Saturday, February 27, 2010

Costa Rica : Nicoya Peninsula : Playa Coco, Playa Tamarindo, Playa Avellanas

It is going to be really tough for me to summarize my time in Costa Rica.  It was a huge race to get there, yet I found it nearly impossible to leave.  The feel of the place changed immediately from Nicaragua.  Everything got expensive, and I hate to say it, quite a bit more like the United States.  But the beauty is immeasurable.  It seemed to me that every inch of the country is packed with physical beauty to the bursting point.  From the immaculate white sand beaches to the smoldering volcanoes to the funky caribbean side all within a days drive, it makes for exceptionally stimulating touring.

I woke up to Playa Coco and set out to meet Ben and Kaitlin and try to sneak into the new Riu all inclusive hotel they were staying at.  After some strategy forming alongside the road, we decided I'd just ride through the gate and we'd figure it out from there.  After some serious negotiation we got the manager to hook me up with a day pass bracelet for $50 US.

Being at a full-service luxury hotel was a bit of a shock to my system.  But after a couple cocktails and a swim in the ocean, I was ready for some serious time in front of the poolside bar.  

I mean how can you go wrong with a bar, a pool and sunshine.  Well then throw in the nearly constant attention of the bar staff and any drink you can think of in your hand before the last one is gone and you have the beauty of the all-inclusive vacation.

Ben and Kaitlin had a little game of "dunk the unsuspecting" going on.

We had a great dinner that night and met some philanthropic fans of my trip.  Later Ben and Kaitlin snuck me up to the room and piled onto the King Size bed.  In the morning I was more than content to hang in the room and get caught up on the internet.  Ben and Kaitlin would sneak me up food and beverages and we avoided the staff for the rest of the day.  I snuck out under the cover of darkness and rode back to Playa Coco.  It was great to hang with my brother and his girlfriend.  The big push was totally worth it.

In most places I find a restaurant that I end up frequenting.  In Playa Coco this place was JJH Barbeque & Caribbean.  Jerk chicken and smoked pork to die for.  Icy Imperial.  What more could you ask for?  This guy cooking your food...

After a tasty lunch I set out to ride the back roads to Playa Tamarindo.  "Tamagringo" as it is affectionately and appropriately tagged was made famous in the now classic surf film 'Endless Summer 2".  Now it is full of tourists and the infrastructure they demand.  A great beach for learning to surf, good overpriced food, and some surf icons and plenty of bikinis and local surf boys riding bmx bikes around whistling at them.  Iconic Costa Rican surf town gone crazy.

While driving around looking for a hostal, not sure I really wanted to stick around here, I made eye contact with a guy around my age sitting in an Isuzu Trooper.  He was waiting on the corner with his driver side door open.  Looked like the perfect guy to grill for where to stay.  Barney told me to head out of town for Playa Avellanas.  He told me of a hostal named Casa Surf that had great food and was nice and quiet and the beach was great.  Barney was a straight shooter telling me that he was partial though because that is where he and his Argentine wife and little boy live.  It sounded like exactly what I was looking for.  After the spoiling I got at the RIU, I was looking forward to the simple life of hostal living again.

When I rode into the collection of a couple houses at Playa Avellanas, I saw this sign and knew I had been pointed in the right direction.

I got settled in at Casa Surf and then headed over to check out the beach.

It was beautiful, nearly empty and the waves were rolling in perfectly with a gentle off-shore breeze.  I stripped down and put on my surf trunks for a sunset swim.  I bumped into Barney while bodysurfing the perfect waves.  I got to meet his pregnant wife Oregelina and his little boy while watching a picture perfect sunset commence.

A great couple of days indeed.

Costa Rica :  PURA VIDA  The saying was starting to make sense.  

Team Nicaragua : León to Las Peñitas, San Juan del Sur and beyond...

I joined Mark Oetzman and Jon Benfatti from El Salvador to Nicaragua. We had a great ride, with some interesting border crossings. Everything went as good as can be expected and we ended up in León in the afternoon. We quickly found a great hostel and within an hour of hanging out at the pool, we met Peter Stolting from Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada. Peter has a house out in the little beach village of Las Peñitas. He was chilling at the hostel with his visitors after a shopping and socializing mission into León. He invited us out to his pad for the next day.

Later in the evening Sam Miller and Daniel Hawes showed up with their surfboard toting KLR 650's. It was great to see Sam again and meet Daniel finally. So they jumped in with us for the trip out to the beach the next day. We put together this little video and ended up showing it at the local bar and restaurant, The Riviera. Thanks to Peter and Company for a great sidetrip.

We enjoyed meeting the family that caretakes Peter's property.  They were really excited about the motorcycles, and I'm proud to say my KTM got lots of attention.

The sunset from Peter's house, Casa Sarita, was nothing short of spectacular...

We headed down to Peter's friend's restaurant and dined on wood-fired pizzas and quality cocktails.

After the night of drinks at The Riviera and the video showing...

everyone was ready to chill the next day...

But Mark, Jon and I needed to keep moving on.  We suited up around eleven and headed out, first down the old highway to Managua, which was really hammered.  It was full of potholes and big stretches of gravel. Did I mention potholes?  Potholes big enough to swallow a Volkswagon.  I'm not sure what we were thinking but Mark and I just grabbed tons of throttle and ripped down the nearly empty highway with reckless abandon.  Jumping the big potholes and dodging others, trying desperately to avoid the tire flattening random chunks of asphalt.  Once we got to the Pan-American highway and started pushing south, the pavement got better and we were able to really make some time.  It was unfortunate that there weren't shoulders on the highway for photo opportunities, because the scenery was stellar.

We were making a little too good of time at one point and got flagged over by the police.  They had a radar gun!  I didn't even know that technology existed in Latin America, but there they were waving the radar gun in the air and motioning wildly for us to pull over.  I guess we were in a school zone.  I pleaded that it was Saturday and school wasn't in session.  That didn't seem to go very far.  Once we got through the semantics, the officer simply told me that school zone or not we were going way too fast.  I couldn't disagree with him.  When I first saw them I was clipping along right around 75 mph with Mark and Jon right behind me.  Considering the speed limit was 60 kph, we had basically been riding at double the allowed speed.

I did some fancy talking and we ended up riding out of there to the tune of 300 Cordobas.  About $15 US for the three of us, I rode away with a smile on my face and we pushed on, albeit a bit slower, to San Juan del Sur.  The terribly rough road that I remembered from my last visit here had been replaced with a brand new asphalt one complete with concrete gutters lining the way.  What took 45 minutes in a 4x4 Landcruiser a few years ago, now was no more than a 15 minute zip into the little booming surf town.

We settled in to the hotel where Elizabeth ( and I stayed on her surf trip and where I met my great friends Tim and Erin Henkels.  (Side note:  Tim and Erin lead an incredibly adventurous life as international school teachers.  They just finished a two-year contract in Ecuador and are now living and teaching in Turkey.  At the moment they are skiing near the border of Iran.  check them out at  you can find their current blog here:

So when we were having trouble finding decent budget options, I guided us to the Hotel Villa Isabella, where we were given a complete lock-off garage for the bikes and a nice two-room suite complete with a private bathroom and shower.  It was a nice splurge and we celebrated by polishing off a couple bottles of Flor de Cana 7 year rum before heading out for the night.

The next day we took a ride up to the new Jesus statue.  A whopping 15 meter tall homage to the saviour looking over the old cross and the bay of San Juan del Sur.

The perch above the bay gives views all the way to Costa Rica to the south and some beautiful hidden bays to the north.

Then it was off for the border and the push to try and meet Ben and Kaitlin in Playa del Coco, Costa Rica.

The view of Lake Nicaragua and the new windfarms along the highway kept us entertained until we pulled up to the chaotic and busy border of Peñas Blancas.

These lines of several hundred people would be the sole reason we ended up missing my brother in Coco, but when we found the right guys to bribe, we ended up getting to short cut the process.

We raced into the beautiful rolling farmland of northern Costa Rica, narrowly missing some altercations with giant tour busses on the narrow highway.  We arrived in Playa del Coco after dark missing Ben and Kaitlin by a couple of hours.  But here we were in Costa Rica, my fourth country in less than a week.  A big push in a short time, and I had no idea what a profound effect this little country had in store for me.  Pura Vida.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

El Salvador - Honduras - Nicaragua : Pushing on...

"I’ve finally turned the corner on my cold.  I’m up late with a bit of a cold medicine buzz.  Hoping to jot down some thoughts for the moment before I go crash.  So stoked to be here in León, Nicaragua.  The last couple of days have been incredible despite being plagued by my terrible head cold and sinus infection.  The green goblins are back but hopefully they’ll turn clear and leave for good.  The riding has been epic and there has been lots of it.  These small countries have made for exciting days as I’ve pushed out of Guatemala, crossed El Salvador and a tiny corner of Honduras and now find myself sitting in a good position to push through Nicaragua and make it in time to Costa Rica to see Ben and Kaitlin.

Barring any mechanical issues, I’ve got an extra day for exploring the Northern Coast of Nica before pushing further South and crossing into Costa Rica on Sunday."  -excerpted from my journal...

Since we were waiting on Ben's bike to get repaired up in San Salvador, and all of us aside from Mark, ended up sick in one way or another, we decided to relax at our cool hotel in Playa Tunco.  In between naps and doses of cold medicine I wandered around the grounds and snapped some shots.

The hotel is located right on the beach which was superb.  To come here for a week or two to surf would be an ideal vacation.  I tried swimming in the ocean to help with the sinus infection.  It was good therapy.

But on the next day, Jon was feeling better and I was ready to push on hoping to still meet my deadline.  Charles chose to stay behind and wait for Ben, not wanting to cross the border into Honduras risking getting too far ahead of him.

Jon and Mark, both firefighters for the U.S. Forest Service, were riding their KLR's to Panama with the intention of turning around there and heading back north.  They also needed to be in Costa Rica by the 10th of January to rendezvous with a friend bringing down a new tire.  So they were the perfect team for me to join up with for the push through Honduras and Nicaragua.  We loaded up and bid Charles farewell, ripping down the coast.  The El Salvadoran coastal road was good other than a couple of wheel swallowing potholes.

When we got closer to the border, we opted for a back road that skirted a sweet volcano.  Looking to get out of the sweaty and humid coastal atmosphere, this was a great option.  The road was much rougher.  A curvy climb up to the flanks of the volcano with great views and much cooler temps.

Arriving at the famous El Amatillo border crossing into Honduras at 2:30 we made the decision to cross into the country.  Our other option was to stay somewhere on the El Salvador side and make a double border push the next day.  Honduras is the most expensive country to visit when importing a vehicle.  I would have loved to just skip it since most of the "good" stuff is all on the Caribbean.  Unfortunately for me, Honduras stretches all the way to the Pacific making bypassing it impossible.  Or nearly impossible...  We researched taking a boat from El Salvador directly to Nicaragua via the Pacific Ocean. We found one write up on the internet documenting one motorcyclists journey through this adventure.  He ended up taking several boats and had to have his bike carried over a 40 yard stretch of ocean mud to get to shore.  It took him four days.  Not something my new team was interested in doing.  And who could blame them.  It sounded like hell.  So we were forced to enter Honduras to ride the short 100 miles to Nicaragua.  Our timing was such that we would have to overnight somewhere near the Nica border and cross in the morning.

Borders are typically filled with "helpers" or "tramitadores" who insist on 'helping' you through the process of immigration and importing your motorcycle through customs.  My opinion of these so-called helpers is that they really are only there to levy money from you.  Rarely is the process difficult and often they make it harder in order to try to get more money out of the tourist they are helping.  When we pulled up the the border one such helper insisted on helping us.  We declined his help numerous times but when the border official threatened to send Mark back to the U.S. because he only had a photocopy of his title, we caved.  Our helper, Jose, insisted that he would be able to get us across with the documents we had.  We gave it a shot.  This turned into a several hour process where Mark and I, the only Spanish speakers took turns working with Jose, while Jon remained with the bikes keeping a close eye on our stuff.  Borders are stuffed with interesting characters that usually appear to lack money and prey upon unsuspecting individuals caught up in the process.  I.E. theft is common.

Everything seemed to be going well, until Jose claimed that we each were required to pay a $25 dollar road tax.  I had never heard of such a tax so we debated this fact for several hours.  Since Jose was holding all of our documents, we were in a sensitive position.  Without our paperwork and passports we were stuck at his mercy.  I pulled out my cell phone and feigned a call to my attorney.  We stalled and delayed, thinking this was another typical scam.  Mark and I debated whether we should just pay or whether we should wait out Jose's patience.  It was getting dark and we were all getting impatient.

Finally well after dark and some serious scheming we got our documents back from Jose and took our chances without paying the tax.  None of us were very happy to be riding into Honduras in the dark.  Of all the Central American countries, Honduras is the least stable currently.  We had been warned numerous times of robberies.  Pitch black now, we mounted the bikes and charged into the unknown on high alert.  The threat of a being arrested for not paying the "road tax" only heightened our anxiety.  We rode in tight formation to the first town.  Unable to find adequate accommodation, we pushed further.  Eventually finding a mediocre motel, we decided we'd all had enough for the day.  Tired and weak from being sick, I was ready for bed.  Our room was sparsely furnished, the top sheets on the beds were dirty from debris falling from the ceiling.  And when I pulled the sheet down I found this little friend waiting for me.

We trapped him with a towel and released him outside.  Wondering if this would affect our sleep...  We shut out the lights hoping for the best.  Next thing I knew Jon was waking us up to bust out for Nicaragua.  It was sunny and beautiful riding through the Honduran countryside.  Aside from being stopped several times by the police to check our documents (none of them asked about a road tax) the miles clicked by without a hitch.

As we approached the Nicaraguan border, we could see San Cristobal volcano smoking on the horizon.

Having been to Nicaragua previously, I was really excited to return.  I had really enjoyed my first visit and was excited to arrive in León.  All we needed to do was check out of Honduras and pass into Nicaragua.  One more chance to be busted for not paying the road tax.  I was hoping that since none of the several police stops created a problem, we would escape free of concern.

Once we passed this guy we were home free.  I guess we'll never know but seems like we got away without paying the road tax.  Maybe Jose wasn't lying but regardless we never got asked about it.

We agreed that we would avoid all helpers this time around.  I went through the process on my own and 15 minutes later was out to take Mark and then Jon through the system.  It took us less than an hour and we were on our way ripping towards the smoking volcano.  Rocketing through the countryside with smiles on our faces heading for the colonial city of León.

It didn't take long and the drive was superb.

We ended up at a really cool hostel called Lazybones.  Mark went in first to see if it was going to be o.k. and if we could park the bikes inside.  He came out with a funny look on his face and said I better go check it out.  Knowing that I'm picky about these things he said to walk through the courtyard and check out the "lounge" area.  This was what I found...

Yep, that'll do.  And killer parking too.

After our dodgy Honduran motel this place was like heaven.  Cool art filled the walls, a private room for the three of us complete with mosquito nets over the beds, high speed wireless internet, funky jams filling the air and of course, the pool made this little oasis remarkable.  An hour or so into hanging at the pool and we'd met a Canadian named Peter, who invited us to come the next day to his beach house a short drive away.  Just at dark another surprise arrived.

Sam, from back in Mexico, showed up with his new riding partner Dan and their surfboard toting KLR's.  It had been about a month since I'd seen Sam.  So we packed a couple more bikes into the courtyard and became the token spectacle at the hostel.

We all went out for the night and caught up over some beers.  Excited for our adventure to Las Peñitas to stay with Peter and his crew the next day.