No Bike on New Year’s: Being a Backpacker in Costa Rica

12/26/2015.

Just outside of Montezuma, Costa Rica.

I can’t believe it. Grounded yet again due to a major technical problem.

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That odd new grinding noise that began shortly before a very steep section of road on the Nicoya Peninsula followed by a loud SNAP! I had broken the free hub on my supposedly bomb-proof german hub. The worst part was knowing exactly what it meant: shipping the hub to the nearest authorized repair service, back in California, and waiting for it to get fixed and sent back… for at least a FEW WEEKS.

 

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No, that’s not me. Though perhaps mentally it’s not far off.

Defeated, yet again. I bused up to Costa Rica’s capital of San Jose for find strong internet and mail services in order to start the arduous process. The city is large. Dingy. For me, not a place I would choose to spend much time at all. From my cheap hostel I made calls to everyone I knew who had or repaired this specialized hub, all the while singing, “To breeaaaak….. the unbrea–kable huuuub….”.

Through a convoluted set of communications I was put in touch with a Rohloff repair person in New Zealand who during an online chat confirmed with utmost confidence that I had “sheared the transmission pins.” As is the custom for heavy motorized machinery, the hub’s design includes these small vinyl pins which are actually designed to shear off under extreme load so as to protect the rest of the hub. Replace the pins and you’re good as new! I requested the Neil and CycleMonkey in California ship out 2 sets of pins in case this ever happened again.

But it would be a good 10 days. It was between Christmas and New Years on a Friday night. Nothing would get into the mail until after New Year’s day. Sigh.

Okay but wait a minute. Let me take stock of my situation for a second. I’m “stranded” in Costa Rica, one of the most beautiful tropical places in the world. I have a feeling I might find some interesting new experiences…

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By stroke of luck Lorena Richards, a close family friend since I was 14 years old, would be visiting her childhood town of Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean Coast at the exact same time with her husband Nicholas. I hoped on a bus out of San Jose the next morning for the coast…

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Puerto Viejo is a classic Caribbean village. When Lorena grew up here it was tiny, just old homesteads and families. She told me stories about the tiny police station where the most serious crime would be a man getting too drunk and would get locked up for the night. The next morning his family would come and let him out. That kind of place.

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 Now it’s considerably more built up with hostels, restaurants and a few night clubs but somehow still maintains this small village feeling.

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Old fishing  boats brave the rough waves every morning to fetch the daily catch.

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It was such a treat to wander through a town like this with a local who grew up there 50 years ago. All the town elders recognized her, she was like royalty! We went to all her favorite eateries, run by families she grew up around.  The food was nothing short of fantastic. Basic dishes but with special spices and flavors not found anywhere else in Costa Rica. We would stroll. Eat. Sit. Eat. Stroll. Eat. Sleep. Repeat. All interspersed with insightful conversation.

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Lorena and Nicholas headed up to a rural farm town outside of San Jose to spend New Years with some other family. They kindly invited me to stay with them during their stay, but adventure called… Still, I will always cherish this time we had together. She is a fantastic human with an unimaginably big heart.

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New Year’s Eve came and went in a busy San Jose hostel, surrounded by drunken travelers. My days of looking for the biggest, most exciting event to pass the new year are certainly in the past for now, as I went to sleep just after midnight. The more powerful way for me to acknowledge the annual transition is to wake up early and spend the day outside. Last year I joined another cyclist and hiked up a large mountain on the Baja Peninsula. What better plan than to hike the biggest volcano in Costa Rica this year?

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A scenic 4 hour bus ride and some fun hitchhiking carried me to the trailhead for Volcan Chirripo. Walking into the park ranger station to pay my entrance fee I was informed that the next available bed at the high mountain refuge wasn’t for 2 weeks. 2 weeks??? hm….

“Can I hike it out and back in a day?”

Well, it would be a 40km round trip hike, gaining over 9000’ of elevation. I’d have to start at around midnight in order to return by late afternoon. It’s far longer and higher than any hike I’ve ever done, but why not? I’d pack my camping gear anyway as I was confident there’d be some amazing campsite up there which would break up the distance.

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 After 4 hours of completely unrestful sleep on a picnic table by the trailhead, I set out on the steep trail around 1am.

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About 2000’ into the climb, I arrived at the park boundary. No smoking. Check. No fires. Check. NO CAMPING. Shit. Should I ditch the camping gear to be able to hike faster? Nah, I’m sure it’s just a sign. There’s got to be a way to stealth camp up there…

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Beautiful bright stars shone though gaps in the high jungle vegetation.

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The deep blue of first light illustrated some huge beautiful cliffs across a valley. I’d hoped to make it to the top by sunrise but drastically overestimated my speed, and underestimated the hike’s difficulty.

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I’d have to settle for this sunrise. Life is hard.

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 The refuge at about 11,000’. As I crossed the 10,000’ mark, I really started feeling the cold air. Excited to get out of the shivering shadows of a towering peak.

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 The plants were a little cold too. Nice to see ice crystals in Costa Rica though!

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Tropical high tundra, known as “paramo”. The summit seemed to be that peak to the left, not too far to go!

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Wrong. the trail continued to reveal one false summit after another.

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At long last, the final scramble to the top. A distant flag wavered in the cool breeze, illustrating the end to endless false summits.

 

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 My cheap sugar crackers never tasted so good. Shortly after I summited a group of hikers arrived and kindly shared one of their ham sandwiches. It was scrumptious. I wandered around the wide valley under Chirripo’s summit for a bit in search of a potential campsite but found no stealth nooks flat enough to camp. It was 10am, plenty of time to hike the 20km back down, but it was going to hurt.

Grey bicep curl 1 by werewolf z d5fpwyb

For the non-myophysiologically inclined, there are two simple types of muscle contractions: Concentric and eccentric. Concentric contractions are those in which a muscle is firing while shortening. Example would be the upward motion of a biceps curl. Eccentric is the opposite, wherein a muscle is firing while getting longer. Example would be lowering the weight back down from that biceps curl, straightening the arm. So why is this relevant??

Well riding a bicycle utilizes almost entirely concentric muscle contractions. Luckily, so does hiking… uphill at least. Unfortunately hiking downhill uses almost entirely eccentric contractions, especially in the quads, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles. The big take-home — concentric muscle training does NOT translate to eccentric activities well. So no matter how strong I felt from all the riding, the descent was ROUGH.

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So, descending 9000’ after hiking all morning on almost no sleep: Not awesome.

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The following morning hobbled out of my hostel room with intentions to hitch a ride to some nearby hot springs. Perfect treatment for sore legs… But the 20’ square cement pool was so populated I’d need to pry past people just to enter. No go. Hobbling back down from the hot springs entrance, I eventually found a ride to a bus station — get to the ocean.

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Cute little hostel on the Pacific Coast in a little town called Uvita. $5 sweaty campsite, but great access to the shore!

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 I continued to hobble around the hostel grounds until I met a cool couple from the states who invited me to explore some regional parks in the area.

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White-faced Capuchins.

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 Striped Iguanas.

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Sigh. Wishing I had the bike…

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Spiky trees.

All in all, it took about 12 days to order, receive and install the broken pins on my rear hub. Funny how often problem can lead to opportunity. All these beautiful moments in Costa Rica would never have happened without the bike trouble. So really, I feel pretty grateful to the hub and its imperfections! But I am VERY excited to get back on the bike!

One Response

  1. Brad
    | Reply

    Scott, good write up. I think I’ll make the same climb when I eventually get down there. Probably another year away at the speed I’m cycling.

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