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Seeing the beauty of Costa Rica, from the saddle

By Peter Walker for CNN
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SAN JOSE, Costa Rica (CNN) -- Costa Rica is a magnet for international tourists and the Central American state's astonishing geographical and biological diversity -- packed into an area just slightly bigger than Switzerland -- means many are attracted by the great outdoors.

Long a well-known surfing center, Costa Rica also draws those seeking thrills such as white-water rafting, jungle trekking and sea kayaking.

However, every year a sizeable group arrive with the express intention of seeing the entire breadth of the country from a slightly different viewpoint -- that of a bicycle saddle.

La Ruta de los Conquistadores ("The Route of the Conquerors"), the 14th edition of which has just finished, markets itself as the toughest mountain bike race in the world.

It is three days of coast-to-coast off-road riding, taking in environments ranging from tropical jungles to high-altitude volcanoes and coffee plantations.

The event is different in that while a smattering of the 400 or so competitors (around a tenth of them female) are top professional mountain bikers, the vast majority are ordinary amateurs who have spent months of their own time training hard to tackle the challenge of the race.

A good number are in their 30s, 40s or even 50s, giving up valuable vacation time as well as spending thousands of dollars on flights, hotels and the entry fee.

While the leaders whiz through the stages in times ranging from four to six hours, the backmarkers can take twice as long -- beginning at dawn before limping across the finish line in near darkness.

The scale of the task is such that this year, almost a third of the field failed to complete all three stages within the allotted time.

A tough challenge

"I always knew it would be hard, probably harder than anything I had done before," said 37-year-old Paul Reyburn, an architect from Cape Town, South Africa, now living and working in Hong Kong, after the race was over.

"But I didn't realize exactly how hard."

Whatever the pain involved, the rewards are truly spectacular, granting participants a view of Costa Rica unmatched in everyday tourism.

La Ruta tracks the journey of an army led by Spanish mid-16th century conqueror Juan de Caballón, who spent two decades forging a path from Costa Rica's Pacific coast to the Caribbean side.

He began from the Pacific -- the "wrong" side for a European invasion force -- because the Spanish were by then already established in Central America and able to avoid the dense jungle of the Caribbean coast.

La Ruta started in 1992, when Costa Rican cyclist Roman Urbina read about de Caballón's exploits and set off with 34 fellow riders to retrace his steps, something that evolved into a major annual event.

Day one of the latest version began in the Pacific resort town of Jaco Beach, with the riders soon climbing high into the central hills, taking on rocky paths, the very occasional road and -- most challenging -- apparently near-vertical mud tracks on which even the strongest riders had to haul their bikes onto their backs and trudge up in slow motion.

The stage, deemed by organizers not quite tough enough in 2005, had been extended. This, combined with the sapping, tropical heat, saw scores of competitors fail to reach the finish, some even carted off to hospital suffering from dehydration or heatstroke.

Day two brought some relief, taking the field into the cooler air near the peak of extinct volcano Irazů, around 10,000 feet (3,000 meters) above sea level, before plunging them back down a twisty dirt path and through lush coffee plantations.

The final day was more spectacular still, the last part following an old railway line cut through the jungle, over rickety iron bridges towards the final finish point -- a beach on the Caribbean coast.

The traditional end saw the sweaty, exhausted riders drop their bikes in the white sand and sprint, fully clothed in the sea.

"It's hard to explain why you do something like this," reflected Reyburn afterwards. "Partly, it's a way to see places you'd never otherwise see."

"But also, it's a good way to get on your bike and keep out of the bars."


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Sometimes all you can do is push.

IF YOU GO ...

The race: Registration is now open for the 15th edition of La Ruta de los Conquistadores, taking place from November 14-17 2007. Entries for the race -- now expanded to four days -- cost from $999. This includes hotels and some meals during the event, transport to and from the Costa Rican capital, San Jose, and full support on the course.
Getting there: International flights into Costa Rica arrive at San Jose's Juan Santamaria Airport, a short distance from the city. A shuttle bus takes riders and their bikes and luggage from San Jose to the start point, and back again after the race is over.
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