Costa Rica

Mountain biking coast to coast in Costa Rica

April 15, 2019

If travel is about stepping outside of your comfort zone, then on day one of our coast to coast mountain bike ride in Costa Rica, we scored an A+.

Riding through soft sand on the Caribbean coast, along railway tracks, across rivers, over a scarily open railway bridge, and part way along the main cross-country highway added up to a challenging and exhilarating adventure.

Green and lush: Costa Rica is fertile and eco-friendly

Costa Rica is a hilly country, flat on the coast and extremely mountainous in between, a small nation in Central America, bordered by Panama to the south and Nicaragua to the north.  It’s famous for its surf and for being green, a world-leader in the use of renewable energy.

Being small means it’s possible to cycle from coast to coast on a short adventure holiday, from the super laidback Caribbean to the buzzing, surf mecca of the Pacific, passing through the lush, fertile interior, the banana, sugar cane, pineapple and coffee growing plantations.

And that’s how we planned our holiday – cycling up front, doing the hard yards first, then catching some waves at its famous surf breaks to round off our trip. 

An idyllic looking start on Costa Rica’s Caribbean coast and the beginning of an exciting mountain bike adventure.

Our bike ride begins on the Caribbean coast

Our bike ride started in the port city of Limon, on the Caribbean coast. Waves whipping up in the Caribbean waters as we cruised along the beach front under the shade of the palm trees. We cycled on the sand on a very ill-defined track, the sand a bit too soft in places to push our wheels through. I had to grit my teeth and stifle groans of frustration as I tried in vain to keep some forward momentum. 

Soft sand was the least of our challenges. 

When our guide Mau told us that we’d need to ride on railway tracks for about four kilometres, it didn’t register that we’d actually be riding on the sleepers, not along the side of the track. It was a major jolt to the system, and I admit to feeling a bit scared, especially when Mau casually added that the tracks are still in use by the odd, slow train. 

Riding along railway tracks

My anxiety level ratcheted up several notches when, as we made our way towards the track, a train came flying by, travelling at a speedy 60km/hour. Even Mau was surprised at how fast the train shot past.

Riding in a straight line in a narrow, confined space is not my forte, so it was a very stop-start venture, both frustrating and exhilarating, as we bumped and bounced along the tracks between the sleepers and rocks. Howler monkeys screeching from the trees terrified me, as I immediately thought it was the sound of a train approaching. 

The most terrifying part however was the Stand By Me moment (remember the 1986 film starring River Phoenix? ) where we had to cross a bridge, the river below clearly visible between the big, fat timber sleepers. 

I’m afraid of heights and there was no barrier to hang onto, nowhere to hide if a train suddenly appeared. So, it was with great trepidation and a pounding heart that I carefully and very slowly wheeled my bike across the track with the help of our guide. No looking down, just focussing on putting one step in front of the other. I almost cried with relief when we safely reached the other side.

On our Costa Rican mountain biking adventure we had to ride on the train tracks, bumping along across the sleepers and rocks.
I couldn’t believe we actually had to ride on the railway tracks! It was a slow, very bumpy ride.
Super relieved after a scary bridge crossing with big wide, open sleepers and a ‘don’t look down’ to the river below.

Next up was another first for the both of us – a river crossing. I nailed crossing number one, but somehow lost my balance as I attempted the second and slammed into the rocks, with my bike falling on top of me. Ouch. 

The rest of the day we rode along dusty backroads and by day’s end, as we arrived at camp, all sweaty and muddy with a few cuts and bruises, I was totally exhausted but impressed with what we’d accomplished.

Riding through back roads of rural Costa Rica – lush, tropical countryside and hot, humid conditions.
Beautiful view of Turrialba from our hilltop hotel.

Hot weather and diverse terrain

There were just the two of us on this adventure, JJ and I, plus our cycling guide, Mau, and our support car driver, Darwin. For the most part Darwin was able to drive behind us, or cruise ahead and select a shady rest spot where we could top up our water and have a snack.

The riding distances each day were not onerous, however the terrain was challenging and the humid weather energy-sapping. On day two, we rode about 48 kilometres to a stunning hilltop hotel overlooking Turrialba volcano. It doesn’t sound far but 40 of those kilometres were uphill, along winding, narrow roads, sometimes with big trucks and buses whizzing past, with little room for error. Our longest day topped 60 kilometres. 

The adrenaline kicked in constantly: we crossed a swing bridge (not great if you don’t love heights), had to get off and walk up and over the top of what felt like the world’s steepest hill, and on the one occasion where we battled rain and wild winds, we were rewarded with the most stunning rainbow as we descended into a very picturesque valley.

JJ my travel buddy crossing the suspension bridge in rural Costa Rica.
Crossing the suspension bridge, a shortcut for locals into the town of Orisi, carved about 5km off our bike ride.
At one stage we had to abandon our bikes and walk, the terrain was so steep and rocky.
At one stage we had to abandon our bikes and walk, the terrain was so steep and rocky.

Crossing the Continental Divide

Our journey took us through rural areas of Costa Rica, cycling through small communities, largely populated by farmers, and across the continental divide at an altitude of 2,300 metres. For the most part it was very hot and humid (winter is the dry season) until we reached our highest spot, where the temperature plummeted and the cloud and mist moved in, reducing visibility to dangerous levels. 

We were so focused on getting from coast to coast under our own steam, we were a little crushed not to be able to cycle through the high point of the Continental Divide. With about two kilometres to go the peak, visibility was a mere 10 metres. With big trucks, buses and cars to contend with on this last, narrow stretch of road, it would have been suicide to try and ride it.

As we rode through towns such as Siquirres, Orisi, Santa Maria de Dota we encountered very few other travellers – only two other biking groups in Orisi – but we cycled past plenty of local riders. With its hilly terrain, mountain biking is a popular sport in Costa Rica. Our guides both shared extraordinary tales of cycling trips they’d done from Costa Rica to Mexico, through Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador, riding up to 200 kilometres a day.

The small towns in Costa Rica generally had a central soccer field where the locals gravitated.
The small towns in Costa Rica generally had a central soccer field where the locals gravitated.
Pineapple plantations on our coast to coast mountain bike ride in Costa Rica.
Pineapple plantations on our coast to coast mountain bike ride in Costa Rica.
Hillside coffee plantations in rural Costa Rica.
Hillside coffee plantations which are sprinkled with palm trees to shade the coffee plants. While we rode past a lot of coffee growing areas, oddly enough a good cup of coffee was hard to come by in Costa Rica.

Discovering rural Costa Rica

The other big sport in Costa Rica is soccer and in each village we rode through the same spectacle unfolded – a soccer field in the heart of town with kids kicking a ball around, not far from the main local church. In Orisi, we had time to visit the oldest church in the country and stumbled upon a local wedding.

Our guides provided great insight into Costa Rican history and culture. Their English was excellent, our Spanish non-existent, and they made it their job to teach us a few key Spanish phrases.

Our accommodation varied from sophisticated campsite to functional local hotels (no big hotel chains in the countryside) and we either had trackside picnic lunches or ate at local restaurants along the way.

Rice and beans, beans and rice were the staples. Mau ate beans and rice (gallo pinto) for breakfast, lunch and dinner. With fresh fish and chicken, it was excellent carbohydrate for the days’ riding. Breakfast each day was fruit – unbelievably sweet juicy pineapple, bananas, watermelon, papaya – and eggs. Plus delicious fresh fruit juices such as cas (guava). My favourite discovery were the sweet shortbread-like cajeta biscuits. Yum.

Our most adventurous mountain bike trip ever

It’s the most adventurous cycling trip we’ve ever been on and we loved the diversity of the terrain. On our final day as we wound our way down a rocky mountain track, we could see our destination in the distance, the Pacific coast tantalisingly close. Our wrists ached from keeping the breaks on constantly as we bumped our way along the bone-jarring trail. With sweat streaming down our faces, bright red from the exertion, we dreamed of dunking ourselves in the ocean.

As a last hurrah, as we made our final river crossing amid the stultifying heat, our guide threw himself into the water, helmet and all. As much as I was desperate to cool down, I couldn’t bear the thought of being dripping wet and squelching my way to our final destination, still about 20 steamy kilometres away.

Our guide Mau threw himself into the river, bike helmet and all, to cool down from our hot ride.
The ultimate cool down after riding in super steamy weather.

Our trip ended in the beautiful seaside town of Manuel Antonio, the perfect place to wind down, and plonk ourselves on the beach for a well-deserved pina colada happy hour.

There were times on the ride when I honestly didn’t believe the scenery was stunning enough to justify the incredible physical effort of cycling steep, windy hills in such hot, humid weather. Ultimately that was outweighed by the wonderful sense of achievement we felt for challenging ourselves and completing the coast to coast adventure.

Our trip ended in Manuel Antonio, a beautiful relaxing beach on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.
Our trip ended in Manuel Antonio, a beautiful relaxing beach on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica.

Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica, a wonderful place to wind down after our adventurous coast to coast mountain bike ride.
Manuel Antonio in Costa Rica, a wonderful place to wind down after our adventurous coast to coast mountain bike ride.

Trip notes:

We travelled with Coast to Coast Adventures in Costa Rica. While we didn’t book directly through them (we used an intermediary travel agent) we found them to be extremely professional and well organised. Our guide and support crew were very personable, helpful and easy going and we would highly recommend travelling with Coast to Coast Adventures.

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