Europe, North America · 14 Days · 26 Moments · August 2017

Steve's journi to Costa Rica

25 August 2017

Day 13. Hurricane Harvey is whipping its way into a frenzy in the Gulf of Mexico, while it decides where to make landfall in Texas. News reports suggest it's the most powerful storm since Katrina, nine years ago, to hit the USA. Our itinerary means we have to fly into and out of Houston, so I spend most of the morning wondering when someone will tell us the flight is cancelled. No such message is received, so off we go through spectacular rainy season clouds, over Nicaragua and some other unidentified countries, eventually reaching a grey fog as we get closer to the USA. But no hurricane entrails (breathe!), and our departure 3 hours later was much the same. We had outrun the approaching storm.

24 August 2017

Day 12. Cycling straight out of our La Fortuna hotel, we headed in strict single file along the busy local roads. Despite the unremarkable scenery I was trigger happy with the iPhone. Sometimes it's the mundane that captures the essence of the country: the small, brightly coloured houses with tin roofs and (to use a phrase coined by Ruth) "posh cars behind bars"; the hedges full of tropical shrubs; the little 'Sodas' and 'Supers' that serve travellers in small towns and villages; the iconic snouted trucks that roar past us in both directions. After a refreshing fruit and toilet stop we pushed on to the grand finale of our 12 days of cycling, ending with a nice thigh-crunching hill. Hugs all round and bikes back on the bus for the last time, with perhaps just a hint of sadness. Lunch was served in a roadside refectory with an extensive gift shop full of possible souvenirs. Or as Jack had it, "Landfill". A final dinner and thank you at the cafe near La Rosa completed the day.

23 August 2017

Day 10 (continued). After a big buffet lunch, we zoomed across to Tortuguera village in a boat taxi. Pleasantly touristy but with sufficient real life, as well as a wild Caribbean beach, the village is also home to a turtle conservation centre. Here we watched a movie about the history of the program, reversing decades of turtle exploitation for meat by persuading the locals that eco-tourism would (eventually) be more lucrative and (self-evidently) more sustainable. Back by 5 and straight to a full body massage booked by Pete on a 2 for 1 deal. It was more like 2 for 1.5 in practice, but very pleasant and worth sixty bucks just for the facial dancing fingers. Yet another buffet meal (no wonder we're not losing weight) was followed by our pre-booked night visit to the turtle beach to observe the amazing nesting of the green turtle 'in the flesh', so to speak. Despite sharing a meagre 2 turtles between 42 eager watchers it was worth the €35, if only to prove the math!
Day 11. We left Tortuguera early, to get back to our bikes in plenty of time for a half decent ride, before a long transfer to our next overnight stop in La Fortuna, 'home' of the Arenal volcano. As a result it was perhaps the most developed tourist town so far, as testified to by Andrès' choice of potential restaurants exceeding one. Two! The other reason for the rather cursory 27km of pedalling was the fact that we had a booking at a thermal pool/spa at 6-7.30. Which was nice. As it turned out the restaurant chosen by the group was fully booked, leading to a welcome evening of independent choices. Helen and I had already agreed to de-group and drink more than eat, selecting the bar that Memo described as 'for Gringos'. When the Lava Bar kicked us out we found the only late bar in town to down a couple more Imperials. Knowing we had a slightly later start next morning helped. The cycling was eminently forgettable and were it not for the photos, would have been.

22 August 2017

Day 10: Last night after an hour's boat ride from our drop-off point through majestic 'untouched' forest, we arrived at La Baula (the Spanish name of the Leatherback turtle), our lodge for 2 nights. This is situated in the Tortuguera national park, but far from being majestic or untouched La Baula features buffet food-service, colour-coded bungalows and last but not least the 'Gecko bar', with a cocktail happy hour and music pumping out to dance music videos until late. Its only token gesture towards the natural environment seems to be no air conditioning, not the one I wish they'd chosen. But all of that can't detract from the forest itself, which we explored by boat this morning. Despite having Andrès as a stand-in guide, or maybe because of that, we saw plenty of wildlife. Take the quiz now - how many can you identify?

21 August 2017

Memo's bus lecture this morning included the sad tale of his home town Torrialba, once a thriving hub on the road between the Caribbean coast and the Central Valley. Famous for its Palm-lined main street, over the years various government decisions have made it wealthy, then poor again. Banana cultivation moved, the railway tracks were not replaced after an earthquake damaged the route and the (truck company owning) President declared road haulage as the preferred transportation of goods. A fast-flowing river that once hosted the world white-water rafting championships was dammed, cutting off another lucrative source of trade. Building a prison didn't help tourism either... On the plus side the agricultural research NGO CATIE (dedicated to improving yields and disease resistance in tropical crops) is based there, as is a famous school run by Gnomes. Actually Nuns, but Pete's misheard version was funnier. Later on the transfer to lunch we heard about ants....
Day 9: The morning view from our hotel revealed a far more beautiful vista than our arrival in damp cloud had allowed. On the bus to our starting point just outside Torrialba (see next blog), we were mentally prepared for the hills to come: "Some are bitches, then there are bastards". Actually this was a private comment that Andrès shared with someone else, but it accurately described the following 10 miles of almost unbroken upness. After a much needed fruit stop we set off for another 8 miles of mostly downhill terrain. Maybe it was the sheer mental and physical relief, but I'm pretty sure this was also the most beautiful section we have ridden so far, and it ended with a refreshing dip in a river. That cheered up the thighs and calves a treat! After a hearty lunch in a proper working town, the sunny morning gave way to the familiar grey skies and steady sweep of the bus windscreen wipers, until we emerged back into a sunny late afternoon for our 1 hour boat trip to the forest.

20 August 2017

Day 8. For today's 45km bike ride through delightful scenery we had plenty of Sunday bikers for company. Around 42km of it took place in sunshine, but as a result of a minor deluge during the last 3km to our destination (a coffee plantation and factory), I am now trying to dry my biking gear before tomorrow's jaunt. Hanging between the glass ventilation slats that form part of the window, the dripping shoes, shorts and pants partially obscure my view of trees and bamboo, rocking in a light breeze against a grey, rain-promising sky. Our stopover tonight is Turrialtico Lodge and restaurant, which in its own dilapidated way is quite charming. The shower produced 4 thick dribbles of water which eventually became tolerably warm, but I've had less luck with power sockets. Other rooms may be better appointed; I seem to be at the back with the guides, whose radio and showers are clearly audible through the plywood walls. Not complaining, as I haven't had to share again since Las Islas.
Andrès on-the-bus factoid #37: Volcanoes (better described as volcanic structures) provide 15.6% of Costa Rica's electricity, whilst the top 3 are water (hydroelectric), volcanic (geothermal) and wind power. How green is that!

19 August 2017

Meet the team (part 2): Jack, Chris, Barbara, Bernard, Jai, Helen, Ruth, Peter C.
Day 7 (Saturday). Today we left the research centre (directly by bike and not by bus for a change), turned left at the gate and cycled for 50km over undulating terrain with great views. At the end, soaked in sweat from the climbs, we ate our packed lunches by the roadside. Not being especially hungry at 11.15 (we'd set off at 7.30), I first changed into what dry clothes I could muster from my rucksack (er, pants and socks, so I had to remain shirtless until Andreas offered us the tour cycling jerseys on the bus, for an eye watering $65!) A long, slow, hairpin-bended, rainy bus trip then took us to our present hotel in Paraiso, on the east fringe of the heavily populated central province. Dinner at 7.30 will be very welcome, even though it'll be my umpteenth rice & beans meal. Plenty of other choices but they all sounded a bit meaty in comparison. I'm beginning to feel that the trip is not quite what I'd hoped for, without being able to articulate what's missing.

18 August 2017

Meet the team (part 1): Jason, Bev, Danielle, Sharon, Andy, Kes, Peter V, Yours truly. I had planned to interview everyone and provide a full profile, but I thought of this idea too late and only managed 5 in-depth discussions. So we'll have to make do with a short quip (under each photo) instead... Ignore the location, the app got confused as I was writing this on the plane.
Day 6: Tucked up in bed at 21.00, in the Las Cruces Biological Station/Wilson Botanical Garden, which as its name suggests is a research centre. Accommodation and catering are both excellent, though we had to bring our own booze from a supermarket we stopped at in 'Buernos Aires' (the less well-known one). It's quite high up, which coupled with the blanket of thick cloud we are presently under makes it pretty cold, so dinner outside required fleeces, and I've found an extra blanket to stay warm! Cycling was limited today due to two separate 'excursions', the second being a tour of these gardens. Several of us also attended an after dinner lecture by the new head of horticulture, though I was the only one who found it remotely interesting, it seems. Earlier, after a cursory cycle of around 23km on the Golfito side of the bay, we had lunch at a more unusual botanical garden run by an eccentric American with a long history in Costa Rica, palm oil and alternative medicine. Entertaining!

17 August 2017

Day 5, a free day for excursions, laundry and recharging. Last night came the crushing news (for both of us) that I was sharing a room with Bernard, our self-styled French hypochondriac. His first words: "You will have a terrible night's sleep, but it's not my fault". Since it wasn't mentioned earlier, I should explain that Bernard fell off twice on day 1, giving himself multiple cuts and big bruises and having to sit out days 2-4 (possibly even the whole holiday) in the bus. He has been in "terrible pain" since the incident, his first fall in 40 years of serious bike-riding around his native Paris. Anyway I slept soundly and wasn't disturbed by any of the promised moaning and groaning. After sending Alexia an extra photographic greeting for her birthday today, Pete and I set off after breakfast for our rainforest canopy 'walk'. We must have read the description upside down, as it turned out to be a descent into the rainforest via 8 zip wires. Good fun and a frog sighting to boot!

16 August 2017

Day 4. After breakfast at our swish Pacific view hotel, we mounted the bikes near the spot where we'd abandoned ship the previous evening. Our first long distance day was divided into 4 chunks - 17km to a watermelon stop, a further 30km to the indigenous people's spherical rock sculptures (pineapple and lecture stop), then 15km to lunch next to a river; a hawker was advertising his 'rich in electrolytes' coconut water straight out of the fruit, but I was the only taker from our group of 16. It tasted amazing, and afterwards he chopped open the young coconut to reveal not the hard white interior familiar from hairy brown ones, but a thin gelatinous substance that had to be spooned out. Yummy stuff, so a $1 bargain as my appetiser. Our transfer to the post-lunch starting point took close to 2 hours, thanks to constant heavy rain from leaden skies, but we eventually got back on with 22km to go. Sodden from a brief earlier soaking, we were glad to turn into 'Las Islas', home for 2 days.

15 August 2017

Day 3: when we learned the true meaning of 'rainy season', as our post-lunch ride was cut short by biblical levels of the stuff. We cycled through the flash floods until our clothes and shoes couldn't hold any more water, and our guides kindly decided it was too dangerous, or pointless, to carry on. That meant an early bus ride to our (rather posh) hotel, whose receptionists seemed unfazed by 16 bedraggled cyclists dripping on their nicely tiled floor. Earlier in the day we were rained on less severely in the Manuel Antonio national park, where we (and a few hundred others) were out spotting 'wildlife' with our guides and their special spotting scopes. In our case the super-cool Andreas morphed seamlessly into a nature guide, complete with perfectly co-ordinated khaki uniform. And so to dinner...

14 August 2017

Sorry, I did promise you a sloth being rescued by the fire brigade. Oh and some cycling!
Day 2. Well I can't complain about the wildlife quotient any more. We've seen a lot. More birds/herons than you can point a stick at; crocodiles all over the place, including one with babies, a scene that the guide said he'd only seen 4 times in many years guiding; and a sloth being rescued by the fire brigade. Lunch was, er, rice and beans again, but it was absolutely delicious; or maybe that was the cycling, and the view of the Pacific talking. Our stopover in Manuel Antonio is quite touristic, but with surfing waves to die for you can understand why. Just waiting for dinner as sundown removes the last temptation to go in the sea after all...
Rice and beans. At breakfast it's called Gallo Pinto (pied chicken), but at lunch it's called Cassado ('married'). There's also a version on the Caribbean side made with coconut milk and (until the 70's), turtle meat. Part of Guillermo's morning lecture on Costa Rica history, politics, education and economics.

13 August 2017

Day 1: Our first day in the saddle was not terribly strenuous, split around a lunch stop and probably no more than 3 and a half hours/35km. The scenery wasn't that great, consisting mostly of suburban bungalows (which all seem to be protected by barbed wire fences), and not much what-I-call-nature. During the day we got to know a little more about each of our co-riders, but I'm far too tired to go into that now....

12 August 2017

Nice to get to our hotel and the prospect of sleep! No appetite to go to the local bar so straight to bed at 10.00pm, or 5am in my body. Slept pretty well but couldn't avoid getting up at 5.45, which gave me a relaxing hour to sort out which bag everything was in. Breakfast was great, lots of fruit of course but also delicious Fried rice with scrambled egg, great cycling food. Just getting our briefing and we'll be in the saddle soon...
So we are here at last. Well, we are here in a long snake of a queue for passport control, an idea they might have got from the Americans. That nice sunset on wingtip shot aside, there was little to recommend this three and a half hour flight. Sitting in cramped seats at the back, paying for the beer, and once it got dark looking out at menacing thunderclouds that occasionally lit up like malevolent lampshades. Worse than that, the screen on the back of the seats kept begging me to pay for films, crap sitcoms or baseball news and I could see no way of turning it off. 150 of these buggers flashing like fruit machines made the interior feel like a casino, a garish reminder of the incessant commercialism of the USA. We have now been up for 22 hours and looking forward to seeing the back of this queue, and the front of our hotel.
Quick recce of the shopping area revealed no interesting shorts to replace the ones that HAVEN'T ARRIVED. However there was some very nice faux-healthy food and drinks packaging to keep me amused. So adios Houston. And yes you can buy T-shirts with "Houston, we have a problem" written on them...
"Houston we have a problem". There, I said it, even though there was no problem with Houston. American border security was its usual surly self, and I got the extra privilege of a bag search and some funny questions about 'my last trip to the US'. But the 10 hour flight with United was really pleasant, with "free wine and beer" announced at the beginning. They also had wifi and Mrs Overall meets Joan Rivers on trolley service. I watched Assassin's Creed on my phone via the United App instead of the screen, so I could use my natty new Bluetooth, noise-cancelling headphones. Couldn't see anything of course, but it sounded good.
So, we're off! Day one is called 'getting there' and it started with the shuttle bus from our hotel plus car parking to terminal 2, via a long line of other hotels. An improbably large number of 4-wheeled suitcases were added at every stop, and these lurched down the floor of the bus with every bend in the road, their owners being admonished by the driver for 'not keeping hold of them like I told you'. Check in was easy and quick, leaving just enough time for brekky at 'Wondertree', the successor to Giraffe I suppose. Nice Porridge!

11 August 2017

So after a 13 hour workday, sending a few emails to special clients to reassure them of quality service despite my absence, and writing a witty(-ish) Out of Office (go on try it), I swung over to Pete's place for the 2 hour drive to Heathrow. The Sheraton is almost on runway 6 but no doubt has great soundproofing. We shall see as I need the sleep after not getting much last night....