“How many milos back to San José, Jase?” I casually enquired astride Pearl having spent my energy and half the day with the hummingbirds at Chichona.
“According to the sat nav, 57 miles” was the succinct reply received down the helmet intercom.
“Really? Well, what’s that massive city down there then?” I queried as we contoured down the mountain road towards a metropolis of urban sprawl.
“I don’t know but we’ve still got nearly 60 miles to go yet.”
Blindly following Jason who was blindly following the GPS took us into the concrete heart of said unknown city, whereupon I enquired with stronger conviction, “Look at that sign Jase, it says we’re only three Ks from San José, this must be it.”
The sun ascended higher in an arrogantly hot sky and after a hand of time Jason piped up, “That sign must be telling us we’re three Ks from the highway going straight to San José.”
Unconvinced, “Look again J, we’re here!”
Jason answered with silence. Right, I’ll prove it to you blind boy and turned to my right, “Disculpe amigo, es esto San José?” I asked a local on his 125cc adjacent to me at the lights. “¡Si!”
“Oh yeah you’re right, we’re here” Jason finally acknowledged.
“Well, how come Doris [the Garmin] doesn’t know where she is? The capital isn’t exactly compact and bijou” I wondered.
“Mmn? I must’ve punched in the wrong Touratech” Jase freely admitted. Either that or we’d wandered into the Twilight Zone for 57 miles. Outwardly as I was inwardly pleased, my body didn’t fancy riding those extra miles; I love it when my expectations are serendipitously mismanaged. Nice one, Jase!
Home from home, particularly for us Brits, we struck gold when rocking up at Castle Tam hostel in the capital. Although their rates advertised in-house were somewhat pricier than those we’d seen online at Hostel World. After a little rapport building with Evan, the acting manager on reception, it didn’t take me too long to broach negotiation. I was tired, in supreme need of soap and water, lets crack on with this.
But he met my honest intentions and hopeful gaze balefully. In an expression of pure disgust, he shot me a look as if I’d wrapped double-sided sticky tape on my fingers when the collection plate went by of a Sunday church service. Crumbs, was this guy messing with my melon or had I just grossly overstepped the mark? I felt like a hunted mouse, nowhere to hide. Seconds passed before he exploded into belly-rolling laughter while I grinned and raised one eyebrow in ‘amused’ acknowledgement.
The service provided by Evan was first rate—incredibly an ex-AFL player—attentive and personable as customer-facing personnel come. And as ex-pro American football players go, Evan didn’t let the side down once. At precisely double my weight, he was super-sized with a trunk-like neck, ironman sized traps and thunderous arms of pure muscle assumed only by true athletes. It’s safe to assume that this guy was strapping and supportive to all and sundry to boot. That’s a touchdown pass from me.
I also admired the hostel’s artistic references to good old Blighty’s capital and culture in every corner, nook and cranny. There was ample security for both bikes (once we’d detached the boxes and edged them gingerly through the doorway-width gate), an efficient laundry service and clean rooms. Two decent kitchens, one of which was the hub for a tasty breakfast each morning comprising ‘Top of the mornin’ to ye, Lisa’ coffee and light fluffy pancakes—made for a very comfortable and affordable stay at $9 per person. Especially compared to the average robbing-you-blind hostel in San José. Our experience there was anything but average and checking into the same room ‘on spec’ three different times was testament to that.
Big cities: yeh or neh? I’m usually less inclined when it comes to trawling around big cities for the sole purpose of running errands to get stuff done. (Not unless it involves some people watching and a piece of cake.) But Costa Rica’s capital pleasantly surprised me in doing just that.
When Jason spotted an ant carrying a tiny pink wild flower, he assumed it was a ‘girl’ ant but it looked more like a romantic male to me, wanting to surprise the Mrs on his way home. Next find: I came across a curly haired, freckle faced kid; around four or five years old who took great delight in revealing her ‘Not afraid to be ugly’ face. With a pinched nose, she squinted her eyes and pursed her lips, sticking her tongue out at me with full force. When I returned the gesture straight back at her, with childlike abandon she burst into the funniest set of giggles, and we shared this sweet little moment together.
Leaving childhood innocence and wholesome fun far behind, we strolled past San José’s seedy ‘Sexy shops’, a Scientology shop front and as many fast food joints as there were streets. Highlights were the Baywatch-elevated police eyeballing the streets, the city’s eccentric statues and stunning street art. Look closely enough and there’s always something interesting going on, eh?!
So long San José, we were once again done with Latin American cities, or any big city for that matter. Getting stuck in them seems to be an occupational risk we regularly run, however, needs must when the bikes require some urgent attention. Impeccable timing too as just how much farther Jason’s wheels would ‘Cadillac’ him UP and down through Central America was in grim question.
And as Touratech Germany had graciously agreed to exchange Jason’s first prize of a motorcycle Compañero suit for an equivalent value rear suspension system (from the 2016 Horizons Unlimited photo competition), it was well worth the time invested slowing the pace and chilling in the capital. Beeming with an upgraded front suspension on top, the BMW wheels and Jase were transported to their happy places; muchas gracias again Marco (General Manager, Touratech Costa Rica), who went way beyond the extra mile in providing us with a timely and professional experience for the second time running.
Even with a myriad of micro-climates in Costa Rica, and with the best will in the world you’ll still get soaked in the rainy season. But at least the consistency of the mid-afternoon downpours pounding a staccato against body, abode or bikes make it worthy of rising with the roosters to enjoy the best of the beautiful weather.
Next stop: a 170-kilometre ride in the northwest delivering us to a secluded settlement on the pristine fringes of Santa Elena, Puntarenas. It was settled in the ‘50s by Quakers who departed Alabama to dodge military service and nestles in a densely forested landscape near three small nature reserves. Connected by a winding, dusty mountain road lined with lodgings, intimate eateries, independent sellers of wholefoods and artisan craft shops. My kinda place.
There’s something about Monteverde’s cool undulating cloud forest, that while the rains might leave you soaked to the skin will leave your soul drenched in green. Camping at La Colina Lodge and stepping into a world of dappled green—the Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso—where the spongy forest floor cushions each step. I loved that the trails although well-maintained and signposted were often muddy, deliberately unpaved and moist. Damp leaves, yellow, brown and matted crushed beneath my booted feet where duff sank underfoot, soft and forgiving. Dark shapes of moss-covered deadfall wavered in the mist. Where mushrooms made thick clumps around the bases of trees, logs and gnarled branches stood canted at odd angles around me, tens of metres high. It felt enchanting and primal all at once.
Around me rose the sturdy boles of trees, solid in presence and spirit; creating an interwoven maze around the sloping fairytale path we strolled over. Perfect for the tree-climbers of the forest like a family of coatis roaming through. Wild vines hung like impossible strands of Rapunzel rope, from around 30 metres above—some of them as thick as a man’s leg. The leafy canopy of the forest interlaced in an emerald miracle, home to bundles of bromeliads where the unforgiving strangler fig, tree fern and wild avocado giants prevailed. As I saw a butterfly bestowed with delicately transparent wings, I placed my hand on the rugged bark of a palm, aware of the ancient tree’s eternal power.
High above the shadow-dappled wilderness, tropical birds chirped and called. The trill of a nightingale thrush carried magically. A hummingbird chick cried out continuously, bidding its mother to keep feeding it inside the snug little nest. Elegantly sculpted into a tear-drop, the nest had been constructed from various materials including the web of a spider—the adhesive properties of which lending to its location—stuck to the underside of a large protective leaf. Suspended, the nest was perfectly hidden from hunters and the never-ending story of the rain-pour. Amazing.
Reserva Biológica Bosque Nuboso is undeniably the best spot for hummers we’ve seen to date, and we’ve visited a handful in the Americas. It’s nigh on impossible not to get giddy with them, darting through the air like miniature cruise missiles. Shooting them with a lens is like shooting fish in a barrel according to Jason and mayhaps took some of the photographic challenge away from being in such prolific numbers. Personally, I can’t think of a nicer problem to have..!
Flitting across my face in scores, wafting wonderfully across my hair humming their ‘wing whistle’ was like no other feeder site to which we’ve seen. Impossible to tire of them, I couldn’t decide if the hummers were tame, unperturbed by or simply indifferent to our presence. I settled on a harmonious co-existence and let my eyes descend upon one to watch its blurred wings in the slanting sunlight, the sheen from the hummingbird’s colour-intense feathers glowing radiantly.
“D’fancy having some fun? By ‘fun’, I mean serious fun,” I solicited as Jason smiled his agreement. That was settled then and off we went to one of Latin America’s intense zip-lining canopy tours, courtesy of Monteverde Extremo. Aptly named, it sounded promising as I loathe splurging a pile of dollars on these adrenaline-fuelled frolics only to have them end in half a heartbeat.
Traversing directly beneath 15 steel cables whizzing you wildly above and between the treetops of Monteverde’s cloud forest was an assault on the senses. Yet a treat for the body and mind. Assuming the position and velocity of a speeding bullet on some, suspended from your back so that you fly Superman stylee, to a carefree-child-swinging-in-a-flower-filled-meadow on others, we flew without wings on a wire until around noon. With some aerial runways over 2,500 feet long and at 450 feet in height, gaining an incredible airborne vantage of the forest’s canopy level was one heck of a means to whizz our maracas off. At that height and speed, the leafy canopy billowed like small green clouds. And what a way to blow the cobwebs out on a Monday morning.
Hovering on the periphery of memory, I’d all but forgotten about the ‘Tarzan swing’ incorporated into our high nerve-action package. Gracias Monteverde Extremo, geared really only for the most jaded of adrenaline-junkies who are lovers of heights blessed with exceptionally low blood pressure. Stood on a gridded platform at eyeline with the treetops and Karabiner’ed onto the swing rope, the attendant gently ushered me to teeter on the edge of the platform. I had no idea how to ‘grow a set’ of seriously sized cojones but knew I needed to and fast.
I swallowed. It was like choking down a knotted sock. The thick dryness of thirst coated my tongue, I’d forgotten to drink a drop all morning. Just as the notion of backing-the-heck-out-of-this-senseless-act fastened itself in my thoughts, the attendant lifted my harness up from behind, the way you’d grab a toddler from the back of its nappy, denied me the briefest of moments to ready if not steady myself, and dropped me into a 45 metre abyss of oblivion.
Breath tore at my lungs as I plunged into the merest hint of an arc, pure fear contorting my face horribly for two full swings. Shock imprinted its tracks on my face, bulging my eyes and tightening around my mouth. It wasn’t the prospect of this voluntary undertaking that stitched dread across my chest while queasiness sank claws into my gut, or even the heights, it was the realisation of doing it. The 1.5 seconds of eternal freefall, practically bungee-jumping before the cable stopped it. Without an ounce of equanimity, an unladylike and distorted grunt slipped from my mouth before I’d even suspected its presence. Post two Tarzan swings, this timid Jane breathed the deepest sigh of relief, finally inhaling some air and in a flood of words, became gloriously voluble.
My real-time fear crawled back and allowed my soul to turn its attention away from the churning sensation and to the visuals of swinging through an old forest of giants, their trunks as thick as three people, standing tall; lifting their gnarled branches toward me like supplicating hands. I would’ve high-fived one but was still clinging onto the rope as though not clipped on at all.
Just as a tiny dagger of hope pierced my heart, an Extremo staff member threw out the cushioned buffer on a rope to pull me back in. But instead of executing a textbook gentle stop like the previous lucky ones, my moving body was yanked in two. Both lower and upper body halted to an abrupt stop, jerking back hard on the rebound. Never again. A less pleasurable and more of a sucking-your-backside-up-through-your-mouth activity. There was also a fearsomely high bungee jump we could’ve indulged but give over, we’re no mentalists.
Blasting off from the ballsy fun of Monteverde, we said our goodbyes to an eco-centric and generous group at the campsite—educating me about permaculture and filling my stomach with an incredible vegetarian meal bursting with layers of flavour. Our direct neighbours had been a body-beautiful couple from California cruising around in a whopping expedition truck and a couple of chatty Brits in a hand-built camper. Man alive, the places they’d seen and been. Living in a rustic and perhaps insular corner of southern France, their rationale for travel was simple: to meet like-minded people.
With the impermanence of our lives, I guess all we can do is use the present well. Time passes unhindered, which I suppose is why we choose to do what we’re doing now. To try and live out positive, creative and fruitful lives. Whatever meaningful shape or productive form that takes now and in time to come. Akin to the Dalai Lama’s perspective, I agree that the source to lasting happiness is compassion for others: kindness, affection and a genuine honesty. I think he’s hit the nail on the head: that my happiness is inextricably bound with the happiness of others. I neither relish nor cherish my own company for sustained stretches, which is probably why I find peace with other people and where I can, contribute to their well-being.
We all want one thing: not to suffer and when that’s unavoidable, to cope and adapt instead. So rather than engaging in meaningless activity, I’m striving to engage more in the human spirit, taking pleasures where I can but not at the cost of neglecting, disrespecting or harming those around me. A succession of unnerving clattering noises and resultant wobbles broke my reverie of calm and directional thoughts on the approach to the Nicaraguan border. What the…?! Something felt very wrong, zooming on Pearl along the dual carriageway at speed.
To be continued…