Five-Day Trip to Costa Rica by Leo Geary in 1985

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© Carol Geary 1995 All Rights Reserved

Note from Carol Geary

This is a journal about a bicycle trip to Costa Rica. I copied Leo Geary's hand-written journal into this FrameMaker document on the Macintosh. Any typos are mine. ((Double parentheses enclose anything I inserted.)) If you are offended by street talk, proceed at your own risk. I've replaced vowels in some profane words with an asterisk (*).

Leo was my son. The trip journal starts in February, 1985 on a plane taking off from California. He took the bicycle trip described in the journal in Costa Rica before boarding a research boat to the Galapagos, where he was a member of a team of scientists studying life near the thermal vents on the ocean floor. He was 23 years old, had just gotten back from a bicycle trip across the US (CA to NY) after graduating in Marine Biology from UCSB in Santa Barbara.

--Carol Geary

2/11 Day one

Totally p*ssed off at Eastern because they gave me absolutely sh*tty materials to pack up my bike. Even then, I didn't have time to pack it up properly before they had to take it away. Great way to start a good trip. I got on the plane starving, to boot. At least my neighbor didn't show up, so I had my choice of aisle or window seats. Watched the English thriller, "39 Steps" and ripped off Eastern's $2.00 rental headset to use on the next flight. (Didn't have a movie on the 2nd flight, however!)

At Miami, I requested my bike box so I could repack it. Nearly had a heart attack when I looked through the baggage claim window & saw my box lying on its side in the baggage truck totally open! I could see my pedals, which I'd taken off to fit in the box, just lying on the edge of the truck. To my everlasting relief, when I got ahold of it, I found I'd lost nothing. I got another bike box & proceeded upon a two hour bomb-proof repacking job. By the time I'd finished, I barely had time to get a Costa Rican tourist card before trying to get in touch with Duane ((Leo's Dad's brother)). His number wasn't listed in the directory, so maybe he lives in Ft. Lauderdale, not Miami. I kicked myself in the butt for not getting his number before leaving.

Sat next to a couple from Costa Rica on the plane there. On the other side of me, I met a Jehovah's Witness who, along with some 10 others, was off to build a WatchTower printing place in San Jose. Got into a typically unsatisfying argument with him about spirituality & Christianity.

Coming into land in San Jose was quite an experience: I've never felt such exhilaration mixed so equally with apprehension. Amazingly, I didn't have much trouble getting help with the bike into a cab. However, while in the cab on the way to Alajuela, it sounded like the driver was saying "The Hotel Alajuela is full". But this wasn't true, and I got a room there for less money than the S.A. Handbook suggested. I paid more than I should have, though, because I didn't have any colones. Met a friendly American at the hotel from Massachusetts who comes down here for a month every year. He gave me some useful hints about getting around. Wheeled my bike up to the room and was pretty impressed. My own bathroom with shower complete with electric water heater as described to me by Ma. ((This is the inline gadget that just heats what comes through the pipe, that I had seen in Peru--Carol))

Out on the streets, things were pretty much quiet except for the bars & a few restaurants. I roamed around, checking out stores & things. Seemed like an ordinary small American city. It was pretty clean compared to big US cities. In Costa Rica, everyone, with very few exceptions, rides around in Toyota Land Cruisers or in Land Rovers. Most are diesel.

A bartender changed my dollar at more than the going rate so I could get a beer. Later, walking down a street, I paused by a green building with crossed rifles painted on it. Standing guard outside was a bored-looking guy with helmet and submachine gun--first I'd ever seen. It seemed prudent to move on.

The winds were blowing hard in the morning, and the streets were bustling. Awesome clouds were blowing off mountains all around the city. I was starving, but I needed to change traveller's checks at a bank. Since banks not open until 9, I tried to obtain a map of the city. After many futile explanations of where to get one, an exasperated museum curator sent one of her employees to guide me to el municipalidad, where I waited a long time before I was told, with little understanding on my part, that they hadn't any maps to give me.

By this time, banks were open, so I received further instruction on how to wait long periods of time in lines there. Eventually I received my stash of colones, and was pretty impressed with the clarity & order of my receipt.

Finally, I could eat. At a cafe around the corner, I found out about some good things. A "mora" was the best treat I've found in Costa Rica: Blackberry milkshake. I also liked the sausage, or "chorizo", that was served with my eggs. And of course, the coffee was very good. They serve coffee with heated milk here.

I got anxious to move. The Alajuelans were blown away by my "muy Star Wars bikla".

Got stopped by two police in a van when I rode through the red light of an empty intersection. I didn't figure out what I had done until well into their heated diatribe. Good thing I knew no Spanish, because they soon became exasperated and drove off. Right outside of town, the climb began. Alajuela is at about 971 m. & Volcan Poas is at 2704 m.

In the beginning, & for the most part, the road wasn't too steep. There were many pretty houses, and it seems that, in even the poorest habitations, there are beautiful plants & colorful flowers in the windows, doorways, & yards. Rising higher, I got a glimpse of the city and the Central Plateau. I was surrounded by coffee bean plantations. None were very large. Every 3/4's of a mile there was a refreshment stand or cantina, so I'd stop and learn more Spanish. A pattern would become clear: every time I'd stop somewhere, the people would seem relatively distant; not rude, but politely aloof. When I opened conversation, however, they would gather 'round, smile, and ask many questions.

At a roadside restaurant, I purchased food for the road: a couple oranges, a hunk of papaya, and a package of tortillas made on the spot.

The further up the Volcano, the colder & windier it got. Wet mists began to soak me. The road got steeper & steeper & the bike refused to shift to the lowest chain ring. People along the way told me that there was a hotel at the top, but no food. I wondered if I could get a room.

The countryside up here looked much like the North coast of California enshrouded in fog. But the higher (wetter) I got, the trees became more & more choked with epiphytic growth.

Reaching the end of my reserves of energy, I finally spotted a sign saying something like "Welcome to the National Park of Volcan Poas". The shelter that they had was packed with boy scouts, but one of the rangers there offered to let me stay in the rangers dorms. Ronald showed me a dank room and a spot for the bike, both of which I was grateful for. He didn't speak much English, & I didn't speak much Spanish, so we got along fine. He asked me if I wanted to eat with them, so of course I eagerly accepted. More interesting food: good biscuits, a sweet, doughy bread, a sort of fried potatoes w/onions & tomatoes, none the names of which I could remember. I bullsh*tted there with Ronald & the boss, Jose. We communicated well--I learned a lot. They earned approximately $2,500 (dollars) a year, which appears to be a reasonable salary here.

Back at the dormitory, they played Jimi Hendrix tapes, we bullsh*tted, then I played a few tunes on Jose's guitar for them. We laughed when I told them about how I saw a bunch of peasant girls dancing to a Led Zeppelin tape in a squalid hut down the road. Then this girl walked down the hall and asked me if I spoke English.

Turns out she's an undergrad at Dartmouth doing geology research on a grant she wrote: Jennifer Reynolds. She knew my roommate Eric when he went to school there.

Ronald took me over to the visitor center, where a ranger was showing fantastic slides of Costa Rica's National Parks to the boy scouts. They had one of those fancy, computerized slide projector systems.

Later, I talked with Jenny for a long time about her work & about Costa Rica.

A long day--it was easy to fall asleep.

Day two

Still raining as I wake up to the sound of the guys cranking out Latino pop. By the time I crawl out of the sack, rangers are ready to go. We have coffee & breakfast: eggs on a tortilla, cafe con leche, more sweet bread, and a biscuit for the road. Back at the dorms, Jenny offers me more breakfast (she fixes her own meals), and I accept hot chocolate & fruit: an interesting thing with a pit like an avocado, but with a thread-like texture & a taste that somehow disturbed me. She also gave me something exactly like a canteloupe. I can't remember the name of a single new food I've eaten in Costa Rica.

I ride up to the crater, passing the ultramodern visitor's center, which seems packed with American tourists. Ronald sells me postcards for friends back home. The Volcano is a disappointment: I can't see jack sh*t from the observation ledge. Just as well, because I'm itching for the downhill ride to Quesada and the return to warmth & sunlight. The downhill is awesome, it's true, but fierce winds and an unjustified paranoia that my front wheel will pop off slows me down.

Very slowly, the mists part, warmth returns, so I stop at a bar to get a drink & shed rain gear. Descending the windward side of El Volcan, I begin to enter a whole new ecosystem: lianas, huge leafed plants, and waterfalls appear. The camera is out and snapping! Ride past beautiful canyons, and what appears to be a colony of some sort, where hostile-looking youths gather near a cantina and glare defiantly at me. Finally, the fine-paved road gives way to a horrendous dirt road, which is, thank God, downhill. It dawns on me that such roads are punishing even on mountain bikes if the distance is long enough.

I start to become depressed at the slow downhill progress that I'm making, but that isn't enough: it begins to rain. I take shelter under the roof of some sort of cattle hut until the rain passes. A good thing about the weather in Costa Rica: if you don't like it, wait 5 minutes. The clouds part, I suddenly can see 10 miles. Good, because I started to consider hitching a ride. Better, an English-speaking couple in a car told me that, not too far ahead, the road to Quesada was pavement. Sun came out, spirits came up, I sailed down the road through increasingly more inhabited farmland. At a cantina, a group of locals & I had a good conversation while I enjoyed a new Costa Rican beer: "Imperial". The owner enjoyed the fact that, unlike most Americans he'd met, at least I was making an attempt to learn Spanish.

Some amazingly brilliant sheeny green birds flew overhead, and I crossed some awesome rivers. Started to rain again, so I stopped at another cantina to wait it out.

The owner there was very friendly. After I rode on for awhile, I got incredibly hungry. Since it started to rain again, I stuck my head in another bar, hoping for food. The owner, an over-sexed middle aged woman with a loose-knit sweater over black bra & underpants, knew a little English since she'd been to the US. She saved me, giving me a whole slough of "bocas" to tide me over til I got to Quesada.

Just outside of Quesada, I got flagged to a stop by a guy in a cab who was an American desperately in need of home companionship. He told me to meet him at his hotel, and it sounded like a good idea. From a hill top, Quesada looked pretty picturesque, perched between the mountains. Cruising into town, I was again accosted by the American--Kermit. Soon he grated upon me, since he was so callous in the midst of the Costa Rican culture. He'd been here 3 months, yet spoke little more Spanish than me.

The Hotel Central seemed like a decent place, had centrally heated water, and was fairly cheap.

There were lots of bike shops in town, all closed.

Kermit & I had beers and bocas at a couple of places before dinner; at one, two guys with guitars sang & played some great tunes. At this point, I haven't the ability to discern between different Latino musical styles: these sounded Mexican to my ear. Dinner was grilled steak bits with peppers & onions served with beans & tortillas on a wooden board--good!

Afterwards, we went to a bar where Kermit turned me on to a drink that tasted like everclear and packed a wallop. The waitress looked better and better and better. Got into a pretty disorganized bullsh*t session with some drunken Ticos. Sleep came easy, but I woke up in the middle of the night only to toss and turn to the tune of the most obnoxious snorer next door that I'd ever heard.

Day Three

It's domingo--Sunday: will the Ticos degenerate into mindless Catholic zombies for the entire day? At least, the service at a local cafe is good. Ham & eggs, beans and rice. Orange juice is good.

On the way out of town, I stopped at a fruit stand to buy bananas, tortillas, and oranges for lunch.

The road to La Fortuna from Quesada required a lot of downhill, which offered some spectacular views of the Cordillera Central, which curved away from the Valley of San Carlos to the North. Unfortunately, the haze and low-lying clouds, it seemed to me, didn't make for good photography.

I finally got down to some flat lands. This was cattle country, and houses & cantinas became few & far between. I rode into a slight headwind down long, straight roads.

In a small hamlet, stopped to watch a football game. Sunday's the day for football here. These guys were good. I'd look like a fool on that field. Just when I thought I had a good opportunity for a picture, the referee called halftime. At a nearby bar, I got more info on the country ahead of me.

On the road again, I eventually began to see what must be the base of the Volcan Arenal. The upper 2/3's was hidden from view in the clouds. Rolled into Fortuna where I found a room for 100 colones in a seedy hotel. Met a guy there who spoke no English, but in April was leaving to study at a university in Portland, Oregon.

Took a walk around town to get a feel for small town life in Costa Rica. One house had a huge cage in which were kept quite a variety of fantastically colored birds. I watched them for awhile, trying to develop some motivation to go get my camera, when I looked over my shoulder at the Volcano. The clouds were gone, leaving only a misty cowl around the summit of Arenal. Cursing, I ran back to the hotel for the camera, but when I got back outside, the Volcan was hidden again. Typical of Costa Rican weather.

Walking around town again, I spotted a tight knot of boys looking at something. Turned out they had caught a huge beetle, the kind with enormous pincers out in front. The thing was 8 inches long.

It started to rain hard, so my camera & I took refuge under a restaurant awning. The woman who owned it struck up a conversation with me about the Volcano, the US, Costa Rica, etc. I think he got bored with my poor Spanish.

Stopped for a beer or two in a bar. Everyone knew each other. As I got there, I let myself become attuned to the interpersonal interactions around me. I could sense a real sense of community in these folk. They certainly led a secure life, if one discounted the unpredictable, active volcano overhead.

There were many pretty girls in town. I was curious why so few girls ever replied when I said hi. I was told that it's correct to say hi to them here, but a reply is considered more or less flirtatious.

In the lobby of the hotel I was in was a restaurant with a TV which went non-stop. When I'd first got there, a Bogart movie was on. Later, it was a Marx bros. show. In the evening, there was some other classic American oldie.

Next door, a lively Bingo game sprung up, mostly women and kids.

After exchanging language lessons with some kids, I hit the hay for an early start in the morning.

Day Four

My internal clock must be advancing, or else someone made a loud noise: I was up and running by 6:45. It was bright and sunny, but no volcano visibility today, either.

Had breakfast in the sun while listening to Costa Rican morning news. After buying a lunch of bananas and oranges, I hit the road, looking forward to seeing the Volcano at close range. I was still on pavement. I passed a number of people on horseback, but didn't see many folk, and wasn't about to for the rest of the day. Rounding a corner while going uphill, I suddenly heard a huge boom--the Volcano sounding a greeting. Passed a building with a sign saying "Civilensia Defensa" --volcano alert station. Surely of small use should the Volcano blow.

The northwestern side of Arenal is the site of the lateral blast of (?) 1959. It hove into view slowly: steaming black rivers of menacing-looking ejecta. Jenny told me not to walk in their path because of the constant rain of new ejecta. I came to the base of one such path & was sorely tempted to check it out despite the warnings. However, I had a sense of urgency about getting to Tilaran, since I didn't have a concrete idea of what the route was like.

A river was growing out of the lava flow, and a group of workmen were constructing a resort for hot baths there. After talking with a worker who told me the road got closer to the volcano further on, I started to take off. Then I realized that the water in the river was probably a real nice temperature. I stashed the bike, went down along the stream through lush vegetation out of sight of the construction zone, and had myself a righteous soak in some fine water: not too hot, not too cold.

Not too far from there, I got my first glimpse of Lago Arenal, a pretty lake. I got down beside it, had some lunch & took some shots of myself & bike with El Volcan in the background: maybe Patagonia will use them in next years catalog! Big trucks were moving lots of volcanic earth around, but I didn't stop to find out why. Down the road, I paused at some major river crossings to let a truck ford through. The guys in it said that there was no way through (on the south side) to Tilaran, so it looks like the norther, longer route around the lake.

Rode over a small earthen containment dam after some pretty views of the lake through lush vegetation.

The road was so convoluted & up and down that I started getting really discouraged about the prospect of the days voyage. It was a good thing I started early. A soggy rain further dampened my spirits. I sought refuge under a shedlike structure protecting cattle salt, and found a tick on me, which didn't help things much, either.

Summoning new reserves of commitment, I continued on, passing more frequent settlements, and a far off glimpse of the villa de Arenal. I got discouraging info from locals about the distance to Tilaran, but someone told me the road was better. This was encouraging, for the road had petered out from relatively luxurious fine powdered volcanic dust to miserably hard, unforgiving rock which eventually could destroy any mountain bike.

Arenal was a depressing place. No one was very friendly there. I had begun to suffer what must be the initial stages of heat exhaustion, although I tried to drink a lot of water. I certainly was getting sunburned, especially the middle of my back, where I couldn't reach with sunscreen (foolish to have taken shirt off!) Coming 'round the Northwest top of the lake toward Tilaran, I hit headwinds, which were f**ked indeed. I fell down once in soft dirt as a large intimidating dump truck roared by close and broke one of my water bottle cages. I fumed futilely. Hungry, I spotted an orange tree in an open field and ran to pick a few. They were as sour as lemons.

The road forked. An old fart told me the way to Tilaran. I had my doubts, but no one had given me wrong directions yet. They were, but I didn't find this out until I'd climbed some big hills. Finally spotted Tilaran (downhill!) in the distance, with the plains of Guanacaste province behind. It was a beautiful sunset, and I found a good room in a nice hotel for cheap. At a restaurant, a guy came up and wanted to chat in English. He'd learned it while working for some American archeologists from Colorado.

Back at the hotel, had a long conversation with the clerk LUIS. He was interested in professional bike racing, but hadn't got too involved yet. He collected foreign currency, and showed me some Swedish Krona. He told me about buses to Monte Verde from Canas or Lagartos. I decided to give myself & my pedal bearings a break and get a ride up the hill in a bus the next day from Lagartos.

Day Five

This morning, a very pretty girl was working the desk. She was very informative about places to buy food, cash checks, catch buses, and so forth. Had breakfast in the downstairs restaurant, then went to the town market for bananas & oranges. Got more cash at the BNCR--Banco National de Costa Rica.

Got the girl's picture and was off down hill to Canas. Outrageous tailwinds blew me down, which was scary, because the pavement gave way to good gravel, but my speed was so great that I felt I was barely in control.

It got hot the lower I went. Really hot. A spectacular black-striped light green iguana sped across the road. He was 2 1/2 feet long. I'd hoped for a picture, but when he saw me, he went faster than I could run.

Began to fret, because it looked like I'd have head winds from Canas south to Lagartos. In Canas, stopped for a coke and a chat with an old fart. A bus driver told me I could probably take my bike on the bus when I got to Lagartos. It was about 35 km to Lagartos, and I got my first taste of the Carretera Interamericana. It was pretty spooky: big semi's and buses whizzing past at 75 km/hr. My helmet went back on and the sun screen did too. My water bottles became solar collectors. I wanted to hurry along, because the bus left for Santa Elena from Lagartos at 3, and I left Canas at 12 with headwinds. But finally I had to stop for something to drink. Paused at a rather run down looking place that seemed to be open. Two guys inside said to go next door to the shack there. Curious women said they had no cokes, but inquired if I wanted a Maxi. It was something new: like beer, but unfermented. Made of wheat and sugar cane. Talked to these poor people for awhile:

Two young girls, their mother and a grandma. The only American city they knew was Las Vegas. They thought it must be a great place.

Encountered some cruel hills, past some apparently proscribed burn zones, over some tantalizing rivers, finally to Lagartos. It was hotter than hell. I was sweating like a pig.

Got into an interesting conversation with a blond woman who was a 7th day adventist living at Monte Verde. She had been raised in Nicaragua, a missionary brat. She said that although the Nicaraguans might not be starving anymore, the lack of freedom under Communism was a worse fate. She was very persuasive, and obviously well-informed. Her father knew the Somoza's personally, and also knew the Sandinistas well.

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