Days 109-115 – Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya, Nicaragua to Cahuita, Limón, Costa Rica – 17,748 km
When I reached La Paz Centro after the fall on the dirt road from León, I found Jess waiting for me beside her bike on the main highway.
‘I figured you would be a while so I sat at a restaurant and had a drink. Then I came here,’ she said. ‘Wait. Did you go down? You’re covered in dirt and so is your bike. Oh, love, did you have fun?’
From La Paz Centro we rode along the lake and into Managua and then out again. About 20 km outside the capitol, we went south into Parque Nacional Volcán Masaya. We splashed through deep puddles that collected from the rain that struck briefly during midday as I was emerging from the soft powder of the dirt road outside León. We ascended the tarmac road to the volcano summit where the air was cool and the clouds smelled of sulfur. After a short time spent at the summit we descended again to the ranger station where we set up our tent in the picnic area. The twilight was quickly fading and the water for our pasta was nearly boiled when the night guardsman wandered over to greet us.
‘No se preocupan por las serpientes?’ he asked. ‘You are not worried about the snakes?’
‘We saw a sign but before they left the rangers said this was a good place to camp,’ I said.
‘Ask him what kind of snakes,’ Jess said.
‘Poisonous ones. Cobras,’ the night guardsman said. ‘They like the grass.’
We look around with the faint pale light from our headlamps. Well, now we won’t be able to think about anything but the snakes! I thought to myself.
‘There is a better place over here,’ the night guardsman said.
He led us to the rear of the ranger station where a large roofed patio opened to an amazing view of Laguna de Masaya and the surrounding hills. After we had hauled our pitched tent and all our unpacked gear to the new camp site, Jess returned to preparing the spaghetti while I rode the motorbikes out of the picnic area and around the narrow path so that they could join us on the patio behind the ranger station. The wind was strong in the evening and then it calmed into the night as we sat on our camp chairs, ate pasta, drank wine, and I smoked a cigar while we watched an episode of Downton Abbey on Jess’s laptop.
The next morning we rode into Granada and then south on the Pan-American through strong gusts of wind to San Juan del Sur, which is a popular surfing destination on the Pacific coast. Although I grew up in Los Angeles, it was actually on one of the beaches near San Juan del Sur that I learned to surf only a few years ago. We took a cold drink and a lunch at one of the restaurants along the beach and then after another ride through heavy winds we reached the Costa Rica border. When we got there I immediately started to get worried because it was all very crowded. We were losing daylight and the growing line of people waiting to go through immigration had backed up all the way to where we had parked the bikes.
‘The hordes have our girls encircled and sooner or later someone’s going to lay grubby hands on them!’ I said to Jess as I watched nervously from our place further up in the queue.
When we returned to the bikes after obtaining our exit stamp, a man who was in line nearby introduced himself to me.
‘I think it’s great that you’re doing this,’ he said. ‘I told my son that he has to do this before he has kids and responsibilities.’
His name was Mark and he sells real estate at The Palms, which is an ultra exclusive residence club at Playa Flamingo in Costa Rica.
‘Get in touch and we’ll see about setting you up with a night or two and maybe we’ll do a piece on it for our own publicity.’
I called him the next morning and, after a brief chat, we rode south to Playa Flamingo.
‘Go hang out by the pool and have a juice or a cocktail while I finish my meeting and work out what we can do for you,’ Mark said.
He and his web developer, who were from Chicago and New Jersey, respectively, wore shorts and sandals and short sleeves, and they worked at desks set up in one of the unsold units in the cool air conditioning with a perfect view out over the bubbling fountain, beyond the rippling pool, through the rustling palm trees, and onto the beach of yellow sand and blue sea.
‘I’m seeing where these guys go to work every day and I can’t imagine going back to a South Sudan or a Liberia or the like,’ I said to Jess as we sat for lunch at a restaurant a small walk up the beach.
‘We need to find an eco-lodge or mountain cabin estates for you to work at,’ Jess said.
‘Yeah, I’m not so much a beach person,’ I said, ‘but I could handle working someplace like this if the eco-lodge idea doesn’t pan out.’
Then we noticed that two big motorbikes had pulled up and I went over to take a look. One was a R-1200GS – the big sister to ours – and the other was a road-worn KTM. The riders were Canadians and it seemed that – as a certain type of snowbird – they spend the winters riding their bikes in the warmer parts of the Americas. Now, they were spending a month riding around Costa Rica, mostly off-road, drinking beer, and trying out random activities, like most recently, kite surfing. The one riding the R-1200 had brought his collage-age daughter along and she was riding pillion over all the dirt roads and through all the river crossings and she was in good spirits, having shed her riding suit for a bikini. After lunch we arranged to meet at a bar in town called Las Brisas but they must have had a change of plans or couldn’t find it because that evening we drank alone.
‘Are we not doing enough extra things like that?’ I asked Jess that evening over a beer at Las Brisas. ‘Should we be stopping more to learn kite surfing and things like that?’
‘They are doing one small country for a month so they can take time to stop and go off-road and do other things. We are doing 17 countries in six months. Also, we don’t own restaurants or whatever it was that they said they do that they can ship their bikes to a new place every year and ride around for a month,’ she said.
She was right of course but I admit there are moments when I forget my gratitude at being able to do this amazing trip and I feel like there is always someone who is doing more or better.
Mark really came through for us and he put us up at The Palms for two incredible nights, which were by far the most luxurious of this or any previous trip.
‘It’s really more luxury than I’m equipped for, I think,’ I said to Jess as we were packing up our bikes to continue the trip. ‘Once a place is clean, reasonably spacious, and maybe has a balcony or somewhere nice where I can sit, the rest is kind of lost on me. I mean, I don’t know what to do with the microwave and the mini-fridge in the bedroom when there’s already a full kitchen downstairs.’
‘Not me,’ Jess said. ‘I could get used to it and enjoy it all.’
From Playa Flamingo we retraced our route back to Liberia and then we turned southeast past Bagaces and Cañas to Laguna de Arenal in the mountain country beside Volcán Arenal. The highway that encircles the lake was a fun ride for the curves and the ups-and-downs but the scenery was rather underwhelming because the view of the lake was mostly obstructed by tall trees and hotels. In Nuevo Arenal on the north side of the lake, we followed several dirt roads looking for a campsite that Jess had read about and for which we obtained imprecise GPS coordinates.
‘According to the GPS, we’re supposed to ride over the lake to that sort of island there,’ I said when we had stopped on one of the dirt roads just before it makes a sharp descent and disappears into the lake.
We doubled back into town and I asked after the campsite at a local restaurant where, incidentally we had the best meal since leaving Mexico, and by shortly before sunset we had found the stretch of public land beside the lake that we had been searching for. It was down a short, somewhat muddy dirt road off the main road where we reached an abandoned restaurant and a tarmac strip that led down to the lake for launching small boats. As I neared the end of the tarmac beside the lake, I suddenly and quite bizarrely lost my balance as I was turning onto the sloping grassy plain where we would set up camp. The bike and I went over and, although we were both without any new bruises or scratches, I felt like a proper clown and all the more so for doing it under the eyes of several local hipster-looking bicyclists.
When I had the bike back up, I took the duffle off and told Jess that I was going to follow another dirt path down to the east along the lake to where there looked to be a more secluded spot. When I came back in a few minutes, Jess said, ‘Did you go down again? I heard your engine rev.’
‘Yeah, it’s a muddy downhill slope there and when I tried to pull out of it and get onto the grass, I went down against the high slope beside the path.’
‘So we’ll camp here then, right?’ she said.
One after the other I pulled the bikes onto the grass slope and parked them beside a place where the slope was more gentle and suitable for pitching the tent. While I brought the bikes over, Jess had been carefully surveying the land.
‘There are lines of huge ants going all over,’ she said when I had carried over my duffle with the tent in it. ‘In the Michael Crichton book that I’m listening too right now, one of the characters gets stung by a wasp and it lays eggs that hatch in his arm. So I’m not sleeping next to any ants or other insects.’
Eventually we found a suitable location. It was on a gentle slope a few meters up from the lake and away from the army ants’ lines of march.
We quickly had the tent pitched and we arranged the sleeping gear inside. Then, in the fading light of the evening, Jess erected one of the fishing poles, I tied on a hook, she baited it, and she made a good cast into the deeps beside the reeds where we expected the fish might be. She had a few strikes but then, after she got caught and broke her line, she decided to quit for the lack of light.
It rained during the night and it drizzled throughout the morning. While I bathed in the lake, Jess took up the fishing pole and tried her luck again. At first there were a few bites but then for a long time there was nothing as she sat fishing under the persistent drizzle and the thick clouds that hung low over the lake. At one point as we stood together watching Jess’s bobber float along the surface, we looked out to see two forms swimming one ahead and beside the other.
‘I think it’s a giant water snake,’ Jess said.
‘I don’t think it’s that,’ I said.
We saw it again some time later when it swam up not 10 meters from where we stood at the shore. It raised its head and stared straight at us with an expression that was completely bewildered.
‘I think it’s a sea otter!’ Jess said.
It was and it more than made up for not catching any fish that morning.
Later that day, we went for lunch at the German bakery in Nuevo Arenal where we met the tall, thin, long-hair German owner named Tom and we had excellent bratwurst with our scrambled eggs. In the afternoon we continued east along Laguna de Arenal and then past the volcano of the same name. The Volcán Arenal cut a striking silhouette against the cloudy sky but with so many hotels, restaurants, and spas along the highway it felt a bit too much like an amusement park and we were happy to push on. As sunset closed in we hoped to find a hotel at Quesada or Zarcero or finally at Naranjo but we had no luck. In the darkness past twilight we pressed on along a winding, though fortunately lighted, mountain highway to Grecia where we found a hotel. It was all booked up but they had one studio in the back beside several apartment units. It looked unclean and probably unsafe but at eight o’clock at night all we needed was a bed and a shower – in that order.
The next day we went through San José, which is Costa Rica’s capitol and then we went north along the mountain highway that winds its way through the densely forested slopes of the Parque Nacional Braulio Carrillo. The highway was good tarmac and it traced a finely curved route through the national park so that it should have been great riding. Unfortunately, it was bottled up by heavy 18-wheel trucks that were transporting products for export to the port of Limón.
We rode through Puerto Limón where the humidity, the pace of life, and the look of the people had a distinctly more Caribbean feel than what we had yet encountered since we had stuck to the central highlands and the Pacific coast through most of Central America. Past Puerto Limón we reached Cahuita, which is a small beachside town beside a small national park of the same name.
Here we took a hotel room, changed into bathing suits, and went for a dip in the sea until the cool breeze that followed the sunset finally chased us out.