Alajuela, Costa Rica

I intended to get at least one post up for each Central American country, but it looks like that didn’t happen for Honduras (only spent 3 nights there) or Nicaragua (but as usual I did try to check in via Twitter every few days). Of course I’ll get around to telling some stories later, but unfortunately for now references to those places will now be made through the lens of Costa Rica, which as you will learn soon, is rather different than the past 5 countries!

Greg and Byron, two cyclists I had run into before, caught up to Paul and I in Granada, Nicaragua in time to catch the ferry to Isla Ometepe.  Byron kept on going to Costa Rica, but the rest of us got off the ferry at Altagracia, knowing we’d catch the same one in 3 days as it continued its overnight journey. The first morning on the island several folks from the hostel got a guide to hike up the active Volcano Concepcion (one of the two volcanoes that form the island). We woke up real early and started the hike out of town. We were all dripping in sweat soon, even though it was before 7am. Our guide, of course, had a tiny backpack with little to eat or drink and barely broke a sweat. As we started to climb the steep parts, I had flashbacks of climbing San Pedro near Atitlan, and made the decision to turn around less than 1/3 of the way up. I was already having a hard time concentrating, and dreaded the downhill, which I knew would leave me unable to walk for days. I think it was a good decision to turn around, I got back to the hostel and slept for over 4 hours. It just wasn’t the day for me to hike a volcano (but you can read Greg’s account and see cool pictures here).

The next day I headed over to a hostel/organic farm on the other side of the island, the half made up by the Volcan Maderas, along the way stopping for a swim at the Santo Domingo beach.  That evening it rained and there was a great thunderstorm which of course everyone at the hostel thought would be a great idea to watch from the top of a lookout tower.  We survived though.  During the day you can see both sides of the island from the top.

The next morning everyone from my dorm had left early to hike up Maderas, so I just sat around for a few hours reading and contemplating, enjoying the quiet.  Then back on the bike to Altagracia, with a stop at a swimming pool filled with spring water.  Unlike the lake water, this pool was nice and chilly, a great treat after days and days of heat.  I met back up with Paul and Greg and we biked back to the dock to wait for the ferry.

The sun had already set as we departed, but you could see the faint outline of the two volcanoes in the clouds drift away.  Then the lights on the island went out so it was hard to pick the island out.  It rained a little bit, but I was able to sleep on my pad outside on the deck, though I woke up when the ferry docked a couple times during the night.  We got to San Carlos (still Nicaragua) early Friday morning, with a heavy mist covering the green wetlands.  San Carlos is the town where Lake Nicaragua flows into the San Juan river, which flows into the Carribean.

This is where the adventure of crossing a border by river began.  Please read the next few paragraphs with the fact that I did not find a restroom for the next 6 hours in mind.  It makes the story that much more unbearable.  I was pleasantly surprised with the way our bikes were handled on the ferry.  For the second leg of the trip the crew had carried them up to the top of the deck where they wouldn’t get crunched by the tons of freight and bananas that had been loaded.  We got our bikes and bags back and found a comedor where we ate breakfast.  I had read some other cyclist saying he had his worst cup of coffee of the trip here, and so I probably was expecting it, but yes, the coffee was awful.  We had plenty of time before the Migracion office opened.

This government building is best described as a dilapidated structure made out of boards, built on stilts right over the shore of the trash filled river.  Nothing on the outside would leave you to believe that this is the place to get the boat to Costa Rica.  We get in line even though there is no indication things will proceed, any time soon, and of course they don’t.  As with other waits in border offices, the TV is usually on and people are sitting about reading the newspaper.  Finally the window opens and when it is my turn, the guy asks for the $2 exit fee, or 43 Cordobas.  I have both currencies but he doesn’t have change, so I dig around and find 3 Cordobas in my pocket to make 53.  One employee has already informed the line twice that once you get your passport stamped, you can’t go out to the street again and have to go straight to the boat.  I told him I have my bike outside, but he’ll make an exception.

I go outside and wait with the bikes as Paul and another cyclist Jeff go get their passports stamped.  While this is happening, The Boat is filling up little by little by folks and their suitcases.  The boat is wide enough to sit 4 across, and has about a dozen rows.  By the time we get there with our bikes the boat is already jam packed.  Several people are giving us suggestions about what to do and who we need to talk to, but of course we have no idea who actually works the boat or not.

I pick out the guy driving the boat and ask him how much it will cost for the bikes, and he says he doesn’t know but to wait for the senora to arrive.  Finally she arrives as we’ve squeezed into the last open seats up front.  I try to get her attention to ask how much the bikes will cost and she says 500 or something.  Once all the passengers are on board the bikes pretty much get tossed onto the front, piled on top of each other.  Meanwhile another person is frantically getting the list of every passenger and their passport number for whichever authorities.

We set out on the river, the boat clearly overburdened.  We pass several military check points and are told to put our lifejackets on.  Half way along our hour long journey the senora comes to collect the fares (no tickets given out of course), which by the way is even more expensive than hour 12 hour ferry ride we just took (and we weren’t packed in to that thing like sardines).  There were four cyclists, I think we could easily hired a tour boat (of which we pass several along our ride) together for cheaper.  But for whatever reason this lady has a concession and she can do what she wants.

I ask the senora if I can pay for the bikes, she say’s the driver says 2,000 Colones (~4 dollars).  Immediately I call her out and bring up the fact that he said she had the last word, and now she is saying he has the last word, and can they give us a straight story and to please not treat us like idiots.  I say, yes or no,  you quoted a price to us before we left, and she says yes, she did, and that it was 1,500.  I assure her that I heard 500, but she says no, 1,500, and one of her cronies chimes in yes, it must have been 1,500.  She says we can settle it once we get there.

Another one of the senora’s cronies is walking up and down the aisles, taking people’s passports and filling out customs forms for them. even signing their name.  The customs forms are bad photocopies of the original documents and the document preparer is charging 1USD for her services.  I expect her to ask for mine and insist that these must be filled in before we dock or something, but I think I’ve already made my point of not being a gullible tourist, and so she doesn’t attempt to.  I do realize that many folks probably can’t read or write, so this is a valuable service.  I thought about announcing that I’d be happy to do it for free but that might not go over so well.

The arrival to shore in Los Chiles, Costa Rica was pure chaos.  There isn’t a dock, rather, there is a set of concrete stairs that are crumbling into the river.  Several young kids jumped on the boat, their jobs to unload cargo.  Of course the bikes were all tangled together but Greg yells at them to take more care.  Once the bikes get off it is a free for all.  Fortunately between the 4 of us cyclists we can all keep an eye out for each other’s stuff.

We climb up the stairs, but our bikes back together again.  Everyone makes their way to the customs building, and I pull my bike in, but the two employees (no uniforms?) say we are free to go.  Other cyclists have also mentioned being waved through.  Apparently Costa Rica doesn’t want to make things to difficult for tourists?

We make our way down the block and pay our entry fee.  The boat senora comes and finds us so she can get her bike fee.  I tell her that surely we’ll be getting a receipt for this, just to make things more difficult.  She says no, and I ask her if her business is official or not and therefore shouldn’t we get a receipt (even some of the modest grocery stores would make a hand written receipt and stamp it as PAID, she on the other hand is operating an international boat route).  Either she’s genuinely thinking I’m not going to pay or she is just playing along to appease me, and says that she’s run out of her receipt pad but can get some more (when, I have no idea).  Finally we just pay, it’s the easiest way to end this.  Really though I’m not sure what we paid for, the bikes were treated so poorly.

This situation brings out the worst in me, belittling someone because I feel I’m being played.  Look, I don’t expect everyone I encounter on this trip to be all smiley and helpful.  I’m really don’t care whether your business is paying its taxes or following code to a T.  But a little bit of honesty and dignity go far.  It wasn’t one of those “Oh man I had the craziest adventure riding a boat into Costa Rica, but the owner was helpful and welcoming” moments but rather “Watch out on your way through there as the boat lady will be ripping you off “.

This is my moment to rant.  A lot of the most frustrating moments of the trip are when information is either non existent (ie street signs, km posts, schedules, fees) or intentionally withheld.  But maybe this is part of the adventure?  I’ve gotten into arguments on the trip and tried to explain that it really isn’t about what usually amounts to less than a dollar, but the fact that you are trying to pull a fast one on me.  Ticks me off!

We have to wait in a slow line to get our passports stamped in to Costa Rica.  We find a restaurant (and finally, a restroom), then check into a hotel.  Later that evening its pouring out, so I just eat dinner at the hotel, which proves to be a bad decision.  My first morning in Costa Rica I woke up and new that Things Weren’t OK with my stomach, and told Paul I’d be staying put, but that he should go ahead, as we could always meet up again later. I ponied up for a 2nd night in the air conditioned hotel, which in the end meant getting over the food poisoning just a little more pleasant.

The next day, not having eaten much, I decided to leave, as I was itching to get back on the road.  The elevation stayed pretty flat, but was difficult because of the constant up and down short hills.  The next day I had a little more strength, so the going was good at first, but then the climbing started.  I had to force myself to eat a bunch of french fries despite having no apetite, as there was no way to make it to Ciudad Quesada without some food.  A quick mental calculation had me eating well less than half of what I usually eat in the past three days.  This, the heat and the fact that I hadn’t done much serious climbing on the bike the past 2 weeks meant the last 5 miles were absolutely miserable.

I found the hotel where Paul was at, he’d taken a longer detour and was also in Ciudad Quesada despite my day off.  The next day we took off, knowing we had a lot of climbing to do.  It was one of those uphill days where 7 or 6 miles an hour would have seemed fast.  After a torturous 15 miles we made it to the top (and incidentally, crossed over into the Atlantic side of the Continental Divide), though the views were rather incredible.  On our way downhill into the central valley of the Costa Rica highlands, we took a side route on a gravel road, and asked some locals if there was a place to camp nearby.  They told us of a little spot along one of the access routes to a coffee co-op nearby, so we went to find it.  It was a beautiful little clearing with a little tin shelter (it rained a little, I love nothing more than falling asleep to rain under a tin roof).  Perfect!  We’ve been doing very little camping lately so we were eager to have a night outdoors.  We walked to the corner store in town for some groceries, and noted that not only were we not dripping in sweat, we weren’t sweating at all.  We were at 5,ooo feet, and it was noticeably cooler.

That night it got down to 60 degrees F (15 C)!!!!  Divine!  This made for one of the most restful nights in a long time.  I’m not sure when the last time I had to bundle up in my sleeping bag was.  I might just say the arduous climb up was worth it.  We woke up and made breakfast, and decided to just sit there for a few hours, enjoying the peace and tranquility and all the birds.  Next day we headed to Alajuela, where we took a day off today.

So, Costa Rica. Although I’ve only been on the road here for 100 miles (so this isn’t necessarily the case for the whole country), it feels a world apart from the past 4 countries, 5 if you include Mexico. Everything seems so much, well, tidier. There are no informal roadside dumps piled high with burning trash (this was a regular sight in the past few months), soccer fields have grass on them, people are out mowing their lawns and using weed-wackers (haven’t smelled fresh cut grass in a while), 99% of cars have license plates, businesses don’t have guards with shotguns standing outside (or other firearms for that matter), you are served a glass of ice with your Coke (which is unnecessary as the refrigerators here keep things ice cold anyway), no one carrying bundles of firewood or tubs of corn meal balanced on their heads, there aren’t pickups with over a dozen people riding in the back, there aren’t military convoys with soldiers sitting ready with their weapons mounted on the roof of a truck (saw this mostly in Mexico).  Everything seems so much more middle class (though I know there is still much inequality here).  One of the biggest indicators of this is that you hardly see anyone walking or biking on the side of the road as a way of getting to work or school.

The next few days it looks like we’ll be headed east to the Caribbean coast.

12 comments to Alajuela, Costa Rica

  • Sue Peterson

    Hey Mattnews!! What an adventure to be sure! I can totally relate to “hate being ripped off” or “taken advantage of”. Drives me nuts! How about when you give some one a limosna and they look at you and say, “Is that all?” Hang in there! Bike on! Love, Sue for all four

  • Patrick H.

    I’m glad to hear that you are doing well and that you are still on your adventure! For the first time in your journey I know what you’re talking about as I was in Nicaragua and Costa Rica last summer. I even stayed at the same hostel on the island.

  • Jo Ellen

    Hi Matt-
    You will have enough adventures to write a book when you are finished. Will you get to go anywhere near Tortuguera on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica. It is a fascinating place.

  • Ty

    Great to hear you made it to another country. I hear northern Costa Rica is gorgeous so I hope you love it. I know the feeling of getting ripped off. It’s not about the money (especially for a few bucks), it’s just annoying. Hope you’re well, man.

  • Bat

    Keep on going dude and don’t let mean women take the mojo out of you!
    Glad to know you’re still doing good and meet up with others.
    Enjoy and stay safe!


  • Jay

    Good to hear from you agian, keep writing I really enjoy the stories. The sound of the rain hitting the tin roof brings back memories. Sound like you are doing well, Stay safe, God’s speed.

  • Matt, glad to see you’re on the road again. Four countries since Mexico. Wow. Sounds like Costa Rica is more welcoming. We are still amazed at your perseverance. Your folks will be with us for a couple of days next week. Will be glad to see them. Today is Mother’s Day, a great reminder how lucky we are to have had outstanding mothers. Take care. Dan

  • Ruth

    Whoooo!!!!!!!!! 9,000 miles! way to go! keep on pedaling!

  • great report! getting me excited for adventures that lie ahead!!

  • Joanna

    Great to hear about your travels, Matt! I’m headed for Costa Rica this July- booking my flight this weekend. Grateful to hear you are having a mostly positive experience there :)

  • Keith and Edie Doudt

    Hi Matthew, we love keeping up with you on your journey. You are amazing. Sorry to hear about your camera. We hope it is repairable.

    Right now we are enjoying the company of your parents as they came to visit for a couple of days. What fun we are having just being together. We so wish they could stay longer, but are grateful for the time we’ve had.

    Blessings on you. Stay safe.
    Keith and Edie

  • Linder

    Love the rain on a tin roof reference Matto. Makes me think back to the years at 1968 W Foster when Benny the Mangler had a white noise track on his ipod titled “rain on a tin roof”. Used to put me in a deep sleep every night. Miss you dudeman.

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