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Costa Rica may not be the first country that comes to mind when deciding on a bikepacking destination, but when my friend sent me a link to the La Gira de Costa route on bikepacking.com I was immediately in. No matter the fact that I don’t typically do well in hot weather, I hate being sticky, and I’m not really a beach person. It still sounded ‘fun’.
I’d visited Costa Rica many times before (I used to work on National Geographic cruise ships and I spent many weeks sailing back and forth between Costa Rica and Panama). My family and I also did a trip to Costa Rica when I was in high school, but biking through Costa Rica was a new adventure that I couldn’t turn down. It’s a beautiful country and I wanted to see it from the seat of my bike.
This was also Michelle and I’s first international bikepacking trip. Turns out that Costa Rica is a perfect destination for first-time out-of-country bikepackers. It’s safe, people are so friendly and helpful, you can drink the water, and the country is set up for tourism – meaning it’s a relatively easy place to travel through.
If you’re thinking about doing a bikepacking trip through Costa Rica or you just want to live vicariously, read on to learn how our trip went, tips for planning your adventure, and more!
There are several different routes and itineraries for bikepacking in Costa Rica on Bikepacking.com. The ‘main’ route is called the Gira de Costa, which circumnavigates the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano and then makes its way south to the Nicoya Peninsula.
Other versions of the route add a loop around Lake Arenal, cut off half the Nicoya Peninsula, or extend even farther north into the Vida Silvestre Caño Negro National Reserve.
There are lots of options to choose from.
La Gira de Costa Route Versions
Ultimately, we chose to mostly follow Loop 3, but we skipped the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano section (and we also made our own route for day 3, which kind of turned into a disaster…)
Here is the route we followed. We got a private taxi to take us (and our bikes) to Lake Arenal from Liberia. You can read more about our day-to-day itinerary below.
Costa Rica Bikepacking Highlights
Costa Rica is an amazing country. There is so much to see and do from viewing wildlife to exploring cloud forests to relaxing on white-sand beaches. Every trip to Costa Rica will be different, but here are a few highlights from my bikepacking trip:
🏝️ Beach riding! There are long stretches of hard-packed beach riding on the Nicoya Peninsula. If you’ve never ridden your bike on the beach, it’s a cool experience.
🐢 Baby turtles. We got to see baby turtles hatch at Ostional Wildlife Reserve. SO cool!
👴🏽 Tico hospitality. Everyone we met was so helpful and friendly. Costa Ricans are the best!
🌿 The south shore of Lake Arenal. This was one of my favorite stretches. It’s undeveloped with lots of river crossings, dense forest, and very little traffic.
🚰 Potable water. Pretty much all tap water in Costa Rica is safe to drink, which meant we didn’t have to waste plastic or filter any water.
🌌 Bioluminescence. We made a side trip to do a night bioluminescence boat tour, which was really cool and magical (see day 6 below).
⛺️ (Mostly) great camping opportunities. We stayed at campgrounds most nights, all of which had showers, potable water, and flat spots for our tents. My favorite place to camp was Restaurant Erika (see day 5).
🍹 Batidos! These are basically Costa Rican smoothies, which you can get pretty much everywhere. A dragonfruit (pitahaya) and passionfruit (maracuya) batido = heaven.
Costa Rica Bikepacking Lowlights
Of course, bikepacking isn’t all sunshine, flat roads, and tailwinds. Here are a few less pleasant realities from our trip.
🌬️ The wind!!! We battled some pretty strong headwinds throughout the route, but we were also rewarded with some great tailwinds 🙂
💧 Rain. The first three days of our trip around Lake Arenal were pretty rainy, which meant that we didn’t actually get to see the volcano… At least it was warm rain!
🚗 Traffic. There is quite a bit of riding on busy roads no matter what route you choose. For the most part, drivers are very courteous and I never felt unsafe, but riding in traffic still sucks.
🥵 The heat. Costa Rica is hot no matter what time of year you visit, but if you visit in the dry season, be prepared for 90-degree+ days. Thankfully, there are lots of ways to cool yourself off – see tips for staying cool in the ‘planning your trip’ section below.
😷 Dust. The dusty roads are intense! I don’t think I could have done this trip without having a shower at the end of each day to wash off the dirt and dust.
Starting & Ending in Liberia
All of the Costa Rica bikepacking routes start and end in the city of Liberia. You can fly straight into Liberia from several US cities and, like all of Costa Rica, it’s pretty easy to navigate.
Prepare yourself mentally for your bikes to be transported on top of a taxi, though 🙂
Never flown with a bike before? Learn how in my complete guide on how to fly with a bike.
Here are a few helpful tips for starting and ending your trip in Liberia:
- We stayed at Hotel Javy and they stored our bike bags for two weeks. They also arranged our private shuttle to Lake Arenal where we started our trip.
- You can purchase a SIM card from one of the small shops around Liberia. I got Liberty and it worked fairly well throughout our trip. I’ve heard that Kolbi has better service, though. (You’ll need an unlocked phone to use an international SIM card).
- The roads into and out of Liberia are very busy and not at all fun (or safe) to bike on. Consider either getting a private taxi or taking a bus to a better place to start outside the city. At the end of our trip, we grabbed a bus from Sardinal back into Liberia (see day 13 below).
My Costa Rica Bikepacking itinerary
I know reading a day-by-day itinerary of someone else’s trip isn’t very interesting, but here is the breakdown of my trip. I’ve also included contact info for places we stayed and a few tours we did. I hope it’s helpful for planning your adventure!
Planning your trip
Part of the fun of bikepacking trips is figuring out things on the go, but here are a few helpful planning tips so you don’t have too much type 2 fun.
Initially, I thought we were going to be able to wild camp in rural areas, but I quickly discovered that this wasn’t going to be an option nor did I want to wild camp after realizing how sweaty and gross we were going to end each day.
Wild camping is almost impossible for several reasons:
- There are barbed wire fences everywhere, preventing you from accessing anything on the side of the road
- The terrain is not flat, so it would be challenging to find suitable spots for your tents
- The vegetation is overgrown, so you would most likely be bunking with bugs and other crawlies
We stayed in campgrounds or campground-ish places 10 out of 12 nights. Each spot had (cold) showers, sinks to rinse out our clothes, and toilets. Some even included – or offered – breakfast.
Depending on where the campground is located, you may need to bring dinner since there were some that had no restaurants around.
Most camp spots charged $6-$10 per person per night.
Water & hydration
The tap water throughout Costa Rica is actually safe to drink. We didn’t filter our water once and neither of us got sick. You’ll be able to fill up your water at campgrounds and restaurants or buy water at any store.
I recommend being able to carry 2.5-3L of water.
I also highly recommend embracing Gatorade (we probably averaged 2/day) and bringing SaltStick tabs, which are a lifesaver in hot, humid climates.
Food is plentiful along the route and you really won’t need to carry more than a few snacks or maybe a dinner here and there. That being said, Costa Rica isn’t cheap, so if you want to save money, then you’ll want to cobble together your meals at grocery stores instead of restaurants.
We didn’t bring a stove because we couldn’t fly with fuel and didn’t want to waste time searching for some in Liberia. We were able to get coffee every morning and we honestly didn’t miss the stove.
We quickly realized that we were going to need some strategies to stay cool throughout our trip. The temps, especially on the coast, were in the 90’s, although we did have a nice breeze most days.
Here are a few tips on staying cool:
- Wear loose long-sleeve shirts
- Wet your clothes with hoses or sinks (they’re everywhere)
- Bring a Da Brim helmet visor
- Get an early morning start and aim to finish early afternoon
- Don’t push hard! You have all day to get from point a to point b, so slow down and enjoy the ride 🙂
You will definitely need a way to navigate your ride that is not your phone. I have a Garmin Edge 830 bike computer that I love. I also used the Ride With GPS app as well as TrailForks on my phone, but only as secondary navigation.
TIP: Download the Ride With GPS bikepacking route to your Ride With GPS phone app for offline use. You can also pin it so it’s easily accessible from the app. This way, you can see all the points of interest like camping, notes, restaurants, etc… along the route.
Don’t navigate by the Ride With GPS app, though, because it sucks the life out of your battery.
Costa Rica Bikepacking Gear & Set-Up
For a complete list of bikepacking gear, head over to my bikepacking gear checklist post. Below is the gear set-up I had for this trip:
While most of the roads on these Costa Rica bikepacking routes are dirt or paved, I highly recommend either a short-travel full-suspension mountain bike or a hardtail mountain bike. I don’t think it would be very enjoyable on a fully rigid gravel or touring bike. There are some rough roads, sandy stretches, and singletrack opportunities.
I rode my Juliana Joplin (120mm rear travel, 130mm front fork) and my friend Michelle rode her Kona Hei Hei (120mm rear travel, 130mm front fork).
We went light with our gear, so we were able to get away with just a frame bag, seat post bag, handlebar roll, and top tube bag. I was testing out Rogue Panda’s bags (frame bag, handlebar roll/harness, and seat post bag/hardness) and they were awesome for this type of trip.
I recommend staying away from panniers if you can because they will be bouncing and jostling around on the bumpy roads.
We went super minimal with camping gear. No stove or cooking supplies and no sleeping bag. The liner I brought was a little too thin, so I was (surprisingly) cold until I picked up a lightweight fleece blanket.
Clothes & riding essentials
We found that we could rinse out our clothes every night, so I actually didn’t even use the second pair of chamois or the second sports bra I brought. Go minimal!
Tools & spares
Again, go minimal. You really don’t need much, but make sure you bring all the spares, tools, and maintenance things you might need in case of a mechanical.
There are bike shops sprinkled throughout the route, but you won’t come across one every day.
What I’d do differently next time
I’m the kind of person that likes to ‘do it all’, so if I did this trip again, I’d allow for more time to do the Rincón de la Vieja Volcano section that we missed.
For me, an average of 30-40 miles a day with 2,000-3,000 ft of climbing is ideal.
Here’s how I would plan this trip again based on the Costa Rica Bikepacking Loop 3 Route:
- Day 1: Liberia to Curubandé de Liberia
- 11 miles, +929 ft, several camping options, hiking and mountain biking trails for exploring
- Day 2: Curubandé de Liberia to Estación Biológica Caribe
- 40.5 miles, +3,808 ft, camping at Estación Biológica Caribe, jungle trail
- Day 3: Estación Biológica Caribe to Rinconcito Lodge
- 20.3 miles, +2,511 ft, camping at Rinconcito Lodge
- Day 4: Rinconcito Lodge to Rio Naranja
- 27.2 miles, +1,941 ft, Airbnb near Rio Naranja
- Day 5: Rio Naranja to El Castillo
- 48.5 miles, +4,828 ft, camping at Sunset Inn Arenal Camping. Big day, but worth doing this in one day
- Day 6: El Castillo to Finca Tucanes
- 24.5 miles, +2,848 ft, camping at Finca Tucanes (contact ahead of time)
- Day 7: Finca Tucanes to Juntas
- 27.7 miles, +3,593 ft, Cabinas, Bar y Restaurante El Cayuco in Las Juntas
- Day 8: Las Juntas to Oasis Place camping
- 46.1 miles, 2,484 ft, Oasis Place camping (contact ahead of time)
- Day 9: Oasis Place Camping to Restaurant Erika (skip Playa Blanca)
- 43 miles, 1,811 ft, camping at Restaurant Erika
- Day 10: Rest day at Restaurant Erika!
- Day 11: Restaurant Erika to Eddys Bioluminescence
- 12.3 miles, 873 ft, camping at Eddys Bioluminescence (make a reservation)
- Day 12: Eddys Bioluminescence to Montezuma
- 32.2 miles, 2,211 ft, Victors camping
- Day 13: Montezuma to Playa Coyote
- 25.2 miles, +1,293 ft, camping at restaurant Tanga or Hostel Alouatta. You will need to time the tide to cross the estuary at dead low.
- Day 14: Playa Coyote to Ostional
- 48 miles, +3,490 ft, Ostional Turtle Lodge or camping
- Day 15: Wake up early to see the turtles! Ostional to Corazón Surf Cafe
- 23.7 miles, +1,417 ft, room or cabin at Corazón Surf Cafe
- Day 16: Corazón Surf Cafe to Potrero or Las Catalinas
- 37 miles, +2,465 ft, camping at Las Brisas restaurant in Potrero or splurge for a fancy place in Las Catalinas
- Day 17: Las Catalinas mountain bike trails!
- There are dozens of miles of singletrack here that are worth a day of exploring. It may be worth splurging for a two-night stay in Las Catalinas
- Day 18: Las Catalinas to Sardinal where you can catch a bus back to Liberia
- 14.3 miles, +1,187 ft, Hotel Javy in Liberia
TIP: Before you leave for your trip, add the contact info for places you want to visit or stay to your phone’s contacts app. This way, they will be easy to pull up when you need to send a Whatsapp message or give them a call.
Bikepacking through Costa Rica was an adventure-filled two weeks. Sure, there are things that I would change if I were to do it again, but isn’t that true for any trip? Overall, it was an awesome experience filled with sunshine, wildlife, relaxing on the beach, and rewarding days in the saddle.
I hope this post inspires you to plan your next bikepacking adventure – to Costa Rica or beyond!
Into long-distance bikepacking? Check out these related blog posts:
What questions do you have about bikepacking in Costa Rica? Is this a trip that piques your interest? What route version most interests you? Leave a comment below!