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Travel Costa Rica
By: Zdenko Kahlina
Have bike, will travel… Zdenko hits the road in Costa Rica!
This year we went to visit Costa Rica for the first time. Visiting Costa Rica is like nowhere else in the tropical Americas. I had an awesome road biking holiday there in a vibrant and fertile Central American paradise, blessed with a pleasant and hot tropical climate and an abundance of natural beauty.
My Costa Rica bike adventure began in town of Ocotal, Guanacaste province. During our three weeks stay in Costa Rica, we traveled around the country, visiting many popular places and making many new friends. I was riding my bike almost every day everywhere we went and I will share my experience with you.
Biking in Costa Rica is great!
Biking in Costa Rica was great fun, especially when February was still very cold and snowy in Edmonton! Costa Rica is small enough, safe enough and ‘Ticos’ are very friendly folks. However, public information on where to bike ride is scarce, signs are non-existent and there are no decent bike trails. I heard a lot about how popular mountain biking is in Costa Rica, but there isn’t many blogs on the internet that talk about road biking in Costa Rica.
The bike routes there feature active volcanoes, high mountain passes, lush tropical forests, waterfalls, river crossings and a lot of fun interactions with locals during my rides. First thing I noticed right of the bat everyone was nodding ‘hello’ to me during my rides. This doesn’t happen in Alberta, where other fellow cyclists pretend not to see you on the road. Costa Rica is very popular destination for bike enthusiasts but mostly mountain bikers. Costa Rica is more than just trails for mountain bikers. It also offers a tremendous amount of what has become my favorite kind of riding – exploring paved, lightly travelled back roads. I have to admit, before the trip I was afraid that Costa Rica doesn’t have good roads and many people were complaining on the internet about hectic traffic there. The opposite is true. I was pleasantly surprised how good Costa Rica roads are. I compered them to European roads before they build ‘autobahns’ everywhere at the end of 80’s. Since I didn’t go on major highways in Costa Rica (I know better!) traffic didn’t create any problems to me.
Bike races in Costa Rica
Cycling as a sport is becoming more popular all over the world including Costa Rica. One good example is the road bike competition called the International Route that has been hosted over 40 years in Costa Rica. Competitors come from all over the globe for this competition to complete in this professional stage race that run all over different parts of Costa Rica, much like the Tour de France. Another one of Costa Rica’s most popular bike races is known as the Ruta de los Conquistadores. This competition is by far one of the toughest tests of endurance and is a competition on mountain bikes realized each year. This competition is a tough route from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast.
But I don’t race anymore and racing is definitely not the reason why I traveled to Costa Rica. These days I am just an experienced (old) recreational cyclist, who still likes to ride on his road bike. I brought my ‘Marinoni’ bike aboard Air Transat flight from Edmonton to Liberia. In Liberia we rented a car and all the traveling through the country was done by car. For the first two weeks, we stayed in Ocotal, right next to the more popular and touristy Playa del Coco.
Biking in Guanacaste area
Playa del Coco lies about 35 kilometers west of Liberia, Guanacaste’s main city. It is the largest village in Guanacaste province of Costa Rica and easiest beach on the Nicoya Peninsula to access by road from Liberia. It is just 24 km or 40 minutes’ drive from Liberia’s Daniel Oduber International Airport. Playas del Coco is originally known as the main Costa Rica hub for surfers. This busy beach is a prime scuba diving spot, with many tour and diving companies set up here. Social life is very active and dining and nightlife is superb.
There aren’t that many cyclists in the area. At least, I haven’t seen many. For anyone looking to rent a bike in Playas del Coco, whether it is for a day or a month, look on the main street, approximately across from the entrance to El Pacifico shopping Centre and you will find a place that rents bicycles for reasonable prices with a selection to choose from. I never stepped inside the store, but don’t think they have any road bikes though… only mountain bikes.
Blasting it on the road bike in Costa Rica
For those of you wondering about riding a road bicycle in Costa Rica I can offer a little insight. As an experienced cyclist I can tell you riding in Costa Rica is an adventure! Although not because of the hectic traffic, but because of the hilly roads with some very steep climbing. Having competed for many years all over the Europe and even Africa I also have considerable experience of road riding in Canada, Mexico and the USA, and now Costa Rica! The roads here are narrow without shoulders so you have to be careful and keep your wits about you. I tried to avoid main highways in Costa Rica because other people warned me beforehand about the traffic danger there! The drivers here do drive a little crazy but they are used to seeing pedestrians, dogs, cows, horses, bikes whatever on the road so they normally give you a wide berth.
Life is a road and road is my life!
For two weeks I would hit the road early in the morning and leave villa El Sueno (B&B where we were staying) on the bike. The temperatures were already above +32 degrees… day after day! For every ride I needed two bottles of water with me, to survive in this hot weather. My rides were between 2 and 3 hours long, mainly on small country roads, along the coast in Guanacaste area. The sun rises are spectacular here and can make the whole ride worthwhile. I covered several great routes, with some hills that would challenge even the most experienced riders.
Out of Ocotal I had to climb one short but steep hill and go down on the other side to the streets of Playa del Coco. I covered four kilometers between Ocotal and Playa del Coco every morning in no time, as the road is slight downhill all the way to Coco and I was able to go pretty fast. I’ll admit, my legs were not cycling-ready because I came here in the middle of a long Canadian winter and without any road training since October last year.
Passing through the busy town of Playa del Coco was interesting because many local people and tourists were staring at me in my cycling gear. I guess they are not used to see many cyclists around here. But the town is small and as I was heading east out of the town, I left busy street life behind. From this point it was just the road and all the greenery around me. Traffic was no issue and the road was wide enough even though there was no shoulder to ride on.
Hilly course on the road to Playa Hermosa
The good paved road out of town was a slight uphill and I had to use smaller gears to warm up. Four kilometers later when I climbed to the top of the steep hill, I was at the point where I could go straight towards Comunidad and Liberia, or turn left towards Playa Hermosa. On my first ride I’ve chosen road #159 on my left, thinking I would enjoy the view of the ocean and lush greenery on my right.
Route #159 heads to the north towards Playa Hermosa and Playa Panama follows the ocean shore and it’s very hilly. It just goes up and down all the time. This was very scenic road with magnificent views of the ocean and villas on surrounding hills, but also very hilly and challenging for the cyclists. At Playa Hermosa watch for the three ‘topas’ in a row, which are there to slow down motorists through the village. I saw the first ‘tope’ in the last moment, because it was right at the bottom of a long downhill, where I was going over 70 km/h. So, be careful there!! On my way back to Playa del Coco on the same road, this was the beginning of a very steep hill about 2 km long. I was really suffering there…
After Playa Hermosa I went over another couple of steep hills before I was descending into Panama bay and yet another beach. Couple of kilometers further on the same road and the road ends in a dead end at the Hilton Papagayo resort. You can turn right at Playa Panama, on a newly paved road (#254) that heads up another very steep hill, 2 km long, inland (east) and lives coastal area. This road climbs all the way to Comunidad, which is a small town on main highway #21, between Liberia and Santa Cruz. No, I said to myself… this is not for me.
So I didn’t take that road. Instead I turned around at the Hilton resort and was heading back to Playa del Coco the same way I came here. I slowly ground up hill after hill while sweat fell like a river from beneath my helmet. I was chewing my stem crossing one last steep hill before getting back in Coco. Had enough of climbing for one hot day in Costa Rica!! I returned to this course only once more…
Easy and flat course
The following days I would be riding my bike on the road connecting Playa del Coco and Sardinal (route #151). At Sardinal I would make a right turn into the town and continue for another 7 km on a nicely paved flat road (route #912), before I would turn back at San Blas village. The road continues as a gravel road and eventually connects to highway #21.
Another road worth exploring in the same area was a very nice road (route #911) from Sardinal to RIU resort just south of Playa del Coco. This was newly paved road from Sardinal, with minimal traffic and no big hills… until you reach the last 2 km just before the RIU resort. Here was a typical Costa Rican hill: short and steep climb, followed by steep downhill into the RIU resort at the ocean shore. And remember, that was the end of the road, so I had to climb back up this very steep hill on my way back. But I survived… barely! The heat was killing me…
This scenic road was taking me through small authentic Costa Rica villages of Artola and Nuevo Colon. It really felt like being off the bitten path in Costa Rica! There were no tourists here… only locals! Riding through the small towns I would catch the smell of the wood burning stoves and the preparation of Gallo pinto and other wonderful dishes. I could see their small households by the road. Average Costa Ricans are very poor. Someone mentioned they only make about $500 monthly. At one point I was riding under the tree full of howler monkeys. Amazing experience…
Visiting Tamarindo and road biking there
During our last week in Costa Rica, we spend three days in Tamarindo area. Driving into Tamarindo (route #155), the scenery changes quickly from rural farmlands to busy streets jammed full of bronzed surfers heading to the beach and curious travelers checking out the many souvenir shops. Tamarindo Beach is part of a bay formed by a cape, Cabo Velas (velas is Spanish for sails, or sailfish). Playa Grande lies to the north of Tamarindo Beach inside the bay. Travelers staying in Tamarindo can easily access all the town’s amenities on foot although several hotels are located on back roads, which can be dark and dented with pot holes.
South of Tamarindo Bay there is another beautiful estuary and beach, Playa Langosta. Both Playa Grande and Playa Langosta are protected nesting areas for the giant leatherback turtle, and are part of the Costa Rican national park system. These beaches are the major nesting areas worldwide for the turtles, which arrive from October to March to lay their eggs.
Nature is abundant – howler monkeys can often be seen and heard swinging on branches throughout the area. It’s ideal if you are looking to be based in an upbeat, busy area and there are some fine hotel options. Bike rentals are also a great way to explore the town’s back roads and the village of Langosta. Mountain bikes generally rent for $20 a day and beach cruisers - $10 a day.
Exploring the roads around Tamarindo by bike
I did not see or meet any road bikers here either, but I wanted to ride on these roads, even though the temperatures were higher than in Ocotal. Here I would begin my ride around 4PM when the temperature was +39 degrees. This was really hot for riding a bike! By the end of my ride it would get a little more manageable as the sun was getting lower, and there was more shade on the road.
The main road to and from Tamarindo can be crowded with lots of traffic - cyclists should use caution, but I did not have any problems. Getting out of Tamarindo was easy as there is only one paved road (#152). As I was leaving Tamarindo I rode by Tamarindo airport and golf shooting range on my left, and had two small hills to go over. Soon after I was descending into the small village of Villareal where my road was merging with another road (route #155). I made a left turn here towards Huacas, Playa Conchal and Liberia airport, which suggested to me I was staying on the main road. If I made the right turn here the road would soon turn into gravel road and it was going in direction of Santa Cruz and Nicoya. This is the road (route #152) we used to came from San Jose.
So, I continued on the road #155 and rode by the landmark in this area the Best Western Hotel on my left. After 8 km I was in Huacas where the road splits again. The right fork takes you towards the Liberia airport and the left fork takes you to many different beaches along the coast. I turned left here and it was only 6 km to the Brasilito beach from here.
Brasilito is a small town that has not yet been taken over by tourists. It’s a good place to stop if you want to meet Costa Ricans on their own turf. I enjoyed the ambiance of this small little town. A walk along the two beaches in Brasilito takes you from the countryside through the middle of the low-key tourist strip of Brasilito to the magnificent white sand of Playa Conchal, an excellent swimming beach.
I rode straight through the small town and right by the Brasilito beach. Two sharp corners and I was out of the town and on the road towards next beach: Flamingo beach. This road was mainly flat and again very smooth pavement. On both sides of the road there were small B&Bs and other private touristy places for rent.
The most popular and easily accessible of all beaches is Flamenco Beach. Years back the Pink Flamingos nested in the nearby lagoon, and that’s how it got its name ‘Flamenco’ in Spanish. Visitors and locals can get here easily and inexpensively. You can take a ‘publico’ or taxi from town or bicycle like I did and ride along the paved roads. There is no fee to use the beach unless you are camping overnight.
This was the most beautiful beach I’ve seen in Costa Rica so far! The beach is a long horseshoe stretch of white powder sand and crystal line waters usually calm, except when some of the winter storms from the States bring the northerly swells down here. It is usually excellent for swimming and for kids to play and splashing water. The beach surroundings are patrolled and kept tidy by employees. I loved it so much, that next day we came with the car and spent half of the day swimming here. There are some kiosks where some food and refreshments are sold.
On my next ride from Tamarindo I wanted to explore where the road goes after the Flamingo beach. So I continued on the same road past Flamingo for another 6 km when I reached the quiet and gorgeous bay of Playa Potrero. Here the tourists can enjoy dreamy summer days along the numerous beaches and warm turquoise waters. The area is rich with exotic plants and wildlife, and to the east, a string of volcanic mountain ranges boarder the Province. For me this village felt like the end of the world, as the road was turning into gravel road from here. But if I continued on this road I would get to the village of Artola and connect to the road #911 and could go back to Sardinal and Playa del Coco. Someday, hopefully soon, this route will be improved and paved.
Return ride to Tamarindo was just as enjoyable and the sun was already very low, so the heat was easier to manage.
Back in Tamarindo traffic was more intense as everyone was going out for dinner. The main road through town runs parallel to the beach for 2.5 km until it ends in a small cul de sac. The sidewalks are lined with pharmacies, boutiques, restaurants and hotels to accommodate visitors. At the town’s first intersection, (before the cul-de-sac) there is an eastbound road that forks to the left leading to more shops and accommodations – all within a kilometer of the center of town. We were staying in this area in hidden Villas Macondo, on a small side grovel road behind some condominium high raises.
A great way to experience the Costa Rica!
And that was it about traveling Costa Rica by bicycle! This was a great experience for me, where I felt the taste and joy in a most pure way of the best of Costa Rica. If some of you decide to do the same, climbing into mountains, eating in a small family restaurants, and being treated friendly where ever you go; to be able to stop at the best hidden places will add great value to your Costa Rica experience. Learning to know the friendly Costarican people, while they amaze themselves over your appearance in your cycling gear, they will appreciate your effort to actually learn to know them. Wherever you choose to go, Costa Rica is the place to enjoy a thrill, fun, and verdant beauty, all from behind the handle bars of your bike.
Not like the 99% of the regular tourists, driving around in a Rental car, or a group’s bus just stopping when dictated by their ‘guide’ or travel itinerary. On your bike you will learn to see the real Costa Rica! I was happy to experience bike riding on this stunningly picturesque paved roads which make this country a perfect and idyllic road cycling destination.
Hope you found my biking stories interesting and enjoyable!
So, Hasta Luego until next time, mi amigos!!
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