Friday, November 13, 2015

Costa Rica and Panama

Waking up to an early morning filled with oats and chai tea, we were ready to seize the day. Cruising to the nearest town on the coast called Jaco, we stopped in a coffee shop to indulge in some WiFi and feel like less than super dirty travelers in desperate need of laundry. Jon went off to find a bike shop to see if he could find a way to remove a grinding sound, and by the time he was back we were all in a similar mood. Entranced by the calm beach life, word of a 3 day mountain bike race leaving in the morning, and the possibility of an air conditioned room, we decided to stay for the night. Fully relaxed, we kept VH1 playing old songs in the background all night, thoroughly entertained by the strangeness of early music videos.

The next morning we set out, hoping to find the start of the mountain bike race but ended up turning around after realizing it was about 10 kilometers in the wrong direction down a dirt road. Almost immediately when we were back on pavement, I heard a loud hiss and felt air hit my leg on every rotation. I changed out my rear tube, but about 10 miles further down the road I had an identical sound and feeling. What had happened was nearly 2000 miles of weighted riding had destroyed my tread. Nearly bald all the way around, I could see daylight in two gaping holes that allowed rocks to pop my tube without providing any layer of protection. It was 13 kilometers to the next town, so I crossed a few layers of duct tape, avoided all gravel like the plague, and was thrilled to finally find a bike shop. Even though my new tread is so grooved it hums on the pavement, at least I don't have to be intimidated by tiny rocks anymore.

That night, we ended up asking a small church if we could camp on their property. They immediately said yes with so much enthusiasm and showed us a sink we could use for cooking and dishes. The area was wonderful, but the mosquitos were horrid. By far the worst night of the trip so far. Although we were under a roof, we ended up setting our tents up on the concrete to act as a mosquito net and proceeded to sweat all night. It's a funny thing when you go to bed fully hydrated, only wear your boxers (even without a sleeping bag) and wake up a little damp and dehydrated from sweating all night.

Keeping with our camping trend we put in a full day of riding and learned how Costa Rica responds to complaints about heat. In the early afternoon, it started to rain which quickly turned into an all out downpour. Soaked all the way through, we found a field to camp in and first set up a dry station by stringing tarps and a rain-fly off of a horse feeding trough. Content with our creation, we played a few rounds of cards, cooked dinner, and were prepared to wait out the rain. However, darkness came first and we had record setting tent setup in the rain.

It's less fun starting the day damp, but we had something up our sleeve to keep us going. One of Kai's old housemates from Luther is teaching English in Costa Rica, so we decided to go pay him a visit. It's probably a good thing we had such an exciting destination that day because it may have been our toughest day of riding yet. As our 5th straight day without a full day off, the legs were already a little tired and the dampness from the night before seemed to soak up some energy. Gritting through, we started a few mile climb up to a ridgeline with absolutely spectacular valley views. We started the day early enough to watch the sun come over the eastern hillside and see the eye level clouds slowly melt away under the rising heat. All day, our elevation hardly changed by the map. However, it was spent almost entirely climbing. Every time we would climb (or walk) an exceedingly steep hill, we would fly down the back side simply to repeat the process. This continued for over 30 miles, going about 4 mph up a hill and 30 mph down. It's a bit discouraging to look at your bike computer and see the little arrow say you're traveling above the daily average when the mph is still a single digit, but we stuck it out and eventually pulled up to a house with a familiar face.

Fully exhausted, our host Jared knew exactly how end the day. He greeted us with a beer and shortly after his host mom had a plate of flavored rice and beans waiting for us. Apparently, bringing in a few gringos to a rural mountain village is a big deal because while we ate, we noticed the house slowly filling with more and more relatives hoping to catch a glimpse and we let them all learn our terrible Spanish abilities.

I can't honestly say we were great company for Jared, but he was exactly what we needed. Tired from all the riding, we were thrilled to have our lives revolve around watching the Star Wars marathon on tv, chatting idly, drinking high quality coffee, and awaiting our next meal from his host mom. It was stress free, cozy, relaxing, and honestly perfect. After seeing his school and apologizing for being boring company, we were refreshed enough to push on towards the Panama border.

Crossing into our 6th country (if you count the bus through El Salvador and Honduras) you might assume we have a decent feel for the proper process by now. However, nothing could prepare us for the most cardiovascular friendly border crossing imaginable. When we first arrived, we saw the "migration" sign and went up to the window. However, the man there said we needed to go to the next building first to pay the country exit fee. Not discouraged, we walked next door just to get directed to another building further down the way. This building ended up being more of a bank, and sent us back the way we'd come but to a different official building. Inside, we realized we'd found the Panama migration, but we couldn't do anything with them until we had our Costa Rica exit stamp. Asking many more strangers and with numerous directions, we found a small hardware store with a homemade sign that said we could buy our country exit fee there.

Not sure if we had been ripped off or not, we carried our receipt back to the first building and got our stamp. Happy to be making progress, we went to the Panama migration who demanded a copy of our passport and said we had to prove we had $500 or present a credit card. None of us carry that kind of cash or had an ATM receipt showing our bank balance. We also didn't have wifi so online banking wasn't an option. After a bit of debate, we ended up showing them the confirmation email of our plane ticket to prove we had plans to leave their country. Apparently that was good enough so we got our stamp and quickly got as far away from that place as possible before we were sent to any more buildings.

The initial ride in Panama was similar to our last full day of riding in Costa Rica-lots of gradual ups and quick downs. However, where Costa Rica seemed to be willing to slash and burn a lot of their valleys for coffee farms, Panama held a lot more natural forest and grazing fields. Once again, incredibly tiring but beautiful, we chugged along towards the first major town called Volcan. All three of us quickly fell in love with the houses on the outside of town that looked like something out of a ferry tale. Single storied but simple, clean, and flowers placed in the perfect locations made them seem the coziest little cottages you could hope for.

Spending the night after a long ride, we prepared ourselves for another day. It turns out all of our hard work finally paid off. Coming out of the mountains, I really only pedaled the next 20 miles for something to do, averaging 21 mph on the morning. The rest of the ride to David wasn't much harder, and we found ourselves in town with plenty of time left in the day. Grabbing a hostal that happened to have the perk of unlimited coffee, we set out to explore the town. We ended up escaping our daily lives that night by going to the new James Bond movie. For only $3.25, we got a cozy seat, air conditioning, and only had the movie break once for 5 minutes of a dark intermission.

Finishing up the first two months of the trip, it´s a bit of a weird transition. It feels like we´ve been here a while, but we aren´t even halfway done. At the same time, in a couple weeks we´ll be entirely out of Central America and many of these places we´ll never see again. Riding and experiencing new things is starting to feel more routine as opposed to a new adventure everytime, but not in a bad way. It seems like we´re at a point where this is no longer vacation-this is life. It´s inspiring to be able to wake up everyday and be excited to explore, learn, and make literal progression. I can´t wait to see what else is in store.

As a little bonus 2 month gift, I´d like to share Jon and Kai´s wake up/mood progression. It isn´t identical everyday, but surprisingly often it´s something like this:
  1. Wake Up Call - Jon jumps awake (literally) when you say his name and Kai has a gradual start
  2. First Movement - Generally in the direction of food or coffee
  3. All Packed Up/Squirrly - A series of weird jokes and voices followed by much laughter
  4. Light Conversation - Usually the first couple miles as we ride away
  5. Less Talk - Biking gets a bit harder, we take our first break, and the rest of breakfast is finished
  6. Gradual Push Towards Silence - It´s an inverse relationship of silence and hangry
  7. Talking Doesn´t Matter - At least as much as food
  8. Instant Happy - Post food, continued conversations and sometimes deep thoughts
  9. Repeat 6
  10. Tired - Content with the day, ready to relax, que deeper thoughts


  1. Good to hear things are going well!

    Just with that last passage, I'm curious: Do you guys set an alarm every day to get up? Or how about paying attention to time in general? Or is it just sunrise to sunset, eat when you're hungry, sleep when you're tired?

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  2. Especially in Central America, it´s way too hot to bike from basically 11 to 3 unless there are clouds, so we pretty much live on a sun schedule here. We definitely set an alarm to get up everday (the leader of the day is in charge of getting up first and starting breakfast) and meals are pretty standard timing, but we´re often in bed before 8 or 9 at the latest to make sure we have an early start at dawn.