Costa Rica’s pura vida energy, canopy walks and sunny surf spots aren’t a secret. But the eco-rich Central American country still has plenty of untapped terrain and untouched corners that make it a bikepacking dreamland.
The following loops were scouted during bike trips to Costa Rica in 2018 and 2019. They offer varying lengths to give riders a choice based on how much time they have and what they want to see. They include a mix of the more lush volcanic highlands and the drier, beach-strewn Nicoya peninsula. Each loop includes several Points of Interest for items like camping spots, where to eat and gps links for optional day rides. But by no means is this an exhaustive list.
In so many ways, Costa Rica is made for bikepacking. An abundance of dirt roads and trails, a wealth of accommodation and food options, welcoming locals and no shortage of postcard-worthy scenery team up to make this an ideal fat-tire adventure destination. Oh, and if you like to geek out on birdlife like us you won’t be disappointed. But make no mistake, this is not easy riding. A combination of rougher roads, killer inclines and steamy weather make these loops challenging, yet oh-so rewarding. This is not a place where you can expect to bust out century rides on a daily basis. The dirt roads that run along the Nicoya coast are especially notorious for being steep, rutted and dusty.
I've put together 5 possible loops in Costa Rica. If you click on one of the loops listed below the map such as Costa Rica Loop 3 you will see that loop on the map along with several Points of Interest that provides important additional information.
The Main Loop (La Gira de Costa): We consider this the master Costa Rica bikepacking route. It includes a great mix of terrain and is involves riding on about 70% non-pavement surfaces. Allowing yourself about 3 weeks to tackle the route gives you some wiggle room for rest days and off-bike activities such as hiking and surfing.
Loop 2: This is a good loop if you are short on time but still want to hit up a bunch of highlights. You’ll get a good mix of lush highland riding and beach time.
Loop 3: This loop includes a challenging ride around Lake Arenal (paved and gravel), and if you are lucky with the weather also stunning views of Arenal Volcano.
Loop 4: This grand loop visits the excellent Cano Negro Wildlife Refuge and also Tenorio Volcano National Park.
Loop 5: If you just want to maximize your beach time, this loop is for you as it only involves cycling around the Nicoya peninsula. Here is a mountain bike day ride option from Liberia that includes a mix of rugged roads and singletrack if you don't plan on heading inland during your tour: https://ridewithgps.com/routes/29334987
When to Go The ideal time to visit is between December and March, which is the dry season and perfect for escaping the North American winter. There is countless number of river and stream crossings which are much easier to navigate when it’s not the wet season. Plus, crossing deep bodies of water such as tributaries brings the real risk of hungry crocodiles. Pushing deeper into the dry season – late March and April – comes with the challenges of soaring temperatures and dusty riding conditions, especially along the Nicoya.
Start Point These loops begin in the city of Liberia. An increasing number of flights from North America are landing in Liberia which makes a more convenient launch point than much larger San Jose. Liberia is nothing special, but it’s safe and relatively easy to cycle out of.
Another option is to start in the small town of Curubande which is just north-east of Liberia. We suggest staying at very bike-friendly El Sol Verde (http://www.elsolverde.com/) which has both roofed and tenting options. The owner can likely help arrange a shuttle from the Liberia Airport. This way you can spend a couple days riding in Curubande to help build up some extra fitness.
Bike If there was ever a tour suited to a mountain bike set-up this would be it. The rugged terrain that is the norm in Costa Rica calls for fatter tires and a sturdier ride. Suspension, either upfront or dual, is also not a bad idea. Touring with a mountain bike also lets you take better advantage of the trails in areas like Curubande and Las Catalinas. If using a gravel-style bike, at a minimum it should be outfitted with 650b wheels and 2.1 tires or larger. You’ll be bombarded with steep inclines so packing your bike as light as possible is a good idea.
Indoor From mega resorts to boutique spas to hostels, Costa Rica has all types of roofed accommodation options. Local guesthouses, often called cabinas, are often the best value. They range in the $30 to $50 USD range and many have rooms that accommodate more than two people. Booking.com lists numerous cabinas in the country. Sometimes we would also just zoom way in on an area using Google maps to see if anything pops up. For more touristy spots like Samara and Montezuma it can be a good idea to book ahead if travelling during the height of tourist season.
Outdoor Costa Rica is tent-friendly. There are both options for paid camping in designated campsites and free wild camping. Costa Rican’s are very accommodating and in many cases will find a place for you to pitch a tent. The best place to ask is at a local tienda or restaurant in a town and someone will likely direct you to where it is OK to camp for a night. The Nicoya Peninsula is riddled with empty beaches that are perfect for discreet sandy camping, as long as you stay away from rising tides.
Food A nice thing about these loops is that you are never too far from a fuel source. Most small towns have a mini super (small grocery store) of some sorts that offer a variety of food options. By far the best value for a prepared meal comes from family-style restaurants called sodas. You can usually fill your tummy with a big plate of food (meat, beans, rice, cheese etc.) and a juice for less than $10. Fruit smoothies (“baditos”) are widely available and a refreshing way to beat the heat.
Money Both U.S. dollars and the Costa Rican colon are used in the country. In general, cabinas and hotels accept both currencies whereas local restaurants and grocery stores often prefer to work in colones. The exchange rate at the airport sucks, so it’s best to us an ATM to obtain local currency.
Language English is definitely not universally spoken in Costa Rica. It can be really helpful to know some phrases in Spanish to get along easier. And if all else fails fire up the Google Translate.
If using a Garmin device for navigation purposes here is a useful article on how to make sure the device has the most detailed map for Costa Rica. Feel free to reach out with any additional questions.