6/24/19 – 6/27/19
“How you doing?”
“I hate every minute of this.”
I rolled my eyes a bit.
“Well what the fuck do you want me to say?”
I had been in communication with a Costa Rican cyclist about an obscure road from the 239 in Santiago, through Candeleria, and reconnecting with 239 near Parrita.
“I’ve never ridden it, but I believe it could be described as somewhere between challenging and the worst road you find in all of Costa Rica.”
“Well we’re going to try it.”
“Godspeed. I hope it’s not as bad as I think.”
I don’t know how bad he thought it was. For me, bad was sitting on the side of the highway just outside the airport in San Jose for twenty minutes waiting for an opening in traffic to run across to the other side because there was nowhere to make a u-turn. Bad was sitting with our thumbs out for an hour in La Guácima at the intersection of the 124 and the 27 because we’d heard that even the Costa Rican national champion had his bike appropriated by the police for riding on a toll road. Bad is sucking semi-truck and rental car exhaust on the baking tarmac all day. Compared to all of this, having to push the bikes seemed like a nice reprieve for me.
Once we left the 27 and got on the 239, things started to look good. We dropped down winding turns through little towns. Then we hit the dirt. At first, this was also good. Then it became steeper. Then precipitous. Then the temperately graded surface morphed into washboards and loose baby heads. Riding a hundred pound bike down this sort of road is a spectacular exercise in accepting one’s acquiescence to gravity. Brakes are useful in the sense that in forcing the wheel to stop spinning the bike does in fact slow down. However, when your momentum is such that the machine simply slides through the gravel; you find yourself with no directional oversight. Soph of course has the maturity and good sense to dismount and walk. I found myself peppering the brakes; balancing speed, control, safety, fun, and a general desire to not add any scars to my body.
This wasn’t bad though. We reached the bottom swiftly and found the best jungle camping spot in the whole of the country on the banks of the Rio Cajón. Almost completely inaccessible to cars; each side connected by an old bridge with layers of rotting planks stacked in two track fashion to ensure nobody without that Latin American don’t give a damn about safety sort of gumption would bother crossing; effectively making it a dead end road on each side. I walked across and took a look at the start of next day’s climb, which was every bit as steep as the shit show we’d just come down.
Soph hadn’t seen the elevation maps and I decided not to stress her out that evening. We had wine and a good pot of veggies and rice with tomato sauce.
“Are you worried that all the locals seemed to think that riding this way was a bad idea,” she asked.
“Well,” I tried not to sigh, “generally we’ve found in the last eleven months that non-cyclists tend to give lackluster advice with respect to biking routes.”
“True, that was a little sketchy coming down, but not too bad.”
“Not too bad,” I concurred.
A few days prior, we awoke in Heredia with grand aspirations of getting the bikes into a shop to have a laundry list of work done. Rear hubs, bottom brackets, trueing the wheels, cleaning the drive trains, brakes, greasing everything that needed greasing; an overall overhaul of all things afoul. I discovered that my tire had a small puncture as it was now flat. This was number nine for me. Soph was still at zero.
The shop that had been recommended to us was booked for several days. They sent us to another that also turned out to be slammed. They called a couple of Venezuelan brothers, Jose and Tairo. They’d immigrated to Costa Rica about a year before; after their home country’s economy had effectively been dropped off the back of a train and eaten by hungry coyotes.
They had owned a shop in Caracas and Tairo had been a professional cyclist. The conversation quickly turned political.
“Socialism is terrible,” they said. “We’d get paid and have to go straight to the store because tomorrow your money is worth half as much. Just to buy bread you carry a box of cash that is all but worthless.” They said some people were demanding to be paid in eggs or cigarettes because they didn’t depreciate.
I’d read a story about an industrious Venezualan programmer that created a peer to peer currency trading system. US dollars are not available to most Venezuelans. They hold their value much better than the inflation laden Bolivar though and are highly sought after. The government publishes an “Official” exchange rate. Only fellow plutocrats can buy at the government rate. The trading system allowed individuals to exchange bolivars for US dollars and it quickly became clear that the market cost of a dollar was far higher than the rate given to the upper-crusters and silk stockings who, once becoming aware of this imbalance, made a nice hustle of buying US dollars at the highly discounted rate, selling them to their fellow countrymen at the free market rate, purchasing more discounted dollars with the profits, and then again selling them. Ivan Boesky would wet himself over such arbitrage.
While waiting for our bikes, Soph explored a lesser known aspect of Costa Rica’s tourism industry; dental work. It has a reputation of being low cost and high quality. She’d managed to crack a tooth on a resilient pepper flake and it turned out she needed a root canal. The craftsmanship appears to be top notch.
Conversely, fascinating as Tairo and Jose were, they were mid-market bicycle technicians. Our gears appeared to be in worse shape than when we’d dropped the bikes off, derailleurs had not been cleaned, and there were damaged cable housings that hadn’t been replaced. They’d had them for a day longer than they said it would take. Rather than wait another day we decided to get on with it and leave in the morning.
That night, we awoke to our first earthquake. A 6.4. Twenty or thirty seconds of the ground shifting from side to side. It was over before I could think of any sort of reactionary measure. We went back to sleep to the sounds of ambulance sirens and car alarms.
None of this was on my mind the morning of the twenty sixth. I ate my cereal and banana quietly and turned down coffee hoping that a little extra caffeine in Soph would ease the suffering that was to come. I hadn’t slept well. There was a suspicious liveliness on the bridge late in the night and around three in the morning I awoke to a flashlight shining on the tent. I looked out to see a man on a horse wading through the river. “Just on his morning commute,” I thought. Still, it was hard to get back to sleep.
We watched the monkeys chase each other through the trees and discovered a steel toilet completely covered in moss. Natures padded seat. I stretched and rinsed my face in the cool water.
By 7:30 we were already pushing the bikes up a forty percent grade. Looking back at Soph, hundreds of feet behind me, I knew this wasn’t going to work. I leaned my bike against a tree, jogged down to her, and pushed her bike a hundred feet or so ahead of mine while she took a break. Then I went back and pushed my bike until I was ahead of her again. And so this game of leapfrog went for four hours and ten kilometers. Pushing ahead, running back, dragging hers, then returning to mine. Heat and humidity. Feet sliding in the gravel. Right forearm wrecked from yanking on the rear rack while the left pushed the handle bars and steered. Squeezing the brakes for an occasional rest but everything just slides backwards in the loose dirt. Soph cried a little at nine o’clock; well within the two hour bet I’d placed with myself.
At ten thirty we passed some workers digging a trench by hand. Two of them ran up and took Soph’s bike and began pushing it towards the top. A third began pushing mine from the back. He had a youthful vigor and was trying to run. I could barely muster the strength in my legs to keep up with him, but I didn’t want to be the one holding things up. Within fifteen minutes they were all spent and went back to digging their furrow after wishing us luck.
As we reached the top, we deflated our tires a bit to slow the descent and offer a bit more traction and cushioning. The first half kilometer was so steep that we ended up having to walk. We get moving for a bit. Then my chain gets pulled into my gears in a way that I'd never seen and my pedals froze. Upon inspection I conclude that the only way to break it free is to hold my breath and slam the pedal backwards and hope I didn't damage a link. It worked, but things didn't feel quite right after and my chain began slipping on even mild inclines.
Just as the road leveled I hit a pothole so hard that I could feel my tire bottom out against the rim. After this it alternates between pavement and dirt for a while, but ultimately the dust and gravel prevail. Traffic is heavy for some reason and we are in a cloud of dirt. We ride through a forest of palm trees, all with the tops cut off. This is how they harvest the “heart” of palm for those little cans next to the artichokes in the international section of grocery stores. It kills the entire tree.
We hit the main road in Parrita and immediately turn for the beach. We stumbled upon a bar that happened to have outdoor showers, an amazing bowl of octopus ceviche, and a spot to camp near the water.
“That was a good day.”
“That was a horrible day and we’re taking a rest day tomorrow.”
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