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Although Corcovado has been a national park for nearly 40 years, it was only in February that the Costa Rican authorities insisted all visitors must be accompanied by a guide. (Above, that’s Ruth with ours, the excellent Rodolfo.) The main reason is the obvious one. Many experienced hikers have trekked successfully through Corcovado, but a number of unguided visitors have run into trouble in this challenging environment: 424 square kilometres of remote jungle wilderness, with few paths and plenty of potentially dangerous wildlife. Shortly before our visit, a large search party had been engaged to hunt for a lone Alaskan man who’d gone missing here. Last seen on July 22, Cody Dial still hasn’t been found.

However, it’s not just nature from which visitors to Corcovado are being protected. For years, the park rangers and local police have been waging war against a criminal fraternity of gold miners, who regularly set up camp in pockets of the park and mine it for gold. (One rumour has it that Dial himself has been mining gold here.) This report suggests savvy miners can collect up to 20 grams of gold a day from the park. At a price of $50 per gram, $1,000 a day represents a pretty good living, but it’s hardly the only lucrative gold mine in Costa Rica.

 


 

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Like Panama and Nicaragua, its neighbours south and north, Costa Rica has coastlines with the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean that run the length of the country. Surprisingly, the Caribbean shore is largely undeveloped and little visited by tourists, save for a couple of small towns near the border with Panama. The Pacific Coast, though, is another story, and that story is one of an American invasion.

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From Puerto Jiménez, the closest town to Corcovado, the road runs over a winding climb and drops down to meet the Panamerican Highway at Chacarita (gas station, couple of shops, not much else). After heading north for about 30km, the road then splits at Palmar. The right fork leads inland and, eventually, to the capital, San José. The left fork, which we took, runs to the Pacific coast.

The coast road makes for easy, uneventful riding, as coast roads often do. You’re rarely within sight of the Pacific, but it’s a pleasant trip all the same. For a time, it feels undeveloped; the road is quiet and there’s little sign that many people live here. But in due course, signs of life, of lucrative tourism, appear at the roadside. What’s striking is how few of the businesses seem to be owned by Costa Ricans, and how few seem interested in catering to them. The signs are in English, as are the restaurant menus, the advertising magazines and the innumerable real-estate billboards.

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Some of the development doesn’t feel much like development at all; a sleepy conversion of an old house into a B&B, say. Some is canny, sympathetic to the surroundings. And some – lots – is in surfer-friendly Jacó, where a rash of hideous resort-style construction has left a once-quiet coastal town resembling one of those bland, indistinguishable coastal exurbs south of Los Angeles. ‘Buenos días’ has been replaced by ‘Yo, dude’, rice and beans by burgers and fries. We arrived there on Costa Rica’s Independence Day, where a string of parading bands and dancers were doing their best to remind the expatriate developers and gringo guests that yes, this is still another country.

 


 

The cycling is more interesting further inland; and, not coincidentally, further uphill. These aren’t places much visited by tourists of any nationality; with a population of around 20,000, for instance, tidy Naranjo is the largest town we’ve visited on this trip not to contain a single hotel. Still, the countryside here can be modestly beautiful: the rollercoaster back roads linking Orotina and Naranjo; the climb and diving descent up to and down from the hilltop town of Zarcero; the gentle plains north-west of San Carlos.

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Before long, though, another gold mine: the town of La Fortuna de San Carlos, which has on its doorstep Volcán Arenal. Volcanoes are ten a penny in Central America, but Arenal has a selling point above all the others: it’s still live, and can be seen firing and smoking nearly every evening. Except that a few years ago, it stopped firing and smoking, and a dead volcano is really just a hill with a beautiful future behind it. Arenal is still a handsome sight, but it’s no longer a unusual one. Regardless, thanks to some skilful marketing, the tourist industry here continues to thrive.

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As it does around the nearby Laguna Arenal, where a string of humble villages are interrupted by a number of expatriate-run hotels and restaurants. (Expats are now the only ones who can afford the real-estate prices around here.) Some are small, sweet, integrated. And then there are the literally dozens of crass, tacky, hand-painted roadside signs despoiling what would otherwise be a beautiful lane as they promote a hotel and restaurant named Toad Hall. The owner, a monolingual American named Jeff, is unapologetic about the mess he’s made of the very countryside that’s drawn people to the region in the first place. Outside his shop, he’s even posted a list of fatuous justifications for the signs – among them, astonishingly, the witless boast that they help his business bring in more money than any of his rivals. It ends with the middle-fingered sign-off, ‘If you have any better ideas, let me know’.

Further round the lake, another American business owner was horrified to learn that our planned route the next day took us along 22km of the Panamerican Highway. We’d heard from other cyclists that this stretch is thick with truck traffic, but it wasn’t our safety about which he was concerned. When, unprompted, he offered to pay $50 for a cab to take us, it was because, as a driver who regularly uses the highway, he didn’t want to get stuck behind ‘a couple of freakin’ bicyclists‘. We rode.

 


 

The belligerence of the cash-rich expat, the man – and it’s nearly always a man – who thinks he knows better than those who know best, took us aback. But it did so only because we’ve done such a careful job at avoiding it until Costa Rica, where it’s all but unavoidable.

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Even so, we liked it here. There’s a reason why so many expats have ended up catering to so many tourists: this is an accessible, stable, good-looking country where the living, if you’ve money, is easy. More politically moderate than its neighbours, Costa Rica has often been close to the US; most notoriously in the 1980s, when the CIA illicitly armed anti-government contra forces in neighbouring Nicaragua via a secret airfield in northern Costa Rica. Even so, away from the gringolandia resorts and gated residential communities, the North American influence on the country’s culture at large feels more organic and less oppressive than in Panama. And the locals – Ticos, as they call themselves – are a joy: warm, welcoming and always eager to chat. We had fun. And Nicaragua is next.

 


 

Route notes: We reached Corcovado by riding to Golfito and taking the battered ferry to Puerto Jiménez, where we left our bikes for the three days we were in the park. From Puerto Jiménez, it’s an easy ride around the Osa Peninsula and back to the coast road until just short of Orotina, where you have three main options: plough on towards Nicaragua; head to Puntarenas, then take a boat to the Nicoya Peninsula; or – our choice – ride to La Fortuna de San Carlos and circle Lake Arenal (quiet paved road to the north, erratic unpaved surface to the south).

After looping the lake and heading down to Cañas, we then doubled slightly back on the Panamerican Highway and turned right after 22km to reach the town of Nicoya, from where we rode a stretch of the Nicoya Peninsula from Sámara to Junquillal. We visited during the rainy season, when this section – all unpaved – was difficult in places but doable. Other parts of the route were, we were told, much trickier due to heavy rain. The whole circuit would be a treat during the drier months, as others have experienced before us.

Throughout Costa Rica, we were especially keen to avoid the Panamerican Highway, mostly a two-lane road with no shoulder. The truck traffic on some stretches is less hazardous than it sometimes feels, but it’s not much fun all the same.

 


 

from Playa El Tunco, La Libertad, El Salvador (Will) & Managua, Managua, Nicaragua (Ruth)