Riding mountain bikes above Playa Danta is your own private roller coaster
It was the first time I ever turned 42, so I asked my wife if we could rent mountain bikes at Playa Danta to celebrate. We’d done it three years before, and she was onboard. We invited our friends, Jackie and Junior. Planned outdoor activities during Costa Rica’s green season come with the risk of rain, but we like to live dangerously. At that point, we had no idea just how hairy things could get.
There’s nothing like burning 1,600 calories in two hours. We had purchased a two-hour rental package, but almost didn’t make it back in time. At the last peak, where Junior and I stopped to let the wives catch up, I was pretty sure we’d be late. It was the sound of Jackie screaming, “Junior,” that put the fire in my step and gory thoughts in my head, starring my wife.
I’ve been known to walk with my head in the clouds, but Cristina has always been the family klutz. She wears the title reluctantly, usually at the business end of the teasing stick, but for all her faults she owns it. We should all wear our shortcomings without shame.
Costa Rica’s Greatest Places
In this series, The Tico Times Travel section takes an in-depth look at some of Costa Rica’s greatest destinations, with multiple articles exploring the attractions of each. Throughout the month of December, we’ll visit the sumptuous Flamingo Coast — Playa Grande, Conchal, Brasilito, Flamingo, Potrero and Las Catalinas.
As we piled out of our mutual cars in Playa Danta’s public parking, I teased Cristina.
“Who wants to take bets on Cristina’s body parts?”
Junior was unloading two bikes from the back of their Nissan.
“What do you mean?” he asked.“‘Cause she’s accident prone?”
Cristina shook her head, holding up both hands in surrender. “I struggle on the downhill.”
She laughed at herself, the way she always does, like a hyena that’s developed a case of hiccups. It’s contagious.
“I’ll ride with you,” Jackie said, chuckling at Cristina’s laugh. “We’ll take our time.”
Jackie shot me that sideways smile all Midwestern women learn from an early age. It’s the you-had-better-be-nice look that Midwestern men first receive from their mothers.
The center of Las Catalinas, the town built on the shores of Playa Danta, is cobble-stoned and lovely. In case you’ve not yet experienced this place, I’ll give you the highlights. Carved into a bay between Flamingo and Coco, Las Catalinas wants to be the Aspen of Costa Rica. To me, it looks more like any town in the Italian Riviera. There are no roads, save the one into town. There are no shoddy homes. They’ve built everything in Catalinas to a code. This may be the only town I’ve ever known that has core values. The last two on their list are what stand out the most:
- We love Costa Rica and will be a positive influence in the country.
- We care about nature and will work hard to protect and enhance it.
The drive into town is north from Playa Potrero. It’s off the beaten path, so you will take the 155 west from the 21, through Huacas, through Brasilito, Flamingo then Potrero before you make the climb to Danta. There is a paved road the whole way in, grooved into the peaks and valleys along the shore of the Pacific. It’s only the last little bit where civilization returns, at the top of the hill above the bay of Danta. The town of Las Catalinas may have been years in the planning, but with every return, I find it’s grown in spades.
Down in the valley, Danta offers secure, public parking. You need only identify your residence or plans with the guard.
“Pura Vida Ride,” I told him, flourishing with as much Spanish as I could muster. “The car behind us too,” I added as we bee-lined towards a parking spot.
Pura Vida Ride sits in the town center, next to the restaurant. There’s only one restaurant, so far, so you shouldn’t have any trouble finding it.
The shop feels like an adventure shop from back home. Out front, rental bikes line the walkway.
Inside, three young men approached us, anxious to assist. It’s the green season, so they may have been sitting there for days.
“We’ll be renting two mountain bikes and hitting the trails,” I told the man in charge.
“Okay, great,” he replied. “Have you been here before?”
Cristina and I picked two bikes, filled out some paperwork, picked our routes then let them fit us for helmets. Jackie and Junior rented helmets too.
“Don’t miss the sick view at the top,” shouted the man from the shop as we pulled away.
I shot him a thumbs-up. Earlier, when we looked at the map, he’d mentioned a overlook we couldn’t afford to miss.
After a quick stop back at the cars, we were ready to go, except not totally.
“The gears are shifting funny,” Cristina said.
“You’d better take it back,” I said. “We’ll wait here.”
As Cristina rolled away, the rain began to fall.
“Nooo,” I moaned.
The three of us rolled under the security tent to wait. Maybe the rain would pass before Cristina returned. The tent was not a rain tent; it was a sun shield. Rain, sprinkling through the mesh, fell on our shoulders like dew.
“Pura vida,” I mumbled, forcing a smile.
After 10 minutes, I decided Cristina was lost, so I went looking for her. She was at the shop, wheeling away on a new bike with slightly fatter wheels. As we pedaled away from Pure Vida Ride, the rain subsided enough to assuage my fears.
“Looks like clear skies to the east,” I said, catching up to Junior, playing with the gears on my rental.
“Shhh,” he replied, pointing up as if the gods would hear us.
“Is this our turn?” I asked, pointing.
There was a road winding up the beast of a hill to our right.
“This way,” replied Junior, climbing the beast.
Within 50 meters we were off our bikes, walking. This was not the trail I remembered from three years ago. To make sure, I stopped to pull out the map.
“I think we’re on this road that runs parallel to the trail.”
Junior leaned over to examine the map. “Nah, we’re on the trail. There’ll be a left up here.”
“Definitely,” he replied, hopping on his bike again.
The grade was so steep he made it five feet.
After what felt like another mile, the wives so far behind we could barely see them, Junior stopped to ask for the map.
“Let me double-check,” he said.
“What happened to definitely?” I asked, smirking.
We agreed that we were not on the trail. We were, however, close to another trailhead.
Turning to the ladies, I shouted, “We’ll run ahead to check it out. Wait here.”
We ran our bikes up 20 meters to what looked like a trail. It was. Finding a trailhead in Guanacaste during the green season, unless you’re right in front of it, is like trying to see the sailboat in one of those magic eye posters. Fortunately, this trail had a large map three meters in.
“Found it,” I boasted.
Once the ladies caught up, we were back on our bikes. The trail was like heaven after that slog up the hill.
The trails in Danta aren’t Yellowstone trails, but they aren’t goat trails either. For the most part that day, they were clear, wide enough and groomed. Because of the rain, the occasional sugar cane draped across the trail. There were other obstacles, like rocks and trees, but overall the trail was a comfortable ride.
When we weren’t climbing, we were sailing down long declines, which rolled like the rides at Six Flags. Every once and awhile, Junior or I would shout “ca-caw,” to the ladies. They’d ca-caw back; this way we knew they were still alive. When we hit a fork, we’d stop, pull out the map, then continue once the ladies caught up.
For someone with moderate skills on a mountain bike, control of my speed, especially on corners, was critical. There were a few points where I came into some of the downhill switchbacks a little hot, careening dangerously close to the edge. The key is in knowing which of the brakes are the rear, then skidding under control. This works, as long as you don’t hit a rock in the turn.
At some points along the trail, the Pure Vida Ride crew has placed wooden bridges, bermed for your pleasure. I rode them like a guy who has no health insurance. They were slippery as dolphins and my tires were mud-caked from the rain.
We climbed until there was no hill left to climb. There, we found a little trail leading to a point. At the top, we discovered we were out on a peninsula, surrounded by ocean. To the north was the endless Pacific. To the south we had a painter’s view of Las Catalinas. The height was dizzying; it truly was a sick view.
“Shall we head back?” asked Junior.
“Let’s go,” I replied.
We were lost at one point, but all the trails eventually loop back, so it’s hard to stay lost. By the time we hit a fork we’d previously crossed, I was running out of water.
“We were here once today,” I informed Junior, as if he didn’t know.
“We have to go this way,” he said, pointing the other way.
The trail I’d intended to use would’ve sent us back on the loop. His was the right way. It was also downhill. We waited for the ladies to catch up, then took off again.
We dashed downhill until we splashed through a river we’d passed on the way out. Somehow I’d forgotten all this part of the trail. We were climbing again.
What seemed like an hour later, but was more likely 20 minutes, we crested the last of it. Junior and I were both out of water, exhausted, with nothing to eat.
“We wait here,” Junior spit out through labored breathing.
I nodded in agreement and hopped off, removing my helmet. Speaking wasn’t an option yet. I double-checked my water bottle: empty.
“Lunch is gonna be awesome,” I said. “I’m gonna order a whole cow.”
“Chips and salsa,” he replied.
“Extra salt on mine please.”
We waited for several minutes before I ca-cawed at the ladies. The only sound I could hear was the ringing in my ears.
“I don’t think they’re close enough,” said Junior, just as the faint sound of shouting echoed up from the valley.
At first, I wasn’t sure what I’d heard. I turned my head and stopped breathing to focus. Another scream rang out.
“I didn’t like the sound of that,” I said.
“It sounded like a shout.”
Then another scream, more clear than the last. It was Jackie. She was shouting Junior’s name. Gripping the helmet in my left hand, I swung my bike around and slammed the helmet on my head. Junior was already on his bike and down the trail.
About 200 meters in, we could hear Jackie perfectly.
“Are you guys OK?” he shouted back.
“Did you guys go up?” she asked, adding, “We’re fine.”
I slumped over my bike. In the distance, we could hear them laughing. The sound of the hiccupping hyena rose through the canopy like a taunt. She was fine.
They made it up the hill some 10 minutes later. We returned our bikes without a scratch. Not one person had fallen. It was cause for celebration. It was, after all, my birthday. We stopped at Don Brasilito’s in Playa Brasilito on the way back to Tamarindo.
The first thing we ordered, after a round of water, was chips and salsa.
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