At 6-foot-plenty and with a beard that could house a baby bird, Chris White looks like someone straight out of Central Casting for a SEAL Team Six member. But any possibility of intimidation fades away as a boyish smile appears when he greets me at his shop, Elephant Moto. I’ve only met Chris once before – a couple of years ago we spent a few hours together at an off-road riding school 3,500 miles away from our current location. Yet he’s somehow able to make me feel like an old friend.
Months ago, Chris invited Vy and me to spend New Year’s Eve in Costa Rica on one of his bikes…it didn’t take much convincing. Vy wanted to go for the wildlife. I wanted to see how Elephant Moto makes Costa Rica accessible for travelers who want to explore on two wheels.
December 30th, 2018 – Los Angeles, California to San Jose, Costa Rica: ~3,550 miles
As laid out in the introduction to this story, Vy and I went to Costa Rica to ring in the New Year. Our journey started with an easy flight into Juan Santamaría International Airport in the capital of San Jose. Whenever I’m on flights that provide entertainment, I try to find VyVy in a TV show or movie. Some airlines provide screens integrated into the back of the seat that’s in front of you, but Alaska just has you download an app to stream shows on your phone, and we were able to find an episode from Season 1 of Young Sheldon that Vy was in:
Unlike our other trips, this time we didn’t have to worry about planning much, as Chris had arranged just about everything in advance. A shuttle driver was waiting for us at the airport, and he whisked Vy and me away to the Studio Hotel.
We were greeted by a pleasant host and two glasses of strawberry juice. Vy accidentally broke her glass and everyone around her immediately said it was good luck. I’ve never heard of such a thing.
We wouldn’t hit the road until the next morning, but Elephant Moto was right next door to the hotel so we walked over to see Chris and check out the shop.
Chris greeted me with a hug and a beer, which reminded me a) how tall he is and b) how little I care for Imperial. Typically, international motorcycle touring with a rental company is not a cheap proposition, and Chris’ tours are no exception. I requested a budget version that was more in line with my limited resources, and he obliged by finding me much cheaper lodging . We took some time to go over the route once more – he plotted out our next week on a slick setup that consists of a map with plexiglass on top. The map stays in place and he can draw/erase over it to his heart’s content. I was impressed with how he knew our whole trip from memory, and he gave us some options for different routes that we could audible to while on the road.
After catching up with Chris and his beard, we met his associate Juan Carlos – he goes by Juanca. They gave us a tour of the shop, but it was a little too dark for photography. We’ll get more into Elephant Moto tomorrow.
Juanca also gave me an overview of our bike, which was a 2-year-old triple black BMW R1200GS with OEM saddlebags, trunk, navigation, and engine crash guards. As we’d primarily be on pavement, our bike was equipped with Continental Trail Attack 2 tires. The bike looked brand-new, and by this point I think you guys know how much I love the GS. Conveniently, this would also give me some more seat time on a water-cooled R1200GS for me to establish a baseline, as I’ll be reviewing the new R1250GS next month for ADV Pulse.
Before we flew in, I mentioned Las Fiestas de Zapote to Chris and he thought it would be a good idea to check it out. But instead of just sending us on our way, he arranged for tickets, drove over with us, and had some friends join us as well.
There was a weird issue with the tickets at first, and it prompted Chris to say something that would stick with me for the rest of the trip:”Costa Rica is a third world country with a first world makeover“. Thankfully, the ticket situation was promptly resolved, and we were all able to enjoy the festival. There were lots of carnival rides, food vendors, and some dancing…
It’s not a bullfight, it’s more of a free-for-all with a bull and any local that dares jump in the ring with it. Most people stay far away, ready to jump over the wall or tuck in behind recesses that are too narrow for the bull to fit in. A few daredevils get close, trying to goad the bull into charging. Like NASCAR, there’s a whole lot of nothing punctuated by quick bursts of excitement. Also like NASCAR, it feels like the audience is really just waiting for an accident. After a few rounds with some close calls but no contact, a voice came on the PA system to say that they would offer 30,000 colónes to anyone that would kneel in front of the bull. I couldn’t remember the exchange rate off the top of my head, but 30,000 sounds like a lot, right? I asked Chris what that be in US dollars, and he let me know it was just under $50. Vy recorded a video on her phone that showed the results of a kneeling episode that did not go well…
Per A Little Adrift, the average monthly middle-class salary in Costa Rica is about $750, so $50 is not an insignificant amount of money. Earning that by making oneself the target for a bull’s horns is definitely well beyond my comfort limit, but it’s fascinating to watch and I can see why it’s such a big part of the festival.
A twist on the usual fare was El Hombre Invisible (The Invisible Man). Four walls are set up as a box with different bright backgrounds. Then crazy people wear suits to blend in with the background and hope the bull doesn’t notice them.
Despite the fact that other people had been hit earlier in the evening, this event provided the most tension I felt all night. Occasionally a bull would get within a couple of feet of someone wearing white, and then it’s a game of nerves (and it reminded me of scenes involving the T-Rex in the original Jurassic Park). Your best bet for safety is to stand completely still, but can you overcome the natural urge to run away from the creature that could seriously injure you?
After we had our fill of the insanity, we left the stadium to explore the rest of the festival. There were lots of food options that I enjoyed much more than typical US carnival fare, but the rides seemed like they were used in 1980s America and then discarded. What would never fly in the US is a ride called the “Drive In”. It’s a rotating platform that has hydraulics to bounce the passengers around, but there’s no safety equipment. You just have to hold the railing tight! As people get
drunker more confident throughout the night, you’ll see some riders actually get into the center of the ring. The secret is apparently to run in a tight circle in the opposite direction of the ring’s rotation while staring out at a constant point far in the distance. Problem is, the operator of the ride has control of the speed of the rotation and severity of the shocks, and if someone gets in the center, then the operator usually takes it as a challenge. This is not my video, but I saw someone eat it in the middle of the ride and then immediately fly into other riders who were seated on the edges. I found the lack of liability concerns to be somewhat refreshing, even if I wouldn’t go anywhere near this ride myself:
As a group, we figured we should at least go on one ride before we called it a night. So we got on a pirate ship that swung up nearly perpendicular to the ground. Juanca had a grand old time.
On the drive back, Chris and I had a fun discussion about his business. I always love learning more about people who are trying to make a living with motorcycles, especially when they’re starting something from scratch. He dropped Vy and I off at our hotel, and the next morning we’d get to see how Chris’ efforts had turned out…