For the world’s best mountain biking, don’t come to Costa Rica – go to Chile, Sweden, New Zealand or Moab, Utah, said Carlos Cardona, whose business depends on Costa Rican bicycle tourism.
Nevertheless, the best way to see Costa Rica is by bicycle, led by multilingual Costa Rican guides, according to Cardona’s threeyear-old business, Lava Tours.
“In other places the whole point is to have a gnarly ride,” said Cardona, who has lived and bicycled in Puerto Rico, Chile, Austria, the United States, El Salvador and Costa Rica. Here, it’s a means to an end – which might be a several-day, 2,400-meter descent through five different ecosystems from Cerro de la Muerte, southeast of San José, to the central-Pacific beach at Quepos.
“Our vision is to show Costa Rica, contribute to Costa Rica,” Cardona said.
On a misty morning not too long ago, we joined Lava Tours and 14 German tourists on a leisurely, “intermediate-level” ride from Poás Volcano to the Doka Coffee Estate, about an hour and a half northwest of San José. Not that it didn’t have its gnarly moments – like when a certain Tico Times reporter who apparently missed the German-language safety talk hit the brakes too late on a slick corner and sailed into a grassy ditch – but the trip was mostly downhill on pavement.
Most Lava Tours rides are one-way with shuttled returns, though some have options to skip the van and pedal both ways.
“You don’t want people to feel they are losers,” Cardona said.
The coffee and volcano ride ends with lunch and a tour of Costa Rica’s largest coffee plantation.
We began at PoásVolcanoNational Park, staring at the fog and feeding peanuts to squirrels. I’m guessing the tour guidance (German – Lava Tours also works in English, Spanish and Italian) was more or less, “If you could see more than three meters, you might notice we’re on the edge of one of the world’s largest active craters.”
The Germans took pictures of squirrels and said they were missing the last day of Oktoberfest. Many Germans didn’t know a thing about Costa Rica until their soccer teams played in this year’s World Cup, claimed Ivor Cerdas of Aventuras Tierra Verde, the company coordinating the rest of this group’s visit.
“Is that true?” I asked the closest tourist as we hiked around looking for better views of the fog.
“No,” she said. “I picked Costa Rica.”
Another member of the group said he chose Costa Rica for an 18-day vacation because it is less violent than many other exotic destinations.
Whatever their reasons for coming, they all hopped on bicycles and roared (silently) down the mountainside, unperturbed by the slight drizzle and occasional potholes.
Though we were on a public road for the hold-down-the-brakes portion of the tour, we didn’t see much traffic.
The sun started to peek out, illuminating great views for those brave enough to take their eyes from the road. The forest gave way to endless fields of coffee. The road got a bit busier a few kilometers before we reached the village of Sabana Redonda, where we turned onto a smaller, quieter road that cut into a coffee plantation. This one had a couple of ups to balance out the downs, which would have been suicidal if our bikes weren’t fitted with good brakes. But they were, and had gears low enough to ride straight up the inclines, which the Germans did without hesitation.
At the end of our 25 kilometers in the saddle, we rode through a back entrance to Doka Estate’s lunch hall and processing plant, passing millions of coffee trees and a giant wall of stacked coffee wood. Lunch came on wooden platters lined with banana leaves and included the greatest hits of typical Costa Rican food – rice, beans, tortillas, meat-and-veggie picadillo, fruit juice – and eight choices of coffee.
Doka, owned by the Vargas family since 1850, has about 2,900 hectares of coffee land on 35 farms, said administrative manager Mario Fernández. More than half its crop is exported to Starbucks. Doka started giving tours in 1987, fives years after Café Britt launched the concept in Costa Rica, Fernández said. In the low season, the plantation gets about 500 visitors a month, each paying $6 (residents) or $16 (foreign visitors).
The company opened its facilities to Lava Tours at the start of this year, Cardona said. After lunch we learned almost everything we ever hoped to know about coffee, and watched the beans swim through Doka’s wet mill and through the mechanical peelers.We saw the fermentation tanks, the mechanical dryers, the open-air drying yard, the warehouse piled high with burlap coffee sacks, the roasters and the gift shop. Doka roasts 5% of its coffee – 15 minutes for “European roast,” 17 minutes for “French” and 20 minutes for “espresso” – and sells the rest green.
The bikes went back on the van, we had our last sips of coffee (content with the knowledge that some 50 beans went into each cup) and were back in San José around 4 p.m.
The Doka Bike and Coffee tour costs $100, including hotel pickup, park entrance, bicycle use, lunch and coffee tour. For info, visit Lava Tours’ Web site at www.lava-tours.com, or call 278-2558 (Costa Rica) or 1-888-862-2424 (United States and Canada).