Dispatch: Costa Rica Flashback

Holly Bennett writes about venturing back to Costa Rica, a place she traveled in her early 20s.

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“Dispatch” is an online column from Triathlete Editor-at-Large Holly Bennett that features pro updates, industry news, happenings afield and otherwise random reports related to multi-sport. Look for “Dispatch” every Thursday on Triathlete.com

In 1992, my then boyfriend and I embarked on a four-month journey–a mountain biking and camping adventure through Guatemala, Belize and Costa Rica in Central America. At the age of 24 I had never before ventured outside of the United States, much less traveled via bicycle in such rugged and unfamiliar territory. Yet there we were, in the baggage claim area of the La Aurora International Airport in Guatemala City, exhausted from the overnight flight and inviting odd stares from the customs agents, building our bikes and about to begin our pannier-laden journey.

I loved everything about those four months–every mud-clogged and dust-riddled mile we pedaled, even when the washboard-bumpy road conditions rattled my bike (a Univega with neither front nor rear shocks) so badly that the headset cracked. (As luck would have it, we camped that night on a beach with a fellow traveler, who happened to be a frame builder and was able to MacGyver a workable replacement for my broken part.) I loved the intensity and rich cultural color of Guatemala and the Rasta vibe and laid-back pace of Belize. But more than any place else, I fell in love with Costa Rica. The warmth of the Tico people and their Pura Vida approach to life, the acres upon acres of protected parkland and stunning beaches, the delicious gallo pinto (specially seasoned rice and beans) topped with Salsa Lizano, the Discomovil (literally a mobile dance club, bringing the rhythms of salsa and merengue to even the tiniest towns), the rutted rural roads so steep and tough to ride that at times I toppled over––I adored every crazy experience. I dreamed of returning, long after we crafted makeshift boxes out of randomly configured sheets of cardboard and loaded our bikes onto the return flight home.

As much as the trip positively impacted my passion for adventure, it was life changing for me physically, too. I had what I would call a full-blown fitness epiphany. I’d always been somewhat active, playing soccer since the first grade and cycling almost everywhere as a means of transportation. I exercised almost daily, yet I didn’t view fitness as a lifestyle or something that I could not bear to do without. On my trip, my outlook completely changed. Whether cycling in transit from one location to the next, or running, hiking, swimming or bodysurfing on the days we lingered, I was constantly in motion. My body grew strong and fit, and I felt both capable and incredible. My body image–something I had often struggled with–took a one hundred and eighty degree turn. I bought–and wore–my first bikini ever! I was smitten with exercise and I knew I needed to find a way to continue the positive momentum once I returned home.

I’ll admit, after four straight months in the saddle I was ready to retire my bike for a while. In way of a break, I decided to take adult swim lessons, as I’d never really learned a proper stroke. I immediately befriended my instructor, and after regaling her with tales of my Central America adventure–my first real endurance experience–she suggested I might like triathlon. “What’s that?” I asked–thus discovering our beloved sport.

This week, my dream of returning to Costa Rica is coming true–21 years later. I’m visiting the country to experience Costa Rica today–the magical beauty, the enchanting culture and especially the Tico enthusiasm for endurance sports. My hosts include Unlimited Productions (local organizers of nine triathlon events, with fast-moving plans for more in the near future), FEUTRI (Costa Rica’s Triathlon Federation), Race Quest Travel (purveyors of triathlon training camps and travel experiences) and Lovato Performance Camps (training camps and clinics featuring Latin America–loving pros Michael and Amanda Lovato). My itinerary for the next few days involves visiting some of the country’s key natural attractions, taking part in triathlon clinics and enjoying three local races–one of which I’ll be fortunate to experience first hand.

I’ve been here a mere 24 hours thus far, but I’ve already felt major moments of deja vu. From San Jose’s Juan Santamaria International Airport my Unlimited Productions hosts drove (via a sponsor-supplied BMW X1) straight to the Monteverde Cloud Forest Reserve, up the same gnarly mountain road that I navigated in 1992 (via my Univega). I felt a surge of pride for my twenty-something self, as the road is indeed a doozy! We checked in at El Establo, now a luxury eco-tourism retreat and the exact same spot I stayed in its original incarnation as a funky cloud forest lodge. Today we explored Monteverde’s Selvatura Park, learning about the local flora and fauna, hiking the pathways and hanging bridges and zip-lining above the jungle canopy–all (save for the zip-line tour) activities I also enjoyed long ago.

I feel the deep satisfaction of coming full circle, returning to the scene of my endurance epiphany. I feel an incredible sense of excitement and awe as I explore triathlon’s evolution in Costa Rica, and have the opportunity to experience some of the country’s best races and beautiful race venues. And more than anything, I feel the same love for this place that has always lingered in my heart. It’s going to be a great week, I’m sure. Pura Vida!

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