Negotiating a decent rate with Gonzalo, owner of Cabinas Corobici in Cañas made our final overnight stay in Costa Rica a good one: peace-of-mind parking, a rudimentary but comfortable room and a cheap Chinese restaurant nearby where the portions were substantial and the prices not too shabby. Topped off with an invigoratingly cold shower, I could ask for no more post a hot day’s ride.
A long and lengthy border crossing eventually inched us into Nicaragua, and biking Gods be good, meeting three Brazilians on their blingy 1200GSs sped up the snafu no end. Gustavo, the best English-speaker insisted having our paperwork processed before theirs, which after shelling out $20 US to fast-track the chaotic procedure for the time-poor trio yet still managing to finish after us, did leave me feeling a tad culpable. Guilt wedged into my soul with the sure chill of a polished ax head; so sorry guys but obrigado for the supportive intervention and happy(ish) ending.
Headed west, Backyard Hostel in Granada was reasonable if not erring on the party-backpacker paradise. Although in play, I wouldn’t let it ‘collect £200 and pass go’. To its merit, the premises was located in the heart of a bright old colonial city. The colours, architecture and ambience of Granada were dripping with vibrant grandeur, as well as geared towards the gregarious. I loved it and positioned the city as Nicaragua’s colonial capital, which was saying something after 16 months of Latin American cities, some remarkably more alluring than others. Stay open-minded, Lisa even if those eyes are no longer fresh.
To my mind, it was vice versa in León—the guidebook’s colonial capital—where we descended upon a cracker of a lodging Lazybones Hostel in the crumbling city of tired ruins. I guess the place was still charming behind the scaffolding and sheets of tarp overall, although unique selling points of the hostel boasted: a breakfast fit for a king, all morning coffee, easy parking inside and a rather lovely swimming pool amid a vividly cheerful decor. Foremost, a noticeable semblance of quiet after 11pm. Goodness, I’m host to such an old soul. Mayhaps those crazy o’clock starts might be taking their toll on me; no one wants to ride in the mind-befuddling midday heat, least of all Pearl.
Barely making it to Granada, Pearl became consistently hot and irritable in the bike-unbearable temperatures; overheating without a moment’s notice as we entered Nicaragua’s searing region of three-Fahrenheit figures. The air had grown suffocating and pressed down. So close that it should have been visible, like a greasy mist in the air. I went from cruisey to cantankerous—a million miles from cool. There was little and less I could do yet my anger flared; fanned by the heavy heat, it continued to smolder like a buried ember.
As I worked up a fine sweat, a local mechanic ingeniously suggested installing a computer fan in place of the expired radiator fan, which cajoled Pearl to make the distance from Granada to León, although this was by no means a medium-term fix. Or waterproof. It didn’t harm but it didn’t overly help unhindered either. I steeled myself, forcing calm into my voice when answering Jason’s question for the twentieth time—intuition and recent track record telling me otherwise, “The temperature light still hasn’t come on, Jase! The computer fan must be working.” To my chargrin, “No wait, it’s just come on.”
It took time to source a new radiator fan, leaving Jase and me grateful for an opportunity to explore our surroundings. And moreover, stave off feeling fed up with motorcycle breakdowns and bike niggles. Jason had lost confidence in Pearl and I think he believed that something was taking perverted joy in inflicting every conceivable ailment on Pearl and misery on him (my personal mechanic on permanent standby and well, so much more).
Admittedly, she was costing us more than just Córdobas from the travel fund to keep her going; eating into our reserves of riding time, savings and sanity, and swallowing the realisation that Pearl was becoming a false economy. Rightly or naïvely, my faith in her still held water; fix or repair just about everything on her and in my mind’s eye, she’d be fabulous for the foreseeable, and beyond..!
Like Granada, León’s culinary offerings left us ravenous for more. The fare in Nicaragua didn’t cost us several arms and legs unlike in Costa Rica—even if the tap water wasn’t potable—and it’s the land of jungle-clad volcanoes. Initially, it was slightly disconcerting when hearing the ‘potential eruption’ alarm being sounded, akin to a World War II air raid siren but one soon gets used to the disturbing noise and treats it as you might when your office’s fire alarm rings. You acknowledge it during the conversation, dismiss it as a drill and it’s business as usual. Probably unwise to be so complacent—a number of volcanoes in the vicinity are pretty damn lively.
Hungry for some fun, I left Pearl to cool down in the shade and we jumped onto the first organised tour courtesy of the hostel in León. Taking us bobbling over the sand in a minibus for an hour to reach Cerro Negro, which as distinctly active volcanoes go, happened to be neither puffing smoke nor striking. It is Central America’s youngest volcano however, having spewed into life in 1850, erupted at least a dozen times since but by no means has finished its business post the last messy fallout over León in 1999.
The group that comprised Alexander, the tour guide and the two of us—‘jammy’ is most assuredly the word—huffed and puffed our way up, or was that just me? We took a moderately slow hour to clamber over the black sand, lava rocks and rubble to summit the top, hauled a couple of boards en route, stopped to gauge the magnitude of the concave landscape and warmed our already hot hands on the sizzling patches of sulphurous cinders. At the peak of the hike it was blowing an absolute hooley, a hot hairdryer wind that blew me around like a dandelion seed in a cyclone. Inching closer, my nerves hummed as we dared to take a peep at the steep face of the volcano for which we were expected to bomb down. Not being able to see the bottom I prayed to anyone listening that calamity wouldn’t hit on my imminent daredevil descent, feeling anything but adventurous.
Donning a mechanic’s boiler suit, safety goggles and bandana across our faces, I plonked my backside down on the sled—nothing more than a crude piece of plywood and a rope handle. Teetering at the top of the conical mound, it appeared I was all set. “So the heels of my feet are my brakes, is that right?” I reiterated. You’re catching on, “but remember Lisa—don’t put just one foot down or you’ll come whizzing off”—gotcha!
According to the tourist records of accomplishment, I might’ve conceivably reached over 50 miles per hour…holy flying-by-the-seat-of-my-pants moly. I looked up and Jason stood poised with the camera while Alexander gave me a sweep of his arm, urging me to go. After shuffling off, fear started to fray and fun hemmed itself in; I started to pick up speed as I kicked up a cloud of black dust over the rocky cinders. And at enough volcano velocity—just after midway, the tipping point—I managed to skim spectacularly all the way down jubilantly shouting “Weeeee!”
I confess almost peeing my pants from the speed at which I clocked; being blissfully unaware of this beforehand was a blessing but incredibly, the velocity accrued from plunging down a volcano leaves you positively tingling. The drop was at a gut-wrenching 41 degree angle for a stomach-churning 2,000 feet, no wonder I was tingling with scared-out-of-my-wits relief at the bottom—bones intact and body buzzing. Having survived smeared in soot and black sand, who knew volcano bobsledding could be such a white hot rush?
Interestingly, a French chap Éric Barone tried to set a land speed record after having wheeled down Cerro Negro’s cinder cone slope at 100 miles per hour on a serial production bicycle. On his second attempt pedalling the treacherous terrain on a custom prototype bike at 107 miles per hour, he neither made the distance nor set an official record, but did blow his front tyre, collapse the frame and break many bones and more besides. He later learned of his friend, an Austrian guy who promptly followed in his tracks without a glitch, hitch or injury and successfully set the production bike record at 102 miles per hour. Double ouch.
A morning’s worth of running a fool’s errand—sourcing parts for a 14 year old motorcycle can be a chore and there’s much and more to be said for investing in a younger bike whose parts are not as rare as unicorns—Jason finally sourced a radiator fan off a Kawasaki in a scrap yard. It fit like Cinderella’s slipper, my soul gloriously drinking in the sight. I slipped my arm around Jason’s waist, clutching him the way you would to a log in floodwaters. A journey is never as easy as you would hope, and it’s sometimes more challenging than you ever believed it would be. Different visions, woven from imagination and desire—those of a two wheeled trip, certainly one that will give rise to its fair share of mechanical interruptions but not a myriad’s worth of more. Our hemorrhaged budget couldn’t take much more.
For now, a surge of joy erupted from every pore in my body, I was one happy rider again and Pearl permitting, we were good to go.
“Oh, it feels soo good to be back on the bikes, and finally making headway through Central America! Eh, Jase?” Riding carefree at a cruisey 50 miles per hour inching our way out of Costa Rica while her sun caressed our faces, a flash of worry began to flicker inside my head. Why was Pearl susceptible to the odd tremor on the smooth stuff? Her tyres weren’t flat, not even the front one—forging ahead after 23,500 miles—so why the wobbling, missy? Mmmn?
With zero warning, it transpired I’d destroyed the nucleus of my rear wheel. Royally. So royally in fact, that the hideous metallic racket assaulting my ears was the disintegrated bearings, clattering around inside my wheel in smithereens. The damn wheel was practically sliding off! Timeout. Post a test ride, Jason pragmatically urged, “I don’t want you to ride on a mile further, Lise. You’ll be at serious risk of losing that back wheel if you do.” ‘Arrr, right oh—cautiously commonsensical as ever—thank you for the update report,’ I noted wide-eyed at the gravity of the situation. The potential ramifications didn’t bear thinking about.
Despite being duly indebted to Pearl, she was trying her damndest after all, I think on this occasion the pair of us benefitted from some divine intervention: our moto-guardian angel, as well as Jason. The powers at play on Pearl’s back wheel—although far from road-worthy—hadn’t brought either of us to harm and Jase had put paid to that unpleasant prospect. That said, we were the merest of miles from the Nicaraguan border, on to making solid progress after our second city stint.
It felt pointless trying to divine meaning from the latest incident. Stop-start, stop-start; sometimes motorcycle travel is two steps forward, one step back, and fiercely opposing such an inevitability when it happens only makes the blood boil and frustration bubble. It forces you to take unhindered stock, even when you don’t particularly want to.
With just over 100 miles back to those we’d just left—Touratech Costa Rica’s mechanically-minded dream team—we were marooned for a third time by Pearl, who seemed to be expiring like a campfire at dawn of late. If it’s not one thing, it’s your BMW motorcycle. A lance of knowing dread shot through my soul, all too aware of the rescue scenario in which we needed to execute…somehow. Breakdowns for us had become far from extraordinary, no longer as rare as rocking horse manure; hailing down a truck to requisition the driver and his wheels was fast becoming part of normality.
Pearl had permitted us to breakdown next to an industrious set of workmen, tirelessly breaking their backs on improving Costa Rica’s highways. With a fistful of phone change and a handful of hope, I approached the foreman and began outlining our predicament—an urgent need to hire a truck to cart my motorcycle and me back to the capital—while stumbling over the (still) unfamiliar language. He gave me a long, contemplative look, as if he’d just perceived a vague pattern in a tangle of cat’s cradle string. With a little more sketchy embellishment, sound effects and animated gesticulating to just shy of a full blown game of charades, initial attempts of understanding eventually manifested into sympathetic interpretation. His resultant phone calls however proved fruitless; no one he knew was available to make a few bucks in rescuing this moto-damsel-in-a-rear-wheel-snag.
Time to launch the big thumbs-up and all the positive power of Morris persuasion I could summon in compelling someone blasting past to stop. Where’s a magnifying glass when you need one to accentuate the puppy-dog eyes? An hour or so passes by, and all I had to show for my efforts were sunburned shoulders and a sheen of sweat, which continued to bead on the small of my back as the rays penetrated me in a thousand places.
Along came Mr Badilla. The tropical sun and outdoor exposure had deepened and enriched his walnut complexion with a patina of age. He was a portly keg of a man, badged and dressed in blue astride his trusty Yamaha 250cc. Hurrah! Saved by the local police—not for the first time—and we’ll die another day. A fruitful phone call and another laborious wait later, a clapped-out old truck pulled up with its amiably willing driver. Having agreed an affordable price, we thanked Mr Badilla with hugs and handshakes; smacking his leathery hand against mine, which had knuckles like walnut burls. He smiled warmly in recognition of resolving our dilemma. Another good guy. Off we went with Jason following on his bike behind. I loved that a fellow motorcyclist had once again saved my bacon and my bike’s. Back to square one..!
The long ride back in a truck that had seen faster days took us sluggishly but steadily through blinding sunshine until a bolt flashed brightly across the cloud-wrapped sky—cracking the bones of the world with its bellowing roar. Frying white light split eerily, touching the Earth with its guttural thunder. Rumbling clouds pushed across a mulberry sky and the rain plunged down from the sky’s black belly. Enjoying the electric show more than the complementary power shower—Jason’s waterproof liners were in the back of the truck—he could neither see from a scratched visor nor his sunglasses under an already darkened sky. Blinking rivulets of stinging rain out of your eyes when soaked to the skin is as about as fun as a funeral. ‘At least it’s not cold or blowing a hooley, Jase,’ I mused, a Goldilock’s warm and dry inside the truck.
Back to San José for the third time—that old Power of Three rearing its thrice-the-price-of-one head—dispensing us with another tidal wave of city-bound time we cared not to unleash. Not with one we were so close on the brink of leaving, again. While the pair of us soon accepted the prospect of going backwards, Jason couldn’t help feeling smothered by the foreseeable delay; cloaked in a low-level irritation from unknown shipping and customs timescales that persists like Costa Rica’s wicked heat. We’d neither the funds nor consequent inclination to ‘live it up’ either. Game of Go Fish, Jase?
After a pedestrian few days in the hostel, Jason’s resolve was out of tune, sitting miserably in the wrong key and sounded flat as a fart. He’d contracted a serious bout of greener grass fever. Overhead, clots of fluffy white cloud scudded off, formed by the relentless thermals fidgeting beneath Costa Rica’s hot skies. I steepled my hands, clocking that Jason looked as terminally bored as I felt.
“Jase,” I positioned carefully—expecting a little resistance, “I’ve volunteered us both to work at the hostel. But don’t worry, the duties aren’t demanding and we’d only have to put in a few hours a day. Good move, huh!” “You’ve done what?!” he remarked incredulously. Oh no, here comes the heated tête-à-tête, and swallowed a curse. Only the sounds of the hostel filled the pause. But no trace of humour betrayed itself in his firm mouth as he gazed steadily at me, as if suddenly seeing the precipice upon which I walked between sanity and madness.
I ignored Jason bristling quietly—to smooth matters over I grinned encouragingly like a Cheshire cat to overcome any slight distrust and put the boy at ease—sympathising with the ache in his soul from being made to sit still in the same spot. (Perhaps a reference those closest to Jason will better understand.) “Yep! In exchange, we get: free digs, breakfast every morning, coffee on tap and machine-washed, tumble-dried laundry. All I’d like you to do is pancake duty; yours are like fluffy clouds compared to mine,” I pitched with eyes as bright as a chipmunk’s. Jason’s mind would projectile-exit his nose if he didn’t do something constructive with his time, and this seemed like an opportune temporary solution to curb the ants in his pants. Mustering a colossal effort of will Jason sighed, “Go ooon then but as soon as the parts come in, I’m outta here to work on your bike.” Thanks Jase, you’re such a lamb sometimes!
Evan, the manager showed us the ropes in running the hostel, grateful for the unpaid labour and dispatched a flexible rota of shifts to us. I thought he was joking when he handed me the ‘MOO’ to study (this guy had a habit of messing with my head at the best of times). The ex-US Navy Military owner’s Manual of Operations. Complete with binder, organised dividers of neatly labelled sub-sections and as thick as a village phone book. A person never really understands how big an ex-Navy personnel’s manual is until they look at one. Whoa!
My soul withered like a plucked cherry blossom in the sun at the mere thought of digesting it. Evan started eyeing me as one might a small child in a roomful of delicate knick-knacks. Okay so he actually wanted me to read the ruddy thing—my bad—without rolling my eyes, I humoured him. Expecting nothing more than routine inclusions such as: local information, hostel layout, checking-in procedures, the online system, allocation and tariff of rooms plus housekeeping, what I got was much and more. The deeper I delved, one thing became crystal to a gemlike lustre; it wasn’t queerer than imagined, it was queerer than I could ever have imagined.
Highlights amongst the fathomlessly in-depth offering containing countless ‘IAWs’ (In accordance with) included:
- A hierarchical chain of command starting with: Executive Orders from the Owner, appointed Officers as Second-in-Command and staff members. At ease, seaman.
- A glossary of definitions including ‘spare key’, ‘dorm’, ‘twin bed’ and ‘guest’. Really?
- Acceptable nicknames in reference to the room’s full names; e.g. ‘10 Downing’ instead of ‘10 Downing Street’. Presumably, ‘Number 10’ would be downright improper.
- “Disadvantages of long-term guests include less money per room-night compared to short-term guests, a decrease in refrigerator space and a tendency to feel as if they do not have to follow the same rules as short-term guests.” A tad shortsighted on the long-term nerve of said people.
- Staff may discuss “politics, sports, religion, money etc. but if the discussion turns heated the staff member must disengage from the conversation immediately.” A scene from the film ‘Stepford Wives’?
- “Male staff members’ shorts must extend to the knees when in a standing position”. Well, it’s no longer the ‘80s I suppose.
- “Female staff members’ shorts have no restriction in length.” Incredible!
- “At no time shall a staff member conduct any business at the reception wearing only a tank top. [On the upper torso] Por que? It’s up to 40 degrees around here.
- “The wearing of tank tops by male staff members is only permitted transiting to / from a bathroom with the intent to shower.” Well that has redeemed all then.
- No photographs or video shall be taken by staff of any actions that may “be deemed illegal or considered lewd.” A male staff member wearing a tank top en route to reception, perhaps?
- Male staff must ensure their attire around “the sleeves and neck are in the original factory condition and not altered with scissors or another form of serration”. Stay classy.
- “Staff members are required to take one shower / bath in a given 24-hour period or immediately after engaging in activities that produce sweat and odour such as but not limited to running or working out.” Goodness me.
- Beware of Potential Problems e.g. “Men, mostly middle aged and American, travel to Costa Rica for the sex trade”…and not only have a tendency to bring back ‘visitors’ but a “tendency to make the younger, female backpackers feel uncomfortable.” Men sound dangerous, don’t go near one.
- “Staff may engage in fraternisation provided the chain of command remains intact…and no coercion is involved on either side.” Rendered speechless.
A frightening wrongness possessed the manual and therein lay my problem. The author wasn’t slightly chiding, mocking without malice, as if he shared a grand irony with the world. No, his governing views were patronising, procedures anally retentive and methods teetering on lunacy. The hostel owner expounded on various arbitrary subjects beyond all rhyme and reason and I had to suppress more than a quip and a snicker. Bug-eyed, Evan shot me an expectant look and waited for me to opine my full judgment. Defenceless against his penetrating glare, for a moment I stood as though I’d been turned to wood and assumed dead silence that I fought to maintain with every bit of sinew in my body—until an uproarious laughter escaped.
May be the most bizarre 12 minutes of reading of my life by a nearly infinite margin. The odd barb of sarcasm occasionally spilled through the cracks in my reserve like piercing darts dipped in poison from a well deep inside. Oh, the mileage from the MOO would allow me to dine out on it for days. Evan being Evan—the kind of guy who was constantly on the verge of erupting into a big, hearty laugh—yet was serious and professional at the same time. For once, he let his guard down and exploded into a belly-rolling chuckle at my morbid fascination towards the MOO’s farcical absurdity. Pure gold!
Our delay incurred more days than we’d dare to bore you about. Jason rallied and I turned my back on the monotony of our situation and on things out of my control; the rest was just travail and vexation of spirit. Incredibly, imperceptibly I started having fun; I relished ruling the roost when on duty and helped to keep the lodging ship shape and shiny. Jason well, just went along with it…! To be fair, he was preoccupied running around like a headless hen: welding my cracked frame where the swing arm attaches to it (I really should invest in a Kindle rather than stockpiling at least four spare books); replacing all of our bearings bar those for his front wheel; as well as new bearings for the pivot bolt in the swing arm; changing the fork stanchion on my bike and fitting new mirrors to Pearl on top. Is Pearl good enough to be classed as rideable yet because I wanna get going!
We met some interesting backpackers from all walks of life, some sizably more sufferable than others. Admittedly, I felt like an alien on occasion who sees the landscape of human ideas and experiences differently than everybody else. Or may be that was just me compared to today’s youth—some almost 20 years younger than me. And then the silver lining of our circumstances revealed itself. The universe had aligned and paired us up with Daniel Rintz and Josie Flohr from Open-Explorers. Hanging out with these two, after rocking up on their BMW bikes by pure chance at our hostel was a godsend.
Thank goodness for like-minded folks saving us from ourselves, from climbing the walls in San José and the simultaneous act of being forced to learn patience and tolerance while parts were being shipped. Although short but sweet, we picked up where we’d left off with this couple—Jason and Daniel only having briefly met before—and got on like a house on fire.
Cooking, eating and drinking together is really all it takes to set the bond. While Jase and Daniel jabbered on about cameras, Josie and I produced some mouth-watering meals, exchanged stories, ‘Maps for Me’ pins for our opposing directions and our nifty little ‘couldn’t do without’ items in our panniers of tricks. I always adore pouring over bikers’ bits and bobs and was left beyond impressed at Josie’s ensemble of: a beautifully handmade and surprisingly robust ‘Mary Poppins’ style bag containing a condiment, herb and spice for every occasion (one of her panniers was devoted wholly to the ‘kitchen’!), a hand held sewing machine, two corkscrews—one of which I became a proud beneficiary, a knitting project and a GSI Outdoors pressure cooker! Too cool for school this foodie of a lady who had me hanging my nose over her delicious gadgets and goodies like nobody’s business. Incidentally Josie (at a week older than me), had also learned to ride a bike shortly before her big trip; my biking doppelgänger for sure.
And Evan was true to his word—for some moderately light work, we clawed quite a bit back while enduring the month it took to get us both rolling on fully functioning wheels. Perfick.
“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. 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…
At risk of becoming full-time residents at Camping Maria near Cahuita, it was a wrench to go and meander into pastures new. After moving camp a couple of times—shoreline tent pitching can be a little damp at best with those boisterous Caribbean waves—we got settled having made a pleasurable little routine for ourselves in which to indulge daily, such as taking long beach walks, fortifying ourselves with home cooked meals in Maria’s beach-garden and amusing ourselves with the Jason’s production of Mission Impossible about the black and green poison dart frog.
We’d also grown fond of Maria. A woman who once she gets to know you, will stop accusing you of stealing her ice-cube trays, the hen-pecking will scale right back and she’ll delight in making you froth with helpless laughter instead; cook the meanest patacones (fried green plantains with a dash of seasoning); and roast fresh coconut on the hob from the back yard’s plethora of palms for your ravenous tum. Wholesome living is definitely the life for me. So, where next we wondered?
And we had grown fond of Maria. A woman who once she gets to know you, will delight in making you froth with helpless laughter, cook the meanest patacones (fried green plantains that are pressed flat with a dash of seasoning), and roast fresh coconut from her beach-garden on the hob for your ravenous tum. Wholesome living is definitely the life for me. So, where next we wondered?
Drawn to the warm waters and exceptional year-round whitewater, kayakers from all over the world flock to Selva Whitewater in Costa Rica. And us, but not because we’re raging-rapid junkies particularly, but largely because Travis who manages the ‘moving water’ business, runs a great campground alongside. And charges budget-traveller rates. Relying solely on the GPS co-ordinates, this gem is tucked away 100 kilometres north of San José at a spot called La Virgen de Sarapiqui in the Heredia Province.
Kicking the side-stand down on Travis’ lush land, I saw Jason’s head partially enveloped by some vegetation. What is it, what is it? I huddled down next to him as my eyes danced in search of something amazing. Perfectly still and staring up at me through glassy jet black eyes, was a tiny perfectly formed amphibian—adorned with the most vibrant design, blessed with a jingling mating call and sporting the coolest name. The Blue-jeans frog. Also known as the strawberry poison dart frog, which doesn’t have half the kudos.
At about the size of a thimble, its Royal Mail post-box red head and body supported by denim-blue legs, boasted a colouration distinct from all other frogs I’ve ever seen. Gladness swelled my chest. I could hear the predators sighing, “Okaaay, I get it—you’re cute but cataclysmic. I’ll find something more palatable to nibble.” Its poison dart name suggests that this species of frog is the planet’s most toxic, but who knew some possess enough poison to take out 20,000 mice..!
Taking care of all our wants, whims and needs, Travis suggested we make camp on the high mezzanine floor of his open-barn, situated next to the booming whitewater. Perfect in tropical Costa Rica’s ‘Raining cats and frogs’ season; pitching only the inner-tent beneath the barn’s protective roof kept us cool and dry. We were given the value-added overlander treatment: clean facilities in both the bathroom and kitchen areas, an electric hook-up where we’d made home for the next couple of nights, decent WiFi, a delicious breakfast and an appetising dinner. Dang! What a find.
Jason showed boundless gratitude when Travis’ bonny girlfriend cooked for us. Partly perhaps because I wrecked our first evening meal on a bed of brown rice and veggies, with what I thought was ‘carrot sauce’. Mmmn, in violation of every tastebud on the human tongue, it was more like a mustard condiment with pickled carrot. Seriously woman, what were you thinking?! ‘Unusual, that’ll do nicely and make a welcomed change from black bean sauce…’ as I whipped it in my shopping basket earlier. I even missed the word ‘mostaza’ emboldened on the packaging, which I know full well means mustard. Future note to self: never eat anything luminous. How was it? Beyond gross. You win some, you royally ruin some!
Upon Travis’ recommendation, we ignored the main drag back to San José. Instead, the pair of us scooted up an alternate path; a slower, curvier mountain road from La Selva near the Poas Volcano to a small town called Cinchona. Pulling in on the left at a wooden building with a smoking stack, The Hummingbird Café, and taking my helmet off into fresh cloud forest air filled me with pure joy. It had re-opened in 2013 having recovered from the devastating effects of the 2009 earthquake; the café now enjoys more fluttering creatures on the feeders than before. And a good job because the little hummers sure can slurp down the sugared water.
The entrance of the The Hummingbird Café warmly welcomes you with displays upon displays of antique artefacts to pour over, artisan parrot-art mobiles to peer up at and handmade wooden jewellery to embellish your ears, neck, fingers and wrists. There are a handful of homemade goodies on offer as well as a few bags of organic coffee. It really is an intimate Aladdin’s Cave of natural treasures to gift and sweet treats to eat. Rustic benches and tables invite you to take a pew and relax while the smallest birds in nature do their ‘ting’ and put on quite the spellbinding show.
Narnia in the summertime awaits out the back. The café’s back yard is a stunning location for the middle elevation birds of the Caribbean Slope. The nectar feeders attract up to ten species of hummingbirds such as the Coppery-headed Emerald, Green Thorntail and White-bellied Mountain-Gem. All named at the Elton John School of Fabulous!
As we sat dining on the Menu del dia—menu of the day, it was hard to focus on them flying forward, backward and shifting sideways. Always flittering, this way and that. Especially as the hummingbirds beat their wings 60-200 times per second while flying up to 60 miles per hour. With weak feet, they can barely walk at all. Fantastic when the dainty creatures stopped in midair, flashing their iridescent blue and green wings in the streaky sunlight. Interestingly, hummingbirds’ wings ‘buzz’ or make a whirring sound while in flight; this sound is referred to as a ‘wing whistle’. Gorgeous.
An unmissable stop that feasted the eyes and filled our bellies beautifully; the café’s dulce de leche coconut pieces were a slice of heaven. The hummers however consume on average half of their body weight in sugar every day, lucky blighters..!
Why are we always at our happiest when immersed in wildlife? Animals in their natural habitat do so much more than fascinate the mind. Nature nourishes the soul, and enlivens the human spirit with a humbling resonance too.
“And she’s down, again…” winced Jason for the third time in less than a mile. Although having a blast, admittedly I was in too deep. Getting increasingly buried in the sand pit we thought would be a rideable road—a disused section of the old Ruta 40 in Argentina. Weary and winded with no clue on how to conquer the sand, Jason enquired on my well-being and lifted Pearl upright, my fully laden 650cc. I brushed myself off and casually suggested we turn around. For the umpteenth time, I was comforted by having my fella alongside my motorcycle and me.
Someone enlightened about moto-travel advised that before setting off with your loved one, the practicalities of riding as a couple should be weighed into the argument, not to mention the pros and cons. To my mind when you both love to travel, it goes hand in hand that two wheels—as does four perhaps—facilitate that shared agenda. Whether you’re ‘two up’ or astride your own motorcycles, you’re both enjoying the same open-air experience on a road in a way four wheels can’t quite compete or sometimes even accomplish. Through an unobscured view, you’re living out an adventure next to one another. Enraptured by motorcyling you may already be; how you will fare with your ‘marvellous other’ on a prolonged open-throttle journey is another matter entirely.
Executing a big motorcycling trip involves one step: going. However, trying to keep a handle on planning a moto-adventure with your beloved other isn’t always a cushy ride. What if it’s the instant gratification of rural rideouts over long weekends that appeals most? A sustained two-wheeled stretch is a complete lifestyle change and a reality one of you may not relish for so long. You might not be a well-groomed prince or pampered princess but what if you’re unable to find certain items, particularly those us females need in remote places?
Enthusiasm could outweigh skill level at some point or one of you could lose control down a steep hill. Worse still, you may be riding alongside a partner whose off road prowess could leave you lost in their dust—becoming as crestfallen from holding them back as much as not being able to keep up. So many whats, scary ifs and buts. At some point, a conscious decision has to be made to shelve the excuses and ruminate on those reservations no longer. Crikey, how hard can it be?
I won’t deny it, from personal experience of riding small stints throughout the UK and Europe and being 15 months and 23,000 miles into the Americas, there have been a few challenges to riding as a couple. Anyone considering co-motorcycle travel for an extended period, your relationship will be tested as will your forbearance levels. When you’ve both endured a longer than anticipated day in the saddle, feeling beastly tired isn’t always conducive to being amiable to one another. Suck it up, the low lows are just part of long-term travel together. Never hold a grudge.
Assigning roles such as tent-pitching while the other cracks on with the dinner for instance can prevent a cacophony of conflict in petty arguments. Having a solid relationship built on tolerance throwing in a big pinch of humour from the outset will stand you both in good stead.
Someone very dear to me recently advised that spending time apart on a regular basis is recommended. I couldn’t agree more: taking walks, going off to do your own thing, signing up to a class or course that doesn’t involve your ‘cherished other’ is undeniably beneficial; to keeping the relationship healthy and having new things to bring back to it. Not to mention fresh material to chitchat around. Otherwise, what would you converse about if you experience absolutely everything together, only having a break when one or both of you sleeps… My advice: don’t go there! What’s more, my wizened friend also suggested that having one or both of you be accountable in an argument goes a long way where one takes overall responsibility, even if that happens after a ‘cooling off’ period. Well said, Sam.
It can be tricky when a person assumes a grossly different pace to the other. Especially if one has considerably greater riding stamina than the other. Namely not biting off more than the lesser experienced can chew will result in them having enough energy leftover at the end of the day to stay sweet-natured, ensuring that you both remain happy.
Moreover agreeing to keep the off road riding in particular, well within daylight will prevent many a day on the bikes turning sour. If one of you prefers to spend every waking hour in the saddle while the other is more inclined towards a shorter stretch in order to be able to relax, go off and sight see on foot, establishing a mutual agenda each day will ensue greater long-term harmony. It will give rise to fewer unforeseen compromises as opposed to engaging in a constant battle of negotiation with each other, which will be as frustrating as it will unendurably wearing. Moto-travel is supposed to be fun! Keep it that way. And why not consider a few days apart if that’s what it takes to do just that.
Despite the potential tribulations on the trails, with motorcycling as a couple comes constant companionship. Sharing all the firsts, incredible experiences, soaking up jaw-on-the-floor scenery that will make your souls sing, not to mention the hand-holding on a beach, star-gazing under spectacular skies and being there for one another during all those moments of elation and accomplishment.
When riding in partnership, a cherished aspect has often been attributed to technologies such as the two-way intercom system affixed to the helmets such as the Sena or Scala Rider. The device is a convenient way to point out a family of four including the dog astride a moped, eagle-soaring or an iguana crossing the road up ahead, help each other over the trickier terrain but above all, as a means to further enjoy the experience on two wheels together. Whoever overtakes in busy traffic first for example, acts as the other’s eyes in following suit—especially in countries whose drivers of vastly varying speeds on single carriageways demands it. Moreover, forewarning something potentially perilous on the road is priceless.
Admittedly, some may find it nigh on impossible to communicate for hours on end and instead crave the peace and quiet that comes with the solitude of one’s own thoughts. Absolutely fair enough. For us, being able to jabber away now and again on the road facilitates the optimum way to ride with each other.
In summary, riding as a couple through unfamiliar territory is sometimes demanding. When unforeseeable circumstances occur, tensions can rise when your biking abilities, personal needs and wants differ if not clash on occasion. Although it’s good to take the time and address those early on. Acknowledging different strengths each of you will bring will help make the trip a sustainable one. One of you may be more apt at maintaining the motorcycles in a tip-top condition for example whilst the other happier to execute the agreed route that day.
Above all, taking extra effort to recognize each other’s boiling points and sources of irritation, even if you become one, is key!
As for any grave misgivings you may hold before setting off— mechanically or otherwise—there are no basic needs that can’t be met. If you’re on a road and need assistance, chances are someone will pass by with an offer of help. As far as sourcing specialist items is concerned, folks that reside in the middle of nowhere still require the same basic things all men and women worldwide do. Your motorcycle is highly unlikely to somersault out of control, and if one of you has less riding experience than the other, thank them in advance for mentoring you and foremost exhibiting unfaltering patience in allowing you to keep pace—it’s a recipe for shared motorcycling success.
And as for faring in the saddle alongside your partner goes: you’re as free to let your minds wander as your wheels are to roam. Motorcycle overlanding as a couple draws on a joint freedom to live a life dictated only by the pair of you. You’ll manoeuvre into a happier you: “Getting peckish yet? What’s that chap selling by the road?” or “Fancy heading that way on the map today?” are the light-touch mutual exchanges that will get you there. Ultimately pursuing your shared passion as a partnership—wanting the same thing in the spirit of self-governed adventure, travelling by the same means and wishing to see the same countries—no one can remove the exultation on your soul for which that will bring.
A version of the above post appeared as an article in Adventure Motorcycle Magazine.