The Mule Trail 2018
On Saturday, February 3rd, 2018 at around 1:40 PM I finally accomplished a challenge I had set for myself 4 years before; to ride my bike across Costa Rica, from the Panamanian border in the south to the Nicaraguan border in the north, using mostly back roads over surfaces of dirt, gravel, sand and just the minimum amount of pavement. The route was 630 KMs long and it included near 14.000 meters of vertical gain. Piecing out the entire course had taken me about three years of scouring over maps, researching history books and most importantly going out on my bike, talking to people in small towns and getting lost many times before finding the way to connect the paths. As a blueprint I was using the "legacy" of an ancient trail that I had heard in school back in the day, but didn't remember much except that it was the only commercial and communications route between Costa Rica and the rest of the Spanish provinces during the colonization of the American continent. The route was called: El Camino de Mulas (The Mule Trail).
The idea of creating such an adventure didn't come up at once. It started around 2012 when I began to look a possible routes, logistics and possible crazy candidates to join me on a non-stop journey across Costa Rica, but from coast to coast. Being no stranger to 24-Hour MTB events and having ridden the La Ruta de los Conquistadores in 2011 when it was truly coast to coast over the course of 4 days, I figured the entire ride could be done in 24 hours or less and it would follow the same course as La Ruta just backwards. At one point, I even thought about doing it the very next day after La Ruta, however I never really committed to the idea. Also the Turrialba volcano had become active forcing emergency evacuations and the establishment of a safety perimeter around the crater, restricting access to a significant and emblematic portion of the course. All that plus a broken derailleur on the last stage of the 2012 La Ruta buried the idea for a few months.
Half way into 2013 I was introduced to Team CoreCo led by Will Muecke. A fun group of individuals that were evolving from the equivalent of a "bowling team" to a cycling team. Fat bike enthusiasts most of them, it was probably shocking that I came to their first Team Training Camp on my cyclocross bike. I introduced myself and chatted to most of the group, but it wasn't until the second day of the three-day camp that I got a chance to chat with Will and better understand what the team vision was and what motivated them. After the camp I hitched a ride back to San Jose with Will and among the conversations during the long car ride I mentioned my non-stop, coast to coast idea. He seemed amused by the idea, however he said something like "it feels like that's been done". Rather that being discouraged, I agreed with what he said and shortly after I got home I started looking for new routes to do the course. One of them involved following the Costa Rica/Panama border from Pacific to the Caribbean but logistically it was difficult as we would need to reach official entry ports to cross back and forth between the two countries. I also started looking at paths that are only used by hikers to go over the Talamanca mountain range and figured doing it on our bikes would be a great challenge, however while browsing the web looking for more info on those paths I found a page talking about The Mule Trail. I started digging deeper and came upon a reference of a book tittled "Y Las Mulas No Durmieron" (And The Mules Didn't Sleep) by Carlos Molina Montes de Oca. The book recaps the socio-economic development of Costa Rica form the XVI to the XIX century during which the Mule Trail played a critical role, connecting the poor and isolated province of Costa Rica to the ports and political strongholds of the Spanish colonies.
The creation of the route started shortly after the Spanish arrival, however it wasn't until 1601 that Gonzalo Vasquez de Coronado successfully completed the entire journey which allowed the first "recuas" (mule trains) to reach the port of Portobelo in Panama. Weather, the terrain, earthquakes and aggressive indigenous groups forced the trail to constantly change. Establishment of new settlements near the center of the province created multiple paths to connect to The Mule Trail and the creation of haciendas where mules were bred and cared for also offered lodging and meal options for the arrieros (mule drivers).
Over the years much of the original Mule Trail was widened for the transit of oxcarts and eventually vehicles as those paths became part of the slowly evolving national roadway system. The former haciendas became main towns and cities along the route and the mules were relegated to farm work and replaced by railroad or diesel trucks. However some portions of the route still exist almost intact. The ancient trees along the sides seemed to conserve the mystic and historical value of the route they still mark and stand proud to have offered shade, shelter and even a place to rest after a long journey to the many mules and drivers that passed under their branches over the last 400 years.
After reading and re-reading the book to extract the cues about the original route, I realized that much of the the route is now either lost, part of private property or paved as part of a mayor roadway, so I decided to go out and explore alternate routes that would allow me to connect some of the major points of the original route but following local, gravel or dirt roads, taking what I called "creative licenses" to come up with a complete course with less than 5% of pavement.
Completing the route wasn't easy. Late in January of 2015 I took a bus to the Nicaraguan border and rode to a point along the border near Santa Cecilia. The next day I started my first bike-backpacking adventure along my version of the Mule Trail heading south. On the first day of riding I was able to make it to Bagaces. The following day, after many re-routes and dead-ends I rode all the way to Orotina but arrived with a swollen Achilles Tendon. Motivated by the fact that this middle section was more familiar, I pushed through the pain above my ankle and started heading east, climbing towards the Central Valley. Halfway up a steep climb, I stopped and sat by the side of the road and opened up my folding map to see how much more I had to climb to get to Puriscal. From there I would have to veer south to drop down to Parrita. At that moment, I realized that most likely Gonzalo Vasquez didn't even consider crossing the Carara jungle because he needed to connect the trail with the paths leading to the settlements near the central valley, but I didn't. So I turned around and venture into the Carara National Park and made it to Parrita about 6 hours ahead of what it would have taken me over the original route. Unfortunately, my Achilles tendon had gotten much worse and even though the portion among the oil palm plantations is relatively flat, by the time I reached Quepos, I had to called my dad to come and get me. As a result of my effort and eagerness to continue I ended up with a micro tear that kept me off the bike for nearly 4 months.
I had unfinished business with the course and the following year, during Semana Santa (Easter Week) I had my friend Roberto drop me off near Puriscal, then I rode down to Parrita and resumed the course. That first day I rode to the town of El Silencio near the Savegre river and the following morning got up early and rode the beach portion all the way to Dominical during low tide. After a quick lunch I started to climb the steep ramps along the Fila Costeña (Coastal Range) and found myself barely at Pejibaye near sunset. My wife and my friend were driving south on the Panamerican Hwy, and we had planned o me "waiting for them" near the Terraba river, however as it was getting dark I was more than 60 KMs from the rendezvous point. I had completely underestimated the amount of climbing and the steepness of the terrain and I was exhausted. We changed plans and I decided to ride 30 KMs on pavement to meet them near Perez Zeledon.
After two failed attempts and slightly getting discouraged the following year (March of 2016) I convinced my friend and teammate, the late Pedro Arias to join me on completing the final portion of the course. He lived near San Vito, close to the Panamanian border and we both had pretty good knowledge of the area as we both grew up around there. Pedro had been a big supporter of the Mule Trail idea and often offered suggestions on possible reroutes and I was sure that if there was anyone I could count on to complete the route one day, it was Pedro. We chatted over the phone and agreed that the course was hard already and a challenge of its own to complete, however it would be more realistic to complete it starting from the southern end at the Panamanian border; because as we both had figured out, the portion between Panama and Dominical was the most rugged and difficult of all. On a Sunday morning, I started from the border town of Cañas Gordas and quickly made my way up the highest point of the entire course (Cerro Paraguas at 1440 meters above sea level) while Pedro finished the morning tasks of running a dairy farm. He joined me on the descend from Cerro Paraguas and for the rest of the morning and part of the afternoon we pushed each other climb after climb until reaching the Terraba river. It was one of the best rides we had together, little did I know that less than a month later he would pass away due to severe head injuries from a fall while working at his beloved dairy farm.
The original plan was to ride this portion until the Terraba river with Pedro and later in the year attempt to do the entire course, unfortunately his passing away took away my motivation not only about the Mule Trail but riding in general for much of that year.
In 2017 I decided that as much as I missed Pedro, it would be a dishonor to his memory to stop riding and much more to let the Mule Trail idea die since he had been so involved with it. So I recruited Fiorella Rojas and Mario Meneses, the two elite riders of Team CoreCo to join me on tackling The Mule Trail this time from south to north.
We had great energy and showed up at the border fully prepared to spend the next week on the road to accomplish what until now had been impossible. Our eagerness and the fact that we had plenty of bike bags made us carry way more stuff than what we needed and as if the pouring rain we encountered since the first 10k wasn't an omen, the overloaded bikes, which made our progress slow; the wet, cold, restless night didn't help to get us started on a good note. The following morning we reached the Terraba river and climbed towards Boruca in the mid morning heat. The 8 KM climb, the heat and a sore knee forced Fio to call quits at Boruca. We took the time to reassess our timeline and Mario also figured that at the speed we were moving he would not make it home on time for an important college assignment. I wasn't ready to quit so lighten my load and gave the unneeded stuff to Mario and Fio and continued on solo. I left Boruca at 2 pm with the goal of making it as close as possible to Dominical that night, however before I could reach Pejibaye my Achilles tendon started to flare up and from my lesson learned in 2015, I decided to stop at a hotel, ice it overnight, keep it elevated and see how it felt the next morning. Unfortunately the next morning even walking over to the bathroom was a struggle and against my will had to call Fio and Mario to come and get me.
There is a saying in Costa Rica that goes "La tercera es la vencida y no hay quinto malo" which more or less translates into "third time's a charm but there is no bad fifth". I chose to believe the latter part of the saying and as soon as I got home from my fourth failed attempt I walked over to the whiteboard next to my desk and in big red letters wrote: Mule Trail, 30 Enero, 2018 (later I had to change it to 29 as the estimated end date would conflict with Costa Rica's presidential elections) and started working on getting as many people to join me and motivate me to finally complete the route.
Norma and I created Facebook and web pages and made the event feel official. Shortly after launching the site to the Facebook world we received great response from people near and far that were interested on doing the course. If we had written a list we would have ended up with over 50 names. So we continue the planning, making hotel reservations and coordinating the logistics for a group of 20-30 (we were not confident that all 50 would show up). As the date of the event neared, we started contacting interested participants to confirm their registration and by the first week of January; date we had set to close registrations we had 3 confirmed participants. We were still working on the cue sheets, for which we needed to do the entire course in a car to document all the intersections and offer info on places to eat, sleep, rivers to cross, etc. Even trying to do the entire course in a vehicle proved difficult. Between myself, Norma and my dad we spent 7 days in total driving the entire course while one person rode the portions where we couldn't get the truck through and the other one drove around. Overall this was a great opportunity for my beloved wife and my dad to also get hooked on the course and share my passion. I think that once they got to see all the places the course goes through and the people you see and meet along the course, the Mule Trail took a deeper meaning even for them. I am not going to deny that there were moments of frustration. Tropical storm Nate affected Costa Rica greatly late in 2017 and several portions of the course were impacted. We found ourselves having to find re-routes barely 3 weeks before the Grand Depart date because bridges were washed by the Savegre and Paquita rivers, while the Cotos, Parrita, Barranca and Guacimal rivers suddenly altered their riverbed. At one point I figured that since there were only 3 of us riding it and -based on previous history- it wasn't likely that we would finish, that there was no need to have GPX tracks o cue sheets.
Thankfully two weeks prior to the event, more people started to show real interest and then we became 5, then 6 and the week before we grew to 9 and on the eve of the event we had one more. Now 10 it's a party!
On the morning Monday, January 29th these highly motivated and mildly crazy group of 10 took the start of The Mule Trail 2018:
- Will Muecke
- Mario Meneses
- Andres Rivera
- Juan Diego Flores
- Geovanny Prendas
- Ligia Madrigal
- Pablo Pessoa
- Andrew Morrow
- Christian Lesko
- Jeff Herrera
After a quick transfer from our base at Hotel El Ceibo in San Vito we arrived at Cañas Gordas. A small border town with a gravel road on the Costa Rican side and a parallel paved road on the Panamanian side, confirming the infrastructure differences between the two nations. While we made the last minute adjustments, fidgeted with our GPS devices and helped each other to ensure our Spot Trackers from Panapager Costa Rica were in working order, a small group of family and friends gathered around the bright, multicolored, spandex clad group of cyclist that were about to embark on this new adventure. A few words of motivation and self-reflection from my uncle and shortly without an official start signal except for Will's roar of "PURA VIDA COSTA RICA" and we are on our way. Only 630 KMs to go.
The first few kilometers are pretty mellow. It's a gradual downhill and there were smiles all around. I stopped to answer a nature call and quickly speed up to catch up to the group only to reach the first turn off of the course and half of the group had blown by it. Less than 3 KM into the race and half of our peloton is already lost. This is going to be interesting. I waited for the directionally challenged few, said hi to my grandfather and my two grandmothers that have come to wish me and the group good luck and we are off. The first climb appears and everyone seems to settle onto their own pace. At the top of the next climb I am bringing back the rear and we could spot the leaders already near the top of the next climb. I only hope those ahead are not starting way too hard.
Near KM 12 we meet up with the race directors (my dad and my wife) taking pictures of the group. Although we didn't know at that point, Ligia and Pablo are off-course. They missed a turned a few kilometers back and had to backtrack, losing about 30 minutes in the process. I start moving up the field, leaving Will and Andrew to ride at their own pace. Andrew is in Costa Rica for the first time and just two days ago he was shoveling snow back in Minnesota, so what seems like a normal, mid 80s and relatively humid day to me, feels a lot hotter and humid to Andrew. The steep climbs don't help either.
I caught up to Diego near the Limoncito river and we ride and chat for a while. He's never been to San Vito and is amazed with the views. We reach the Ngabe Indigenous Territory and he stops to refuel while I continue on. For most of the afternoon I alternate riding and walking the steep portions, which sometimes is the entire climb, until I reach the town of Changena. It's Monday and the local restaurant is closed, so my lunch ends up being a can of tuna on a loaf of bread, chips and I wash it down with a cold coke. That would be the standard menu for most of the week. The sun is low on the horizon and I have a nice downhill to the Terraba river crossing. After a quick boat ride across Costa Rica's mightiest river, I see Norma and my dad and they provide a race update. I am 2 hours behind Christian, 1 hour behind Andres and 30 minutes behind Mario. Somehow Geovanny is not ahead of me, we later find out he missed a turn too. We say our goodbyes and I set on for Boruca. At sunset, I find Mario taking a breather at the Boruca store and after refilling on water and powerade we are on the road again. The moon is bright and we don't even bother to turn our lights on while climbing. Mario starts to drop behind me. He catches up while I am lubing my chain and explains that his stomach is not working well. I offered a gelatina (frozen jello sold in stores) and he eats it only to have it come back out a few minutes later. I have an alka seltzer in my support kit and gave it to Mario and soothes his stomach. We continue riding for a few kilometers but he is feeling weak. We find an old bar open and go in to see if their kitchen is open. It isn't, but the bar keep offers to make something for us. It's almost 9 PM and I decide to have a beer while we wait. A few minutes later the bar keep comes out with two plates with a huge piece of fried chicken and three tortillas in each. Mario and I look at each other and decide, heck we haven't had a warm meal in the whole day, so that'll do. Mario gets the OK to crash in a corner of the bar while I decide to push through the night.
The rest of the night goes by pretty quick. I make good progress through Pejibaye (I am already past the point I had to abandon the previous year and feeling good). Around 3 AM I start to see a light ahead and a few minutes later I am riding next to Andres. He's just gotten up from taking a power nap on the middle of the road. We ride together for the next few hours but on the long climb towards Dominicalito he stays behind. I am walking a little faster than him and the first glimmer of light appears on the south-east so I get motivated to reach the beach.
6:30 AM, I am riding down Dominical Beach where Norma and my dad are camping near the mouth of the Baru river. It's almost low tide, so we chat for a bit, Norma makes some coffee (yeah so much for self-supported but otherwise I would have gone across the street to get coffee). Andres arrives, he lays down for a few minutes then we head out together. He is worried his 26 inch wheeled bike would sink in the 15 KM beach ride, however we ride at absolute low tide so he has no problem. It's like riding on concrete. We reach the Coastal Hwy and stop for breakfast.
It's getting hot by the minute, we both change kits, recharge devices and get going. The maze of oil palms is ahead of us. We make good progress through the palms but Andres is overheating. He decides to stop right after the Cotos river at La Gallega. I've been dealing with a head cold since the day before the race but somehow my body is regulating temperature extremely well, so I continue on through the palm plantations until I reach the Parrita river in Playon. I decided to stop for lunch and get some sleep. It's almost 3 PM and I've been awake for over 30 hours. I ate lunch, then came back to have dinner a couple of hours later. My dad arrives too and later Andres and Christian arrive. The Parrita river has a beach like feel, so we all set camp or so we thought. Christian keeps riding after dinner while Andres and I get some sleep. Andres leaves around midnight. I try to get up, but to my surprise my knee is swollen, so I opt for getting a couple more hours of sleep and elevate the knee to see if the swelling goes away. I oversleep and it's not until 6:30 am that I am woken up by Mario and Pablo going by. My knee is feeling better, so I slowly gather my stuff and prepare to leave. Mario and Pablo head out without me. At around 7 AM I cross the river and continue in search of coffee. First restaurant is closed so I had to go off course 2 KM to Parrita to get coffee and breakfast, but it was worth it.
The oil palms are behind us now. I start to climb towards Vista de Mar among teak woods and cattle pastures, near Gamalotillo I catch up to Mario and Pablo having breakfast. We ride together over the Tulin river and up towards Las Delicias. There is no way we are going into Carara on an empty stomach, so we stop for lunch at Las Delicias.
Full bellies and happy we climb the last couple of kms before dropping into El Sur and tackle Carara. The jungle is never dry and there is a dark cloud above us, so we don't waste time and try to make it across as quickly as possible, which is easier said than done with heavy bikes. Around 5 PM we get to Lagunas on the other side of Carara. After a quick stop at the river to wash the transmission and remove excess mud, we are on our way to Orotina.
Just as night falls we get to checkpoint #3, Orotina where we meet my dad again. He tells us that Christian is almost half a day ahead and Andres 3 hours. Quick dinner, at least for Pablo and me, Mario orders two meals and eats them all. Boy is bigger inside than out.
The ride from Orotina to the Barranca river is nice. We caught up to a local weekly group ride and rode with the tail end of the group to La Ceiba, they continue towards the beach while we continue towards Caldera and the railroad tracks. Crossing the railroad bridge at night was hoot but not as much as getting wet above our waist crossing the Barranca river.
Besides a quick stop a a gas station in El Roble to refuel, we kept riding pretty steady through the night. Near Chomes Pablo's bike start to weave on the road, he's been awake for over 24 hours and he is having a hard time keeping his bike steady. I try to get into a conversation with him and in a way trick him into continuing riding until the town of Manzanillo, that's only 3 KM ahead, in reality Manzanillo is 15 KM away but he stays on our wheel. About 3 KM from Manzanillo he stays behind and we stop seeing his light. I re-lube the chain while we wait but he is nowhere to be seen. We figured he found a comfy spot to crash so we continue on. At around 3:30 AM is Mario's turn to start falling asleep on the bike. We make it to La Palma where he finds a comfortable concrete sidewalk to take a nap. I am wired and not really interested on stopping. I want to have breakfast in Bagaces, so I continue on among sugar cane plantations. The farm workers are already out and about and the sun still has almost two hours to rise. Shortly before Bebedero I get to river crossing. It shouldn't be a deep river, so I decide to ride through only to find it's too deep to ride and my tire float from under me. For a second I find myself fully submerged in the river and my bike floating away. That's one way to wake up!
After my early morning bath I start to see a light ahead. I figured it could be one of the farm workers on his way to the job, however it's Christian who took a long nap in Manzanillo and started riding a few hours ago. This is the first time we actually get to ride together, not to mention he joined the race the night before the start, so we get to know each other and chat all the way to Bagaces as the sun is rising behind us.
Coffee and breakfast never tasted so good as that morning in Bagaces. I have ridden straight for 24 hours again and second time during the race, so I am tired. Norma is at the 4th checkpoint. I decide to ride over while Christian orders another breakfast.
Meeting Norma is really motivating however I am really tired. I pass out for what seemed like a few minutes at the checkpoint, however I spent at least 3 hour there. Christian, Mario and Andres all go by but I have no intention of getting on my bike. For the past 24 hours I've had some mild discomfort while peeing, so I want to get plenty of liquids and see if the pain goes away. I relocate to a pizzeria nearby and decide to get a room next door. Norma heads up to the finish to wait for the leaders.
After pizza and a shower I pass out on a bed. First and only time I slept on a bed during the race. Sometime around mid afternoon someone knocks on my door. Pablo had pizza and they told him I was next door. There is an extra bed, so I offer him to crash and we would ride out later. He didn't even have to think about it. A few hours later I woke up to the sound of what seemed like a freight train going by, but it was just Pablo snoring like he hadn't slept in 3 days. Apparently he came back from lunch and found me making as much noise earlier.
The pain when going to pee is slowly going away but not completely, so I let Pablo head out by himself around 10 PM while I get a few more liquids and some more zzzs.
The alarm goes off at 3:30 AM and finally I go to pee pain free. Time to saddle up and get going. By 4 AM I am already leaving Bagaces behind and grinding the long climb towards the Continental Divide. The sun comes up only to reveal very dark clouds ahead. The wind picks up and the wind turbines up ahead at the distance are moving as fast as I've ever seen them. That can't be good. The speed drops, there are portions I am on my BarYak extension and first gear just to keep moving then the road turns northwest and the crosswind blows my big fat tires to the far left edge of the road. Soon after I am walking, leaning to my right and the bike on my left side is almost floating. That was a long 2 KM stretch. Thankfully the road changes to pavement and it turns west and I have the strongest tail wind ever, at least until the road heads north again. All this time with the wind and the sideways rain, my only motivation is to reach Rinconcito Lodge. I've stayed there before and they have an awesome breakfast buffet. At around 8:30 AM, I park my bike at the restaurant entrance and walk among Dutch tourists to the buffet line. I had 3 or 4 cups of coffee, traditional Costa Rican breakfast, then American breakfast then healthy people breakfast of yogurt, fresh fruit and juice. I paid my $10, refilled my bottles and hydration bladder and kept going. It was no surprise I almost puked it all out on the steep climb shortly after Rinconcito Lodge. So I stopped on the side of the road and finally decided I should adjust the seat angle to see if that would relieve the pressure on my perianal area. Since I needed time to digest the day's worth of food I consumed, I took my time removing the tail back and making just a slight adjustment to the seat angle. After walking the rest of the hill and remounting at the top I was really mad at myself for not taking the time to do that earlier. My saddle position felt like the lazyboy confort I am used to. Perhaps the tail bag, or a bump on the rear part of the saddle earlier in the race, forced it to tip upwards just so slightly to get it out of what I am used to. With less than 80 KM to the finish I finally felt comfortable on the saddle.
The sun came out for me again as I got down to Colonia Blanca and I really enjoyed the rolling, solitary ride all the way to Dos Rios. At Dos Rios I did my last refuel stop. A few cookies and Maxi Malta plus top off on water and I was on my way to conquer the rest of the course. The rollers towards Brasilia are fast and fun, not to mention your body is on overdrive. I caught some more tail wind on the way to Santa Cecilia and the last kilometers descending towards the Nicaraguan border and seeing the immensity of Lake Nicaragua and it's volcanoes inside the Ometepe island were such a great welcome and the best way to complete this journey.
As I neared the border I couldn't help to think about all the people that have made this dream possible. My wife Norma, for her patience to put up with all my crazy ideas and adventures and her ability to keep me grounded when needed. My parents, Gildebrando y Dinorah for always supporting me from near and far and dropping whatever they have when I have needed them. My siblings, Erika, Jessika and Viviana for being my #1 fans, Will Muecke and his entire family for not only providing me with the bikes and gear for all these adventures but also for being the inspiration and leading by example that we all need adventure in our lives, my childhood friends Gerardo y Roberto for always being by my side and jumping to support at a moments notice, Mario for not only being a team mechanic and team mate but also making me so proud for such an amazing comeback at the end of the race to become the first official winner of the Mule Trail and current record holder. To the rest of the Team CoreCo members, friends and family that have supported this idea and lastly to Ligia, Juan Diego, Will, Andrew, Geovanny, Pablo, Andres, Christian and Mario for accepting our invitation to this first edition and giving us your best effort.
See you next year!