Costa Rica

“Pura vida,” the national slogan of Costa Rica, expresses so many aspects of the vacation traveler’s experience there.  It implies an embrace of the pure essence of life, its intensity, flavor, and energy.  it implies a joy in the moment, life purely as it feels in the here and now, with no thoughts about everyday routines and responsibilities back home.  It implies the ecological and environmental emphasis in this country, that derives all of its electrical energy from renewable resources (!): a third hydroelectric, a third wind, and a third geothermal.

Most of the bicycles I saw in Costa Rica were beat-up, scraped, and scarred.  They were often being pedaled slowly along the roads that run through farm country, past Brahma cows grazing on the parched dry-season grasses, endless cane fields, small roadside cottages in shade-tree groves.  They were ridden by schoolchildren coming and going, adults holding the handlebars and  also their plastic bags of market goods, farmers or workers on their way to their earthy occupations.  I saw one guy riding along with a huge flat pickup truck tire balanced between his chest and the handlebars, heading for a gas station.  In the towns kids had them, scuttling around, converging in groups for games or talk; women had them, riding along insouciantly in skirts and blouses.  They are the poor man’s motor scooter or horse.  They are inexpensive everyday transportation.

Most of them are like mountain bikes of ten years ago: straight bars, damped forks, fat tires.  The paint is rough around the edges; they have been loved to death, or at least enough to show considerable wear.  it’s clear that they are prized possessions.  Somebody must sell a lot of bike tires here, the fat kind that you don’t inflate too high.  On the dirt farm roads lurk sharp pebbles, severe and sudden ruts, broken and fragmented hard-pack mud surfaces, and only drainage ditches for shoulders.  Huge cane trailers rumble along, and heavy, massive dump trucks roll, trailing billows of dry-season dust.  The bikes weave along past hazards, full of faith that the roaring trucks and weaving Turismo vans will not clip them on the way by.   I observed that the space gap allotted a cyclist is often only a few inches; none of the grand swooping “avoidance” gestures made by many American drivers, but not a whiff of the aggressive “you deserve to be run off the road” swerves of other American drivers either.  Pura vida.

Our resort was a beautiful cluster of buildings that clings to a steep hill descending from a high plateau to Papagaya Bay.  Hugging the land, it has steep roads from the vista-rich reception building at the top to the restaurants, bar, and pool that sit at the foot of the slope, between the residence buildings and the bay beach (all beaches in Costa Rica are public; the resort does not control its water frontage).  The bus from the airport took us a short way down the inland valley between the high mountains of Guanacaste Province and the coast, then across to the steep ascent to the coastal plateau, a few miles across the rolling open country atop the plateau, and then abruptly down to the resort.  The day we reluctantly left our deck chairs by the pool to do a boat tour I spotted the only sport cyclists I would see.  It was Saturday, and the local riders seemed to be enjoying the perfect weather.  As the Turismo van began the descent from the plateau toward the inland valley floor I saw two of them coming up to the top of the hill.  They were turning over their lowest gears with obvious effort and little forward velocity.  Their faces were contorted by the effort.  Further down the hill it was apparent that they’d come a long way up a very sharp incline.  Two more riders were about halfway up, where there’s a brief relatively level bit.  Several solitary riders along the flatter paved valley roads were ramping up their  pace, one on a time trial bike.  I can only speculate where he purchased it; the one store I later saw in Liberia (a city, capital of Guanacaste) didn’t look like they carried upper-end bikes or parts.  Mail order is probably a good option for the serious rider in those parts.

The Saturday cyclists all had gear and kit; they had nice bikes; they all wore helmets.  Perhaps I should not call them the “serious” ones, but reserve the term for those who moved slowly, knees akimbo, along the white stripes at the edge of dusty roads, inches from traffic.  Because for them, owning a bike was obviously a serious business; they needed it for the basic purposes of daily life.  For the committed but recreational Saturday cyclists, the bike provided a bit of what my trip provided me, pleasure and escape.  But their Saturday on a 12% grade was making them healthy; the pool and the all-inclusive food and drink I was enjoying were taking me in a different direction.

Pura vida.

©Arnold J. Bradford, 2011.

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