Words Holger Meyer Photography Sebastian Doerk
There’s a hectic bustle going on at San José’s airport exit. A man tugs at my bag: “Taxi?” It’s pitch black. Something must be up with the time zone…
It’s 3am, yet our ticket says that we weren’t supposed to land until 7am in Costa Rica’s capital. If that were the case, the sun would be up and our guide would be here to pick us up. Instead we’re standing around, completely lost, hardly able to keep our eyes open and trying to keep at bay the men shouting ‘Taxi, taxi’. An athletic looking guy wearing a baseball cap and bike shorts is making his way through the crowd towards us. It must be him.
He looks as tired as us, but laughs and stretches out his hand. It’s Paulo, our guide. When we finally put our bags in his pickup, the Costa Rican explains that it was just by chance that he checked our arrival time online before going to bed and saw that our flight would land four hours earlier.
“Breakfast?” Paulo asks as he rummages around in his rucksack with his right hand without taking his eyes off the traffic. He hands us a container of freshly cut mango. Wow, did he really prepare this especially for us…? Paulo laughs: “No, I stole it from my father’s fridge.”
What are we doing here…
Freeride legend Richie Schley had persuaded us to take this trip to Costa Rica in March – our winter. Tobi Geisler, Sebastian Doerk and I had been quite easily convinced. Even though it meant a 14-hour flight, the prospect of being able to spend a week in someone else’s summer was simply too much to resist.
…and where’s the trail?
The next morning Paulo picks us up from the hotel for our first bike trip. Now, in daylight, I realise there’s not a single promotional sticker on his pickup. Strange, since he makes a living from the bike business and was both cross-country and downhill national champion in Costa Rica. Paulo doesn’t seem to want to talk about it. He just lowers his head and carefully pulls the tarpaulin over our bikes. Viewed from the outside, the car could quite easily be loaded with bananas.
The journey takes us 2,500 metres above sea level. An old farm road leads us through ancient mountain villages, past stables with horses and chickens, to a scenic overlook. Here Paulo manoeuvres his car halfway into the bushes and stops. The view stretches out over green hills with a few meadows in between and, of course, coffee plantations as far as the eye can see. Just in the distance, on the horizon, the Pacific shimmers in the sun. But where is the trail? We follow Paulo through a thicket that doesn’t look at all like an entrance for a trail.
For five or six metres we trudge through thick undergrowth until we reach what looks at first to be a hollow in the ground, but is then clearly recognisable as a path.
We hurtle through a green tunnel of ferns and climbing plants that hang from the roof of the jungle trees and seem to be trying to constantly grab us. The ground is surprisingly bone dry with good grip – the rainy season doesn’t begin until April. We are able to simply fly over the otherwise slippery roots and after descending a few hundred metres we have to stop to shake out our hands.
Are we meant to be here?
And who’s that with the machete? Paulo is delighted that we’re having such a great time on his ‘baby’ – his new trail. And he’s got much more to show us, even if the ground on which the trails are located doesn’t belong to him. Just 200km wide, the country between the Caribbean and the Pacific is a mixture of national park and privately owned land. That’s pretty small for trail-loving riders. But as a former member of Costa Rica’s national team, Paulo is known all over the place. People trust him when he says: “I’m building a trail on your land and I’m only going to take selected people on it.” That’s the reason for the inconspicuous car, the secrecy and the hidden trail entrance.
We continue on through the undergrowth. The curves get narrower, the temperature and humidity rises, sweat flows. Twice we have to traverse a river and then the ride ends at a coffee plantation. From here we roll to a small restaurant next to a waterfall. Naturally we make use of the time before our food arrives to enjoy an outdoor shower.
Paulo’s next pride and joy is a trail further south, in Providencia. We’ve barely gotten out of the truck and we’re lost again in a mixture of jungle, dust and hairpin bends. A few steep ledges and roots block the way. We stop for a moment in the clearing. It’s similar to Europe; open meadows amid forests and undulating terrain – a little bit of the Black Forest in the middle of Central America.
The trail winds slowly out of the valley. There’s not a soul in sight. Then all of a sudden a man is standing in front of us with a machete. He looks fierce, until he recognises Paulo.
It’s Marinho, the landowner. He knows that we are coming. We’ll be spending the night at his place in a cabana, a small wooden hut, on his farm. Marinho just came ahead in order to clear the trail for us. When we reach the hut, we find his wife has cooked us a delicious meal of tortillas with rice and beans.
After a descent on one of Paulo’s favourite trails, which is similar to that of a bobsleigh run, we push on further south towards the Pacific. “My dream is a trail from the highest peak, the Cerro Chirripó, down to the beach, which would be a 3,820m descent!” explains Paulo as he revs his four-wheel drive with tremendous effort up the sandy track. We are very happy when we reach the next spot: the Dota Valley, an idyllic setting with a river, small wooden huts, and an unbelievable number of birds. A toucan with its huge beak flutters through the trees and a cloud of hummingbirds are startled as we approach the wooden terrace of our lodge. It’s the perfect place for a margarita.
Team Sneaky and the Almosters.
Next morning we jump on our bikes really early. This time of the day we won’t run into hikers, who are not often seen anyway, but in Dota Valley there are lots of birdwatchers and we don’t want to run into them. Once again, the trail entrance is hidden; you definitely have to know your way around to find it. Lucky us, we have Paulo on our team. After we made our way through the green, the trail opens up, and we sneak out of the fog. Paulo nods, and we get into the groove. Lots of berms, nice little jumps and some steep chutes are encountered on our way down to the valley floor. It is one of the longest descents we do on this trip without staying out overnight. After a short break, Richie, Tobi, Paulo and I are high-fiving. “Way to go,” says Paulo as we try to follow his rear wheel. It’s hard to keep him in focus… Since he built this trail, he knows every corner and as a downhill champion he is fast.
With lots of ‘almosters’ yelling la pura vida! [‘pure life’], we rail down that beautiful trail, right back into our birdwatching lodge. Such a peaceful place.
As usual, Costa Rican dinner provides lots of vegetables, fish, meat and, of course, rice and beans. Perfect cyclist nutrition. The country is one of the most advanced nations in Central America; since the ’50s the state has had a stable democracy and got rid of all its military forces. Instead they put that money into developing their social system. Since then the Costa Ricans have had no riots or major civil wars, that’s why today Costa Rica claims the title ‘The Switzerland of Central America’. The landscape on our trails proves that statement as well.
We can fix it.
In the ’70s and ’80s, lots of logging took place which killed almost 80% of the old-growth rainforest. Putting lots of money from their eco-tourism programmes into eco-politics, the Costa Ricans were able to regrow 50% of that rain forest. Keeping that in mind, we can see why all the locals we met were really relaxed and lived the ‘pura vida’. And talking about the pure life, we have to leave next morning for the ocean.
When we arrive in Hermosa Beach we can’t believe our eyes – a huge beach with dark sand, a pair of palm trees, a hammock, a surfing spot right in front of our hotel and no people! As if this paradise weren’t enough, there is also a mountain bike park right above us. Our last days begin with a morning of surfing. This is followed by a ride over beautiful rooty trails through the jungle right next to the beach. José the hotel guide manages to lure us out of our hammocks one afternoon to do a crocodile tour. We chug up the river in a small boat. José steers while his colleague Jimmy holds a bucket of chicken. It doesn’t take long before the first ‘tree trunks’ appear in the water. Then Jimmy jumps overboard into the knee-high water and immediately jaws bearing rows of long teeth begin to open. Jimmy throws the chicken a metre away from him. Some of the crocodiles jump towards him. “I’ll come here again with my children,” I say enthusiastically to José. “Yes, come again!” answers José, pointing at Jimmy, “I don’t know if he’ll still be here, but I look forward to seeing you!”
Costa Rica is a country in Central America, bordered in the north by Nicaragua and in the south by Panama. Only 200km wide, the country is bordered on the east by the Caribbean and on the west by the Pacific Ocean. Its highest mountain, the 3,820m-high Cerro Chirripó, is located inland. Its tree line is at 3,400m, but from time to time the mountain jungle offers clear views of the ocean. Due to the fact that many parts of Costa Rican land are privately owned or are designated national park, there are only a few officially permitted bike routes off the beaten track. The trails that the former national team racer Paulo Vallo has carved out are, therefore, really special. It is no wonder that he is regarded as something of a national treasure.
The best time to travel to Costa Rica is from December to April, during the dry season when temperatures range between 25 to 30 degrees in the mountains. The beach, on the other hand, can be hot and humid.
It is best to bring your own bike. There are no decent rental bikes to be found locally. An enduro bike is recommended. There are good bike shops in San José and they stock lots of parts. Bring special parts you might need for your bike, just in case.
The legendary La Ruta de los Conquistadores is one of the oldest multiple stage races on the mountain bike scene. The three-day marathon from the Pacific to the Caribbean coast traverses the entire country and runs through the deserted jungle and over a volcano.
Our author ‘Die Rasenmäher’ Holger Meyer is offering a nine-day trip to Paulo Valle’s trails in spring 2018. Prices and dates can be found at: