Around Costa Rica on a motorbike – and how you can do it too

An interview with Tom Voirol, who spent two weeks looping Costa Rica with a bunch of pals. 🏍️

5 mins
Written by:
Gemma Clarke

Hitting the road somewhere beautiful on a motorbike with a bunch of friends sounds like the trip of a lifetime. For Tom Voirol and his pals, it’s actually a biennial tradition! Spanning from their 30s to their 80s, they make a habit of carving out two weeks every other year to go on a journey together. Though COVID threw a spanner in the works for a couple of years, Tom and his friends recently reunited to loop Costa Rica. We sat down with Tom to get the lowdown on the journey and find out how we too can embark on such an adventure.

So how did this trip come about?

It’s one in a series – we're a group of friends of various ages, from our 30s to our 80s. Most of us worked together at some point, and we do a trip every few years... so it's a tradition. All of us have been riding before and most of us all our lives. We had a trip planned in Thailand’s Golden Triangle for April 2020, and you can imagine what happened to that! This one now was the first post-COVID trip, so we were basically four years between drinks, and were very ready to go on another one.

It's not that common to hear of a big group of people being able to mobilise themselves to go on holiday together all the time. That's super special!

Yeah, and we’re all in different life situations. When we started this whole thing, one of us didn't even have a partner yet – he's married now. Some with kids now have grown kids. And you're right: it's unusual that you can get together like that for two weeks at a time. While we’re one group, not everyone comes on every trip.

Yeah, right. So what did the prep look like for the most recent trip?

The most difficult thing is packing light! You’re going for weeks, and you've got a bike with basically one pack on the back. You don't want to overdo it, but then half of it is camera gear and a drone and stuff like that. What's left is space for a few pairs of undies and a few t-shirts.

We plan a rough route, typically a circle, but one of the countries we rode through – Laos – we did one way, because the guys we rented from offered to bring the bikes back on a lorry. But normally, we want to end up where we started.

I've got a way how I plan the trips: I go to Google image search, and I type in something like ‘best sights in [country name]’. Then you get beautiful images – like pages and pages of them – and I just go through and go, “That's nice! Where's that?” Then I open up a second tab in Google Maps and add it as a pin. I pin the location of 20, 30, 40 images that I think are nice – attractions or somewhere to experience local culture – and then in the end, on Google Maps, I've got all these pins, so I zoom out and look for a pattern. More often than not, it looks like it could be a tour. So then I’ll map it out. Not as a fixed route, but more as a guide.

What’s your accommodation situation?

We always book the first and the last night, then no others. We mostly stay in guest houses, and you can find them in any country in any place, but we can actually splurge occasionally – so it’s usually a few very simple guest houses interspersed with really nice accommodation every now and then. We’ll usually book a day ahead when we have a better idea of how far we're gonna get, and this method allows us to adjust to the situation or the weather.

Then the only other prep is finding reliable bike hire!

That was going to be my next question! How do you sort bikes?

Google Maps helps with that too. You look at the reviews, you email them and you get a sense for their responsiveness and how professional they might be. So far, we've been okay! There was one incident in Vietnam where my friend insisted on getting a Ural motorcycle from Russia, because that's the cool thing to do… he got 200 metres, then he pushed it back to the rental fleet! The guys there fixed it quickly, though, and there were no more troubles for the rest of the ride.

Normally we get off-roading bikes, although we don't really go off-road. Usually we get 125s, 150s, 250s – so smaller bikes. This time, we got larger bikes, and we might not do that again. I got a 1200, and it was just too heavy.

Why did you pick Costa Rica?

Our previous trips were all in Southeast Asia, because many of us lived there or it was a central place for people from the UK and Australia to meet. So we did Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Laos and Thailand. Then, because one of us moved to the States, I moved back to Europe and the person from Australia wasn't going to come, we thought we’d try something in the northern hemisphere.

Costa Rica is varied: it’s compact, it has lovely nature – we do like our landscapes and we like our wildlife. Costa Rica is also great because you can see the Caribbean, so the Atlantic Ocean, and you can see the Pacific Ocean. So in our two-week ride, we were getting volcanoes and beaches and backpacker places and national parks! It’s also safe, it's easy to rent bikes, traffic is calm – which isn’t actually a prerequisite for us, because we've done Vietnam and Malaysia – but that was great as well. So all of those things together, I guess!

Makes sense! What were the highlights?

The wonderful landscapes. It’s just spectacular – you turn a corner and you go, “Holy hell!” and you just stop the bike and have a gawk. The hospitality of the Ticos (Costa Rican people) is lovely… but then again, that's not unique to Costa Rica. Lots of places are wonderful like that.

One highlight maybe was Montezuma, which is this laid-back bohemian coast town. It’s not easy to get to and it's a bumpy road, so you get lots of people who seek an alternative lifestyle. In fact, one of them was Jack Dorsey – the founder of Twitter, who lives about half the year in Costa Rica. He was actually celebrating his birthday in the restaurant where we had lunch. After he sold Twitter, he’s grown a beard and basically just surfs. But it’s not just billionaires – other people too who seek that lifestyle – with eclectic restaurants on the beach, where everyone knows each other… so that was great.

The other highlight was the national park, full of howler monkeys and sloths and beaches with lizards and spider monkeys at your breakfast table. Amazing, amazing wildlife. Often the highlights are the challenges too, right?

Can you share some of them with me?

Well, one challenge that wasn't really a highlight was that we had two full days of rain. We went in shoulder season, so you get the occasional day of rain. All of us are divers, but there was no diving: the operator we booked with rang us the morning of the dive and said, “Look, I mean, I could take you, but there's no visibility.” So that was a bummer. We spent that one in the hotel with the monkeys! We also spent a different half-day in a dreary town in a McDonald's; that was probably the worst day of the whole trip.

As for the cool challenges… well, no one dropped a bike this time, because traditionally every trip, one of us drops a bike! But we kept the shiny side up all the time.

Another day, we did a rainforest and waterfall trek – about three hours of trekking, and that was just fantastic. To get to that, it was quite remote as well. There were two roads to choose from, and I picked the wrong one. The road just got narrower and narrower and steeper and steeper and muddier and muddier, and even though we had off-road bikes, at least two of us had terrible tread. So it was basically slicks, and it got hairy on the way up there! We had to help each other carry and lift the bikes. That was another moment where I realised we should have gotten lighter bikes.

Then there was this other day, when it was a bit of a boring road, I said, “Let's take an alternative route!” It was actually a lovely road, then suddenly, we arrived at a raging stream – like a proper river. Next to it, a guy lived with a sign that said, “Ask me about ways to get through the river.” So we asked him, and he goes, “Well, you can go all the way back, which is a three-and-a-half hour detour. Or, if you only want an hour-and-a-half detour, you can take that road, but you have to cross some rivers. We went, “How bad can it be?” So we took that one, and had to ford 11 rivers – some of them up to knee or hip height! So that was hairy as well, but we got through it.

Wow! Did anybody have any glaring oversights, like something you wished you’d packed?

We’re quite adept at packing now, more just that we might go for smaller bikes and would check the tread on the tires.

Reflecting now, what did you learn about yourself from this trip or gain from this trip?

That's a hard one to answer… I think that I can relax on a ride. There’s been other rides where I worried about the gear, or whether we’d get there in time. We all navigate, it’s not just me, and the thing is we also have helmet comms now. They’re voice activated, so you can talk to each other as if you're next to each other, even if you're at a distance, and you can also play music from your phone. So that is pretty cool! Before, we had walkie talkies with finger-operated buttons, and they didn't work properly, which agitated me. So yeah maybe I was able to relax more because we’d sorted some of these things out.

Maybe something we would do differently next time is connect more with locals, because some of us even speak the language – I speak Spanish, but we sort of didn't make space for it. Occasionally in a bar here and there we’d connect, but mostly it was us amongst ourselves with the nature and the road. Maybe that was by practice, because we didn't have much of a chance to do that in Laos and Myanmar for language reasons. So that's something I've learned as well: to maybe emphasise it if the country we pick next allows for it.

That’s a cool reflection, because often local interactions and connections end up being some of the most meaningful parts of a trip, but it's so much easier to do when you're travelling by yourself as opposed to being a big group when you haven't seen each other in years. How accessible is a trip like this to someone with a bike licence?

This trip in particular is super easy. I mean, experience riding helps, but we didn't have to go off road – we just ended up coming off road because we messed up. My friends said they don't trust my shortcuts anymore! 11 rivers!

In Costa Rica, the roads are actually fantastic. Even in Southeast Asia, sure there are more potholes and stuff, but if you're not being an idiot, then you can be super safe. And you know, in previous rides – not on this one, but in Laos – we had my friend’s then 78-year-old dad with us. So that tells you something about the accessibility!

Yeah that's awesome! Last question – what tips would you give somebody who reads this article, and thinks, “Wait a minute, I want to go to something like that!”

I would say go with friends, but also understand mutual interests. We aligned it over the previous trips: you kind of need to know whether you're a culture vulture, or you want wildlife, or you're into scenery, or you just want to hang on the beach – it dictates how you choose where you ride.

I guess also prepare a Spotify playlist, as there are some areas where it's just straight for half an hour, and you kind of get bored. I would also say invest in comms equipment, as that was really nice, because it connected us throughout the ride. It meant we were able to go, “Hey, did you see that? And how about turning off now and having a coffee?” It also meant we didn’t lose each other.

Another thing I would say is plan one rest day a week on average to recover your bum and just to do something different, lounge and maybe go to a spa or whatever. Don't plan on doing more than, say, 150 or 200km a day tops.

Number one, though, is what motorcyclists call ATGATT: all the gear, all the time. We have a friend (not in our group) who hired a scooter in the Philippines and fell over not wearing proper gear and almost lost a leg. Even in Myanmar, where it was 36 degrees, we were wearing full gear from head to toe, full-face helmets, full protective gear with jackets and trousers and boots with metal toe caps. Because if you do come off, the saying is, “Don't dress for the ride – dress for the slide.” If it’s hot, just don't stop for very long, or take your helmet off when you do, and as long as you have zippers to let air in, you'll be fine.

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