Motorcycle Riding in Costa Rica: Riding in Paradise!
A Costa Rica rainy season is long. And while everyone is looking forward to the dry season, there is one type of person that really can't wait until the rainy days are over. They are the motorcycle riders among us. While there are many days in the rainy season that start with picture-perfect sunshine, you know you will get soaking wet when returning home from a motorcycle trip in the afternoon. Riding with your 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.
While some people think I am crazy, riding my bike through the busy city traffic of San Jose every day (and through the country on weekends), I would always prefer 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 motorcycles, to me, Costa Rica still is the world's greatest paradise for motorcycle riders.
It starts with the temperatures. 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, the Cerro de la Muerte, a sweater, a 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 Northeastern region of Guanacaste, and the dream beaches along the Pacific. Costa Rica offers it all close at hand.
But the very best of it 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 coast from Tamarindo to Samara and onto Mal Pais?" I usually reply "It's a torture in a car but it's paradise on a motorcycle." The same is true for many other routes, such as the stony road to Monteverde, the climb to the volcano Rincon de la Vieja and even the stretch between Quepos and Dominical which can be great fun on a dual-sport bike (and will reduce traveling time from some 2.5 hours to somewhere close to an hour). The large suspension travel of these bikes absorb most of the uneven surface, and the fact of having only two wheels in-line (as opposed to four wheels on two axles), makes it easy to get around the numerous potholes.
And finally, there are an endless number of trails, which you could not do even in the best 4x4. Simply because they are too narrow for a car or there are too many big rocks in the way, like on the ride along the South-shore of the Arenal lake, or the direct route from Arenal to Monteverde (which otherwise only can be done by walking or on horseback).
There are a couple of things one must be aware of when riding a motorcycle in Costa Rica.
Riding in San Jose IS dangerous. So try to avoid it and get out of the city as fast as you can, especially if you do not have that much experience of riding in city traffic. Even outside the city, always expect the unexpected: Besides potholes, potential dangers to motorcyclists come in 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 a loss of control of the bike. Always ride with headlight on and keep in mind that you can easily be overseen by other drivers, or that your speed is 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 larger risk to someone riding a bike than to someone in car. River crossings are especially challenging to motorcyclists. Not seeing the surface on which you ride (as it is covered by water), the current of the river can make it difficult to control your bike. Especially 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 due to a heavy current. In the worst case, you might have to witness your motorcycle swimming away down-stream.
And finally, it is advisable to always ride in groups. In case one of the motorcycles gets stuck, there will be someone to help you getting it out, or to get help in case of an accident or technical breakdown.
While scooters of up to 50cc can be driven with a valid car license, the Costa Rican traffic regulations require a valid motorcycle license for any two-wheeler larger than that. This must not necessarily 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 license is only valid for three months after having entered the country. Anyone staying longer should get a Costa Rican driver license. This can be easily obtained by presenting the license from your home country and a valid passport at the Ministerio de Obras Publicas y Transportes (MOPT) office in San Josť. You will also be required to pass a medical exam, which are done at offices close to the MOPT office.
For every one not owning a motorcycle, there is the possibility of renting motorcycles in Costa Rica. In tourist centers along the coasts, there are numerous scooter rental businesses, some of them also offering smaller-sized dirt bikes (125cc). Prices will vary from between - per day. Some operators also offer hourly rates or half day rentals. Larger motorcycles can be rented out of the San Josť area.
About the Author: Born in Germany in 1967, Thorsten Klier, the author of this article, discovered beautiful Costa Rica during a holiday trip in 1999. He felt so much in love with this country, that he decided to stay. Today he is the co-owner of the Wild Rider Motorcycle Tours in San Jose, Costa Rica. Wild Rider offers dual-sport bikes for rent and organizes guided tours to the most scenic roads and places in Costa Rica.