The Bikepacker Who Mapped Costa Rica

Mar 30th, 2023

David Rodríguez Berrón was concerned about the crocodiles. 

It was late morning when Rodríguez squeezed his brakes and stopped at the edge of the Río Bongo. The muddy road vanished into dark water, and Rodríguez had no idea how deep it ran. No bridge spanned its 100-yard width, but the road clearly resumed on the other side. He scanned the murk for the pebbled backs of crocodiles, who were rumored to live in the Bongo’s estuary.

For this stage, Rodríguez wasn’t alone; he had to consider his riding partner, Camila Yglesias Fischel, who leaned against her own gravel bike and surveyed the coffee-colored riffles. There was no way around, and the sun sets early in Costa Rica.

Enter a Toyota Fortuner. It hobbled down the road and pulled up next to them. A guy jumped out, beer and cigarette in hand. Rodríguez recognized the trio from earlier that morning, when they’d crossed paths at a local restaurant.

“Do you guys know the depth?” Rodríguez asked.

The drivers didn’t, but they also didn’t care. The SUV lunged forward, into the Río Bongo. Its engine bellowed as the Fortuner waded up to its belly; tires clawed the riverbed for traction. With nail-biting slowness, the car slogged its way across the river. At last it reached the other side, dribbling water down its wheels.

“We thought, if these guys can cross,” Rodríguez recalls, “we can cross, walking.”

And so they did, sloshing through the current with bags on their shoulders, then a second round with their bikes. When a pair of German bikepackers appeared, Rodríguez and Yglesias helped them lug their gear the opposite way. Rodríguez felt a surge of confidence — and thankfully, there were no man-eating reptiles in sight.

Rodríguez would have to ford many more waterways before his journey was done, and most of them alone. He’d have to scale mountains and volcanoes, fend off insects, and endure a blistering sun. The roads he’d so carefully chosen never guaranteed stable ground. Washouts and landslides could always stand in his way. The roads might disappear into wilderness, mocking the solid lines on his GPS.

But Rodríguez would persist. That was the point of doing this — to ride the backroads of Costa Rica and document their conditions. To chart a course for future bikepackers and ensure the routes were passable. Maps alone couldn’t be trusted, not in such remote countryside. Rodríguez needed to blaze the trail himself. And if a segment proved too hard, he would backtrack and try another way. Poco a poco, as Costa Ricans like to say. Little by little. Through trial and error, Rodríguez would crisscross his country, wayfinding its quietest roads, for 2,500 miles.

City and Sabbatical

Rodríguez wasn’t a born cyclist. He grew up in San José, the capital of Costa Rica, and describes himself as a “city boy.” As a child in the 1980s, Rodríguez felt flabby and unmotivated. That all changed when he stumbled into a copy of Reader’s Digest; one article suggested ways to lose weight, and 10-year-old Rodríguez decided to start swimming and cycling. He borrowed his father’s Benotto road bike, and he came to love pedaling through the breakneck streets. He rode regularly with friends, then challenged them to races.

When he was 16 years old, Rodríguez and some buddies were scouted for the Juegos Deportivos Nacionales, or National Games. They formed a team and started training on Costa Rica’s rollercoaster highways. Their cheeky name was Los Cavernarios, or “The Cavemen,” and they didn’t fare well at the actual games, winning only one bronze medal between 1993 and 1994. But the experience was formative for Rodríguez; he loved the long hours of training, the camaraderie of his teammates, and exploring his nation by bike.

A man smiles on the beach with his Bianchi
Rodríguez at Bahía de Salinas
Camila Yglesias Fischel

Rodríguez grew up to be an industrial engineer. Today, he’s a gregarious 47-year-old with a big smile and flattering scruff. He holds a master’s degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, which partly explains his impeccable English. From his long, fastidious monologues, you can tell that Rodríguez is accustomed to explaining things. For 22 unbroken years, Rodríguez worked in product management. He advanced through the corporate ranks, becoming senior director of manufacturing at Dos Pinos. For Rodríguez, this position was the brass ring; Dos Pinos is the largest dairy company in Central America, and bottles of its milk and yogurt are sold in nearly every corner store in Costa Rica.

“I had 1,300 people below me,” recalls Rodríguez . “[I managed] 11 manufacturing plants, 650 SKUs — and problems every day.”

Still, Rodríguez kept cycling. Eight years after the National Games, his team reunited for long rides. They were older now, professionals and parents, but they still liked to goad each other on. They organized a 10-stage tournament, dubbed The Tico Tour, for three years running. (“Tico” is the universal nickname for Costa Rican people). Rodríguez was one of the first riders in the country to open a Strava account, in 2014, and he put it to good use. When the pandemic struck, he announced a challenge — to anyone interested — to ride as many miles as possible in a single year. Despite his stressful job and the headaches of COVID-19, Rodríguez himself set the record, at more than 8,000 miles.

But by 2021, Rodríguez had found himself at a crossroads. He had divorced his wife some years before. His children were both teenagers, approaching adulthood. Professional pressures had mounted. He started to take a hard look at his own life.

“I think I was on the way to a burnout,” says Rodríguez. “I thought, if I die of a heart attack, if I die at the desk, working like crazy, the next day there will be another guy to replace me. I am going to put this in the hands of God. I’m going to pray about this. I need space for me.”

So Rodríguez quit his job. He dubbed this period his “sabbatical,” when he would put his career on hold and rely on savings. The Dos Pinos staff was remarkably understanding, and he received generous compensation for his eight productive years at the company. Freed from his office, Rodríguez had three goals for the coming year: First, to hike to the top of Chirripó, the tallest mountain in Costa Rica, with his son. Second, he would walk 165 miles from the Caribbean coast to the Pacific, a 14-day promenade known as the “Camino de Costa Rica.” Third, he would bike around the country.

“It was not like, ‘I’m gonna quit, then I’m gonna scratch my belly all day,’” he says. “I have a lot of energy. I cannot be still.”

Little did Rodríguez know how far that third goal would take him.

Great Gravel Goals

Costa Rica has a complicated relationship with bicycles. Volcanic mountains dominate the isthmus, yielding a patchwork of peaks, valleys, and microclimates. Roads are neither straight nor level, and many are flanked by deep trenches. Costa Rica hemorrhages water, especially during the rainy season, and pavement heaves and crumbles over the soft earth. Shoulders are rare. Drivers are cavalier. Bike lanes barely exist.

“I’ve been riding my bike 30 years, here in Costa Rica, and it hasn’t changed so much,” says Rodríguez . “Potholes, always! Traffic being tight, always! You get used to it. A truck that goes vroooom, and you feel the air, pulling a little bit. We can’t even fit the cars on the roads.”

In contrast, mountain bikes have surged in popularity. Several private parks have opened across the country, with sophisticated ramps and trail networks. The Ruta de los Conquistadores is a grueling, three-day ride from coast to coast; begun in 1993, the Ruta is now among the most respected MTB races in the world. Costa Rica is now a destination for hard-core bikers, and the miles of singletrack go on forever.

But as Rodríguez started his sabbatical, he noticed something else: gravel roads.

A cyclist from behind on bike on a gravel road with lush forest around.
A relatively well-maintained section.
Camila Yglesias Fischel

His epiphany came during the Camino de Costa Rica. Rodríguez didn’t walk this route on a lark; he had served for several years on the board of directors for the Asociación Mar a Mar, which maintains and promotes the Camino. The purpose of the hike is to celebrate the country’s interior, but also to showcase isolated towns, where economies have slumped. Hikers take little-known backroads and stay with local families. Finally, Rodríguez was walking the Camino himself. And with each step, he realized how much of his homeland he’d never seen.

He wondered: Instead of just “biking around” Costa Rica on asphalt, as he’d originally planned, what if he rode those thousands of miles of gravel roads? What if he mapped these secondary routes, so anyone could follow in his tracks? On a physical level, Rodríguez was clearly up to the task. But he could also approach the experience like a skilled engineer. Until now, there had never been such a map. Rodríguez could solve that problem systematically.

“The purpose is to put Costa Rica in the spotlight of cycle tourism,” says Rodríguez. “The concept is to create a holistic experience. It’s not only for me. It’s not only for my friends. It’s for anyone who wants to come to Costa Rica and try some cycle tourism and wants some tips and advice.”

And by making this map, Rodríguez could see his own land in a whole new way.

Six months — that’s how long it took Rodríguez just to figure out where he was going.

Costa Rica isn’t large; in square miles, it’s about half the size of Pennsylvania. But the terrain is complex. Squiggles on a map rarely reflect a riding experience, no matter how much you zoom in. Rodríguez studied Google Maps and existing GPX files from Strava. He gathered cartographic data from the Ministerio de Obras Públicas y Transportes (MOPT). He layered these files together, cobbling new maps.

He also made countless phone calls.

“I started talking to experts from the different areas, or guys who have done a lot of cool rides around the country,” says Rodríguez. “That way, I was able to polish the map.” He spoke to cyclists and tour operators, anyone who knew a location well. At one point, he even consulted a small-town priest.

As the matrix of gravel roads came into focus, Rodríguez decided that a single-push route through Costa Rica would take too much time. He had no reason to rush, nor would anyone else. Riders should be able to pick from several routes, and to rest in between.

“I thought: I’m on my sabbatical, here,” he says. “The idea is to be present — with my girlfriend, with my kids — it’s not to disappear. I don’t have to prove anything to anybody. So I decided to make it in regions.”

The full ride would unfold in seven “loops,” he decided, representing different sections of the country. Each loop would take at least five or six days to cycle. The total distance would be 4,000 kilometers. The combined climb: 213,000 feet — the equivalent of seven Mount Everests.

There was only one thing Rodríguez would have to leave out: camping. Campgrounds are rare in Costa Rica, and few travelers ever set up a tent. Ticos are wary of mosquitoes, which can carry Dengue fever, and venomous snakes, which are among the deadliest in the world. Instead, bikepackers should expect to stay in hotels or inexpensive cabinas, which are scattered throughout the country.

“This is credit-card bikepacking,” Rodríguez concedes. “I wouldn’t put my tent in the middle of the road somewhere, or in a park. It would have to be a pretty fine place that has [fresh] water access, that has the facilities to do that, and there aren’t that many.”

When those six months were done, Rodríguez had a complete draft of his map. On paper, the route was ready. But there was only one way to see if it worked. The time had come for Rodríguez to try it himself.

A wooden sign coming out of a waterway. In Spanish it welcomes people to a car-free area in Manzanillo.
A car-free area on the Nicoya Peninsula.
Camila Yglesias Fischel

Swamps, Setbacks, and Success

“Camila was like my first customer,” laughs Rodríguez .

At first, Yglesias and Rodríguez don’t seem to have a lot in common. Yglesias is petite and reserved; she owns a video production company and has long directed TV commercials. But the pair met through a mutual cyclist friend. Inspired by her sporty English boyfriend, Yglesias has become an avid bikepacker; she has taken epics in both Central America and Europe.

So when Rodríguez explained his plan, Yglesias was elated.

“We don’t have a culture of bikepacking, and no one is doing it,” she says. “I’ve seen how it’s developed in other countries, and I do think Costa Rica is a great place for it. I was super interested in doing videos about the whole experience.”

Costa Rica is renowned for its ecotourism, and visitors barely step off the plane before they’re rafting down rivers or zip-lining through jungle canopies. But the concept of bikepacking is still new; indeed, any kind of unsupported bike tour is rare. Cyclists normally have to choose between traffic-choked highways and demanding MTB tracks. Yet between them, Rodríguez had found an attractive solution: unpaved roads through small towns, where locals were eager for visitors. The potential was vast. And as a filmmaker, Yglesias could be the first to show it to the world.

They devised a name, Aventuras con Propósito, or “Adventures with Purpose.” They created a YouTube channel, and Instagram account. In November of 2022, they set off for the northwestern province of Guanacaste, to begin the first leg of the journey.

Guanacaste is the most-visited region of Costa Rica, with its own international airport and a dozen prominent beach towns. Surfers drift through to catch waves; couples come here to get married. Picturesque towns like Samara and Tamarindo overflow with foreign tourists. But as Rodríguez and Yglesias pedaled down the byways, they strayed farther from the resorts. They skirted beach after beach, many of them empty. Weathered cottages emerged in the forest. They watched a woman pluck a slaughtered chicken. They chatted with a man whose livelihood was picking dragon fruit.

This was the image that would stick with Rodríguez for the remainder of his trip — rural people living simple lives. In his fast-paced urban routine, it was easy for him to forget how agrarian Costa Rica still is. Fishermen still putter into the waves with poles and nets. Laborers still commute to the fields with machetes slung over their backs. Everywhere he went, people welcomed Rodríguez and Yglesias, offering chit chat and advice.

“Being alone on those open roads, there’s only nice people,” Rodríguez says. “They explain. They want to help. I’m a city boy, I have to admit. I am used to people being more grumpy. Here, you see more of the openness and niceness of the people. It’s so easy to get out of the main roads and get to know our land. You have these little towns everywhere — with the church, with the plaza. They exist! And sometimes you think, ‘What are these guys living off of?’ And maybe they live better than we, in terms of peace of mind.”

Yglesias also liked how much attention they drew, biking such obscure roads.

“You become an interesting character, when you come to places riding a bike,” she says. “You stop. You’re dressed like an astronaut, or a superhero. You’re covered in dust. Somehow, it starts a conversation.”

Shortly after their return from Guanacaste, Yglesias went out for a training ride. Suddenly, a man appeared and tried to steal her bike. She defended herself, wrestling her ride back from the assailant.

The man finally ran off, but Yglesias broke her wrist in the struggle. She would need time to heal. Yglesias was crestfallen; her part in the expedition was over.

Rodríguez was on his own now. For five-to-six-day stretches, he ground out the miles, pushing his way down coasts, over foothills and highlands, across farms and forest. He took pictures and video clips as he went. Images popped up on Instagram: a strip-mine that looked like a desert. A footbridge suspended from cables. A sandy shore clogged with driftwood. Hillocks lost in mist. Crocodiles — fully visible, this time — lazing beneath a highway bridge.

Just as Rodríguez suspected, the road didn’t always cooperate. At one point, the path dissolved into grass and trees, and his smartphone lost its signal. He struggled to orienteer in the thickening glade. At last, Rodríguez found scattered manure, a sign that cattle grazed nearby. Relieved, Rodríguez pushed his bike out of the bush and back to civilization.

Later, a “national road” petered out, somewhere near the Nicaraguan border. A man emerged from the tall grass, guiding his horse down a vague track. The man insisted that Rodríguez turn around, because the soil turned swampy ahead. The horse was caked in mud, all the way to its haunches. Rodríguez marveled how a road could be so mislabeled — and promptly revised his map.

Rodríguez finished his route on March 5, 2023, after 37 days of riding. Yglesias had recovered enough from her injury to bike the last kilometer alongside him, along with three other friends.

“The ending was epic,” he says. “[The] feeling is a mixup of happiness and the sensation that wow, it is over.”

Completing the circuit also marked the end of his sabbatical. Now the real work starts: turning his physical odyssey into a story. Uploading photos. Putting together short videos for a YouTube series. Polishing off the website. Releasing his updated maps to the public. Already, the Aventuras con Propósito page on Facebook has 2,600 followers, and articles have popped up in Costa Rican newspapers.

Yet all this begs the question: Why give it all away? Couldn’t he sell these maps to tourists? Doesn’t he deserve to monetize all his toil? Cyclists are always hungry for new bikepacking routes in fresh locales. Wouldn’t they pay — gladly — to inherit his knowledge?

Rodríguez shrugs off the idea.

“I think this country has so much to offer,” he says. “I wanted to give back. I wanted to create this free platform, so there is information for anyone — anyone who wants to try and do the same adventure.”

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