Freedom. It is the spirit that drives us to ride motorcycles, and we attain that feeling in ways as diverse as our choice of machines. Of course, freedom in highly organized societies can become a relative thing. Unless we are riding entirely on private property (and sometimes even then), we are restricted by laws governing our sport. Those on custom cruisers are limited by equipment regulations, sport riders by speed limits and off-roaders by land use restrictions. Sometimes, we must travel to other countries to expand our perceptions of freedom, regardless of our appreciation for our home nation.
Costa Rica offers the freedom of travel that off-roaders dream about. A peaceful nation without an army, Costa Rica is a land where children still sprint from their schoolrooms to greet a group of dirt bikes with hand signals exhorting the riders to lift the front wheel skyward. And, when you do, you are greeted with the enthusiastic cheering normally reserved for a champion flying across the finish line jump.
The logistics of flying your bike to Costa Rica, then finding your way through the rain forest to some of the most exhilarating trails on Earth, is daunting. Instead, we took advantage of the services offered by Costa Rica Unbound. Its fleet of 2007 Yamaha WR250Fs and WR450Fs are superb platforms to explore the mountainous rain forests of Costa Rica. Revealing those single-track trails and primitive roads that only a local would know are highly skilled bilingual guides from both the United States and Costa Rica. They tailor your riding experience to your preferred level of difficulty, and visit hidden local destinations—an abandoned bullfighting ring, a historic church, remote villages—if that is your desire. Even a spectacular, private hillside motocross track is at your disposal, with the ever-present local children there to spectate at a respectful distance.
Based in the resort area of Hermosa Playa, on the Pacific Ocean just south of the vibrant town of Jacó, Costa Rica Unbound operates out of the Marea Brava Beachfront Suites and Villas resort. Not a traditional high-end luxury resort, Marea Brava still has its share of indulgences to enhance its condos and rooms. Services include two pools, massages, bars, restaurants and a black sand surfing beach that is mere steps from your door. Surfing lessons, personal watercraft rentals and all-terrain vehicle tours (for the inexperienced) can be sampled by your non-riding companions, or if you are taking a break from two-wheels. Nearby are canopy tours that whisk you between the tops of gum trees, over 130 feet above the ground, as you enjoy a panoramic view of the Pacific. After dark, of course, there’s the vivacious, and sometimes edgy, Jacó nightlife.
Top: Ridgerunning on Costa Rican single-track. Bottom: Marea Brava offers a relaxing post-ride environment. Photograph by Jeff Kardas. (Click images to enlarge)
But, back to riding. The standard tourist mode of transportation from Juan Santamaría International Airport to Marea Brava is a two-hour drive in a rental car or chauffeured van—locals may opt for the bus. Costa Rica Unbound had something else in mind for us. Transporting us from the airport to the nearby Del Sol Hotel in Atenas, we changed into our riding apparel and rode our choice of WRs over the mountains and through the jungle to our ocean-side destination. Having done it, we no longer consider this an optional ride—it is an imperative.
Starting off through the bustling village to many friendly waves, we quickly shed the potholed tarmac and tackled the progressively deteriorating local dirt roads. The first wonder that greeted us was a concrete bridge across the confluence of the Virilla and Tárcoles rivers. The massive span in a primitive area shocked us, as we parked to gaze over the edge at the rapids and forest below. All the while, not another vehicle traversed the wide, lonely bridge. From there, the adventurous can drop deep into the jungle on roads that appear to have escaped the attention of modern man.
Occasionally, you will pass an unexpected village, such as Lagunas, where a wide and sometimes-deep Turrubares River crossing beckons you. On our trip, a daring triple-axle food delivery truck was stuck midway, awaiting rescue by a Caterpillar. Mid-point, you can hungrily wolf down some chicharrones (a crunchy pork dish) in Dellicias, or succulent rotisserie pollo at Yami in Orintina.More steep and slick, rutted and rocky passages guard the Chuzaso River, secreted deep in the rain forest. An umbrella of leaves and vines allow only slivers of sunlight to glisten on the damp trees and gurgling river. A mist hovers above; iguanas scurry below. Had an escaped dinosaur from Jurassic Park passed by, we would not have been the least bit surprised. This is primordial Earth, deep in the Tropic of Cancer. It is an experience inadequately described as surreal, and nothing less than a personal visit is required.
Part of the strange sensation is the awareness that you have traveled far back in geologic time on a 21st century mechanical steed. Completely updated for 2007, Yamaha has refocused the WR250F and WR450F to be more competition-oriented than in the past. At the same time, the R&D team has not forgotten that most WR owners are non-racing seasoned riders (over 20 years in the saddle). These riders demand handling, suspension and power that will satisfy the gung ho, yet not intimidate the 85-percent of owners who do not describe themselves as experts. Low-end punch has been increased and gear ratios tightened for snappy engine response.
Photograph by Frank Hoppen.
Visually, the WR siblings are nearly indistinguishable. Gaze at each machine and you will see an aluminum frame, beefy inverted 48mm forks, linkage rear suspension, a liquid-cooled five-valve DOHC powerplant and the sleek lines of a competition machine. Even after you swing a leg over the tall seat, you will not notice a large ergonomic disparity. The bikes are paternal, if not identical, twins. Once the electric start button is pushed and the first gear engaged, the conspicuously dazzling differences in the blue brothers’ personalities emerge.
Being the smaller sibling, you might logically expect that the WR250F would be less of a performer than the WR450F; but that is not necessarily the case. The 250’s motor has something of a dual personality. At lower rpm, it is effortlessly able to find traction where none is thought to exist, and the engine continues to pull, long after you thought you had fallen off the cam. After an upper midrange hit in the powerband, the 250 is capable of propelling the bike at over 70 mph, according to its multifunction digital display, by the time you hit the 12,500 rpm upper limit. Though you get the best of both worlds, the 250 is buzzy as the engine speed climbs, as it did not receive the 450’s new dual counterbalancers.
Handling is spectacular. Lacking excessive rotating mass, the 250 can be flicked about with abandon. Last moment direction changes are welcome, though berms are understandably preferred to the flat turns of a dirt road. Remember, Yamaha has focused on making the WRs tight woods weapons, so performance on open terrain is compromised, though not ignored—there is only the slightest tendency toward twitchiness at the highest speeds when obstacles are struck. Concurrently, the 250 is designed to be ridden hard, so the suspension is appropriately taut. That is really of no concern, as any discerning rider will send the suspension out for revalving and respringing to personalize the action for his weight, speed and favorite terrain.
Playing the role of big brother with gusto, the WR450F has a motor that eliminates “I didn’t have enough power,” as an excuse for failure. Extraordinarily strong off the bottom, the 450 is a slingshot when traction is there for the taking. On rock-infested hillclimbs, the 450 will pelt anyone in the vicinity with a shower of high-speed projectiles, as it hurtles itself up at an alarming rate. The additional rotating mass of the 450’s motor gives it welcome stability, assisting in the task of tapping its power. Like the 250, the 450 would benefit from a steering damper if high speeds are the prevailing riding fare.
When the slipperiest of hillclimbs are confronted—such as something as inhospitable as wet clay—the WR450F is not quite so bold. Even for experienced riders, it can be a handful as each power pulse works to break loose the Dunlop tire, even at lower engine speeds. In these traction-challenged zones, the 450 requires momentum, where the 250 can confidently crawl—just the opposite of hillclimbs where tire grip is freely distributed.While it can hardly be described as ponderous, the 450 does not have the direction-changing capabilities of its smaller sibling and in flat turns the 450 had a greater tendency to push the front end. Once through a corner, the 450 quickly regains any ground it might have lost to the 250.
At the secluded MotoWorld motocross track, the WR450F is unquestionably the machine of choice. Its power allows easier clearing of double and step-up jumps, as well as climbing the steep uphill portions of the entertaining course. It is not a motocross bike out of the crate, but we will certainly not be shocked to see some modified used on higher speed tracks that can benefit from the WRs’ wider ratio transmission. Remember, many cross-country racecourses include a motocross track in the circuit, and Yamaha has focused the WRs more toward racing.
Ultimately, the WR450F’s power comes at a price. Those willing to accept the 450’s shortcomings relative to the 250 will have access to absolute power that stands ready to corrupt. For the rest of us, the WR250F solidly makes the case for going faster with less power. Regardless, both bikes are more than capable of reaching any well-guarded destination.
Arriving at Marea Brava, you will pass the Jungle Surf restaurant. Though the hours can be tricky and the service is what we will delicately describe as “Costa Rica relaxed”, the banana pancakes make for a hearty meal before departing from the hotel’s gravel parking lot.
You will want to feed yourself well, as there is an entirely new set of roads to explore, villages to visit (practice your wheelies), plus some epic single-track trails to discover. Not quite as deep in the rain forest as the trip from the airport, these trails include spectacular rides along ridge tops, with the Pacific Ocean on one side and a lush tropical paradise on the other. Deserting the road-less-traveled for the trail-rarely-attempted rewards you with the technical self-test that dedicated off-roaders trek the world to find. Some single-track obstacles include washouts that need to be jumped, rocky streambeds with steep ingresses and egresses, waterfalls, as well as the ubiquitous steep grades that combine slick mud, ruts and rocks to subjugate any would-be conqueror. These are not trails you will find on your own, and absolutely not something to be ridden solo, or on less-than-certain machinery.
Concurrently, proper riding apparel is vital. HJC’s ultra-light AC-X3 Carbon Titan helmet reduces neck stress on long, tough rides. ProGrip’s 3400 goggles’ light-sensitive lens allowed us to see in both bright sun and dark jungle. At the opposite end, Sidi’s astonishing Crossfire TA boots perform the hat trick of comfort, flexibility and protection, while surprising us with outstanding waterproofing and zero break-in time. In between, we went with Shift Racing’s Faction pants, jersey and gloves. This combination provided the airflow needed for the warm Costa Rican jungles, along with protection in vital, vulnerable areas. Shift’s XC jacket was at the ready, in case the weather turned to rain.
Successful travel in any third world country requires thorough preparation, including the understanding of local customs and languages. On short notice, that means relying on resident experts to guide you. The Yamaha WRs, Marea Brava and Costa Rica Unbound alloy themselves to turn the welcoming Central American country into your own personal playground.