Costa Rica: ripping jungle trails & surviving the emergency room

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Community.  The Central American community.  The enduro community.  While a handful of days is nowhere near enough time to really understand a new culture, this one theme kept coming up during this riding trip to Costa Rica. Just how did this overriding sense of community grab me?

I had never been to Central America, though I had spent a great deal of time attempting to get to know the scene in Costa Rica before heading south from the Pacific Northwest that I call home. I had been working with local customers in the country, and from trying to understand the business side of the mountain bike scene there, I could tell there was something special about this place.  But without a visit, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what exactly that was.  Pura Vida… I had an idea about what that means on paper, but what would it feel like to live it?
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When the opportunity came to finally make the trek south, I simply did what I’ve always done when I’m hoping to learn more about a place: I called a local bike shop owner.  More specifically, I contacted one who appeared to be well involved in the riding scene.  Sure enough, Oscar Avila, owner of Avimil Distribution, answered many of my questions. But what he did next really blew me away.

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Oscar arranged for us to spend a great deal of time riding with Roy Mora, a young friend of Oscar’s, but for the most adventurous portion of the visit, our road trip to Providencia, Oscar had arranged for us to stay and ride with Andres Martinez.  Andres is the premier racer for a competing distribution company.  We didn’t share the same sponsors, we simply shared the goal of riding our bikes in rad places and as fast as possible.  And this was really cool.  How many companies would put a visiting rider in direct contact with a competing rider, who is actively pushing opposing brands, with the overriding goal of showing this foreigner the best possible example of the local riding scene?

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My experiences with the bike industry have generally been that it is a friendly little community.  Sure, there are always plenty of competitors, and generally, competing brands keep to their own tracks.  With this sort of a background, Oscar’s vision of the Costa Rican enduro scene was far wider than what I had been expecting.

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Costa Rica is a very small country in terms of population as well as in land.  What I didn’t realize prior to the trip is that while the country might look small on the map, it’s actually a bit like a skyscraper. It has a lot more land in the vertical plane than one might expect.  The volcanos and mountain peaks provide ample elevation for some massive descents.

I was not traveling alone on this trip, as I’d be joined by fellow PNW residents Logan Nelson and Eric Mickelson.  Logan and I have filmed many videos together, but I had never met Eric before the trip.  Well, that’s not entirely true- 36 hours before take off, I made sure to stop by his home and finally introduce myself, but we’d never worked together previously.  What could possibly go wrong?

Once in Costa Rica, we rode three distinct riding areas.  The first venue we sampled, Adventure Park, is part logging forest, with an active operation to harvest local hardwoods.  Along with the logging, the park is also shared by a paintball course, and all of this has a series of zip-lines running above it and through the vibrant forest canopy.  Yes, we were riding trails while screaming tourists occasionally soared by overhead!  Adventure Park had just hosted a local enduro race a day before our visit, and is a common spot for San José locals to ride.

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Providencia, with its requisite road trip south from San Jose, is a spot that I’ll never forget.  The main road to arrive to Providencia was closed due to a massive landslide, so we were on a highly trafficked back route.  The road never seemed either flat or straight.  For a solid two hours, still grungy from our ride at Adventure Park, we were constantly zigging and zagging, not just left and right, but up and down as well.  After stopping for a delicious truck stop dinner (seriously- amazing chicken gallas, like tacos but Costa Rican style, complete with beet salad, it was amazing), we eventually made it to a dirt road.  Great, we thought, we’ll be there soon!  As the crow flies, we weren’t terribly far from our destination, maybe 30 km.  However, as the truck drives, we still had over an hour to go.  And around 2,000 meters of descending.  Once we turned onto that steep dirt road in Parque Nacional de Quextales, we began the most difficult part of the journey.

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When the town of Providencia was founded in 1948, only a few small dirt paths were used to transport local coffee bean crops from the 9000’ high mountains of the region to the nearest co-op in Copey, where the farmers sold their crops.  Teams of up to 25 horses, all loaded with coffee beans, spent four hours crossing the jungle rain forest. They hoped to avoid any encounters with other farmers who might be going the opposite direction on the narrow trails. Around 1952, the first roads were built.  The region continued with slow but steady upgrades, though the population only recently surpassed 300 residents.  In 2002, the first electrical lines were developed.

The searing smell of burning brake pads defined my first impressions of Providencia.  For well over an hour, as the brakes smoked, we continued our way into this remote valley.  The night was dark as could be, and after experiencing the more common trails of Adventure Park that morning, we were excited to ride something more remote and mysterious. Eventually we heard the sounds of a very swift river. This meant we were finally nearing our destination.

After we finally made our way through town–about three blocks long, with a handful of lights, a school, a bar, a temple, and a store–we stretched our legs in the yard outside of Andres’ family cabin.  We felt incredibly fortunate to get to stay at the family cabin, complete with running water and electricity.  The Milky Way was extremely humbling when viewed from this latitude, and the lack of severe light pollution made for an incredible nightscape.  Andres’ father had worked with some locals to build this cabin years ago, and with the sole goal of making frequent trips to the remote mountain town more feasible.  We planned to greet the dawn in a few short hours, excited to see a view of the Pacific some 70 km away, framed neatly between some steep mountains.  Ah yes, mountains, we also looked forward to throwing some knobbies down these things!

Wednesday morning, feeling the visceral effects of several days wide awake well before an equatorial dawn, we struggled out of bed at 4:30 am to watch the sunrise.  Sunrises are very quick at the equator, and for a breathtaking ten minutes, we were treated to an other-worldly pink sky.  Frantically “life-styling” as hard as we could, drones were flown, B-roll was shot, and coffee was made.  Oh, the coffee: amazingly rich and full bodied, but with a taste closer to a light roast that we might see in the States. Lo and behold, Copey is known for some of the best coffee in the world, and I would agree. Knowing the coffee was grown only a few meters from the cabin gave “local” a new meaning.

Andres and Roy made us an amazing Costa Rican breakfast of gallo pinto, and we met with David Retana, whose new Davinci Wilson we were delivering, at 7:45 that morning.  David is known for being crazy, and has a rock star twinkle in his eye.  He is a life-long resident of Providencia, for all his 23 years.  He met us in a red and black Nissan 4×4, with his father Sergio, and his mother.  David had been saving his money for 7 years, he was beyond excited to finally take delivery of his new bike.  We walked across the street to show it to his sister, who runs the family business, the town general store.

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As we shuttled to the top of the mountain, Sergio showed us his family’s home and mountain biker dormitory.  Built entirely out of local hardwood, including cypress, ira, and magnolia, the guesthouse was amazing.  Finely finished walls, beds, and floors were accented by a high end tile and glass bathroom.  Sergio is 62 years old and has spent his whole life in Providencia.  His grandparents did the original coffee route to Copey.

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We met a couple local boys, William and John Paul, who had been doing trail work on the descent.  After sessioning some jumps with them, it started raining. Hard.  We pushed on, simply stoked to be in the rainforest, hearing the sounds of the monkeys, watching the rain drop from the enormous leaves, and witnessing some massive mushrooms.  We finally escaped the mountain right as the lighting began to reach its peak for the day.

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Providencia was such a welcoming place.  Everyone knew each other. The mix of old school farming community with a constant flow of riders, trout fishermen, and rock climbers made for a wonderfully laid back vibe.  This town embodied Pura Vida.

Wide-eyed to the Central American lifestyle, we left Providencia, aiming to ride the Senderos de Colón the next day.  This was also a common spot to host races and events, and many riders I met mentioned they ride here daily.  Warm showers that night back in San José never felt so sweet!
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Senderos was the most heavily ridden spot of the trip, with an established infrastructure and trail maps.  As is often the case, this local riding hub was the cornerstone for the local riding community.  It was clear that Senderos de Colón, with its bike wash stations, picnic tables, and bike storage at the trailhead, was a perfect community hub.  Roberto, the owner, was quite excited to see us, and gave us a personal tour of one of his favorite tracks.  Once on the trails, we were lucky enough to meet Omar and Michael, two full-time trail maintenance workers.  Omar helped us build a trial lip for a silly line we wanted to attempt, and Michael mentioned that he’d worked there for 2 years and 7 months, and that it had yet to feel like work.
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Quickly, the skies turned from a rich blue to a dark black, and by noon time the typical torrential down-pour began.  I kept jumping.  All was good.  Living in the Pacific Northwest, I’m used to the rain.  Then we got to the last jump, a small right hand hip.  I looked at it to be sure it’d be OK to send without slowing or needing to accelerate. Looked great.  Hit it, all still good.  Then shortly after landing, maybe two seconds later, my wheels randomly blew out from under me and I slammed down on my left side.

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A patch of clay about 1 x 2 meters was exposed, and I hadn’t thought twice about it.  The dirt just beyond this section of clay had all washed away, exposing some cheese-grater rocks, hungry for unprotected flesh.  Sure enough, at full tilt, I slid through these rocks, flesh exposed and all.

I expected to be dizzy and see stars, but I didn’t.  I had hit my head really, really hard, but the glancing blow was somehow deflected by the high tech helmet.  My shirt was torn, and my arm was leaking a lot of blood. My pelvis, which had broken pretty badly just 2 years ago on that same side, was discolored and had a marble sized hole in it that had begun to pump blood.  My hand had a pea-sized hole.  And my elbow had some sort of a gash.  We went back to the hotel so I could clean up and assess. In the shower I finally saw just how deep and long the elbow cut was, so we had Roy take us to a local urgent care, as this would require stitches.

We found a local doctor’s office, and met Dani and Adrian at the office, a husband-wife doctor combo.  Like me, they are parents of a toddler. They charged me a reasonable $60 for the 8 stitches and assessment.  They didn’t mind the pool of red blood that my arm left on their otherwise spotless floor.  Unfortunately they were out of stock of Tdap shots, but I wouldn’t mind returning to Costa Rica to otherwise capitalize on the wonderful medical facilities.  Adrian examined my shoulder, which hurt in some unusual ways.  After an amazing, traditional Tico (Costa Rican) style lunch of gallas, we were back to packing, enjoying a final dinner out with Oscar, and flying home.  A few days later and back in the USA, I would find out that the acromion (front of the scapula) was broken.

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Mountain biking is an incredible sport, but what really makes it even more special are the strong communities that form when riders and trails support each another.  Costa Rica is a glowing example of this.  The scene was small, and everyone knows each other. It was a breath of fresh air to be welcomed into it.  Driving home from the airport, my shoulder hurt, but my heart felt full. I finally understood what Pura Vida means: a community that simply loves to have fun together.  Sign me up!  And if anyone has a line on where to get a Tdap shot, let me know.

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