Words by Bruce Young, Photos by Esteban Rojas
When I first heard about The Mule Trail, a bikepacking race the length of Costa Rica that roughly follows a colonial trade route, I knew I had to do it. At 630 km with 14,000 metres of climbing, it would be a formidable endurance challenge. Plus, the pandemic had largely restricted me to rides to and from home near the capital city of San Jose. A south-to-north transect of the country’s diverse ecosystems was the perfect prescription to overcome the lockdown blues for this biologist and adventure seeker.
Setting off from the dusty border town of Cañas Gordas with eight others, I kept checking my pace in the hopes of keeping both body and bike intact for the duration. My strategy was simply to enjoy the ride through the spectacular countryside and make it to the finish. This was my first bikepacking race, and together with my age, I wasn’t going to vie for the win anyway.
As the day warmed, we basked in the spectacular views of the Cordillera de Talamanca and quaint indigenous villages connecting gravel roads with dirt trails and occasional technical sections. I decided to keep a mental list of the birds I saw as a way to mark progress and celebrate Costa Rica’s biodiversity. I noticed that each time I spotted a new species, I felt a subtle emotional boost that helped get me up a sweaty hill or down a lonely moonlit road. Onward I rode, checking off king vultures, chachalacas, and ground doves.
After the mountainous first 180 km, the route descends to the beach to cross the Rio Barú, a feat possible only during an early morning or late afternoon low tide. Instead of riding through the night to catch the early tide, I stopped to get some rest at a hospedaje in the indigenous village of Boruca.
After a shower, hearty meal, and six hours of sleep punctuated by dog and rooster vocalizations, I was back on the trail. I’d forgotten how much fun it was to ride at night. Pauraques and an occasional owl provided company in the darkness and toucans and kiskadees livened up the morning. Finally surmounting a last hill, I rolled down to the Rio Barú crossing right on schedule in mid-afternoon.
Crossing the river required the help of a stout beachgoer, who appeared out of nowhere to rescue me from my struggle against the current. I then rode into a glorious sunset on a 22 km beach section, careful not to disturb foraging sanderlings and whimbrel.
With the few local lodging options closed for the pandemic, I found a peaceful cemetery where I crashed for four rejuvenating hours of sleep. I awoke to the insistent call of a ferruginous pygmy-owl.
The next day featured lots of hot uphills and downhills, but the countless river crossings helped to cool down the proceedings. Late in the afternoon, I had a major high when I caught up with riders Alonso and Alejandro, who had crossed the Rio Barú on the earlier tide. Sharing a fun jungle singletrack was a welcome change from solo riding.
I’d yo-yo with both riders over the next day and half, teaming up with Alonso for the final 80 km. There were bouts of riding on abandoned train tracks complete with a passage over a wasp-inhabited bridge and through a bat-friendly tunnel, broad reaching before a freshening wind through sugar cane plantations and remnant dry forests, plus a climb through a cloud forest over the shoulder of an active volcano. Each new ecosystem brought new species and the excitement of discovering them.
After a long, high-speed downhill run, we reached the finish at the Nicaraguan border, now a clandestine point of transit for migrant workers. Standing there, emotions bubbled up—relief for finishing and not letting down family and friends who followed my progress, a strong desire to keep riding, and humility witnessing the migrants’ brave crossing to an uncertain future. Most importantly, thanks to the support from my family, my bike group Los Coyotes (especially training partner Colombia), my local bike shop, Ciclón, the race organization, and the 148 bird species seen along the way, I could sacar el jugo (get the most out of) every kilometer.
2021 Mule Trail Results
For the 630km route, Mario Alfredo Meneses Bonilla finished first with a time of 3 days, 1 hour, 56 minutes. Warner Garcia finished second with a time of 3 days, 10 hours, 40 minutes. Alejandro Rivera Garita finished in third place at 3 days, 22 hours, 20 minutes. For the 300km route, Guisseppe Solis took first place with a time of 17 hours, 43 minutes. Luis Vega Sancho finished second with a time of 23 hours, 21 minutes. Carlos Mendez Aguilar took third with a time of 1 day, 2 hours, 49 minutes. Bruce Young completed the 630km route in 4 days, 3 hours, 55 minutes.
The 2022 Mule Trail is already scheduled for January 15th, although the organizers are still working out some of the details, so keep an eye on the events calendar and ElCaminoDemulas.com
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