On April 25, we crossed into Costa Rica via a boat ride down the jungle surrounded River Frio from San Carlos, Nicaragua to Los Chiles, Costa Rica.
We were probably one of the last to take this journey as a bridge crossing the infamous San Juan River – the historical “Panama Canal” for Spanish colonials and pirates – newly opened on May 15, 2014. All over Nicaragua are Japanese donated bridges and infrastructure. Apparently, the port of San Juan del Sur was donated by the Japanese and the Nicaraguan government kindly gifted the Japanese fishing rights. However, this bridge signifies a change in this whole area – from transportation by boats on the labyrinth of river systems through the rainforest that characterized a political and economic backwater (literally) to transportation through roads supporting big trucks moving goods through Central America alongside industrial and agricultural development. This transition from water to land crossing has a lot of potential for especially the undeveloped Nicaraguan side in development but also higher risks of further marginalization for local peoples as new capital can sweep in to displace poor subsistence farmers and fishers. On the Costa Rican side, the roads start up again after Los Chiles though there are many rivers as the high elevation cloud forests rake moisture out of the skies and funnels them into many rivers heading to the Caribbean. There is a town named Puerto Viejo, literally translates to “Old Port”, in the middle of the landscape due to being on a strategic location on old river routes. Maybe Nicaragua can learn a thing or two from Costa Rica as we ride over a hilly landscape through vast orange, pineapple and sugarcane plantations in some areas and lush rainforest with howler monkeys hanging from trees in others. There is very little trash on the roads in Costa Rica and the houses we pass by are sturdy and well built. People are so friendly and welcoming and fruit is everywhere.
We camped the first night in a TicoFrut orange plantation where it was citrus heaven – all the amazingly sweet oranges we could eat! Staff directed us to an area that had already been harvested where we could camp but there were still some delicious fruit on the trees and some that had fallen to the ground. The abundance of fruit meant that there was also an abundance of life and at night, the ground sparkled like reflecting the millions of stars above when the eyes of spiders, ants and other insects reflected the light of our headlamps.
Unfortunately, the clouds moved in during the night. Going to sleep under blanket of stars and clear skies, we had left the fly off our tents. It was a bit of a frantic moment in the middle of the night as the first sprinkles registered in our sleepy minds and then running around to thrown the fly on and grab any clothes drying outside before the real downpour started. In the morning, it was drizzly and wet, which continued for most of our ride through Costa Rica. However, this just meant we looked for shelter to camp under. The next night, we camped in a little shelter at a small village’s sport’s field. There was a coconut palm and the next morning, we waited out the rain a bit by feasting on cocounts.
It was a challenging ride from Muelle to San Miguel as we ascended and descended in the foothills of the tall mountains. The terrain had its challenges but the real challenge was the energy sapping rain. We often stopped and found shelter when it really started to pour so our day dragged on long. However, we were rewarded by an amazing 11km winding downhill from San Miguel to La Virgen through lush forests and fields. It was so windy that on bikes, we were going faster than a big semi-truck that trailed us for a bit. In La Virgen, w stayed at Hacienda Pozo Azul, a sprawling farm and jungle acreage turned into an eco-adventure tourism playground with ziplines, horseback riding, rafting and more. We camped in their old now empty cattle barns where theyused to keep about 300 dairy cows. We met Max as he was training 10 new guides in a nearby building and as we started talking to him about the trails, he said that he can come along with us because he wanted to check out the trails and see how much cleaning they needed anyways. The next morning, we were hiking through the dense jungle with Max, on an overgrown trail. Not even 100m off the road in the farm along the trail to the suspension bridge over the river, he stops and says, “Can you hear that?” Nestled in the loud song of the cicadas, there is a shorter, sharper sound like someone lighly knocking two wooden sticks together. It is a poison arrow frog, he says, and then quickly finds its source as a bright red and blue frog about two inches long on a branch by the ground. Max starts snapping his fingers in a rhythm of three at one point and we hear something in the forest making the snapping sound back at us. “It thinks I’m another male”, Max said as he continues a building frenzy snapping duet with a bird flitting around in the tree doing a territorial dance until it finally comes out so we can see it.
The jungle, as Max shows us, is immensely rich in diversity and life. It is Mother Nature’s cathedral with tall trees, each a forest in it of themselves covered with hanging vines and other plants growing and spilling green leaves out of the tree’s branches and trunk. Trees are like a multi-level cascading green waterfall of leaves and vines – an art collage of different leaves from the community of plants. There is so much life everywhere you look on every level from frogs, ants, wild turkeys and grouses on the rainforest floor to monkeys hooting from branches. There were toucans in the trees and we even got to see a flock of six blue green macaws, giant parrots, flew overhead. It is a world where as a person, you feel small because there is so much going on – some of it strange, some of it deadly but all of it beautiful and complex with worlds of life within worlds such as the hanging garden on a single tree. There was a walking palm with lots of little roots out of the ground like a frame of a teepee tent supporting a tall straight trunk that apparently moves those roots to walk the tree towards more sunlight. These trees walk about 2 metres a year! Max would stop and point out jaguar trails through the brush and just when I started to think, “Really?”, he would show us jaguar prints in the mud.
The forest was beautiful and wonderful but was also dangerous. “I am a brave man,” Max said, “I know the dangers here and I still return (to the jungle).” As we were walking across a wooden bridge, Max stomped on the wet, moss and leaf covered planks to test if they could still hold weight. All of a sudden, he told us to stay back. There was a flur-de-lance snake on the bridge, coiled up and sunning itself. We couldn’t even see it at first until Max pointed with his machete to the small snake, no longer than 4 or 5 inches long. It is small and very young (it’s many brothers and sisters may have been all around us as well as its large mother!) but already had enough poison to kill 50 adults. The fer-de-lance is one of the most deadly snakes in the world. Max uses the machete to lift the coiled snake up and off the bridge for us to walk by, now with much more care of where we’re placing out feet.
However, what got me was a bullet ant. It is about 2 inches long and it’s bite and sting feels like you have been hit by a bullet. We were walking over a deluxe log bridge where it was more than just a log over a stream but rather also had bottle caps nailed into the log for more grip and a smaller pole on the side as railings. I grabbed at the railing at the end and felt the most incredible pain in my hand. I looked down and there was this huge black ant on me. I quickly flung it off but it had already done its damage. Max said that since Bryan and I were close, he could pee on the sting to help it a bit and I immediately ask Bryan to. Bryan said, “Really?” and I replied an immediate, “Yes!” I was in that much pain. Six hours later, I could barely use my finger and it felt like I had broken it. By the time I went to sleep over twelve hours later, I was still in pain. Luckily however, apparently the pain only lasts for about 24 hours.
We hiked up to some beautiful waterfalls which we swam around in the cool waters and scrambled around on the rocks. Behind the waterfall was another waterfall cascading down. It was the perfect way to cool down from a sweaty hike through the moist jungle.
The next day, we went river rafting in the afternoon and it was a fun, wet time riding down class 2 and 3 rapids on the Sarapiqui river.
“Forward!” our guide would call out to us from the back of the blue inflated raft and the four of us would start paddling forward down churning whitewater.
“Stop!” our guide would then instruct us as we got into position and we would draw our paddles out of the water and sit tight as waves rocked and splashed refreshingly cold water in our faces. Other times, we had just made it through some rapids and we floated down the calm waters with jungle crowding into the river on both sides. Tall trees hung over the waters, drapeing vines into the water for us to dogde as we paddle by. Our group today consisted of a family of three from New Hampshire in one raft with a guide and the four of us with a guide and one guide in a white water kayak to help anyone who falls overboard. A hot day, water all around us and all of us having paddles meant that we weren’t just getting wet from the rapids but also from each other as our tour turned into an hour and half long waterfight.
About 15km from Guapiles, we merged onto the busy Highway 32. Hwy 32 is the only highway to the Caribbean coast and links together the captial of San Jose with the busy port at Limon. Heavy, visibility reducing and road slipperfying rain with narrow to non-existent shoulders and big trucks thundering by made for dangerous conditions and we quickly retreated off the road to the cover of bus shelters. Just when the buses were started to look mighty appealing, the rain would stop and we would keep on riding until the next downpour. However, the heavy downpour also means that it can only rain for so long and it stops after a bit. The air is thick with humidity and heat as water falls out of the sky, gets evaporated until the air can’t hold any more moisture anymore and rains again. Hitowever, this does mean an exceptionally rich environment and amazing fruit stands! In Siquirres, a busy market town with a very steamy Caribbean feel to it, There were stands everywhere on the side of the streets selling lucious fruits including strawberries and huge, plump mangoes – 4 kilos of mangos for 1000 colones, roughly $2 CDN!
The next morning in Siquirres was clear blue skies – our first in Costa Rica so far! It was a very pleasant ride with lots of downhill and a little uphill as we complete our last leg to the coast. About 10km out of Puerto Limon, it becomes a dustbowl of trucks all with huge trailers. In a place called Liverpool, there are huge yards for containers in storage or processing for shipment. Many huge companies have factories and shipping yards here.
Limon is more multicultural than we have experienced in a long time and there are many people from diverse backgrounds including Black, Chinese, Spanish and indigenous. In some ways, it reminds me a little of being in Los Angeles again. The city is industrial and a little gritty but it is very much alive and bustling with people. There is a huge concrete cathedral with striking angular shapes, run down wooden buildings with patios painted turqouise green, and colourfully painted pedestrian areas lined with shops and sodas – little cafes for a quick meal. We stayed with a couchsurfing host named Erick and his family for a couple nights Erick showed us around Limon a bit including the beautiful white sand and turqouise waters of Playa Bonita and the black sand beach of Playa Moin.
From Limon, we rode about 60km south to Puerto Viejo on flat roads through beautiful coastal jungle and beach. It was rainy and drizzly today but the grey skies couldn’t diminish the raw beauty of the long beaches, peaceful rivers and horizon to horizon banana fields. At the junction right before Puerto Viejo, we said our roadside goodbyes to Rigel and Erin who are continuing south through Panama on more of a timeline – their flight home leaves from Panama City, still 700km away, at the end of May. It has been a lot of fun to ride with them again.
Puerto Viejo is about 5km down a windy jungle road towards the beautiful beach. We first past by the black sand Playa Negra which transitions to a golden sand beach infront of Puerto Viejo. We stayed with David, a musican and martial artist originally from Southern California but now lives full time at a little wooden house in the jungle right beside the beach. Like a forest hermit, he lives simply contemplating enlightnment, love and enjoying the vivid experiences of life. There is no electricity in his house and the shower in his bathroom has actually become a spawning pool for tadpoles and mosquitos but there is a beauty in watching dozens of little lizards bobbing their heads and waving their tails from the vines and branches of the dense jungle enveloping his patio where we’re camping. We fall asleep serenaded by frogs and the chirps of geckos and the periodic thump of a water apple – a fruit that tastes like a pear with a hint of fragrant rose – falling onto the roof. The next day, we experience a bit of his enchanted life waking up at dawn to meet up with some friends who are devotees of the Guru Amma for meditation and chanting, then volunteering at a local soup kitchen for impoverished indigenous Bribri people, yoga session in the jungle, snorkling at the beach and a delicious potluck with friends. On May 7, we locked up our bikes, packed our duffle bags and jumped on a bus to San Jose to meet up with Bryan’s parents, Pat and Bill, who joined us in Costa Rica for a couple weeks.