Discovering La Ruta de los Conquistadores greatly enhanced my experience in Costa Rica. After the ride up Volcano Irazu and around Volcano Turrialba (more here), the final section from Siquirres to Limón follows an interesting route along a semi-used railway track for 60 or so kilometres. Part of it is dirt road that runs along the trainline, the rest is on the trainline itself. I had been warned about a delinquency problem; there was a risk of being robbed following this route. Also, my first attempt had been fully loaded (see this post and I aborted because the bridges felt too dangerous with so much kit. I had decided to continue on with my journey but it bothered me that I hadn’t done it. Something interested me about it, it’s hard to describe; I just knew it would be a great adventure. As I headed down the coast toward Panama, I thought to myself I could just leave my stuff somewhere and catch a bus back and do it on an unloaded bike. But I continued thinking that somehow this inner conflict would go away. I had made it all the way the Bocas del Toro by the time I finally made the decision to go back. My rationale was that my trip is about being free, there should be no limits. If I’ve decided something that’s clearly wrong then I should be free to challenge that decision. Why punish myself for a decision that my past self made a couple of weeks before? Besides, from Bocas del Toro it would be only a day of travel. It would be tedious to cross the border again and catch four different stages of transport but the reward would be much more long-lasting than the cost of a couple of days of my life.
And so it was… I caught the fast boat back to Almirante, then mini-van to the Panama – Costa Rica border, stamped myself out of Panama, cycled over the border river, stamped myself into Costa Rica, caught the bus to Limon, found a Chinese restaurant to leave 90% of my gear, caught the bus to Siquirres and checked into a cheap hotel. A full day of travel. I didn’t feel the need to cycle back to Siquirres to cycle this route, I wanted to get this done quickly so I could continue down to South America. My trip is about making forward progress by human power only; however side trips by alternative means I’d decided were acceptable. (Hey, they’re my ‘rules’). I would simply return to the exact same spot in Almirante where I’d made it to before after I’d ridden this darn trainline.
Inexplicably, I have to admit part of the appeal of riding this trainline was that people had warned me not to. People have a distorted perception of risk and skew risk factors through their own personal experiences and opinions and how they feel about it rather than raw facts. (Read ‘Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear’ by Daniel Gardner who discusses this trait in humans in excellent detail). Now, I’m not interested in taking reckless or pointless risks but I take satisfaction in approaching a potentially hazardous situation and finding ways to mitigate the risk so I can enjoy amazing experiences that I might have otherwise missed. Challenging other people’s perception of what is risky or difficult and pushing through limits is empowering.
There were two main hazards on this railway track. One was being robbed. Now although I’d prefer this to never happen, I accept that, sooner or later, with the types of things I do, there’s a reasonable risk of it happening. But I’m willing to be robbed a couple of times to live the life I want to live. Even if I lose a few thousand dollars at some stage, this is not very much in the course of a whole lifetime. So long as it doesn’t happen everyday I can accept it. So I was not overly worried with this hazard. In addition, it had been suggested to me that it would probably be ok to do it if I go really early. The types of people who rob you generally don’t get up at 6 in the morning. It may sound overly simplistic but it’s probably true (the lazy dope smoking ****ers).
The second hazard were the railway bridges, and one that I was very familiar with (see this post), having crossed two of them two weeks before. I had been advised that there were several more to come. With a heavily loaded touring bike the risk was unacceptably high for me. Some of them up to a 100 metres long and only the decrepit wooden slats that hold the line together between you and the rocks 15 to 20 metres below. Some of the gaps up to a metre wide; a slip there and you’re in trouble. Place each for carefully!
And so it was that I decided to start super early (to avoid the tedious delinquents) and go on an unloaded bike (so I could pass the bridges more safely and also complete the section quicker thus get off the route before the thieves woke up).
Aside from a short section on the highway, the start of the route was very pleasant on well maintained gravel road.
And then I arrived at the second bridge after Siquirres. This bridge was one of the long ones. I felt ok, I had very little kit with me but I started across it cautiously anyway. It occurred to me that this trainline occasionally has trains that trundle up and down at relatively low speed. As I started across the bridge I heard the sound of a horn and hesitated. Was it a train or a truck? Definitely a truck, I thought to myself placing each foot with extreme care. I was halfway across thinking how intense it was when when I heard sounds coming from the track. Oh my God, the horn I had heard earlier was in fact a train. I could hear it behind me but felt I didn’t even have time to turn round. I started moving 5 times as fast, leaping from slat to slat, almost running down the track as the train got closer. It was intense! On finally reaching the other side I realised the track stayed raised 15 feet above the ground for the next 50 metres. If I were to jump, serious injury was likely. Luckily due to the structure of the bridge, just where I was, there was a small platform about three feet lower than the track. I turned to jump down there with my bicycle. As I did I could see the train halfway across the bridge with no sign of slowing down. My heart was in my mouth as it passed me 0.5 metres away at eye height! This was a crazy moment.
Ok that was silly but my God what an adrenaline rush I thought to myself and headed on down the track.
Then another (shorter) bridge:
Then finally the track hits the Caribbean Sea but I only had 10 to 15 kms to cycle next to the trainline before hitting Limon. I thought I was back in the comfort zone but I was wrong! I passed a man walking his dog; harmless enough, I thought to myself. As I slowly cycled off the dog chased me very aggressively, hideous little thing, barking and threatening to bite me before heading back to its owner. This happened twice. Then I continued on and passed this huge set of coconuts husks on the right next to a small shack. After passing I decided to return to take a rushed photo (see above; hard to see – it doesn’t do the immense size of the mound justice). Whilst standing outside it the man that I’d passed started shouting at me, he clearly didn’t like me being there. I shrugged my shoulders, it’s a public right of way, I thought to myself. Then he took his machete out and started waving it in a threatening manner and continue to shout moving quickly towards me. Time to leave. As I cycled off he set his dog on me again; it sprinted after me barking. Then it turned round, strolled back and repeated. I got out of there.
I caught the bus to Puerto Viejo and stayed there for a few recovery days. Then caught a bus back to the border, got stamped out, cycled over the river to Panama, stamped into Panama, caught a public ‘chicken’ bus, then another bus with my bike strapped to the roof to Almirante where I found the exact point I’d cycled to before and started heading off to cross back over the mountains to the Atlantic. What an adventure!