A Cycling Par­adise, Mostly

Empty beaches, dirt roads and tough climbs fea­ture on the Ni­coya Penin­sula

Canadian Cycling Magazine - - CONTENTS - by Matthew Kadey

The empty beaches, dirt roads and tough climbs of Costa Rica

I’m in a pain cave, al­beit a ridicu­lously beau­ti­ful one. We are inch-by-inch mak­ing our way up an­other ab­surdly steep and rut­ted Costa Ri­can road that knows no mercy. With temps hov­er­ing around 35 C, I’m sweat­ing as if I’ve been locked in a sauna. Tabi has skid­ded out and is now slumped over her loaded-down bike putting in a Her­culean ef­fort to push up this 16 per cent grade. A yel­low-bel­lied kiskadee belts out its kis-ka-dee call al­most to cheer us on. We are sur­rounded by densely forested hills. On the other side of this hump is a de­li­cious spread of un­spoiled beaches. Yes, Costa Rica’s Ni­coya Penin­sula is a cycling par­adise, or hell, de­pend­ing on your state of mind at any given mo­ment. Jut­ting out into the Pa­cific from the north­west of Costa Rica, the roughly 130-km-long Ni­coya land mass is best known as a des­ti­na­tion for beach lovers and surfers wish­ing to catch a wave. But now a steady stream of bikepack­ers are ven­tur­ing here to gain a deeper con­nec­tion to this land by tack­ling the abun­dance of lightly traf­ficked dirt roads, one slow pedal stroke at a time.

For the most part, Costa Rica has not wit­nessed the dark days in­flicted on many other Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries by the drug trade. Demo­cratic and fairly pros­per­ous, Costa Rica fa­mously abol­ished its mil­i­tary in 1948 with funds then redi­rected from pur­chas­ing guns to school books. The coun­try has a rep­u­ta­tion for peace­ful­ness and mind-bog­gling bio­di­ver­sity. My part­ner, Tabi Ferguson, and I wanted to come to the Ni­coya for our own ver­sion of eco­tourism – beach hop­ping by hu­man power on our moun­tain bikes.

Our head units might seem like dig­i­tal creep, but they make it a lot eas­ier to dis­cover some of the Ni­coya’s best de­serted side roads, such as the path that takes us south to the beach-re­sort town of Mon­tezuma. In the bush, shaggy howler mon­keys, males with their un­nerv­ing rasp­ing go­rilla-like bel­lows, seem to be hav­ing a much eas­ier time leap­ing be­tween trees than we have tack­ling the pun­ish­ing in­clines. In a land that is so easy on the eyes, we learn that it’s im­por­tant not to have tun­nel vi­sion when you’re putting in a Sisyphean ef­fort to keep your wheels mov­ing for­ward.

The most brag-wor­thy ride of our trip takes us from Mon­tezuma, and its hip­pie beach cul­ture, to the west­ern side of the Ni­coya. Among the bounty of pho­to­genic high­lights are the rugged coast­line, a mas­sive stran­gler fig

tree that makes my bike look like a Happy Meal toy, lung-bust­ing climbs fol­lowed by sketchy down­hills, foot-soak­ing river cross­ings that are mer­ci­fully too shal­low to hide croc­o­diles and an ex­hil­a­rat­ing stretch of beach rid­ing where Tabi and I are able to trade in a hilly, dusty inland op­tion for pedalling on hard­packed sand where our only other com­pany is the pound­ing surf and a few crabs dart­ing into their holes. Just a few puffy clouds pop­u­late a per­fect blue­bird sky.

Later on, from a tree in a front yard, an el­derly Costa Ri­can – or tico – plucks sev­eral star fruits that I then stuff glee­fully into my pan­nier. Na­tion­alge ographic has iden­ti­fied the Ni­coya as a Blue Zone, a re­gion of the planet that pro­duces an es­pe­cially

high rate of cen­te­nar­i­ans. Clean air, lush sur­round­ings, a fre­quent playlist of bird­song and a healthy dose of beans are surely a recipe for longevity.

Costa Rica in­tends to be­come the first car­bon-neu­tral na­tion via sev­eral ini­tia­tives, which in­clude con­tin­u­ing to nur­ture its forests. So when it comes to tree-lov­ing avian life, the coun­try has an em­bar­rass­ment of riches. From the fetch­ing blue-crowned mot­mot with its dis­tinc­tive pen­du­lous tail to the brightly plumed gartered tro­gon, each day we seem to ride among birds that are new to us. I’m glad I had room for binoc­u­lars in my pan­niers.

As we make our way up the west coast, the road has more wash­board bumps. This is not a land for road­ies perched on feath­erlight car­bon who want to put the ham­mer down. No, ami­gos, the Ni­coya’s dearth of pave­ment and an­gry to­pog­ra­phy demands that you bring a moun­tain bike. Ex­pect to move at a mod­er­ate pace, es­pe­cially if you’ve for­got­ten to pack your climb­ing legs.

The abun­dance of sub­lime beaches on the route to the ocean­side town of Puerto Cur­rillo of­fers plenty of op­por­tu­ni­ties to rest our weary limbs. For ev­ery beach on the Ni­coya that has been sul­lied by ever-en­croach­ing bland mega-re­sorts, there seems to be a dozen, such as Playa Coy­ote, Playa San Miguel and Playa Coroza­l­ito, that re­main largely un­spoiled and bliss­fully un­gen­tri­fied. Sim­ply pedal down a dirt road where but­ter­flies out­num­ber cars to­ward the ocean, and you’re bound to find your­self star­ing at a stress-bust­ing, co­conut palm­lined beach free of foot­prints that can be a tran­quil place to pitch a tent.

Ni­coy­ans are very proud of their many beaches, which shows in how rel­a­tively spot­less they are ow­ing to fre­quent com­mu­nity cleanups. So when we stum­ble out of our tent well be­fore the sun has awak­ened to walk along Playa Os­tional and we gawk at olive ri­d­ley sea tur­tles lum­ber­ing ashore to lay their eggs in the sand, we aren’t nav­i­gat­ing around plas­tic bot­tles and old toi­lets. Weigh­ing as much as 100 lb., adult tur­tles re­turn year af­ter year to the same beach where they hatched many years be­fore. It ap­pears that the tur­tles are mov­ing faster than what we can man­age up some of the near-ver­ti­cal climbs.

Most of our rides re­quire calo­rie glut­tony to re­place spent en­ergy re­serves. Thank­fully, there are many lo­cal restau­rants to ap­pease our growl­ing tum­mies with tasty casado, a hearty med­ley of rice, beans and meat. Fresh fruits, such as pineap­ple, mango and the curious granadilla, are al­ways nearby to pro­vide a re­fresh­ing snack.

A mix­ture of dirt roads that weave through tree tun­nels, beach rid­ing – or in one in­stance, beach push­ing – and rather bland pave­ment bring us back to the city of Liberia and the con­clu­sion of our Costa Ri­can ram­ble. De­spite all the hard­ships (oh, those in­clines, wash­board and dust), it’s im­pos­si­ble to over­look all the en­tic­ing re­wards that the rus­tic and rough-around-the-edges Ni­coya can of­fer a tour­ing cy­clist. Just don’t for­get the sun­screen and chamois cream.

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