We spent 11 wonderful days in stunningly beautiful Costa Rica! We really loved this country (although it’s a little hard on the budget). It is safe, the people are well educated and friendly, and the scenery is amazing – it was definitely the most picturesque country that we cycled through in Central America.
However, although we felt very safe in Costa Rica itself, in our opinion, Costa Rica isn’t the most cycle touring friendly of countries. Although, most of the roads are good and relatively new, they almost never have a shoulder (unless, its a toll way that cyclists aren’t meant to use!) and are narrow, windy and busy. I would happily go back to Costa Rica in a heartbeat – but next time I would leave my bike at home.
Friday 22nd May: San Carlos, Nicaragua – Santa Rosa, Costa Rica
We caught the overnight ferry from Ometepe Island to San Carlos on the Thursday night. The night ferry arrived in San Carlos around 6am; but it took a good hour for us to make our way off the ferry, as two military officials were carrying out an inspection of each passenger’s luggage as we disembarked. This came as a bit of a surprise, as our luggage hadn’t been checked on boarding the ferry and we were still in the same country. There were 5 cycle tourers on board the ferry, each with multiple panniers. We, alone, have 12 bags between us, so you can imagine how long the inspection took AND the officials were very thorough. They went through everything and were especially interested in our cooking supplies. They gave our herb bag and our tea bags a good sniff … so it seemed as though they were looking for drugs.
The other cycle tourers planned to have a rest day in San Carlos, as they didn’t get a great night’s sleep on the ferry. But, we had slept ok (thanks to the sea sickness tablets!), so we decided to cycle towards La Fortuna, as planned.
There are two possible ways for a cycle tourer to cross the border into Costa Rica (at Los Chiles) from San Carlos. You can either take a boat from San Carlos to Los Chiles (boats apparently leave around 10am), or you can cycle across a recently opened bridge (the Santa Fe Bridge) over the San Juan River. We felt as though we’d taken enough boats of late, and we didn’t want to hang around for 3 hours waiting for the boat, so we decided to cycle via the bridge. Thankfully we did, as it was a fantastic ride along an almost deserted, hilly, back country road.
Eventually the back country road turned onto a brand new highway, which led to the Santa Fe Bridge. The bridge was funded by the Japanese and had only been open for about a year. After passing over the bridge, we cycled another couple of kilometers until we came to the border. Unlike previous Central American border crossings, there were lots of forms to fill out and we also had to have our temperature taken!
Crossing into Costa Rica, we had to submit to another bag search by the police. They weren’t quite as thorough as the military officials in San Carlos, but they still wanted to look in every one of our 12 bags. We didn’t mind (although, it was time-consuming), however, we thought it was funny that it was happening twice in one day, when we hadn’t had our bags searched like this for the entire trip! The police were really friendly, as were the immigration officials, and asked lots of questions about our tour as they searched through our gear. I got the feeling that they don’t see many cycle tourers at this border crossing and that we were a bit of a novelty. But, given that cycle tourers often get robbed at gun point on the highway south of Rivas, Nicaragua, making the trip to Ometepe Island and crossing the border at Los Chiles is a great alternative, especially now that you can cycle between Los Chiles and San Carlos due to the new bridge.
Costa Rica has a reputation as a safe destination, and after such a warm welcome at the border, I cycled into Costa Rica feeling quite relaxed. We stopped in Los Chiles to get some cash and grab a burger and were surprised to discover that we could drink the water in Costa Rica. This may not sound like a big deal to people living in Australia, Europe and the USA, but we have been buying bottled water since we crossed into Mexico, so it was a pleasant surprise that we could drink the tap water for a change (and it was one less thing to buy in costly Costa Rica!).
After lunch we started cycling towards La Fortuna. The road was in good condition, but it was very hilly and had no shoulder. It was also full of traffic, in particular, trucks laden with sugar cane and pineapples. They generally made room for us on the road, but they were travelling very fast. It was a little scary at times. At one point, David spotted a pineapple that must have fallen off the back of a speeding truck. It looked ok (although it was a little smashed where it had hit the road), so we strapped it to the back of David’s bike and had it for dessert that evening!
After crossing the border, we noticed the head wind that had followed us relentlessly through Nicaragua, had died down. This was partly good news, although the absence of wind, made for some hot cycling at this altitude. We also noticed how green and lush Costa Rica looked in comparison to Nicaragua and the other countries that we had travelled through. Then, as the torrential rain started, we understood why. We thought the rain would stop fairly quickly, so we kept cycling. But, it didn’t stop. Locals wearing gum boots were taking shelter under bus stops. By the time we realized that we should also be taking cover, we were totally drenched! We found a bus stop to hide under until the storm (complete with thunder and lightning) passed. But, we remained wet for the remainder of the day!
Towards the end of the day, David got another broken spoke. That brought the total up to 8 (7 for David and 1 for me). Although we planned to cycle to La Fortuna today, the hills, bags searches, border crossings and rain, meant that wasn’t possible. We found a very nice hotel in Santa Rosa and called it a day.
Saturday 23rd May: Santa Rosa – Nuevo Arenal
This was one of our best days on the bike – what a stunning ride! It included all of the best elements of a bike ride; beautiful scenery, good roads, minimal traffic (at least from La Fortuna onwards) and yummy food! In addition, we had fun street signs to amuse us along the way!
It was a Saturday, so the traffic was a little lighter, especially after we turned off Highway 35 onto Highway 4 towards La Fortuna. It was still hot, but after we started to climb, the temperature became a lot cooler. Yeah for us!!!
David got his first broken spoke on the way to La Fortuna, which was worrying as we wanted to make it to Nuevo Arenal that day. Thankfully, he didn’t get another one until 10km before our destination.
We arrived in La Fortuna around 11am. We were keen to beat the rain, so after a quick lunch, we pushed on. From La Fortuna we continued to follow Highway 142, which winds its way around Laguna de Arenal to Nuevo Arenal. The road is narrow and windy, with no shoulder. But, thankfully there was hardly any traffic, so it was fine. There were a couple of steepish climbs before we reached the laguna, and then from there it was rolling hills and beautiful vistas all the way!
Shortly after leaving La Fortuna, we started to see yellow signs for “Toad Hall”. They were everywhere and were very amusing (like “56 more curves”!). They kept us entertained as we slogged up the hills and the advertising worked as we stopped in at Toad Hall for a smoothie and cake when we finally got there. The views from Toad Hall are magic (although the food is a little pricey); we definitely recommend stopping, if only for the view!
Unfortunately, after we left Toad Hall, David got another broken spoke. This brought the total up to 10 (9 for David and 1 for me). Not good.
Another sign that had whet our appetite was for the German Bakery in Nuevo Arenal. We couldn’t get to Nuevo Arenal fast enough! We arrived just before 4pm, which was closing time for the bakery. But when the manager realized that David was German, and that we had cycled 90kms to get there, he stayed open especially for us. It was so lovely of him and the food was AMAZING! I had the sauerbraten and it was as good as in Germany! As soon as we ordered our food (and a well-deserved beer), the down pour started. We had ridden all day thinking that we were going to get drenched again, but thankfully the rain gods waited until we had reached our destination! How’s that for good luck!!!
Sunday 24th May: Nuevo Arenal – Tilaran
We were up early and keen to cycle to Puntarenas – 125kms away. But it was misty and raining heavily, with thunder and lightning. We thought the rain would be short lived, so we took shelter in one of the local cafes, but after 2 hours it was still raining hard and the locals said it would be like that all day. We had a hostel booking in Santa Elena (Monteverde) for the following night, so we really needed to make it to a town from which we could get to Monteverde the following day. Unfortunately, Nuevo Arenal isn’t a transport hub, so it wasn’t possible to get a direct bus from there to Santa Elena. We didn’t feel comfortable cycling in such torrential rain, on windy, misty roads with no shoulder. We spoke to one of the expat waiters at the café about our dilemma and he quickly organized for one of his friends, Cookie, to take us to the nearby town of Tilaran in his truck. This was great, because from Tilaran we could get a bus to Santa Elena the following day. It was a 1 hour car ride and I got to practice my Spanish with Cookie the whole way!!
We took a room at the super friendly Hotel Mary, where the owner bent over backwards to accommodate us. He even let us use the hotel’s washing machine and dryer for free to wash our clothes. Wow!
Monday 25th May: Tilaran – Santa Elena
We had heard that the road from Tilaron to Santa Elena was rough; riddled with pot holes and large rocks. By this point, we had broken 10 spokes between us; we only had 2 spares left and we really wanted to be able to cycle to San Jose. We were worried about breaking more spokes on the bad road, so we decided to get a local bus from Tilaran to Santa Elena. When the bus turned up, we had serious doubts as to whether it would be able to take our bikes, as the bus looked like an old American school bus, with no luggage compartment underneath. Thankfully, the bus had a large compartment in the back where we were able to transport our bikes!
The bus ride took about 2.5 hours to traverse 40kms, so you can imagine what the road was like. We were the only tourists on the bus – everyone else was local. The bus trip was quite fun – although sitting in the back near our bikes, we were tossed around a lot. Although, the road was rough, we certainly could have cycled it if we weren’t having such problems with our spokes.
We spent the afternoon exploring Santa Elena, which was a nice little town, although quite touristy. We found a cheap pizza bar and enjoyed some good pizza and wine for dinner.
Tuesday 26th May: Santa Elena / Monteverde
We had booked a private bird watching tour and our guide, Adrian, was at our hostal at 6am sharp. We had a choice of bird watching in Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve or the Curi-Cancha Reserve. Adrian recommended Curi-Cancha over the more pristine Monteverde, as it had a greater variety of terrain and therefore, increased our chances of seeing birds. We had never been bird watching and weren’t sure what to expect, but it was surprisingly fun. Adrian was an excellent guide and knew all of the birds by sound – quite amazing! In total, we saw about 22 different types of birds, including 7 different types of tiny humming birds (my personal favourites), a Resplendent Quetzal, a MotMot, a Three-wattled Bell Bird and a Bicoloured Hawk. We saw most of the birds in the first 2-3 hours of the tour; for the remainder of the time, we hiked through the forest enjoying the beautiful nature.
I enjoyed the tour so much that I signed up for a 2 hour night tour as well. The night tour was great – if a bit creepy – and we saw spiders, including a tarantula, lizards, snakes and a sloth!
Wednesday 27th May: Santa Elena – Orotina
Today was another fun day on the bike – lots of downhill and some dirt roads! We descended over 2000m from Santa Elena (near Monteverde) to the coast and then started to climb back into the mountains. Of course, David got another broken spoke today …. this brought the total up to 11.
The road from Santa Elena to the Pan American Highway was partly dirt. But, unlike the dirt road from Tilaran to Santa Elena, this one was apparently in much better condition, as it was groomed frequently. As I was still having problems with my ribs, we had been avoiding rough dirt roads, but this sounded fine. The views were amazing on the way down to the Pan American Highway and the dirt road was very good. After about 15kms, the road became paved and more undulating, with a few sharp climbs.
When we finally reached the coast, I was disappointed to be back at sea level as it was stinking hot. On top of that we had to cycle along the Pan American Highway, which is far from nice. This section of the Pan American Highway was a two-lane highway, with no shoulder at all. There was lots of traffic, but thankfully, the cars and trucks were very patient with us, especially on the uphills, when we were seriously holding everyone up. We received lots of toots and thumbs up in support. But, despite the positive support from the traffic, we breathed a sigh of relief when we reached the turn-off for Highway 23, which ran along the coast. This was a much newer road and had a lovely, wide shoulder. Highway 23, became Highway 27, which took us back up into the mountains. We felt much safer on Highway 27, with its broad shoulder than we did on the Pan American Highway. We didn’t realise at the time that Highway 27 was a toll way; we later found out that bicycles aren’t actually allowed on it, although we didn’t pass any signs to that effect and the police didn’t seem to have a problem (in fact, they waved at us)! When we came across the toll booths, the personnel simply smiled and waved us around the toll zone.
We called it a day at the town of Orotina, where we found some reasonably priced cabanas. Seeing that we had bikes, the manager gave us a room with wheelchair access – very handy for loaded touring bikes!
Thursday 28th May: Orotina – Alajuela
This was a reasonably short day on the bike – nearly all of it uphill. We continued to follow Highway 27 for much of the way, thankful to have the nice wide shoulder. The scenery was lovely; we passed through deep valleys and the highway was lined with lush forest.
As we got closer to Alajuela, we turned off Highway 27 and made our way towards the Pan American Highway. This stretch of the Pan American was much better; it was a 6 lane highway, which gave the cars more room to overtake us. About 5kms from Alajuela, Google Maps led us off the Pan American and through the back streets to Alajuela. With only 5kms to go, David got another broken spoke! Two kilometers further and I broke one as well. In total we broke 13 spokes … crazy!
Alajuela is 20kms from San Jose, close to the international airport and the rental car companies. By this point, we had no spare spokes left. It was obvious to us that we wouldn’t be able to cycle beyond San Jose, as our spokes (which were breaking in the middle) were clearly faulty and we didn’t want to ruin our wheels any further. We had ordered a full set of new spokes, for all four wheels, and they would hopefully be waiting for us in Medellin, Colombia.
Unfortunately, this meant that instead of cycling to Panama City, we would have to catch a bus. It was disappointing, but couldn’t be helped. So, with a few days up our sleeve, we had decided to hire a car in Alajuela, and do a little road trip around Costa Rica.
Friday 29th May – Sunday 31st May: Road Trip
We picked up the hire car early on Friday morning and drove to Volcano Poas, an active volcano near Alajuela. On a clear day, it is possible to visit the crater and see two crater lakes. But, although the day looked relatively clear down below, our trip was a complete waste as Volcan Poas was completely covered in clouds and we weren’t able to see a thing! The only consolation was the mouth-watering strawberries that we bought on the way back down, which were apparently grown in volcanic soil!
From Volcano Poas, we made our way to Liberia in the northwest of Costa Rica, from where we planned to take a Full Day Adventure Tour with Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin in the Rincon de la Vieja National Park the following day.
Full Day Adventure Tour with Hotel Hacienda Guachipelin
The adventure tour started at 8.30am. It consisted of 4 activities:
- horse riding to the start of the tubing tour;
- tubing down the Rio Negro River with class II and III rapids;
- a Canyon Canopy Tour including rappelling, rock climbing, a Tarzan swing and hanging bridges through a canyon formed by the erosion of the Blanco River; and
- a relaxing mud bath and soak in volcano heated thermal waters!
It sounded fun and it was, although for someone recovering from a rib fracture, the horse ride and tubing probably wasn’t the best idea. Nevertheless, we had a great day with the crew at Hacienda Guachipelin, even if it did feel a bit like a factory line at times. David loved the tubing best, while my favourite part was probably the Canyon Canopy ride.
Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary
On Sunday, we went on a 2 hour tour of the Costa Rican Sloth Sanctuary. The first hour of the tour consisted of a slow canoe ride up a little river to see some local flora and fauna. The highlights were seeing a baby alligator up close (literally only 1 meter away from the boat) and some tiny bats, nestling under a log. Unfortunately, we didn’t see any monkeys or sloths on the river tour.
After the river tour, we spent 1 hour learning about sloths, which are surprisingly interesting creatures and not at all lazy! There are 2 types of sloths: two fingered sloths and three fingered sloths and they are quite different. Surprisingly, they are related to armadillos and anteaters.
We got to meet 4 adult sloths and then we were allowed to tour the Baby Sloth Nursery! The baby sloths are unbelievably cute and had all been orphaned. The Sloth Sanctuary tries to rehabilitate sloths, so that they can be released back into the wild. Sadly, as sloths are solitary animals, baby sloths can never be introduced into the wild as they don’t have a mother to teach them how to survive in the wild and the sanctuary staff are unable to pass on such know-how. Thankfully, they have a wonderful home, thanks to the dedication of the team at the Sloth Sanctuary.
Monday 1st May: Alajuela to San Jose (bike) and then by bus to Panama City
We had booked a bus to Panama City with Ticabus for 11am – the only question was how to get to the Ticabus Terminal from Alajuela with our bikes. Putting our bikes on and off buses is a real hassle. In addition, the bus from Alajuela to San Jose does not go to the Ticabus Terminal. Although we had already broken 13 spokes and had no spares left, we decided that it would be easier for us to cycle to the Ticabus Terminal (which was fairly easy and only 19kms away) rather than take a bus into San Jose and then try to negotiate our way from one bus terminal to the other.
The ride wasn’t particularly enjoyable; but we managed it easily enough, with no additional broken spokes. The road was undulating, but mostly uphill, on a 6 – 8 lane highway. The traffic was intense, but thankfully, everyone was patient and very encouraging.
When we arrived at the bus terminal, our bikes and panniers were loaded straight onto the bus. We had to pay an additional amount of USD 50 to the driver, as our luggage was way over the limit. The bus ride took about 15 hours, with about a 1.5 hour break at the border for everyone to pass through immigration and customs. We arrived in Panama City at 3am. Luckily for us, there was a taxi with a bike rack waiting at the bus station, as we weren’t too keen to cycle from the bus station to our hostel at that time of the morning! Unfortunately, the bike rack broke under the weight of our bikes, when the taxi driver went a bit too quickly over a speed bump. Thankfully, our bikes were fine … although the taxi was sporting a new dent …