Everyone looks forward to the end of the rainy season and the consistently beautiful, sunny weather that begins this time of year. But one particular group of people gets really excited right about now: the motorcycle riders among us.
While rainy-season days may start with picture-perfect sunshine, you know you will get soaking wet when returning home from a motorcycle trip in the afternoon; riding with rain gear on takes most of the fun away (and at some point, water will find its way through even the best rain gear); and, above all, wet roads make riding more dangerous. So, come January, the riders are psyched to go riding.
While some people might think I’m crazy, riding my bike through the busy city traffic of San José every day – and through the country on weekends – I would always choose a motorcycle over a car. In fact, having covered most of Europe, half of the United States, and a good part of Latin America on motorcycle, to me, Costa Rica is the world’s greatest paradise for motorcycle riders.
It starts with the temperature. To most European and North American riders, thermo gloves, heated boots and angora underwear are common accessories. But in Costa Rica, even at the highest point you can ride –Cerro de la Muerte, on the Inter-American Highway between San José and San Isidro de El General in the Southern Zone – a sweater, windbreaker and a light pair of gloves will usually do.
Then, there is the incomparable variety in nature: from the steaming-hot Caribbean lowlands to the Pacific cloud forests, from active volcanoes down to the flat and dry northwestern province of Guanacaste and the dream beaches along the Pacific, Costa Rica offers it all.
But the very best part is what most people in a car would hate: the bad road conditions and the numerous unpaved highways and gravel trails. When people ask me how the ride is along the northern Pacific coast from Tamarindo to Sámara and onto Malpaís, I usually reply, “It’s torture in a car, but it’s paradise on a motorcycle.”
The same is true for many other routes, such as the rocky road to Monteverde in north-central Costa Rica, the climb to Guanacaste’s Rincón de la Vieja Volcano and even the stretch between Quepos and Dominical on the central-to-southern Pacific coast, which can be great fun on a dual-sport bike (and will reduce traveling time from about two and a half hours to somewhere close to an hour). The large-suspension travel of these bikes absorbs most of the uneven surface, and having only two wheels in line (as opposed to four wheels on two axles) makes it easy to get around the numerous potholes.
Finally, there are an endless number of trails you could not travel in even the best four-by-four, simply because they are too narrow for a car or there are too many big rocks in the way, such as on the ride along the south shore of north-central Costa Rica’s Arenal Lake or the direct route from Arenal to Monteverde, which otherwise can only be done on foot or horseback.
Ride with Care
Riders must be aware of a few things when riding a motorcycle in Costa Rica. Riding in San José is dangerous, so try to avoid it and get out of the city as fast as you can, especially if you don’t have that much experience riding in city traffic.
Even outside the city, always expect the unexpected: besides potholes, potential dangers to motorcyclists come in the form of sand, oil and hydraulic fluid on paved roads, while on gravel trails you should be very careful using your brakes, as the front wheel might lock, resulting in loss of control of the bike. Always ride with your headlight on and keep in mind that you can easily be overlooked by other drivers, or your speed underestimated (i.e., by people crossing the road or cars pulling out of a driveway).
Animals on the road are common in Costa Rica and pose a much greater risk to someone riding a bike than to someone in a car. River crossings are especially challenging to motorcyclists; you may not be able to see the surface on which you are riding (as it is covered by water), and the current of the river can make it difficult to control your bike. If you kill the engine in the middle of a river, there is the potential danger that you will not be able to hold your bike upright in a heavy current. In the worst case, you might have to witness your motorcycle being washed away downstream.
Finally, it is advisable to always ride in groups. In case one of the motorcycles gets stuck, there will be someone to help you get it out, or to get help in case of an accident or technical breakdown.
License and Rental Info
While scooters of up to 50 cc can be driven with a valid car license, Costa Rican traffic regulations require a valid motorcycle license for any two-wheeler larger than that.
It doesn’t necessarily have to be a Costa Rican license; any foreign license will do, as long as it specifically states that you are allowed to operate a motorcycle.
Keep in mind that any foreign driver’s license is valid for only three months after having entered the country. Anyone staying longer should get a Costa Rican driver’s license, which can be easily obtained by presenting the license from your home country and a valid passport at the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT) office in San José. You will also be required to pass a medical exam, which can be quickly completed at several locations close to the MOPT office.
If you don’t own a motorcycle, you can rent one. In tourist centers along the coasts, there are numerous scooter rental businesses, some of which also offer smaller-sized dirt bikes (125 cc). Prices vary from about $50 to $80 per day. Some operators offer hourly rates or half-day rentals. Larger motorcycles can be rented out of the San José area.
The following is a selection of motorcycle rental agencies, most of which also offer guided tours:
Wild Rider Motorcycles (www.wild-rider.com, Paseo Colón, Calle 30/32) rents dualsport motorcycles from 250-650 cc. Daily rates are $55-75; weekly rates are $300-420.
Maria Alexandra Tours (www.costaricamotorcycles.com, San Rafael de Escazú, west of San José) offers Harley Davidson bikes. Daily rates are $80-120; weekly rates are $480-720.
Costa Rica Motorcycle Tours(www.costaricamotorcycletours.com, Curridabat, east of San José) offers KTM LC4 and KTM LC8 for $80-100 a day; weekly rates are $540-700.
Mototours Costa Rica (www.mototours costarica.com, Atenas, northwest of San José) offers KTM 450 and KTM LC4 at daily rates of $85-90.