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Costa Rica Motorcycle Tour

Depending on your age, Costa Rica either means quality coffee or a top tourist location that is on the list of those 100 places to visit before you die. In motorcycling terms, however, it probably is not on the list of places to go at all, let alone featuring in a top 100 list unless you are seriously into dirt riding!

But that would be to do a great injustice to what turned into one of the best off-road and road tour experiences I’ve enjoyed. Motorcycling in Costa Rica offers a diversity not found in far more accessible locations. Imagine waking up on the side of a volcano in the morning and riding up to the top to watch it bubble away, and then bathing in a warm Pacific Ocean in the afternoon after a good days ride on some spectacular and challenging motorcycling roads – easily achievable in Costa Rica, as is some serious off-road riding on tracks that vary from hard packed flat trails, to some that would challenge the likes of an off-road world champion like David Knight. Add to that the fact there is no such thing as an illegal trail, then for the dirt rider it is almost motorcycle heaven.

Costa RicaCosta Rica sits between Nicaragua and Panama in South America and extends from the Pacific Ocean to the Caribbean Sea, a distance of barely 200 miles and its land portion occupies only 20 thousand square miles. The country is bisected by high mountains running north to south and is a colourful ‘smorgaboard’ of extensive rainforests, volcanoes and rivers running through the mountains, great beaches and natural resources safeguarded by national parks and forest reserves – but all accessible and great motorcycling terrain.

Of course, it’s not excatly a short hop to get there, more like 15 hours travel by plane. However, help is at at hand in the shape of H-C Travel and their guide Larry Larrabure, a Peruvian who lives and plays in San Jose, the capital of Costa Rica. Although a lifelong motorcycle enthusiast, he first went there in 1988 for a surfing trip and fell in love with the country, moving there permanently in 1991. He has been a professional motorcycle guide since.

The tour itinerary was thorough and you can fly in with just a crash helmet and favourite riding kit (or you can use the kit available), jump on the bike and follow your guide out. All you have to do is just enjoy yourself, as the accommodation, food stops etc are all taken care of. And when you have had enough, just pack your bags and go home.

The ‘standard’ organised tour is a week long, or you can do the odd day if you are in the area on holiday. The itinerary can accommodate virtually any request thanks to the flexibility of the now well established operation. Up to now the emphasis has been on the off-road side of things, which has maybe deterred road riders from experiencing the delights of Costa Rica. But that has all changed with the arrival of a fleet of KTMs to go with the offroad Hondas.
Thanks to Larry’s intimate local knowledge and the infrastructure of the road system, the road tour days can still be filled with stunning scenery, challenging roads, local places of interest, while still ending up in the same remote locations you would if you used the trails. No need therefore to have the skill to ride off-road, feel intimidated or put off from exploring this stunning country.

Costa Rica Motorcycle TourTo find out about the whole operation, I packed a good book and spent a day flying into the capital San Jose and the base of the operation, less than half and hour from the airport. In an effort to fully assess the appeal of Costa Rica, the idea was to spend three days on road and two off with a day’s white water rafting thrown in between. One book down and a relatively timely flight, I was picked up at the airport and taken to see the bikes and equipment store. After a good night’s sleep and a leisurely breakfast I met Pablo Fernandez, Larry’s right hand man and equally proficient rider and driver, who was joining us for the week’s ride.

Pablo is a native Costa Rican in his 30's who eats, sleeps and breathes all forms of moto-adventure sports. In addition, like Larry, he has a very impressive competition history with a few championships under his belt! For the first day it was out on the KTMs with enough kit to satisfy our needs for a few days away. Normally a back-up truck would take all of this plus spares, but for our small party it was not really necessary. Out through the congested city, the KTM with its high seat height was ideal, giving good visibility to allow good forward planning, which was very necessary when the drivers (not the best) decided to change direction without warning!

Hanging bridgeThe route took us on mainly tarmac roads in south westerly direction through Cartago, the original capital and then on through some more remote villages. The black-top soon disappeared to be replaced with hard packed gravel as we headed out towards a seeming wilderness. Suddenly when you thought you had gone beyond civilisation, there was a hanging bridge crossing the Pacuare River, which according to Larry was built in the early 1900’s.

Just as the road ended abruptly, we turned into the Albergue Hacienda at Moravia de Chirripo, a totally isolated and picturesque establishment right in the heart of Moravia Valley and in the middle of the Indian reservation. This is used as the overnight accommodation on some trips, but for us it was lunch.

It would have been easy to have just gone to sleep in the warm afternoon sun, but the mountain beckoned and we retraced some of our route as we headed back towards the central mountain range and towards our evening stop at the Turrialba Lodge on the side of the volcano by the same name. The idea was to go straight to the top, but the temperature had dropped and the weather was closing in, so we went straight for the warmth of the lodge and an excellent home cooked meal.

Costa Rica Volcano

The morning saw the sun shining which made the ride to the top in the sulphur laden air a much more pleasant experience. After descending the easy single track trails through old pine tree forests and cloud forests, it was onto visit the Irazu volcano, a slightly more active one just along the range. After a coffee stop, it was a complete drop down into warmer temperatures on a tortuous route through the coffee plantations, towards the Pacific Ocean and our evening stop.

Costa Rica 'tea break'What was amazing was Larry’s almost ‘Sat Nav’ route finding ability when there were no signs or any indication as to where the next town or village was. All of a sudden there would be a small bar for a personal stop or a petrol station, just when you thought you could be running low.

Costa Rica OffroadTarmac roads and hard packed trails continually swapped places and it was not unusual to find a large lorry coming towards you on what you might have believed was a small trail, indicating in fact it was a main road!

By the end of the day we had made the Best Western Hotel at Jaco Beach which is right on the beach abutting the Pacific. A quick dip soon refreshed us prior to a trip into town for a meal. This is the closest you actually get to any real tourist areas and on the off-road tour provides a free day to recuperate on the beach.

The following day saw us roaring along the coast before heading back towards base at San Jose on a mixture of tracks and roads. No matter where we were nobody seemed to take much notice of the bikes and when they did it was to give a friendly wave. Stops were always at small cafes in villages where the service and food was excellent.

‘The Ticos’, as Costa Ricans are commonly known, are famous for their hospitality, and are quite happy to live up to their reputation.
They are well-educated and hard working people, who are quick with a handshake and a smile to welcome you.

The mixture of roads and tracks make the KTM an ideal tool for the job with the long travel suspension dealing with the irregularities of the roads and tracks, providing a comfortable ride. When the roads do deteriorate, such as on the side of the volcanoes, the bikes take it all in their stride, and the big singles never get out of hand as would happen with some more potent machines. The choice of bikes were ideal, inspiring confidence and the going was well within the capabilities of any road based motorcyclist.

The following day was a day white water rafting, one of the many activities that can be arranged as part of the deal to allow you to have a break from riding and give you a chance to try out something new. So after a day cooling in the river it was a change of machine to the Honda XR400 and a chance to experience some of the proper trails and tracks that cross the whole landmass.

In fact, we were onto the first of these within a mile of the base camp, which took us quickly up into the hills and on towards the coffee plantations. Climbs seemed to zig-zag vertically in very short spaces, climbing hundreds of feet in a matter of minutes.

It also became clear that while there were some pretty standard, level trails, there were plenty of tracks that provide good training for those wanting to raise their standard of riding or practice for an ISDE. Larry and Pablo can take groups of any level as well as keeping the pace as hot as any riders may want!

Costa Rica TrialsAfter a day playing in the hills, the evening stop was at the Altavista, a hotel complex on a mountain range to the south, which has views across to San Jose and the central range of mountains beyond. Dinner in the panoramic restaurant at night has to be experienced to be believed. Stunning!

After a leisurely breakfast it was more riding through the trails in a circuitous route on the way back to base. Given the terrain, the Honda is probably one of the best bikes for the job, especially given the large number of riders of all standards that use it. So, in a week I had managed to experience the entire package, stayed at all of the range of accommodation and enjoyed marvellous hospitality. Can I fault it? Well, the answer is easy, No!

Service, machine standards, routes accommodation is all first class. All tour riders are top notch and capable of running with the best as well as nursing novices along and there are no language problems.

In fact, apart from the time taken travelling and the costs (outside their control) I really can’t find anything to criticise. It would be good to add on a beach holiday at the end in one of the more touristy areas to make the long haul worthwhile, or do another week as there are so many good bike routes to choose from that you will never get bored!

Ian Kerr, 2007