Monday, April 5, 2010

Costa Rica : Nathalie Jimenez Rodriguez

OR how much fun is possible in 10 short days?!

I mentioned in my last post that I met Nathalie at Casa Mafalda Hotel and Cafe on the beach in Jac√≥.  Nathalie was a really nice and outgoing young woman that was really interested in the journey I am on.  I think the idea of complete freedom and aimless wandering struck a chord with her.  When she found out that I was heading to Colombia, she offered up contacts in Bogot√° and gave me some suggestions to check out.  It was really nice to have someone pumping me up for my journey and the road ahead.  Since repairing the bike, I was pretty sure I was South America bound.

Nathalie or Natty as I quickly dubbed her, invited me to come and stay in her home town of Tres Rios, a suburb of San Jose, Costa Rica.  I was really excited to spend some time with a local Costa Rican family.  I hadn't really had much of a connection with locals since leaving the Hernandez farm back in Oaxaca, Mexico.  Natty suggested that I take the Cerro de la Muerte highway from Dominical to Tres Rios.  With a name like Mountain of Death, how could I pass.

The highway was instantly incredible.  I left the hot and sticky temps of Dominical behind, shooting into the jungle in the late afternoon golden sunlight.  Instantly I was climbing.  Consistent switchbacks wound round and round with walls of lush green jungle foliage cascading down to the highway.  My smile was barely contained in my helmet as I throttled my way upward.  Farm houses dotted the sides of the road and the vistas became broad and wide looking out over the steep valleys falling down to the ocean behing me.  I could see clouds touching the mountain ahead of me and wondered if I should suit up in my rain gear.  Enjoying the fresh cool mountain air for the first time in over a week, I decided to ride on into the clouds.  There were moments of mist but no rain.  My golden views vanished and I was in a room of light purple and the road continued to climb like a serpent on a vine.

I couldn't believe it but after another ten minutes of climbing toward the highest point of highway in the whole country, I actually broke out of the clouds back into the sunshine above them.

The air got nice and cool and the light was sublime...

I was wondering where the "Mountain of Death" was lurking because so far this was feeling like the "Highway to Heaven."  But not long after clearing the pass it became obvious.  Semis raced in the oncoming lane trying to keep their momentum on the way up, and around every blind corner was a descending semi trying with all its might to stay in control.  This equated to engine braking and spewing clouds of thick black smoke out of the stacks.  And of course doing 10 - 15 mph to stay in control.  It is nearly impossible to do 15 mph on Gigante, so I was forced to pass groups of semis on these narrow mountain roads.  "Mountain of Death," not so much a mystery anymore.

I made it through the madness and came into Tres Rios shortly after sunset.  Natty met me at the local shopping mall and escorted me to a nice little Bed & Breakfast run by a feller from Washington State, who had settled here in Tres Rios long ago with his Costa Rican wife.  I was able to do my laundry and make some small repairs to my bike while Nathalie finished her work week.

I made the bike ready for a two-up adventure back to the Nicoya Peninsula to meet up with Curt and Melissa from Colorado.  A new highway had just been opened from San Jose to Puntarenas.  A long awaited thoroughfare that had been under construction for many years was finally open for business.  We hopped on Gigante and roosted off for the coast.  The highway was a toll highway, and having Nathalie on the back ready to pay the tolls as we passed through was very convenient.  We reached the coast just as the sun was setting.

It was a good thing I'd given Nat a quick lesson on how to properly jump off the bike in case of a slow motion tip over.  When I raced off the highway to snap this shot of the setting sun, I pulled right into deep sand in the parking area.  Of course the front tire washed out and unable to hold up the weight of Gigante, gear and a passenger, the bike was soon on the ground.  Like a pro, Nathalie had gracefully jumped clear of the bike and was instantly there helping lift the bike back to its wheels all in time to still grab a shot of the sun sinking behind the Nicoya mountains on the other side of the bay.  I was embarrassed for dropping the bike in the sand but we laughed it off as the near full moon rose over the river on our way to the ferry docks.

It was well after dark when we reached the docks.  We had missed the 5:30pm ferry to Paquera, but there was another leaving shortly for Playa Naranjo, which was only 30 km's or so North of Paquera.  It seemed like an easy decision as we'd arrive in Naranjo before the next ferry even departed for Paquera.

We watched the lights of Puntarenas fade away in the distance and enjoyed some icy Imperial beers on the ride across the Golfo de Nicoya.  An hour and a half later, we were riding off the ferry into the dark night of Nicoya.  What I'd forgotten about my previous trip through this area is that the road from the docks in Playa Naranjo is rough dirt all the way to Paquera.  During the day, this isn't much of a challenge but in the dark following a line of cars fresh from the ferry, it turned into a dusty white-knuckled affair.  The distance to Cabuya on the southern tip of the peninsula suddenly became longer than I wished in the black night.  Not to worry though, Natty quickly came to the rescue pulling her cellular phone out saying she might have a contact that could help us out.

Next thing I know, we're headed to a friend's house in Playa Tambor.  I didn't really care who's house or where we'd sleep, I was just ready to be off of Gigante and relaxing.  We pulled up to a security gate and were soon whisked into a high security golf resort.  Josh from Holland was our gracious host for the evening.  With some quick introductions aside, he pointed me up into the carport and instructed me to park next to the 6 seat golf cart resting on the white tile floor.  Before I could even get my riding gear off, Josh had a cold beer in my hand and was leading me out to the poolside palapa.

O.k.  this will do...

We relaxed for a while in the refreshing blueness of the pool, sipping on cocktails before heading down to the beach to take in some Tambor moonlight.

The next day we were off in search of my Vail friends Curt and Melissa.  I had a clue that they were in Cabuya but wasn't certain.  We rode through the beautiful Nicoya countryside past Montezuma and pulled up to the Howler Monkey Hotel.  Sure enough, they were there and stoked to have a beer before they set out to catch dinner.

We relaxed in the picture perfect tranquility of the afternoon hoping the fish were biting for the Colorado Contingency.

The Howler Monkey Hotel was a conglomeration of "A" frame cabins set in a cluster around the pool with a fantastic shoreline.  Complete with a toe munching guard dog, not much could improve this little oasis.

When the boat returned and I saw this catch unloaded from the boat, I was a bit worried that we'd be going hungry...

But Curt and Melissa, red from the sun and buzzed from the beer, managed to haul in a couple of nice tuna as well.  

Nathalie grabbed a pad of paper and jotted down the necessary supplies needed from the grocery store, while Curt and I gathered wood for a fire.

The full moon rose perfectly out of the calm bay while we readied ourselves for dinner with more cold Imperial cervezas.

It is pretty much impossible to beat tuna cooked over a bed of coals on the beach.  Especially tuna that has been out of the water for less than an hour.  We dined until our bellies were about to burst.  The beers gave way to a bottle of rum and soon we found ourselves bouncing about in Curt's rental 4x4 SUV through the backroads of Nicoya night.  Sitting in the back seat with Natty, dj'ing from the iPod, high school nostalgia of riding around listening to music on a mobile party cruise flooded my headspace.  It was the third full moon in sixty days.  We made our way to the big beaches of Santa Teresa, stopping here and there at beachside bars buzzing in bliss.

Big Moon.  Big Fun.

The next day Curt and Melissa made their way back to San Jose to catch their flight back to the snowy cold of Colorado.  Natty and I made our way back to Santa Teresa to spend our afternoon on the beach soaking in the goodness of this little slice of surf and sand.

Natty put us up in an incredible hotel called the Luz de Vida.  We relaxed on the beach all afternoon and a better part of the next day.


Eventually we had to saddle up and head back to the real world of San Jose. 

We had a beautiful ride back to Paquera and made the ferry with perfect timing.

The extended weekend may have come to an end, but the adventure certainly had not.  
Tuesday morning found us out the door at 6 am and headed for the airport.  But neither of us would be flying today.  Nathalie is an air-traffic controller and we were bound for radar control.  I was fortunate enough to get a backstage view of the wild world of air trafficking.

Natty's current job is to rewrite the flight plans for the whole country.  Here she shows me the current route to Limon on the Caribbean coast.  The radar office was busy with activity from the moment we arrived.  When the bossman arrived I wasn't sure if I'd be booted from the chaos or welcome watching the action.  Instead I was escorted straight to his office for an official Q&A session.  Manuel was an incredibly friendly fellow.  Dressed for business aside from a pair of riding boots poking out from his pressed dress pants.  We talked excitedly about motorcycling and the pure freedom of riding.  Turns out that most of Nathalie's coworkers are riders as well.  I thought I heard a familiar rumble when Manuel arrived...

He rides a fine specimen of American Steel.  A far cry from my filthy black beast, I was a bit jealous seeing all that chrome and raw V-twin power.

After work, we made a quick departure heading back to Tres Rios to get Gigante out for some excercise.  Nathalie was even more excited than I was to get back out on the Costa Rican roads.  Lucky for us Costa is packed coast to coast with killer riding.  Today, we were off for a tour to the clouds again.  This time onto the flanks of Volcano Turrialba.

The whole place was vacant.  It was awsome to be there relaxing in the sunshine looking up at this big beast of earthly creation sleeping peacefully.  But without warning the clouds came in.  In a matter of minutes it turned from cool sunshine to cold mist.

We saddled up and followed the cowboys down the road.  Slipping and sliding on the muddy gravel, relieved when we made it to the shiny wet pavement that switchbacked down into the town on the sides of the volcano.  When I saw this little oasis in the misty rain, I had to stop for a sample.

Chicharrones are my favorite snack.  I first got hooked back in Mexico.  Fried pork fat.  Who could resist?  Certainly not me.  Healthy?  Certainly not.  Tasty?  Yes.
On the way into the funky little roadside diner, we found out why we had Turrialba to ourselves...

The town had been evacuated only days earlier for a pending eruption.  Interesting.
I had other things on my mind preventing the news from sinking in too deeply.  Fried pork.  Unlike the dry crunchy creations of Mexico, these Chicharrones had more meat attached to the fatty skin and were fried in a pan instead of being deep fried.  Our pastoral hosts were happy to give me the full instruction on eating these delicacies.  With a squeeze of lime and a touch of salt I quickly found myself in adipose heaven.

Washed down with some piping hot coffee, I couldn't be better prepared to brave the wet and cold.  We got on Gigante and b-lined it back to Tres Rios.  What a great day.  Again!

By now this would have been a full vacation for most, but Natty had more adventure in store.  When she came home from work the next day to scoop me up from her mother's incredible hospitality, she announced that another Volcano was in store.  The weather was incredibly beautiful and beckoning us to come play in the sun.  So off we went for another winding climb.  This time to the Irazu Volcano crater. Last time this guy blew,  it covered the whole of San Jose in thick ash.

Talk about Imperialist expansion...  All I could do was laugh when I found this token of USGS presence here in Costa Rica.  Some 11,350' above sea level in the center of their country, Washington D.C. making itself known.  

We soaked in the views until the park ranger raced up in a Toyota Hilux sending us on our way down the volcano.  The green countryside hid any sense of previous explosive behavior.  Natty guided us to an incredible little Italian restaurant for a glass of vino and a killer sunset.

Another awesome day.

When I awoke, I was surprised that Nathalie was still home.  She told me she'd taken the day off of work so we could have another adventure before I made my departure for destinations south.  So I readied my gear and the motorcycle.  Topping off my coolant tank with fresh florescent fluid and the oil tank with fully-synthetic racing oil, we were set.  She came to the garage with a huge smile on her face...  "G. we're going flying," she stated matter of factly.

I haven't mentioned that not only is Nathalie an air-traffic controller but a pilot as well!  Lucky me.  So hours from the ocean by bike, I was told to get my suit packed, we were going to the beach!  Moments later we were pulling into the General Aviation hangars, meeting our host and pilot friend, Heiner Rojas. (Who reminded me quite a bit of one Steven Heideman.)  Our plane TI-AWA, Tango India - Alpha Whiskey Alpha, was waiting in the sunshine.

I got to fly shotgun while Heinar flew us out to the coast.  I can only imagine how hard it was for Nathalie to sit in the back seat.  It would be like me sitting behind someone on a motorcycle.  But after visiting with an expat pilot from Alaska that owned the private strip we landed on in Quepos, and a nice swim in the ocean, we were back on our way to San Jose.  Nathalie flew us back.  It was fun to watch her flying us.  It's got to be such a rush flying a plane.  I mentally added "learn to fly" to the bucket list.

Back on the ground in San Jose only hours after originally leaving.  

I snapped a token shot of Gigante in front of a Piper Cherokee trainer.  Little did I know that the two of them were about to have more in common than I'd care to admit.

I was having such a great time with Nathalie that I decided to stay for the weekend as well.  I was waiting for Sam Miller, a rider I'd ridden with back in Mexico, to catch up to me.  The plan was to ride with he and Daniel Hawes into Panama, party for Carnival and then start looking for a way to get us and the bikes to Colombia.  But since Sam and Daniel were still a few days behind enjoying the surf on the Nicoya, it gave me some extra time to chill with Natty.

We had stellar weather again on Saturday so we went for a ride up into coffee country.  I had seen some nice dirt roads from the air as we flew over and wanted to get a ground level view as well.

It was election weekend so we spent Sunday voting and showing support for my favorite candidate.  In the evening we went to my favorite pub and watched the results roll in.  I was amazed that the election tallies took second stage to the NFL Superbowl being broadcast live.  Too bad for the Colts...

Laura Chinchilla won the election quite handily.  We'll see what she does for the people of Costa Rica.  I managed to get my hands on a Costa Rican flag for my mirror.  My time here in Costa was quickly coming to an end.  In the morning, I prepared my bike, said some teary goodbyes to Nathalie and her mother and sister: my adoptive family.  Sad to be going, but knowing that the show must go on.  If I didn't leave Tres Rios soon, I knew there was a good chance I never would.

Thank You Nathalie for such a great week to cap off an outstanding visit to your beautiful country!
Leaving is never easy...

Natty and Piper...


zaguate tico said...

thank you a lot for this nice post..sure I would love to be your flying mentor as u were my bike one... you just have to come back to Costa... :)

Anonymous said...

Is there any way I can get just the pictures w/o your commentary? Well done Kleiter. When you get back I'll buy you a beer or 10 and we'll talk story. Kienzle

Kienzle said...

Didn't mean to leave it anonymous.