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The ruts are as deep and treacherous as I’ve ever seen, spread out before me in a maze of bad choices. Most are filled with softball-sized rocks, dug up by previous riders and erosion from the 13 feet of yearly rainfall. I claw my way through, continually slipping the clutch and jockeying the throttle, searching for traction. My feet are of no help here. They scrape along the trenches, up near my radiators, as the bike drags me like a tractor pulling a plow.
This is the type of AA trail I’ve been searching for since first arriving in Costa Rica three days earlier. It’s challenging, yet passable, and the scenery is the most spectacular I’ve ever seen. The only problem is my body is shutting down. I’m nearing heat stroke and completely dehydrated. I take a sip from my CamelBak, but the water is hot, and, mixed with the sweat dripping off my face, it’s starting to make me sick. My mouth begins to salivate and tingle, and I know that I will be vomiting soon.
I contemplate stopping to rest, but there’s no shade and the air is still. The slight breeze supplied by my snail pace is the only thing keeping me from completely overheating. The temperature is around 92 degrees and the humidity feels like 100%. My mind is saturated with negative thoughts, but I trudge along, clawing my way though the unforgiving
A slew of freshly prepped KTMs greeted us when we arrived at the Moto Tours Costa Rica headquarters. Since the tour was dirt focused, our weapons for the week were knobbie-clad KTM 450 EXC’s.
Finally, my body can take no more and I must stop to rest, no matter how unbearable the temperature. I park the bike and climb off, taking a few steps to separate myself from the additional heat that is radiating from my overworked KTM. I rip off my helmet, gloves and backpack and put my hands to my knees, trying my hardest to hold back the urge to throw up. I take a quick look around and come to a saddening realization. I’m in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle. I’m 30 minutes down a trail that I don’t think I can get back up, and I don’t know how much farther until I hit the road at the bottom of the canyon. How did I get myself into this?
It was roughly a month earlier when I learned that the Klim gear company had invited MotoUSA along on its sweepstakes tour of Costa Rica. Somehow, the guys above me had schedule conflicts and I was next in line. Four days of riding KTM dirt bikes through beautiful Costa Rica, two complete sets of new Klim riding gear and temperatures 50-degrees warmer than our Medford, OR, headquarters? You don’t have to ask me twice. I immediately sent off for an expedited passport and before I knew it, was boarding a plane en route to Central America.
A layover in Denver put me in contact with most of our group. There were to be eight of us total. I quickly spotted John and Justin Summers of Klim, who were the men responsible for this epic opportunity. Their Klim wardrobes served as a homing beacon for the rest of us who had never met before. Sitting at the airport gate we soon met Wynn Earlewine of Minnesota, who was the lucky winner of the Klim Sweepstakes and the reason for this whole journey. Within an hour the rest of our group had trickled in, with the exception of two guys who ran into logistical problems and would arrive the
We thoroughly enjoyed eating at this small restaurant at the top of a mountain overlooking awesome scenery.
following day. Our group was diverse in their backgrounds, ranging from moto-journalists to Klim retailers, but after BS-ing for only a few minutes it became clear that everyone were true off-road enthusiasts and this was going to be a great group of guys to ride with.
Our plane departed Denver at 12:15 a.m. for an all-night flight to San Jose, Costa Rica. Between the anticipation of the upcoming week and the horribly uncomfortable seats, I didn’t seem to get a wink of sleep. After almost six hours of restless flight, the sun made its way over the horizon and lit up Costa Rica below. My lack of sleep was of no worry now. The real journey was about to begin.
It was about 7 o’clock Sunday morning as we made our way out of the San Jose airport doors. The sun was shining, the temperature warm and the air clean. Within two steps of exiting the airport, we quickly met our guides for the upcoming week. Avid motorcycle enthusiasts Wayne and RJ Faddis fell in love with Costa Rica about 10 years earlier, and they soon took up residency and started Moto Tours Costa Rica.
The El Cafetal was our refuge for the first two nights. The quaint bed and breakfast-style inn was immaculately kept and offered friendly service and great food.
We didn’t waste any time hanging around the San Jose airport. Our bags were loaded and we piled into two vehicles headed to our Day 1 destination of Atenas, located about 30 kilometers west. It didn’t take long to leave the big city behind and begin experiencing the beauty of rural Costa Rica. The landscape quickly turned mountainous and even though it was their dry season, we were greeted by lush, green hillsides in every direction. A quick stop for breakfast gave us a sneak peak at the type of scenery we would be encountering the rest of the week. We were seemingly in the middle of nowhere, zig-zagging our way up a mountain road when we stopped at a small structure. Like most of the restaurants we would enjoy, this eatery was small with no closeable doors or windows in the dining area. Just open air and a view from the top of the mountain that was simply unbelievable. While eating, we watched a herd of cattle make itsway up a narrow trail on the adjacent mountainside. There are no plush, level pastures for these beasts. In fact, their ascent reminded me more of mountain goats than cows, and it quickly entered my mind that we too would soon be traversing similar single track. We had found paradise, and the riding promised to be as epic as the scenery.
With our bellies full and a much better sense of our awesome surroundings we headed down the twisty, narrow and extremely bumpy road to the town of Atenas. With daily highs near 80 degrees year-round, Atenas lays claim to the most comfortable climate in the world. A quick stop at the Moto Tours headquarters would give us the first look at our rides for the week. A slew of freshly prepped KTM 450 EXCs greeted us as we entered the property. They were lined up in perfect military formation, all with fresh knobbies for the battle ahead.
A short ride through town got the blood pumping and brought us to the El Cafetal Inn, which was to be our base of operations for the next two days. El Cafetal is a quaint bed and breakfast-style inn with a relaxed atmosphere and an extremely friendly staff. The accommodations were comfortable and clean, and after no sleep the night before, made it very easy to take a short nap before our dinner was served. The meal proved to be outstanding as well, and after some pre-riding conversation, we headed to bed early in anticipation of our first full day of riding on the bike.
I’m a Superstar
I awoke to the sweet sound of a 2-stroke singing by the hotel. It’s just one of the many locals utilizing old small-bore smokers to commute around town. Eager to finally do some riding of our own, the group quickly consumed the hotel breakfast buffet and geared up.
After a quick safety meeting, we headed out of the hotel and onto the streets of Atenas. Riding in single file, our orange freight train thundered down the city streets. It took a few miles to get comfortable with the bike and our surroundings and I quickly learned that even at a moderately slow pace on paved roads, this is no place to let your guard down. The roads are narrower than those at home and most lack a center-line. There are a lot of blind 180-degree turns and there is always a bus or large vehicle coming in the opposite direction taking up more than its share of the pavement.
After a few miles the paved road turned into a dirt road, then a jeep trail, and finally single track. This ever-changing
Even though we were there during the dry season, there was plenty of water to be found. We encountered numerous water crossings each day.
terrain would become the norm for the rest of the trip, as we would be continually switching from one type of riding surface to another. It was this diversity that really made the riding fun as you could always count on something new in the upcoming miles.
The dirt sections were often rocky, and since it was the dry season, the dust from the bike in front was the only thing keeping the riding from being truly epic. Then, because we weren’t lucky enough alreadya, the overcast skies broke open and dumped a little rain for the first time in almost a month. It was just enough precipitation to knock down the dust, but not so much as to soak us or make the trails overly slick. At least that’s what I initially thought.
We soon hit a more mountainous section, made up of red clay, and thoroughly covered with moisture. I was the third rider in line as we started up a pretty steep section. The red clay quickly gummed up the knobbies and the loose rocks and gravel mixed in with the dirt only made things harder. About half-way up our lead rider, and guide, lost traction and went down. The second rider and I fought our way around the downed bike and continued to claw our way up. Once over the top, we continued down the trail for another 10 minutes or so before realizing that we had passed the guide and there was nobody in front, or behind, us. Panicked that we were lost in the jungle, we quickly made our way back to the hill where we last saw the group. Upon our return only three of us had made it to the top. The other eight were either strewn about at different locations on the hill, or still at the bottom waiting for a clean path to make their attempt.
We parked our bikes at the top and walked down the hill to lend a hand to our fallen comrades. Most riders were determined to make it on their own, but a couple were exhausted after a half-dozen failed attempts and were willing to hand over the bike. With a head full of confidence and a lot of experience climbing slick hills back home in rain-soaked Oregon, I successfully rode two bikes to the top on the first attempt.
The praise from the rest of the group made my head a little larger, and while I tried to act like it was no big deal, I felt a little like a superstar as we continued with the rest of the day. Making our way back to the El Cafatel Inn, my pace was
There were no walls and no floor, but the “Rancho Shadday” served up some great food and an even better view.
quicker and I was feeling good after establishing myself at the top of the pecking order. Zipping around slower cars, backing it into corners and pulling wheelies, I was definitely feeling it. Then, on a paved section of two-lane, I came up quickly on a slower car. I was getting ready to pass when I saw a bus rapidly closing the gap in the on-coming lane. My mind quickly calculated the closing speed of the bus and determined that there was not enough time to make the pass. I chopped the throttle, hit the brakes and tucked in behind the slower car. Just then a small-bore 2-stroke flew by my left side. I glanced over just in time to see the helmet-less rider and his wife on the back with a big bag of groceries in each hand zip by me and the car in front with at least a foot of room to spare before the bus collected them. Obviously, I’m not the superstar I thought I was.
On Day 3 we said goodbye to the El Cafatel and headed west to the Pacific Coast. Our destination was the resort town of Jaco, but we had a good five hours of riding ahead of us before we could kick back at the beach. The ride was very similar to the previous day with a good mix of terrain and difficulty. After about four hours of traversing the mountains and valleys that make up this part of the country, we came across our lunch stop. At the top of a mountain, and
seemingly cut off from civilization lies the Rancho Shadday. This minimalist structure is made up of a few timbers placed on end to support the roof and one wall of corrugated metal. The floor is dirt and in one corner sits a small kitchen. Surprisingly, this ramshackle restaurant served up a lunch that was as good as any I would encounter. In addition, it also offered one of the best views I had come across thus far. A sign on the front of the building announces, “Welcome to the place where there’s no world crisis.” I believed it.
With stomachs full and our thirsts quenched, we continued on for the last hour or so to the coast. The only main obstacle that lay between us and a relaxing evening on the beach was something called “the slippy trail.” With my confidence still high from the day before, I was looking forward to some challenging terrain before calling it a day.
I hit the trail with a head full of steam, but my efforts to impress again soon took a step back as I found myself stuck in a section of steep, wet rocks and deep ruts. I made another attempt to regain momentum but to no avail. The rocks were
too slick and I was just wasting energy spinning my tire. I turned around and headed back down to get another run at it. Arriving at the bottom, I scared those still waiting to make an attempt when they learned that I, the great hillclimber, couldn’t clear the trail on my first attempt. Unfortunately, it took me a total of three tries to get through the “slippy trail.” I think that was the most attempts of anyone in the group. My 15 minutes of fame were officially over.
After a few miles of road riding, I was able to catch my breath and cool my body temperature down before we finally rolled into Jaco. There are a few large Art Deco-style hotels popping up along the main road, and the town has a much more touristy feel than anything we’d encountered so far. After checking into the Hotel Cocal, I enjoy some time by the pool and a quick dip in the ocean. The water was warm and I could probably have stayed there for the rest of the day, but an appointment with the hotel masseuse sounded even more relaxing. Later, we took dinner and then checked out some of the nightlife Jaco has to offer. There is something for everyone and it was hard for me to call it a night, but with another day of riding ahead of us, I figured it best to not get too crazy.
We’re a little slow getting up the next morning but didn’t hesitate to take full advantage of the hotel breakfast. Served on an outdoor patio within feet of the beach, it was a great way to start off. The temperature outside was already getting a little uncomfortable for moto gear, but warm or not, we suited up and headed off. Barely five miles in, we pulled off to
take some photos of one of the many beaches along the coastline. This is a popular surfing area as well, yet it’s surprisingly uncrowded for such a beautiful beach so close to town. While taking in the scenery, I also decided to take in a giant smoothie from a small hut on the sand that was mixing up some tasty fruit concoctions. The smoothie hit the spot, but it probably wasn’t the best thing to pound prior to a full day of riding.
The trails out of Jaco were some of the most scenic. Winding up the coastal mountains we were able to enjoy many great vistas overlooking both the ocean and the city of Jaco. At the end of the day our group came to a stop at the bottom of a small Jeep trail where we ran into Javier Araya, a former Costa Rican enduro champion, and some of his racing buddies. Evidently, we were at the base of a pretty difficult trail that the racing clan had just come down and were preparing to go back up. Our guides suggested that coming down was much easier, but wanted us to get a look at the trail before deciding if it was something we wanted to tackle the next day.
As the racers took off up the trail, I decided what better way to get a good look at it than to follow them up for a bit. With the rest of our group resting, I headed into the brush and up the tight single-track. The trail was indeed pretty gnarly, but making it even more difficult was the extreme temperature and the fact that we had already put in a full day in the saddle. I made it about five minutes up the trail to a steep ravine where one of the racers was stuck and fighting to push
his bike up the rocky rut. With the trail blocked and my body already exhausted, I decided to turn around.
By the time I got back to the bottom I was completely exhausted and overheated. My only salvation was in knowing that this was the end of the ride and we were headed to a hotel for the night. Unfortunately, while I was on the trail, a few of our riders decided they wanted to circle around to the top of the mountain and take a stab at the descent. Without even a chance to catch my breath I had to decide if I wanted to join them and make the torturous journey down the hill, or go back with the rest of the group and hit the pool. This is one of those moments in life where you are faced with two choices, one clearly right, and one obviously wrong. Of course, I chose wrong.
No Turning Back
With the rest of the group en route to the pool, the four of us made the long trip to the top and the start of the trail. Upon reaching the top we were again met by Javier Araya who had just finished retracing the route. We talked with him for a
The terrain started off fairly easy but quickly became more technical with the ground getting very rocky and rutted.
bit as we took fuel from a local eatery and gave my body a few minutes to rest before dropping in. After about 10 minutes, Javier was still missing one of his team and decided he would head back down with us to look for his lost rider.
I thought the short rest and some water would have helped my physical state, but I was still overheated and starting to feel a little sick to my stomach. With the rest of the group ready to go, there was no turning back. We fired up the bikes and headed down the trail with Javier taking the lead. He was followed by one of our faster riders, then myself and finally the remaining two of our group. I tried to keep pace with the leaders but quickly realized I was in no condition to maintain that kind of speed and had to let them go. The two riders behind me had dropped even further off the pace and I was basically riding by myself. The terrain started off fairly easy but quickly became more technical with the ground getting very rocky and rutted. While we were supposed to be traveling downhill, Costa Rica’s never-ending peaks and valleys meant there were plenty of small uphills, which were usually very technical and drained any strength I had left.
After 30 minutes of riding, clawing and pushing my way down the single track, my body refused to cooperate anymore and I had to stop. I pulled off my helmet and gloves and tried to lower my body temperature, but the hot sun and stifling air did nothing to cool me down. In a slight daze, I realized I was surrounded by the most beautiful landscape you could imagine. There was not a sound to be heard other than a few screeching insects and I was standing in the middle of a
very epic piece of single track. While the surroundings were perfect, my body wasn’t. I was hot, dizzy, sick and a little unsure of how I was going to get out of this paradise. I rested for a few minutes until I started to hear the sound of motorcycles approaching. The remaining two riders were making their way towards me and I realized I was going to have to continue.
The three of us pushed on and soon found the frontrunners were waiting just down the trail. At this point Javier decided his lost rider must have turned back and not continued. He said goodbye and headed back up the trail for the fourth time that day. He wasn’t even sweating and didn’t look the least bit winded. Not bad for a guy in his 50s.
After a few more minutes of rest, we decided it would be better to be moving than continue baking in the hot sun, so we fired up the bikes and pressed on. Less than a minute later the trail crossed a creek and I forced the group to stop again. Convinced I was near death, I crawled in with full gear and flopped down like a swine in a mudbath. The rest of the guys were pretty happy to cool off as well, though with a bit more dignity. This truly was paradise.