Jonathan, one of the core members of local MTB club/group Guana Bikers, was telling me no one outside of the Central American country – slightly smaller than the state of West Virginia – thinks of desert when they think of Costa Rica, and that many riders from around the country journey to Guanacaste to experience riding in the “desert.” He went on to say that over that next five hours we were going to bike through “desert,” lowland tropical savannah/forest, cloudforest, the foothills of a mountain that housed a volcano, and a canyon. If all went well, we’d be back in town some sixty kilometers later, before it got really hot – somewhere near one-hundred degrees Fahrenheit by 11:00 A.M.
While not technically a desert, the region of Guanacaste in northwestern Costa Rica looked like one during the dry season. The landscape was parched, colored in various shades of camel, and the trees had few leaves. Some locals reputed it to be a tropical desert, green and vibrant during the rainy season followed by the hardscrabble cracked earth of the dry season. Others referred to it as being like an African savannah. From what I was seeing, both made sense to me.
The panorama that stretched as far as I could see from the vantage point of my saddle fit all of those descriptions: the desert/savannah was all around me, with a canyon off to the left, and way out ahead was a ridge line of cloud forest mountains that looked grey-blue in the early morning sunshine. We pedaled on, slowly working our way up a sun-baked, bone white dirt road. The white dirt is from a mineral deposit found only in Guanacaste. Adobe houses in Liberia, along with some of its roads, are white, giving the city its historical name of “La Ciudad Blanca.”
In sections, the desolate road we were riding would have been impassable for any non-4WD vehicle. Culverts and ditches formed by rainy season flows that carved deep cuts and gashes into the doubletrack made the riding more like searching for a singletrack line through a cement-hard jeep path than a doubletrack crankfest. The tedious riding came to an end when we turned onto a more navigable dirt road where we picked up speed and were able to spin a little easier. We eventually crested out, the first of two notable climbs before actually reaching the national park. We then bombed a short, steep downhill on a dusty, white dirt road before starting to climb back up again through lowland tropical rainforest.
Recreational mountain biking in Costa Rica traces its beginnings back to the early 1990s when mountain bikes first appeared on the market. It was not long after that when the sport of mountain biking took off, most famously resulting in today’s La Ruta de Los Conquistadores stage race. In Guanacaste, home to Guana Bikers, a two-day, 158 kilometer ride around Lake Arenal, first completed by a group of friends in 1992, is now one of the largest mountain biking events in Latin America. In 2011, some 3,300 cyclists participated in Vuelta al Lago Arenal.
Historically, Guanacaste has been one of the centers in the development of mountain biking as a competitive sport in Costa Rica. Infamous amongst local and national mountain bikers, Guanacaste was home to a competition called “Desert Storm” throughout the 1990s. site whois . Utilizing the “desert” terrain east of Liberia, mountain biking veteran Guido Blanco (a bit of a legend in Costa Rica) organized a race that occurred during the peak heat hours of a dry season day. The goal was simple: Who will survive and win?
In 2004 and 2005, Red Bull sponsored the “Moon Ride.” It was a night race held during a full moon that began in Liberia and ended at the Rincon de La Vieja Lodge, located in the mountains below Rincon de La Vieja Volcano. Today, Guana Bikers sometimes lead trips simulating the ride.
From 2004-2010, a five-stage, 400-kilometer race in Guanacaste
called “Guana Ride” was super famosa throughout all of Costa Rica. Unfortunately, low sponsorship and low rider turnout likely influenced by the global economic crisis resulted in the race not being held in 2011.
A herd of cattle slugged its way up the road. We sat in the shade taking a short break to eat. Two Guanacaste vaqueros appeared behind the steers, shushing and pushing the beasts to take a left at the intersection. Machetes hung from ropes tied around the men’s waists. They looked tired. It was only a couple hours past sunrise, and they had around 8-10 hours of the cattle drive remaining in their day. The plan was to take the animals to greener pastures on the other side of the volcano.
Guanacaste is cowboy country, hardly a place one might associate with mountain biking. However, like much of the riding in Costa Rica, mountain biking in Guanacaste often takes place on dirt roads that are sometimes very rocky and other times very muddy. They are not like a graded forest road in the U.S. The doubletrack is not maintained and can be technical, strenuous and very grueling. Throw in some steep climbs up to volcano altitudes reaching the 10,000 foot range and you have some serious mountain biking. Costa Rican singletrack is less prevalent, but it does exist, and more of it is being built. To find it, you need to go with the locals. Some touring companies pay private landowners to use singletrack-like trails on their properties, which might be footpaths through coffee plantations or old narrow roads that were used to get products to market before the automobile came into existence.
We clipped back in and began the long climb up towards the national park. We ascended under the cover of the trees by the roadside and the air temperature cooled. The gradient increased. Going around a turn I could see that up ahead the dirt road was going to change to a paved road. Jonathan noted that we were nearing a very steep climb about three-quarters of a mile long that was paved to keep the road from eroding away in the rainy season. I dropped into the granny gear, sat back and ground it out. My legs tightened and my breathing labored. I hunched down. The forest seemed to be getting denser. Cool breezes blew down from the mountains.
At the top, the road turned to dirt again. We pedaled over to a resting area used by Guana Bikers for their trips. A few minutes later, a truck pulling a trailer parked beside us. Out of the truck spilled a family of five. They opened the trailer. Inside was a mess of beaten bikes. adsense protection . I smiled.
“Great day for a ride!”
“Sure is. Did you guys ride up here from Liberia?”
“We did. We started riding with the sunrise.”
“Good for you, but I like driving up here! We like coming up here to enjoy the cooler climate. It’s too hot to bike down in Liberia.”
We talked a little more about how people in Costa Rica seem to really enjoy biking. They remarked that biking is as loved as soccer, and that kids not only kick a soccer ball around at a young age, they also learn to pedal a bike.
“Enjoy your day! Happy biking!”
“Igualmente!” the father said, wishing us the same.
We strapped our hydration packs on our backs again and continued climbing up towards Rincon de La Vieja. The road was rocky and wet; we were entering cloud forest terrain. A few turns onto narrower roads covered by the forest canopy and Jonathan announced that we were in the national park. We came to a grassy clearing and watched the clouds slide down the mountain ridge and then rise back up, slide down again and lift. It was as if the clouds and mountains were a living, breathing, symbiotic organism. I thought it was like a giant lung. The mountain was breathing.
A few minutes later we were at the backside entrance to the park. We passed through without having to pay an entrance fee since we were only stopping for water. We talked with the ranger and filled our packs with cold mountain spring water. The ranger informed us that bikes are not allowed in the higher elevations near the crater zone, an area open only to foot traffic. He also talked of some natural hot springs that you can hike to, but we did not have the time to indulge.
After backtracking through the park entrance and rocky doubletrack, we turned right and hammered down a narrow ribbon of singletrack through a meadow and into the forest. The trail widened a little and became rooty and rockier. A couple of tight turns, a rock garden and a few stream crossings kept me honest. I wanted to release the brakes but my cojones were not big enough.
The downhill singletrack ended too soon, a tease that pleased but left me wanting more. Slowed down, I noticed the dirt looked to be more of a red-brown color in this zone, like what you see in the south eastern region of the U.S. Rolling over to where we were going to begin the long descent through the canyon, I saw the dirt had a deeper red hue that reminded me of southern Utah.
We climbed a quick clip up through a grassy area that had big black boulders the size of snowmen bottoms, Euro cars and Appalachian cabins. They sat in no pattern, unmoved since when they landed one of the times when Rincon de La Vieja blew its top. Up behind us rose the mountains where we had just stopped for water. The air was cool. The sun was warm. Looking west, the sky was a big expanse of pure mountain-to-desert blue. In that moment, I reminded myself: “You are living the dream.”
Two minutes later, we were flying down the mountain on dirt and stones. A good chunk of 2,000 feet of vertical elevation was passing by in a blur. We turned back onto a gravel road we had climbed up, and then turned again to enter the canyon and descend all the way to the Inter-American Highway. Before doing so, however, we stopped under a marañon tree, better known as cashew in English- speaking lands. March is marañon season, and the red fruit with the seed (cashew nut) that grows on the outside was abundant on the ground. Jonathan picked a few up and started eating the fleshy fruit. He handed one to me, kind of with a smile/smirk on his face. I bit into it. All the moisture in my mouth felt like it was immediately sucked out. I spit the fruit onto the ground. Jonathan laughed, explaining that the fruit makes your mouth feel like the desert, but that it is quite juicy and delicious after you acquire a taste for it. He went on to relay that during a ride a few years back, he had run out of water and was nearing bonk stages. He decided to sit under a marañon tree to rehydrate. It worked. He completed his ride.
Food lesson complete, we climbed a short, rocky rise in the road. Then we big-ringed our way down through the canyon, passing meager campesino family homes along the way. The riverbed to our left was nothing but rocks. No water flowed. The cool mountain air was gone. Up high on the partly-treed canyon walls, rocky outcroppings jutted out into the oven-hot air.
“Purale, purale,” a small boy yelled from a wooden front porch, his arms raised above his head in excitement. A second time he called out for me to “hurry up,” or perhaps the truer translation was “go, go, go!”
We came to a different stream that had water, picked up our bikes and carried them across to the other side on stones placed a stride apart. We rested a few minutes, the last one of the morning. Another short steep climb was ahead, and then it was all rolling downhill from there. I was feeling good, not all that tired. Casaresova . I took a few pulls on the hydration pack and started up the incline.
Done. No more climbing for the day.
As we put the ride on cruise control back through Guanacaste’s dry season desert, I felt the heat getting to me. It was like an inferno, even though we were moving at a brisk pace, creating our own wind effect.
I was hot, but had no perspiration on my skin. In the twenty minutes of time from when we were sitting by the stream to now being out in the open land, my body went from feeling good to being worn out.
Was it the heat? Was it knowing the end was near, and I could relax my focus on riding with Guana Bikers a little? It likely was a little bit of both, along with approximately 35 miles of riding at a decent clip burrowed in my legs.
In the final mile or so before dumping out on to the Interamericano, I gazed at the land around me. I looked back at the cloud forest, the higher peaks still covered in fog. “No doubt, the desert-to-volcano Guana Bikers ride is a big one,” I thought. I told Jonathan so. He was pleased to hear it.
Words and Photos by James Murren
Extracted from XXC Magazine Edition No. 16