Grand Theft Auto: San José, Costa Rica

In April and May of 2015 I spent time in Costa Rica. I arranged to rent a dirt bike and ride for a weekend. The following is my account of the events that followed.

I was introduced to Benito by my friend Don on a muggy San José morning at Benito’s new Husqvarna motorcycle dealership. I eyeballed the 2014 250cc 4-stroke rental fleet as Don and Benito spoke in Spanish. They asked me my style of riding as I squeezed the clutch lever. I told them that I am an intermediate rider, “Well, what style, though?” They asked. “Enduro, motocross, cross country?” I had never thought about classifying my style of riding, but I told them I like singletrack and adventure riding. That seemed to satisfy them and they continued on in Spanish. After a while Benito turned to me and said there is a casual group that rides every Saturday, and that I should go out with them. It sounded perfect, team up with some Tico moto-bros and go ride the local trails, I was stoked!

Same but different, a familiar scene.

Same but different, a familiar scene.

 

The day came and I was set up with my bike, it was so light compared to my heavy DRZ 400, more like a downhill bicycle than a motorcycle. I was introduced to my guide for the day, Luís. He was friendly and he had one eye patched up but I didn’t ask what had happened; I liked him. The other riders showed up, one of them was stracked out with Red Bull gear emblazoned with his name on the helmet and jersey, another in fully customized Husqvarna gear. We started out from the dealership in downtown San José and one of the guys promptly got a flat. The eight of us pulled off on the side of the street to change it, and I noted the speed and efficiency with which they set into the task, almost like racers.

Motorcycles are everywhere in Costa Rica, it doesn’t rain during dry season, the weather is warm, and the traffic is bad. Motorcycles make sense, and the Honda 125s are cheap and ubiquitous. It’s a whole country of moto riders. So as we roared through the streets on big, loud bikes, people really took notice. As the guys changed the tire a little kid of maybe six riding a bicycle stopped and gave each one of us a fist bump, and I said “pura vida.”  He rode off with a smile, then we did too.

As we raced through heavy traffic, splitting lanes, dodging busses, and avoiding grateless storm drains, we climbed into the hills that surround the Central Valley in which San José rests. The streets became steep and windy like San Francisco, the scenery became more third-world, pavement became intermittent, then we were off on the trails. Straight up with deep, loose talc-dust dirt. I rolled into the climb and gave ‘er the onion with no visibility and almost rode into a deep drainage ditch. Costa Rican drainage ditches are no joke. I knew I needed some time to adjust to a new bike, but these guys were really smoking me. I let the dust clear, and found them waiting at the top of the hill, onward. Onward up a spiderweb of social trails. Onward through large baby head rocks, struggling to keep traction with a light bike and a worn tire.

The Ticos kept smoking me, though thankfully waiting at each junction. Then the shit got real. We started up some hard singletrack and I was operating at my limit of ability, then the step-ups came. At first reasonable, but with hard, consequential singletrack in between. It was unrelenting. I started falling, and dropping the bike, I was getting tired, trying sections multiple times until I was finally stopped by a two meter step-up. The two riders behind me took pity, and started helping me, pulling my front tire over the step-ups, and eventually, and embarrassingly, riding my bike through sections for me.

The guys helping me didn’t speak English, and of course I don’t speak Spanish, and I couldn’t get across the question, “How much more?” I was getting frustrated, and started thinking about abandoning the bike, walking out, and calling a cab. Just then Luís came back down the trail, oh yeah, I was supposed to have a guide. I had made it less than a quarter of the way up, and he was there to take me down and out. I know it was a “casual” ride, but how could my guide bring me on a trail like this? You don’t go riding with someone for the first time on 5 Miles of Hell.

We rode out and drove on the streets to the top of that trail. On the way we were stopped at a police checkpoint, set up for the express purpose to check motorcycle registration. Our dirt bikes were not street legal, and they were not registered. Luís and the Police talked for a while, Luís made a few phone calls, and they let us go on our way. I was starting to think that Benito doesn’t rent to tourists regularly.

We met up with the rest of the group and a few of the guys asked me, “Don’t you practice? Aren’t you trying to get better?" They acted perplexed. After a few more cues I came to realize that these guys were racers, and they thought I was a racer too, here to train in Costa Rica. The Red Bull jersey, the speed tire-changing, the insane pace, it all made sense now.

We rode on the back roads to another trail that was easier. Still hard, but I could at least get up it. Greasy singletrack on the side of a ravine with a 15 foot drop to the bottom; the fall wouldn’t be so bad, but getting a bike out would be. I cursed my rear tire again, and focused hard on where I wanted to be, not where I didn’t want to be.

Focusing on where I want to be.

Focusing on where I want to be.

 

We came up on a section where the trail drops into the ravine and pops up onto the other side with an improvised pallet bridge. Luís pulled out his hand shovel to improve the trail and after a few scrapes he went down – something in his eye. “Are you okay, mae!?” He rolled over and groaned. Oh shit! Not okay! We started flushing it with water, but the object wasn’t coming out, and there was blood in his eye. His one good eye. We kept flushing, but it wasn’t helping. Worried conversation, phone calls. I decided to take the shovel and improve the trail since I couldn’t contribute to the plan, which was being formulated in Spanish.

After a long time the leaders came back down the trail. Luís was blind and couldn’t ride his bike. It was the transition to wet season, clouds were building, and we were in a deep drainage ravine. They sent me ahead to get out, Luís was ridden out double, then others rode down double to retrieve Luís’ bike. We ate at a restaurant while a car was arranged to take Luís to the hospital, and plans were made to get me and the motorcycle back to the dealership. They didn’t want to take me down any trails and invite further disaster, so it was decided to ride the streets back.

The Central Valley.

The Central Valley.

 

We then proceeded on an hour long ride from the hills surrounding the Central Valley back into the heart of San José. The guys were impatient and rode at top speed, treating the city as urban enduro course. My “guide” was gone and I was relying on the bros to get me back to the dealership. We rode on the sidewalks, ran red lights, weaved through traffic at 80+ kph; chickens were squawking out of our way and at one point I rode through a dozen fighting dogs stirred into a frenzy by the noisy bikes ahead of me. We rode through two other police checkpoints but rather than stopping and chatting, we downshifted and twisted the throttle, knowing that the police could never catch us. We kept our pack tight, but occasionally one of us was scraped off by traffic, or a swiftly opened car door. I could not allow myself to fall behind because I would never find my way back to the pack, so I rode fast and took chances.

We rolled back to the dealership, and I was relieved that I emerged from the day alive and without major injury. Before driving away one of the riders said to me, “Next time you ride in Costa Rica, tell them you’re a beginner.”