LA RUTA LOCA


Barely into our trek on day one we hit our first snag. We had come upon a locked gate blocking the gravel road. Rusty barbed wire was threaded liberally between the slats.

Ronald and Mónica looked to me, the question in their eyes: ‘now what?’. They stood by while I consulted the GPS App on my smartphone. Maybe there was an alternative. We’d recently taken a fork in the road. “Let’s go back and follow the other road and see” I suggested in my mediocre Spanish.

We backtracked briefly before continuing slowly up a rugged switchback. Out of nowhere an old Land Rover came roaring around the next corner. Kicking up a thick plume of dust, it came skidding to a halt beside us.

The driver’s eyes scanned us and our heavily-laden bikes with a puzzled expression. He called out in Spanish, asking where we were going. Ronald responded with our destination – La Esperanza, a small village near the summit of Cordillera Talamanca. The driver shared a confused glance with his passenger. “You can’t go this way. It has a dead end. Only my farm is there”. Looking each of us over, he turned and spoke to me, easily switching to English “Where are you from?” My pale Canadian complexion had given me away as a foreigner.

After describing our intended route and showing the man – Sebastien, he told us – the map on my phone, both men now insisted that we couldn’t go over the cordillera (mountain range) as we had planned. They had never heard of a path leading to the other side. Sebastien said the only way to get to where we wanted to go was to backtrack to Cartago, the town where we had started, and ride along a busy highway. No way, I told myself inwardly. I hadn’t come here to pedal pavement. There had to be another way.  

Suddenly another vehicle came blazing around the corner from the opposite direction. Another skidding halt. Another plume of dust settled over us. The two drivers shared a friendly greeting. Sebastien knew the man. Had he heard of a trail over the cordillera? They spoke to each other briefly and when Sebastien turned back to us it was with good news “He says there might be a path there. You will need to take the last road you passed”. He told us he would write a letter for us to give to the property owner. “I will tell him, Manuel, to give you permission to use his road”.

As Sebastien gave me the hand-written note, he had a warning for us. “Be very careful! There are pumas up there. A puma killed one of my donkeys recently.

Back at the barbed wire gate, Ronald, Mónica and I helped one another to lift each heavy bike up and over. Before carrying on, we paused for a quick chat about the threat of a Puma. An adventurer to the core, I was keen to forge ahead. Ronald’s girlfriend Mónica is very laid-back. She seemed unfazed by the warning. Only my cousin Ronald, who is a bit of a worrier, had his reservations. Ultimately, we all agreed to continue.

"As Sebastien gave me the hand-written note, he had a warning for us. 'Be very careful! There are pumas up there.' "

Less than a kilometer down the private road, we came across three rugged-looking older men in a small work yard, washing an old bulldozer. They too looked quite surprised to see the three of us approaching on bicycles. Pulling the folded note from his pocket, Ronald approached the men to ask if one of them was Manuel the owner. No. Apparently, Manuel had gone into town to pick up supplies.

Mónica and I stood at a distance. Suddenly we heard the men burst out in laughter. Ronald wasn’t laughing. He had asked them if they knew of a path across the cordillera. The eldest shook his head in disbelief. He said it would be nearly impossible by bicycle, gesturing for emphasis; “There are sections of near-vertical climbing. It is difficult even to walk”. This we had already heard.

The route is not for public use. You could get lost on the mountain” he continued. Another man chimed in “It is very risky. There are snakes, pumas and others dangerous animals”. They told Ronald, if we insisted on proceeding, to follow the high voltage transmission towers to reach the other side at ‘Macho Gaff’ (what the locals call the town of La Esperanza. As we prepared to set off again, one of the men shrugged his shoulders but wished us well “Buenas suerte! Dios los acompane.” (Good Luck! God be with you.)

Ronald thanked them, then loosely translated the conversation into English for me. I paused to consider their advice. In my experience bikepacking, this is not unusual. Often locals think my plans are crazy, but bikepacking isn’t about taking the fastest or easiest route – it’s about the experience, the adventure. Sometimes the adventurous route is pure bliss and sometimes pure torture, but the end result melds these emotions into something greater. The feeling of accomplishment at the end of a challenging journey leaves a permanent mark on us. When I reflect back on past experiences like this, the only choices I have regretted were taking the alternate ‘easy’ route. I’ve never regretted trusting my planning and research and trusting my gut (and embracing the suffering)

This time, my gut said, ‘let’s stick to the plan’.

As we pedalled further up the narrow road, the grade became steeper and steeper. We had no choice but to push our bikes for long stretches. Despite the lack of actual pedal-time on my bike so far on our journey, I was quite content. The same could not be said for Ronald and Mónica, lagging behind me. As newbie bikepackers, they hadn’t expected to be pushing their bikes more than riding them.

The natural environment around us morphed into a centuries-old tropical cloud forest as we slowly gained elevation. The trees were majestic, their vast canopies heavy with bromeliads, low-hanging vines, and ­long tresses of Spanish moss. As the daylight began to wane, we surrendered to our exhaustion. We couldn’t continue much past 5:30pm without proper lights for riding after dark anyway. We agreed on a flat spot and set up camp for the night.

As soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, the forest came alive with the sounds of its inhabitants. Locusts and katydids began to chirp and buzz. Nighthawks whizzed by our heads, snatching small flying insects attracted by the glow from our headlamps. In the dense brush, ground-dwelling creatures began to stir, seeking food among the fallen foliage. Despite the abundance of unfamiliar sounds, it wasn’t hard to fall asleep after such a tiring day.

"Sometimes the adventurous route is pure bliss and sometimes pure torture, but the end result melds these emotions into something greater."

The next morning, we were back on our way bright and early but quickly reached the end of the forest road. From the directions Ronald had gotten, we managed to find an overgrown path leading deep into the lush, dense forest. Now we were not only off the bikes, but often carrying them as we began to descend to a small river.

Before long, we came upon a dilapidated old pedestrian bridge, this landmark a confirmation we were on the right path. The rickety, suspended walkway drooped to one side and swayed unnervingly as we slowly rolled our bikes across it. While we waited for Ronald to make the crossing, Mónica and I replenished our water supply with the crisp, clear river water. Suddenly he called out to us with a distinct note of fear in his tone.

Puma tracks. Well, at least the old locals hadn’t been having a laugh at our expense for no reason.

We pressed on – with literally nowhere to go but up. As we made our way haltingly up the next slope, the trail was exactly as described – incredibly steep and extremely overgrown. Our shoes slid in the soft mud as we pushed our bikes up and up. Mónica, with her bike the least encumbered, often surged ahead of Ronald and I. Every few minutes he called out to her plaintively, “stay closer!”, his anxious tone belying his fear of the Puma tracks we continued to follow. We were definitely trailing it, but my small solace was that it was ahead of us and not behind us.

Ronald (in his foolish chivalry) had elected to carry the majority of their shared gear. With his heavy load, his frustration eventually boiled over. “Fuck this shit!” he finally exploded. “Fucking Ruta loca! Why did you plan this way?!” he exclaimed after a particularly gruelling climb up a ravine. I remained stoic, not the type to be easily roused. When others are breaking down, I am usually content just to push on without complaint. To me, the suffering isn’t pleasant, but it’s part of the experience. This attitude has driven others to the point of near madness in the past and will, no doubt, have the same effect on future adventure companions.

"The symphony of clicking and squeaking, buzzing and chirping was both deafening and soothing.. "

Late in the day the trail expelled us into the transmission line corridor. We took a rest under one of the enormous steel towers, our bodies fatigued near the point of exhaustion. The concrete foundation was perched close to the precipice, the view confirming the impressive elevation gain we had achieved. We were well into the clouds.

Despite the buzzing and crackling from the high voltage lines overhead, Ronald wanted to call it quits and set up camp. “We’re tired, Paul. It’s flat here…” he suggested longingly. I had a look at my GPS to see how far we were from the road before responding. With only one steep climb remaining, I convinced him and Mónica to press on.

An hour later, to our immense relief, we reached the road. Quickly setting up camp nearby as the sky darkened, I prepared dinner while Ronald collected wood to make a fire. He hoped the puma would leave us alone if it smelled smoke. At such high altitude, surrounded by mist, making a fire was difficult but we managed. Despite our fatigue we had a restless night’s sleep. None of us was able to forget the Puma tracks we had followed all day.

The third day dawned with my realization that I would have to alter our route. After covering less than 7 kilometers on day two, the majority of which was hike-a-bike, I had to accept that we needed to abandon Plan A. My Plan B would divert us off my ideal course to the Marino Ballena National Park in Uvita and instead lead us to a nearer destination on the Pacific coast.

We had only four days to complete the entire trip and at our current pace, there was no way we could finish the route in time. If we had stuck to my original plan, the hardest part of our journey still lay ahead, and I was sure now that we couldn’t manage the full route with our limited timeline. I was hesitant to tell Ronald and Mónica we were re-routing, not wanting to disappoint them or admit my own disappointment.

Plan B began mercilessly, with a steep ascent by gravel road to the highest point of our journey, at about 2900 meters. Not long after cresting the summit, we reached La Esperanza and stopped for a proper meal. From there we enjoyed a long coast down to the town of Santa Maria.

It is quite common for small rural Costa Rican towns to have a park at their core. They serve as a playground for children, a hangout for teens, a place for young lovers to canoodle, and often most of all, for seniors to congregate, socialize, and keep an eye on the younger generation. After replenishing our food and water supplies, we decided to take a short break in Santa Maria’s central park before carrying on our way.

Just as we were readying ourselves to roll out again, several seniors wandered over to have a look at our bikes and ask where we were headed. While Ronald gave them a quick summary of our plans, I watched their eyebrows raise. Squinting at us in disbelief, the one man was shaking his head before he even began to speak. “There’s no way to pass through there” he warned in Spanish. The other man suggested an alternate route which was primarily on asphalt. I sighed inwardly, then employed my limited Spanish to try to reassure them I was sure of the route. They looked unconvinced.

Another old couple wandered over; no doubt also curious about our heavily laden bikes. The husband had overheard parts of our conversation and wanted to weigh in. He knew of the road we planned to take but told us it would not be a good choice. “That is a really ugly road”, his wife added for good measure.

I could sense Ronald’s faith in my plans wavering. We thanked the locals for their input and turned back to Mónica for a team huddle. “Ronald, I’m 99% sure my route is okay”, I told him. I really didn’t want to abandon my plan and ride on a busy, paved road. Mónica agreed with me “I really don’t want to ride on a road with heavy traffic either…” Under pressure from both his cousin and his girlfriend, Ronald conceded, and we set off.

Soon we were rolling through the heart of a coffee plantation region. Apparently, this region, referred to as Dota, produces some of Costa Rica’s best coffee. It also neighbours a more popular coffee region called Tarrazú. At a small shop I picked up a pound of local roast as a souvenir. I hoped it would be worth the extra weight on my rig.

As we made our way up another, smaller, mountain pass, we found ourselves in the clouds once again. An eerie mist enveloped us, our clothing and gear becoming damp from intermittent drizzle.

Daylight diminishes a lot faster in the clouds. In an area that was predominately agricultural lands, this meant we would have to make our camp on a private property. With the milder temperature in this region, we were soon welcomed by a plethora of insects. Mosquitoes swarmed as we knelt to prepare food. Cockroaches skittered around us while we ate our simple meal. Spiders seemed to approach from every direction. When I slid into my sleeping bag, zipping up my bivy at bedtime, I felt grateful for the barrier from all the little wings and feet but was delighted to be lulled to sleep by nature’s nocturnal orchestra. The symphony of clicking and squeaking, buzzing and chirping was both deafening and soothing.

We awoke on our final morning to shelters and gear soaked in a heavy dew. Setting off, we realized we had made camp just before another long descent. Down narrow, gravelled farm roads we descended steadily, meandering through vast coffee plantations. Field workers looked up from their work picking coffee to watch us hurtle by.

The more we dropped in elevation, the hotter and more humid it became. Soon the road conditions became treacherous as well. Steep sections with chunky rocks and loose stone proved challenging on loaded bikes. Perhaps this was what the old folks in Santa Maria had been warning us about. Mónica took a bad spill at one point but dusted herself off quickly. It seemed nothing could quash her motivation to reach our destination at the ocean that day.

By midday we reached a small village in the river valley. We had expected to get lunch and refill our water supply there but we were out of luck. The place was deserted – we did not see a single person. At this point we were at our lowest elevation before the final climb. The third and final pass. The road was steep. We inched our way up under the heat of the blazing sun.

Ronald began to fall behind. He was utterly exhausted. Mónica and I waited for him to catch up. When he reached us, his frustration was apparent. “I’m not having a good time” he grumbled. I knew his muscles were sore and he was probably dehydrated. I mixed him an electrolyte drink, and after he drank it I could sense his relief.

The steep climb continued for another 13 kilometers before we began our final descent to the coast. Not far into the downhill section, Ronald slid out on a patch of loose gravel, leaving him with nasty red scrapes on his forearms and shins. He reached his breaking point. “Paul, we aren’t enjoying this. It is too hard and not fun at all.” I checked our position on the map and reassured them that it was only going to get easier. Ronald was unconvinced. “Why can’t we just camp for one more night and then reach the ocean early tomorrow?” he pleaded. I hoped I could change his mind. “Let’s get to the next Pulperia (a small grocery store) and then we can decide”, I countered. Both Ronald and Mónica reluctantly nodded, and we got rolling again.

"Down narrow, gravelled farm roads we descended steadily, meandering through vast coffee plantations. Field workers looked up from their work picking coffee to watch us hurtle by."

I seemed to have the most energy remaining and stayed well ahead of them. At last a small Pulperia came into view. When Mónica and Ronald arrived, I handed each of them a beer, hoping it would be enough to reinvigorate them. Ronald asked the storekeeper how far it was to Punta Quepos, our final destination. She responded that it was only 10 kilometers. “The road gets better just after the next bend.” I breathed a silent sigh of relief and then looked to Ronald for his reaction.

The cold beer and the lady’s reassurance had worked. Ronald and Mónica agreed to press on. Reenergized by the knowledge that we were so close to finishing, we kept a steady pace, especially after the road improved. Rolling into the town of Punta Quepos I could feel their excitement building. When we reached the coast, they were overjoyed. They had accomplished what seemed impossible to them just a few hours before.

Strangers approached us to ask about our loaded bikes and they were bursting with pride to share the details of their accomplishment. The looks of amazement they received further buoyed their spirits.

I felt relieved we had managed to finish in the allotted time. It had been a short but challenging trip. Shepherding a couple of bikepacking newcomers hadn’t been without its hurdles, but the satisfaction I felt, knowing that I had helped them achieve such a difficult feat, was more than enough thanks. I stood back, watching them celebrate and thought back to the end of my own first bikepacking trip. It was easy to recollect the overwhelming emotions I had felt.

As the son of a Costa Rican immigrant to Canada, and a lifelong adventure addict, I grew up dreaming I would someday bike through the rainforest. Although I can now tick that item off my bucket list, it still feels slightly unfinished. Other trips and plans loom on the horizon for the next few years, but I have a feeling I will go back for another, perhaps more in-depth, exploration of the Costa Rican rainforest by bike someday.

Until then, I will have these memories to enjoy. I’m already looking forward to all the local advice I can expect to receive along the way, and preparing to disregard most of it, as I follow my own path, trusting my research and my gut and embracing all the glorious what-ifs that bikepacking presents along the way.


LOCATION | COSTA RICA

WORDS | PAULO LABERGE & HEATHER PLEWES

PHOTOS | PAULO LABERGE

CONSPIRATORS | MÓNICA + RONALD

BIKE | ESKER HAYDUKE