Tuesday 21 January 2014

Coast to Coast trek across Costa Rica

Costa Rica Atlantic to Pacific coast trek #joiningthedots

The start of our adventure could have been interpreted as a warning sign! I faced lengthy delays at T5 Heathrow before spending an unexpected night in Madrid. And my trekking buddy Fiona Gillanders (Fee), on her journey from Sydney was diverted via Dallas, meaning that we both arrived in San Jose a day later than expected.

Our base in San Jose at the Crespo family household was however a sure sign that we were going to be well looked after by the Tico’s. Javier Crespo and I had met during our Clipper Sailing experience across the Pacific Ocean, and become close friends. After 14 years away in the USA and the UK Javier had recently returned home to live. He has the blessing of a wonderful family, and we were welcomed into their home with open arms. Our first afternoon was spent with Javier’s Uncle, Juan Carlos, buying gas cylinders for our cooker and batteries for our GPS – both of which he was kindly lending to us.

Our shopping trip also included a visit to the market to try traditional Costa Rican coffee and ice cream before settling down to study the maps (kindly bought by Javier) and making a few phone calls to get local knowledge about various trails. My Atlantic rowing buddy John Cecil-Wright had completed the trek earlier in the year and had given us a suggested route to take, but it was invaluable to have some inside-info about what to expect.

The following morning was an early start with Javier’s Mum, Patricia to buy a local sim card. Our non-Spanish-speaking attempts the previous day had been successful in buying a phone, but we had somehow failed to buy a sim card that worked. A final visit to the local supermarket to stock up on porridge, snacks and coffee and we were all set. Having failed in persuading us to take a machete with us for our personal security Patricia gave us a St Christopher’s charm and a small baby Jesus for the journey. You could sense that the whole family worried about us, and we were really touched by their tremendous help and support. Javier’s brother Esteban then drove us to the bus that would take us to the start line – Limon. As we waited for our bus we quickly made use of the weighing scale at the bus station to weigh our backpacks. Fee’s weighed in at a mighty 24kg, while mine was feather-light at 19kg. All those days on board a boat has at least taught me to pack light.

The bus journey to Limon took around three hours, and as we approached the city dusk was falling. Minutes away from the city a lady placed her hand on my shoulder and said, “Were are you going? Limon is not a safe place at night. If you need a place to stay go straight to Hotel Miami, two blocks from here. It’s safe there and you don’t need a taxi to get there”. So that’s what we did, and true to her words, the place was safe, reasonable and comfortable.

DAY 1 With the alarm clock set at 04:30 we knew that our first day would be a long one. Our plan was to get the hotel receptionist to book a taxi to take us north along the coastline so that we could start our journey with our feet in the Atlantic Ocean near Nueve Millas. However the receptionist insisted that a taxi couldn’t drive there because of the recent wet weather and bad terrain. So we ventured on to the streets of Limon and hailed the first (and only) taxi that we saw working that early on a Wednesday morning. After much map pointing he took out of the city and we headed north towards Moin. There he stopped to signal that it was difficult to go further, but with our insistence he agreed on trying. With regular stops to ask locals how far north the trail went he pushed on despite his obvious concern. In broken English and with the help of a local lady he explained that it was too dangerous for him to drive us there. When we insisted that we had twelve amigos waiting for us, he continued tentatively until the trail became too water logged for his car. We jumped out with much mucho gracias for his efforts, and waved enthusiastically as we headed towards the Atlantic Ocean.

On the beach we scribbled ‘START’ in the sand and took a few pictures to capture the moment. Our adventure had finally begun. We walked along the coastline for around 5km before turning inland, leaving the ocean behind us and following the railway line. The route took us through woodland and growth. After two hours of walking we sat on the railway line to enjoy a brief rest. Within a few minutes we sensed that we had company – and sure enough we soon noticed a family of monkeys in the trees. They continued to move closer and closer and I began to worry that our nutty snacks were enticing them a bit to close, so we packed up and headed on our way again. It wasn’t just monkeys that had joined us for our break however, and despite wearing long leggings I had been bitten extensively on my legs! Ouch! Given the amount of overgrowth across the railway line we foolishly assumed that there would be no trains, and confidently jumped from one sleeper to another when we reached our first bridge – taking in the great view down the river. We did laugh a few hours later as the roar and whistle of a great big train echoed all around us, before passing us at high speed. As the mid-day sun arrived we reached the road that would take us away from the railway line. There, while studying the map, we were approached by Eric - a surveyor from San Jose working in the area. He told us that this was a particularly dangerous area and that he would be worried about us walking through the next two miles of banana fields. He therefore offered us a lift in his 4x4. Despite speaking fluent English Eric looked at us in complete confusion when we explained that we had to walk every step of our journey. Finally accepting our position he insisted that he would drive slowly behind us until we made it to the main the road, and that’s what we did, chatting with us through the window as we walked. By the time we were in throwing distance of the main road the heat was unbearable for a Welsh girl! So we said our thanks and adios to Eric before taking shade under a tree in someone’s garden. There we rested a good while, enjoying our first boil-in-the-bag adventure meal. Once the heat had passed we started walking again, walking through fields and fields of bananas and adjusting to the fact that everyone in Costa Rica seems to own a dog that would bark loudly at the sight of two gringo girls walking past. As dusk fell we began to keep an eye out for a place to camp. We had been repeatedly told us that this was not a safe area to be out at dark, and everyone we passed would stop to warn us of the dangers. Even a farmer on his tractor stopped to give us a lengthy lecture (in Spanish).

In Zent, just south of Estrada we came across secure buildings amongst the banana fields, with two large lorries full of fertilizer bags being unloaded. We approached the men and asked if we could camp there “Por favor dormir”. Thankfully one of the lorry drivers, David spoke fluent English and explained that we couldn’t sleep there but that the farm manager would be willing to let us camp in the porch of his house once the lorries had been unloaded. Keen to get our tent set for the night we decided to join in the train of men unloading the bags, but one 50kg bag was as much as we could manage, so we sat and watched them unload all 1200 of them. David and his Dad then drove us and our host for the evening back to his house in their giant American style lorry. Much fun was had as we tried to get up to the cabin with our heavy bags, but saving a kilometer of backwards walking was worth the effort. Once there we quickly assembled the tent and boiled some porridge for dinner – sharing some with our host. His house was basic but he was very hospitable and allowed us to have the use of his toilet and shower (or sort). He shared grapes with us and one of his colleagues even appeared to share some papaya and to talk about the football world cup. We were soon appreciating the true hospitality of the Costa Ricans. Distanced walked 24km.

Day 2 We slept well despite the hard porch floor, and were ready to hit the road again by 0630 the following day – positively late compared to the famers 0430 start. Day 2 was navigationally relatively easy as we mostly followed the railway line – albeit with a bit more care this time in case a train came along. I found the rocks across the line painful on the feet and therefore tried to skip from sleeper to sleeper, which turned out to be a rather hypnotic way of passing the time.

As we got more inland we also started crossing more and more rivers – not as much fun when the gaps between each wooden sleeper become wider and wider! My little legs couldn’t reach on one bridge and I had to crawl across while Fee opted for the skip-hop-and-jump approach! My legs wobbled like jelly when I finally made it across. Briefly back on the roads we followed one for about 2km before realizing that the bridge had collapsed and been washed away by the river, meaning that we had to retrace our steps and look for another route, and back on to the railway line. The afternoon of the second day we experienced our only unpleasant experience of the trip when a man who lived close to the railway line tried to get a bit too friendly. But thankfully he didn’t push it further when Fee shooed him away with her walking poles.

That evening we set up camp just off the railway line in a small village called Culpepper, and persuaded local children to fill our water bottles for us – rewarding them with 100 colons. Language barriers are never an issue with children. Distance walked 26km.

Day 3 We were up even earlier today, and had to spend more of the day walking along main roads – which I hated as the traffic seemed to drive past dangerously fast. We were also walking through pineapple rather than fields by now, but as usual had to take shelter in the shade as the mid-day sun hit. As we made it to a place called Florida we began to look for a country road, which according to our maps ran parallel with a railway line and river. But as we repeatedly asked for directions we kept being directed along a road that we couldn’t locate on our maps. It was around here that we probably entered the Bermuda Triangle. The road kept climbing in a slightly different direction to that we expected – but with everyone we asked insisting it was the right road we had no choice but to follow.

As a prop forward on the rugby field, climbing hills is certainly not a strength of mine, but these hills were never ending. At the top of one hill at a village called Alegria I couldn’t go further and asked a man if we could camp in his front garden. His wife kindly showed us the back garden that was much better as it was also hidden from the road. Now being experts at setting up the tent we had home set and dinner cooked in no time at all, meaning that we could settle to sleep by 1830. That’s living life on the wild side for you! Distance walked 32km. D

ay 4 The local cockerel meant that getting up and away by 0500 wasn’t too difficult on day 4. If the cockerel hadn’t already woken all the locals, the mad barking of the dogs as we tried to walk quietly through the village probably did. But we didn’t leave without the lady of the house emerging to wave us off. The road kept climbing, and what we were expecting to be villages turned out to be just a single house here and there. I was never so happy than when a motorcyclist we stopped confirmed that the pink house we could see was indeed the village marked Lomas on our map.

Exhausted from the walking but very excited to have reached the 100km we stopped for a celebratory meal in a little local Soda place, and boy did we enjoy the beans, chicken, plantain and fried cheese. The lady was a real character and joked endlessly with us in between serving vast amount of food and coffee. Oh how I love Costa Rican coffee. Re-fuelled with the great food we continued towards Cimarrones, but also aware that we needed a place to camp before nightfall. Outside the village we saw a sign advertising a swimming pool, so we turned off the road and were welcomed by a little corner of heaven. There, the delightful Xinia sat with her son overlooking a swimming pool and three little fishing ponds. In Frenish (my personal combination of limited French and Spanish words) we asked if we could camp there for the night. We were warmly welcomed and given the best piece of flat land to set the tent. Fiona and Xinia picked fresh oranges from their orchard and we both enjoyed a much needed shower in the pool side facility before settling in for the night.

Day 5 Up and on our way by 0600 Xinia greeted us to open the gates and wished us well on our journey with a pack of biscuits each. Following good roads and trails we made great progress, reaching Turrialba by mid-morning. We walked through the streets as quickly as possible though - not enjoying the feel of a city after the beautiful countryside we had enjoyed for the last few days. Feet were by now very much blistered and sore and required regular stops to fix with compeed and tape – the dream combination that kept us moving. It seemed by now however that we were well and truly in the Bermuda Triangle as we tried to find the ever elusive Pejibaye. And to add to our joy the rainfall exceeded the one would expect in Wales and New Zealand combined. Our route took us through sugar cane fields and I can tell you that field after field of sugar canes in the rain do not offer much inspiration for walking. Fee was suffering badly with a painful blister and each person we asked for the distance to Pejibaye gave us a completely answer.

Eventually we reached a large river and high flow with all the recent rain – obviously a popular place for kayaking and white water rafting. If only we had time. Darkness fell and we finally reached a sign welcoming us to Pejibaye. Which was a rather remarkable thing in itself as Costa Rica is not a place where road sings are commonly seen. Pejibaye was a much smaller place than what we had expected, and our hopes of finding a place for a hot meal to warm us seemed slim. We did however notice a children’s birthday party drawing to an end at a local bar (of sort).

Exhausted and with no real other option we approached the group to ask if we could camp there for the night. Yet again we were welcomed with open arms – watered and fed with a lovely hot meal. We can’t begin to explain how welcoming and hospitable the Costa Rican’s are. Sleep came quickly that night.

Day 6 Day 6 began with a mini-surgery as Fee took our knife to burst the big blister on her heel - an operation that thankfully gave her instant pain-relief! We then set off through Humo climbing our first mountain Tausito. It was as we climbed this mountain that I was close to experiencing my first ever heart attack! No, not from the effort of hiking but from hearing Fee’s girly scream! Always with an eye out for the nature Fee had spotted a snake on our path, it’s head less than half a meter from my thigh! My heart didn’t stop pounding for a very long time. As we climbed up to 1600m the rain continued. Having seen no one on our way so far we shouted for attention when we spotted an isolated farmhouse. An elderly gentleman heard our shouts (or possibly the barking dogs) and came out to greet us. In return for our request for water we gave him our last biscuit and continued on our way up the mountain path. It was a long hard slog but amongst the fog, we were rewarded with an amazing panoramic view of great mountains, and enjoyed a few minutes rest to take in the beauty of Costa Rica. As we began our descent on the other side we were wet, cold and exhausted.

On finally reaching Tapanti, we spotted a lodge and decided to treat ourselves to some warmth and comfort over night. While eating dinner we were joined by two Germans who were on holiday in Costa Rica for a month and enjoyed their company.

Day 7 The breakfast on offer at the lodge meant that we opted for a lie-in and 7:30am start after breakfast. Fuelled by fresh fruit and eggs and toast we powered on, walking further than we should have. Thankfully a little soda place tempted us with coffee and cake, where we realized that we were in Rio Macho rather than Purisil. Efforts with local people and a few phone calls to Juan Carlos meant that we hovered between two roads 500 meters apart – undecided as to which one to take. The road we were looking for named El Chukkaras led towards the highest mountain we would climb, but also through an area of jungle – so we wanted to make sure we took the right one. Loaded with six pieces of cake we finally opted for the first road and started our climb.

This was certainly a steep one, which just kept going. Sadly not in the direction we wanted and we were soon over looking a water dam sealed with high fence. On examining the maps it looked that we were only a maximum of two kilometers away from the path that we should have been on, but two kilometers across jungle like forest and two rivers is a long two km. So much to our despair we started all the way back down to the bottom.

  Back in Purisil, and only 5km from the lodge where we’d slept the previous night it somehow felt as Day 7 had been a complete waste, but we maintained our spirits, despite the grey wet weather even. “I’m having a great time!” would be a phrase that we’d repeat occasionally, it’s just a matter of mind over matter. Before darkness fell we climbed a couple of kms on the right road, setting camp on a rocky piece of land next to a river and surrounded by coffee plantations.

Day 8 Eager to make amends for the wasted day we were up and on our way by 0430. Ready to take on the jungle and a climb of 2400m. When the road came to a sudden end at the bottom of an electrical pylon we knew that this signaled the start of our jungle experience. A path that we wouldn’t of known was there if it hadn’t been for our local-info.

We traced the path of a km to find, as promised, a wonderful hanging bridge. Fee jumped from excitement while I stepped across with a bit more trepidation. The vague path continued, and I desperately looked up through the trees and towards the sky now and again in a bid to see if we were following the lines from pylon to pylon. The rain continued to pour down, making the terrain beneath foot very wet and slippery. Yes, tropical jungles are very wet places. Eventually we reached another pylon and as we emerged out of the jungle we were greeted by three very surprised faces! There, in the middle of nowhere three men with shovels and machetes were working on the pylon. In my best Frenish I explained that we were hiking through from Limon to Quepos. They had a sort of plastic tent that offered the perfect protection from wind and rain so that we could cook dinner. Two of the men immediately set to work to make it a more homely place for us. As part of our adventure we had been sponsored by BeetIt – stamina shot drinks made of beetroot that came very useful on tough moments. As we had nothing else to offer the men for their hospitality we gave them a beetroot stamina shot demonstrating how it would give them Popeye like muscles. There was much laughing all round as the three of them tasted it!

We trekked through another 3-4km of jungle before finally emerging at another pylon and a gravel road. But the climb continued, as did the road. As darkness fell we were now at high altitude and suddenly very wet and cold, so we quickly stopped to put more clothes on and to boil some more water for one of our boil-in-the-bag adventure meals. Rather than sit waiting the 10 minutes that the meal takes to cook we continued walking – and my freezing cold hands made the most of the opportunity to hold the hot bag tightly. Possibly a bit to tightly, as I later realised that I had burnt blisters of most of my fingers.

Unexpectedly the path split in two, one slightly to the left that appeared to be going back down to the jungle and one slightly to the right that appeared to be climbing further. Although completely unsure as to which path to take we opted for the one to climb further as the thought of going back down to the jungle really did not appeal. Finally the path brought us to the national park lodge. On knocking the door we were greeted by the warden. Despite the obvious fact that we were very wet and very cold his first concern was whether we had paid our 10USD for using the park. Once paid up however he did make a nice cup of hot tea for us. We then continued on our way and eventually we reached the Pan-American Highway (a network of roads nearly 48,000 km in length which travels through the mainland nations of the Americas). We came across a service station and jumped at the hot food available. Dusk was falling, and as neither of us felt able to sleep by a motorway this was probably the point that both of us would have probably happily accepted a lift – had we been able to arrange one! But thankfully that was not possible, so we loaded our backpacks once more and began our 10km trek towards Copey. Darkness fell and the steep climb down the gravel road made for an interesting experience.

Finally we reached the outskirts of Copey and saw a sign for cabanas. A kind lady kindly welcomed us, (despite being 600 colons short!). That final 500meter walk from the road to the cabanas was a bit much for Fee however, and she collapsed face first, backpack still on when we finally reached our bed for the night. Without sun to charge our solar panels the power in our GPS watch had died a while ago, so we had no statistics for distance traveled or meters climbed, but the day had been a long, but amazing 14 hour adventure.

  Day 9 With the offer of coffee, eggs and tortillas day 9 would be a late 0730 start. Out of the rain at high altitude the heat was once again oppressive by 0930 even. Lack of concentration meant that we also missed a turning south for San Lorenzo and ended in San Marcos, a D-tour that required ice cream to soothe the frustration. We certainly had a touch of the white-line-fever, and were obsessed at reaching the end – pronto. However our local maps, local info and GPS appeared to be suggesting different routes and very different distances left to be walked. There is no truer words that the phrase, “On a journey of a 100 miles, 99 is just half way!”. And Day 9 was proving to be the most painful, not so much physically, but just with the shear frustration of not knowing how much longer our journey would take. Although feeling nothing like the journey chartered on our map the long road FINALLY took us to Napoles. A few miles south of there we camped next to a field of cows. The panorama views of the surrounding mountains would have been amazing had it not been for fog and rain closing in. A porridge between us and some time spent giving TLC to our feet meant that we were well and truly ready for some sleep by the time 1900 came.

Day 10 Up and on our way before sunrise, on turning our first corner Fee spotted the ocean on the horizon! The gravel road was all down hill, and so steep at times that it was easier to jog down the miles. At 10am we stopped at the most lovely little Soda place to enjoy great coffee and cake with an amazing view. The owners were babysitting their grandson and oh, what a handsome toddler he was. Both Fee and I could have easily packed him in our backpacks and bought him home with us. But the road beckoned, and our descent continued - on and on. Although we felt sure that we were well and truly out of the Bermuda Triangle the ocean in Quepos did not come closer, and our route seemed far from clear. Locals told us to cross the river for the shortest route, but we failed to find a spot that seemed suitable and returned to the path that we were on. After a 12 hour day we eventually emerged on to the main road leading to Quepos. Despite being literally within smelling distance of the ocean given that we had hardly ate all day we stopped for a hot meal, and boy oh boy it was good. Even if the other dinners didn’t really appreciate two very smelly and dirty girls sat next to the them! Adamant to make the sea before sunset we powered on. Those final steps really were the most painful. And our last day required a 41km trek. That’s a marathon! There was no sandy beach to welcome us, just rocks directly into the sea. But such was the need to feel the warmth of the ocean on my feet that I instantly took off my shoes and started clambering over the rocks. Unbelievably we then heard someone call out our names! The two Germans that we’d met over dinner at the Tapanti lodge were sat at the exact same spot watching the sun go down. He quickly started taking photos of our dip in the sea, while she kindly went off to buy us two celebratory coconuts - the perfect drink to toast the completion of our adventure across a truly beautiful country. On a personal note I had also joined the dots – rowing from the Atlantic Caribbean Ocean, which I had rowed across, and into the Pacific Ocean, which I had sailed across.

Thank you Costa Rica for your warm and hospitable welcome and for captivating us with the depth of your beauty.

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