper Adventures, and Explornatura. Grasshopper Adventures is led by Miguel Crawford, who puts on the Grasshopper Adventure Series events in Sonoma and Mendocino Counties. Explornatura is a Costa Rican travel company that provides whitewater rafting trips, zipline and rappelling excursions and more. They provide logistics for the La Ruta de los Conquistadores mountain bike race, which is to say they know riders, they know riders’ appetites and they know bikes.
Explornatura in Turrialba provided us with a bus that could easily seat 18 plus driver and guide. With only six of us, plus our driver Gerardo and our guide, the ever-ebullient Eduardo, there was room enough inside the bus for our bikes and luggage as we transferred every few days. The bus had its own wifi router, so on our longer drives, we were all able to catch up with email and Facebook, which helped ease the anxiety that arose for some of us who had left families behind just as the Kincaid fire in Sonoma County was growing into the largest wildfire in California history. Nervous? Nooooo.
Our first ride left Los Lagos resort in Arenal with the intent of circling the volcano and its eponymous lake counterclockwise. We started from roughly 3 o’clock and traveled vaguely northwest on a road that wound with all the confident movement of a toddler. Bend, twist, down, turn, up, around. Straight was not a thing for this road. The volcano was ever-present in our view, with its cinder cone rising into the sky like some Manhattan office building, but unlike any volcano I’ve seen in the real world, the symmetry of Arenal suggested it had been drawn by a third-grader. The only blemish to its bell-curve sides were vertical ruts down the side of the volcano cut by the seemingly daily rains.
Miguel told us our route was roughly 65 miles because we were riding all the way around the oblong lake. Just around the volcano would have been … significantly shorter.
The air was a sponge that mopped up available moisture and while most roads I’ve encountered that circumnavigate a lake roughly hug the coast, the road around Arenal seemed to have less agenda to its path. I suspect a strip of asphalt that stayed within sight of the shore could have shaved at least 15 miles off the route. The foliage reminded me of my time in Taiwan in that the moment the road ended, jungle often began. Plowing through that dense jungle to cut the road must have been an undertaking, and the jungle, which was light-proof dense in many locations would occasionally give way to pastures and villages. The change in environment would come so suddenly that it was surprising.
We encountered two sections of dirt roads. The first section climbed up, away from the lake with a surface that seemed made more of river stone than dirt. A gravel bike would have been brutal. When we rejoined the road, I wasn’t entirely disappointed.
Our second section of unpaved road was composed of crushed gravel the color of a battleship. It would go down as the smoothest unpaved surface of the entire trip. Following a brief pow-wow, Miguel took Dan and Alex and they motored up the road, hoping to conclude the loop before nightfall and possible, er, likely rain. Roy, Michelle and I would ride on at a pace that worked for us and then hop in the bus for the last of the ride back to our resort. Could I have rolled with Miguel and the others? Yes, but I’d have been on the rivet and with this being the first day of the tour, I didn’t want to burn matches I needed to save for later in the week.
Just one problem. The bridge was out.
Once Eduardo realized that the short way back to the resort wasn’t an option, we were hustled into the bus and we began the long drive back. Were our course traced on a clock face, we began at 3 o’clock, rode counterclockwise to 6 o’clock and then climbed in the bus to retrace our route back, with the exception of that first gravel section.
Dinner at the resort was delightful; hell, all the meals there were. Recurring themes at dinner included chicken, pork and plaintains. Costa Rica does plaintain chips the way the U.S. does potato chips. My experience of the food was a hybrid of Jamaican and Mexican foods, though closer to Jamaican, than Mexican. A bit less spicy than Jamaican.
Our second ride saw us load up the bus and drive to the other side of the volcano to a park with a series of trails that ranged from fire road width, down to narrow hiking trails. Early in our ride we diverted onto one of the hiking trails, what would prove to be our only singletrack of the trip. We were on it less than 100 yards when we began encountering volcanic rock in rough stairs. It didn’t take long before we could tell our path had deviated from the course we were supposed to be on and we turned back. Our correct path was on a series of interconnected trails generally eight or ten feet wide. Large leaves from the umbrella tree coated the ground and where they didn’t the earth tended on the slick side.
The weather was warm, but not so hot that the humidity was unbearable. And it was humid like a bathroom following a long shower. With the exception of the brown of the tree trunks and fallen leaves, I was surrounded by a vision of verdant continuity. The terrain was flat-ish with the occasional rise or fall and would have made for in ideal training circuit.
On our bus ride back to the resort, I asked Miguel why there wasn’t more singletrack. His response was so simple that I was embarrassed to have asked: “Because it’ll all be overgrown in a week.” It would take an army to keep up with clearing the trails.
In the afternoon we went to the Arenal Hanging Bridges Park, a rainforest preserve that contained floral diversity the likes of which I’ve never seen elsewhere. The paths through the park wrapped around hillsides, dropped down in front of waterfalls and over streams before rising again to a bridge that passed through the top of the jungle canopy. It’s an index to everything that flowers, from the purples and whites of orchids, to the reds of the emperadora and red ginger, to the green-yellow-red stoplight of the hanging heliconia. I’d never encountered the Touch-Me-Not herb, which looks like a tiny fern, but when touched the leaves slap shut.
The hanging bridges were sturdy enough, but they flexed underfoot, making the midsection a little unsteady; it was good practice for an adventure later in the week.
I’ve done a number of organized tours of the years. I have classified them as either being all about the riding, or all about the diversions with just enough riding to allow folks to say they went for a bike tour. There have been a couple of exceptions, but those are the two big buckets. This was the first time that I’d ever done a commercial tour that included a hard ride followed by a visit to some local attraction that shared the local color.
What I was to learn was that this was a tour that balanced both.
Our next big stop was up in the mountains, near the village of Turrialba. Our lodge sat at 4000 feet of elevation and our next ride saw us shuttled to near the top of Irazu Volcano at 10,000 feet. From there we began what worked out to be one of the biggest descents of my life. In 24 miles we dropped more than 8000 feet, with the stretch from miles 10 to mile 19 averaging 11 percent. We started above the clouds, looking down on a valley that reminded me of no other place on earth so much as Switzerland.
For anyone looking at our routes on a map, this tour wouldn’t look like mountain bikes would have been required. We rode on a great many roads, some of them paved. It would be easy for someone to wonder why we were riding mountain bikes. The reason why is most easily illustrated by something Miguel said following a long descent from Irazu.
“I wish I hadn’t brought a hardtail.” For all those who wonder why weren’t riding gravel bikes, that pretty well covers it. The dirt roads were so chunky that we’d have been pummeled into unconsciousness.
The drop from Irazu took us through several climatic zones, with the temperature and humidity perceptibly increasing on what was a crazy steep drop. On those occasions I was willing to sneak a look at my GPS, I was seeing gradients of 16-18 percent, never less than double digits. When my buddy Dan and I pulled over to allow the group to recollect, we sprayed water on our rotors as a test to see just how severe our braking was. Steam rose as if a viper hissed.
Near Turrialba we arrived at the headquarters of our logistics provider, Explornatura. Following a solid lunch, we changed into shoes or sandals, swim trunks and a rash guard or rain jacket and climbed aboard an SUV for the short drive to the start of our next tour, an excursion combining rappelling down waterfalls and taking zip lines down the mountain back to Explornatura’s HQ.
By the time we got to where the ropes were set up, the temperature was in the mid-60s, maybe and rain was falling as only seems to happen in tropical places. Our photographer put her camera away despite the precautions (including an umbrella) she had taken.
The last time I rappelled down anything I was in climbing shoes, not open-toed sandals and I was rappelling down a rock face, not a waterfall that was going to drop several hundred gallons of water on me as I bounced down the slick rock. We made our way one by one over to the steel cable that would take us the 50 or so yards to the platform in the canopy of a tree. We were warned that because of the rain the cable would be extra slick and we’d need to begin braking earlier than usual, and bear down on the cable harder than normal.
Zooming through the canopy of a Costa Rican forest goes down as a singular experience in my life. That I no longer remember just how many expanses we crossed through doesn’t really matter. What I recall is feeling leaves brush my cheeks, causing explosions of rainwater to splash me even as I sailed through falling rain, eyes squinted and fixed on the looming platform. The experience combined just enough non-OSHA-approved excitement with the safety margin you expect with an established operation.
When I stepped off the final platform to begin the short walk back to the headquarters, I had the feeling that I often get when I cross a finish line: I was disappointed that the experience was over.
Put your foot there
The next day played a variation on our previous day’s theme. We began the day with a ride that included a long descent down a dirt road at grades that exceeded roller coaster pitch. Rigor mortis attacked fingers. We laughed.
The ride began outside of the town of Turrialba and we climbed from a bit more than 2000 feet of elevation to 4000 feet in roughly six miles, with a slight descent thrown in to break things up. With temperatures hovering in the 70s, and the humidity high enough to season a humidor, we enjoyed the climb up to sweeping views of the valley, broken as it was by the different plots of farmland. Then we began the rolling 13-mile descent to our rendezvous of the day. We met up with another wing of the Explornatura operation to go whitewater rafting on the Rio Pacuare.
My last experience with whitewater rafting was during the Reagan administration. The water then was less white, the raft less capable, my instructions looser. This time we were given significant instruction on how to paddle, when to paddle, the down of getting down, the need to act when told to. The last time I sat for jury duty there was less urgency.
Back in calmer water, I rolled backward into water the temperature of a summertime pool. There was another raft with clients nearby as well as a couple of kayaks riding herd on us.
We swung into an eddy, pulled the rafts up on the bank and then our guides flipped one of them and within minutes had prepared a production line of burrito fixings and chopped fruit. If it was possible to have a better burrito that far from civilization, that is a place I want to visit and a burrito I want to snarf.
The pace of the experience was one I could not have guessed. The encroaching jungle gave us impenetrable green to witness, the occasional macaw, the odd blue morpho butterfly shimmering its iridescent azure in the flat light, and when the water churned again we had plenty of entertainment to keep us busy.
After helping to load the rafts onto the bus that would return to headquarters we boarded our bus for the trip to Puerto Viejo, several hours southeast, on the coast. We’d enjoy a final day on the beach, no riding, sand between toes, a scoop of ice cream in town, maybe a nap in the hammock. Definitely a nap in the hammock.
Puerto Viejo is known as a surf spot. With the exception of my fellow riders, Roy and Michelle, I was the oldest foreigner for 40 miles; this was a beach town for Millenials dodging the rodent derby. There were plenty of bikes, but not what I’d call bike riders; the bikes were of the beach cruiser variety. I rented one from our resort to wander the streets of Puerto Viejo, which was mostly a mish-mash of tourist shops and restaurants. The ATMs were easy to find: just look for the long line of people.
Before I returned to the resort for my nap, I stopped at a cafe that sold local chocolate. While the cafe was open-air, the chocolate was kept in a refrigerated room with small containers holding samples of each of the different chocolates. And this was no ordinary chocolate. There were a solid two dozen different types. Think single vineyard wines. They had bars composed of chocolate from single plantations, as well as some that were blended. There were also several kinds of milk chocolate, as well as bars with mint or espresso added; I chose one with quinoa that had a nice crunch, as well as a couple of single-plantation bars, and yes, it was easy to taste their differences, though describing those variations would be a challenge.
Having selected my chocolate, I ordered one of their chocolate milkshakes. I mean, why not, right? This was the milkshake I dreamt of in my youth. Thick as mud and cold enough to keep the day’s warmth at bay, the taste was luxurious chocolate, creamy like melted ice cream. It was the perfect milkshake. And as proof, I submit that I managed to get our driver to stop so we could all buy milkshakes on our way out of town the next morning. I’d never before had a milkshake within an hour of finishing breakfast, but when it’s that good, I don’t see why anyone wouldn’t.
As I padded up the walk toward my room, I passed a few poison dart frogs chirping. There are dozens of varieties of these things in Costa Rica and I think graphic designers should pay them more heed. It was then that I encountered two groundskeepers who stopped me and pointed to their rake. Curled around its tines was a small snake, maybe 14 inches from fangs to finish. It had a beautiful banded design of tan and brown that camouflaged it against the ground, but not so much on the teeth of a pink rake. One of the men made a gesture with his hand, a lunge and bite, which I took to mean he was indicating it was poisonous. I’d studied snakes as a boy, and my memory was telling that that was a Fer de Lance, one of the most poisonous vipers in the world. I snapped a quick picture—telephoto—and then checked the Googles to make sure I was right. Even the small ones can be deadly and the Fer de Lance is known to be both ornery and aggressive; it’s responsible for most of the snake bites in Costa Rica.
I checked the hammock for stowaways, particularly anything either brightly colored or camouflaged, and settled in, leaving one leg to hang over and push against the railing on our balcony to set the hammock swinging. Naps are underrated.
That night at dinner we were happily awaiting our food when a couple of the staff members began pointing up at the roof. There, hanging upside down and moving with the urgency of a European bureaucracy, was a sloth. Watching it move was a surprise, a surprise because no matter how many nature documentaries I’ve seen over the years, seeing just how slow one moves in real life nearly defied comprehension. It wasn’t just slow, or deliberate, or toroise-like. No, it was literally the slowest moving animal I’d ever seen; I had the sense I was watching a film in slow-motion. Its slow pace made it easy to keep tabs on and so curious as to keep drawing our eyes upward.
If anything could serve as a metaphor for our adventure, that sloth was it. It was a reminder to be deliberate, to be patient, but most of all, to look up and to move around. I don’t guess that sloth has gone far, but it inspired me to go farther.
Images: Padraig, Miguel Crawford, Michelle Nightengale, Explornatura