Unexpected-Companion,-Bolivia-featured-image

Cycling Latin America: Where To Begin?

Whoa! Am I going to bike over that? Seeing Latin America for the first time is both exciting and intimidating. (Peruvian Andes)

Latin America represents the final frontier in adventure cycling. The planet’s longest mountain range, largest jungle, driest desert, biggest salt flat, widest street, highest waterfall, tallest volcano – they’re all here, daring you to explore them.

But where do you begin?

Well, it depends on how much time you have. Keep in mind, environmental factors (weather, altitude, climate, season) will slow your pace. Plus, the distances are big and the roads are often rough. Half a year may sound like a long time, but in reality it only allows you to explore a fraction of Latin America.

With less than six months, it’s best to concentrate on a section. For example:

• Patagonia and the Lake District (southern Chile and Argentina)

• The Guiana Highlands and northern Andes (Manaus to Quito through Venezuela and Colombia)

• Greater Mesoamerica (southern Mexico to Panama)

• The Altiplano and Central Andes (northern Chile to Ecuador)

• The Pantanal and Chaco (south-western Brazil and northern Paraguay)

• The River Plate (Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro, including Uruguay, Iguazú Falls)

• Caribbean Latin America (Cuba and the Dominican Republic)

• The Colonial Heartland (northern and central Mexico)

Any of these sections would make for a great adventure over diverse landscapes and would allow you ample time to fully appreciate whichever one you chose. But really, the best way to tour Latin America is to have no time limit.

It’s not a race! Slow down, get off your bike, and learn to appreciate your surroundings. You never know what you’ll find. I was taking a break in the Paraguayan Chaco, when this giant stick insect came marching up to say hello.

With no time limit you slow down and become more aware of your surroundings. You have time to explore side roads off your main route (where the best adventures often take place). You also have time for some off-bike adventures, such as trekking in the national parks, taking river trips, scuba diving, or even just walking around one of Latin America’s great cities for a couple of weeks.

At this point, some of you are thinking, “yeah right, who can afford to travel with no time limit?” My answer, “well, you can if you really want to.” Over the years, I’ve met hundreds of cyclists living the dream of total freedom on a bicycle. Sure, almost all had to work hard and save money to make it happen. Sure, they made sacrifices, sold stuff, quit careers, took jobs on the road, and, in some cases, even pulled their kids out of school and toured as a family. I’ve even met couples who started families while travelling! I guess what I’m saying is, if you want it enough you’ll find a way.

Getting out of the airport: the first hurdle in a new country.

Bicycle touring has become increasingly popular since I started doing it. It used to be that when I came across other travelling cyclists, they were usually middle-aged Germans (or Swiss-Germans). Now, I meet all kinds of bike travellers; young, old, single, married, Canadian, Japanese, Scottish, Spanish, Italian, Kiwi, South African, Argentine.

Take a quick look online and you’ll find hundreds of sites from cyclists who have toured – or are in the middle of touring – Latin America. Multiply that by ten (to allow for the fact that most don’t bother to create websites for their tours) and you’ll get an idea of how popular this has become.

This brings me to two pet peeves.

First peeve: The annoying tendency of some bike travellers (and those who write stories about them) to embellish. The way they talk you’d think it was an expedition to Mars. If they spend one night in some dingy, flea-bitten room, they’re sure to take plenty of pictures to prove their willingness to endure hardship in the name of adventure (implying that you, in your boring nine-to-five existence, would never do this). I’ve met many of these individuals and I know for a fact that they regularly splash out for air-conditioned hotels in the three- and four-star range. There’s nothing wrong with that, but somehow they always forget to photograph or mention these places. Hmm.

Trust me, anyone can travel by bike. I once rode with a blind guy touring on the back of a tandem! I’ve toured a lot, but I’m no braver than the next guy (though I may have itchier feet). Don’t believe stories that use words like “unprecedented,” “daring,” “daredevil,” “hardcore,” or “record-breaking” to describe bicycle touring.

The Alaska-to-Ushuaia, Pan-American-highway, carbon-copy bike route. Why limit yourself to the Gringo Trail when you can have a real adventure?

Second peeve: The Alaska-to-Ushuaia, Pan-American-highway, carbon-copy bike route. You start in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska following the Pacific coast through Mexico and Central America on the Pan-American Highway. Then it’s south through the Andes to the Chilean Lake District and down the Carretera Austral to Ruta 40 in Argentina, dodging back into Chile to see Torres del Paine Park before finally finishing off back in Argentina at Ushuaia. The epilogue of this “old standard” is a quick flight to Buenos Aires for a tango lesson and a steak before flying back home to start drawing a route map.

Look, I don’t really care which route people take or if they copy each other. I just think they’re missing the main advantage of bicycle touring which is that you can travel anywhere there’s a road. Why limit yourself to the Gringo Trail like some gap-year backpacker when you can have a real adventure?

So, back to the original question: “Where to begin?”

Stash the panniers and take a one-day adventure. Your bike will feel amazingly light. Ipiales, Colombia.

Well, how about starting south and heading north? And how about exploring the eastern side of South America instead of sticking to the Andes? Or how about ignoring the obvious north-south axis altogether and instead zigzagging your way east and west? I’ve met adventurous cyclists whose tours spiral around the continent in giant loops. Others look more like an enormous figure-eight. My own tours resemble a collection of spider webs because of my tactic of establishing a base in a village and doing a series of out-and-back adventures (sans panniers), then packing up, biking to the next base, and starting a new “web.”

Some of the best days I’ve ever had on a bike have been on these one-day adventures: I leave the panniers and heavy stuff back at base (usually a cheap hotel, but sometimes someone’s house) and take only what I need for the day. It’s amazing how much energy I have on these days and how light my bike feels. Did you ever pick up something that you thought was going to be heavy but turned out to be really light? This is how my bike feels on a one-day adventure. It’s not uncommon for me to ride over 200 km on these days, exploring mountain passes, forgotten hamlets, hidden lakes, and secluded beaches.

And this brings me to my final thought: off-bike adventures.

Just because you’re on a bike tour doesn’t mean you always have to ride your bike. In fact, some of Latin America’s most intriguing landscapes and features exist beyond the reach of any road. Take time away from the bike to trek through mountain ranges, boat up rivers, explore long beaches, or visit one of Latin America’s amazing ancient ruins.

Walk, run, swim, snorkel, paddle, sail, ride horseback. Mix it up. Take days off. There’s no prize for pedalling everything.

¡Feliz viaje!

 

 

Feature image (top of page): In Bolivia, 4,000 m above sea level, 15-year-old local lad (and aspiring athlete), Rober, joins me on foot for 11 km.

 

© El Pedalero, 2012.

 

 

Comments
15 Responses to “Cycling Latin America: Where To Begin?”
  1. Nadine says:

    Hi Gareth,

    It’s been great looking through your website and reading about your adventures; what a great blog! We (me and my boyfriend) have managed to get some time off work and are planning to cycle through South America next year. We have travelled the continent before, however never by bike.

    We have 6 months from April onwards and are trying to find a good route taking all the seasons into consideration. This is where we are struggling a bit. We would like to go N-S or S-N through part of the continent in one stretch but arent sure about where to start and which direction to go. So that’s why we thought to give it a go and ask you for some advice.

    Hopefully you could give us some tips about this time period.

    Thank you so much in advance

    Cheers,

    Jouke & Nadine from the Netherlands

  2. Ethan marsh says:

    hey! im 15 right now and im looking to save up money and do a bike tour all over south america when i get out of college. i dont really have a time limit and i think i could even end up settling down somewhere i think is nice. however, i have absolutley no idea how to plan one of these trips. if anyone has any ideas or anyway that they could help me it would be greatly appreciatewd.
    thanks,
    my email is ethanmarsh779@gmail.com

  3. vasumathi soundararajan says:

    Hi El,

    Nice post and great adventure! My husband and I are planning a 6 month trip or rather wandering through SouthAmerica. I am not a pro cyclist or anything. I have probably not cycled more that 50 km at a stretch 😉 But my husband is more into it. I cannot do the whole trip on bike, but I thought of spliting the 6 months into 3 things I want to do- biking, volunteering, backpacking in different Latin countries. For a real beginner like me, which country and where would you suggest I should bike in? Any tips are welcomed.
    Thank you,
    Vasu

    • El Pedalero says:

      Hi Vasu,

      Thanks for stopping by El Pedalero!

      If it’s your first big tour in South America and you’re fairly new to cycling, I think the Chilean Lake district is the place to start. Riding south from Santiago, or even taking a train to Temuco for a starting point, would be a calm, sane way to begin a first tour in S.Am. It’s hilly, green, and temperate, very safe, with easy camping and lots of beautiful scenery and cultural interest.

      Then, once you find your legs and get into the rhythm of touring, you can branch out into the Argentine Lake District, the Carretera Austral and even Patagonia if you’re feeling adventurous. From Ushuaia or Punta Arenas you could bus or fly north and start exploring the “bigger” landscapes (Andes, Altiplano, Chaco, Sotuhern Brazil, etc.). So many options!

      Don’t feel the need to bike everything or to bike every day. I like your idea of mixing it up with other activities. Riding a bike in a foreign country is great, but it’s a real “rookie move” to obsess over the bike and the biking, counting kms and skipping side trips.

      So, yes, mix it up… hike, kayak, volunteer, visit museums, make friends, and have fun. Let me know how it all goes!

      Mucha suerte!

  4. Sharon says:

    Hi Gareth,
    This is the second time I have read your blog and it is great! I attempted to cycle around Tasmania last winter, until my older mountain bike gave up the ghost, and I have toured in Hawaii, California, BC and France over the last 20 years or so. I totally concur with you on the kids who ‘do’ the routes (Alaska to Ushuaia), and, I hardly ever see that they have met people and made friends!
    Best,
    Sharon

    • El Pedalero says:

      Thanks for that, Sharon. If you find yourself riding in Latin America someday, let’s ride a leg somewhere!

      Suerte, amiga!

      Gareth

    • Kelly says:

      Hi Sharon, Gareth,
      I cycled across Canada this summer, and I also couldn’t believe the number of cyclists that choose just to take the most direct route along the trans Canadian highway. Some of them were cycling 250km a day. I even met one guy that cycled from Vancouver to Thunder Bay in 3 weeks (about 3500km). Personally, I don’t really see the point in this, as you’re not really seeing anything, but I guess they are in it for something different than what I am. For me, the best thing about cycle touring is the people you meet and the random events or views or roads you cycle. I guess for others it’s a “tick the bucket list box” or for the challenge – each to their own. I’m heading south from Halifax, Canada to Argentina next Spring, but we are planning on doing this over a few years so we actually have time to stop and see things. After 3 months of constant cycling, I feel like I need a break anyway, otherwise I don’t appreciate the cycle and the experience as much. Plus, we will need to stop and work to fund the trip. Anyway, I’ve rambled on loads more than planned. Wind to your back!
      Kelly

  5. Anna says:

    Hi Gareth

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences and perspectives! I would love to have unlimited time, or even six months, but sadly will have at most a month, in June-August. Is there any one of the sections you list that you think I could tackle a subsection of, and if so, what would you recommend?

    Thank you!
    Anna

    • El Pedalero says:

      Hi Anna,

      The Chilean Lake District would be a rewarding month of touring. As would one of the Mexico’s areas: Yucatán, Oaxaca, Chiapas, or if you’re feeling adventurous, southern Chihuahua, where I’m touring right now. Costa Rica is small and you could make a nice circuit of the country in a month. Guatemala too. Or perhaps Cuba or the DR, even. I haven’t mentioned some of the more ‘out-there’ areas, because any combination of weather, road conditions, and isolation means they need more time to explore (I’m thinking of places like Patagonia, the Altiplano, Amazonas, Cordillera Blanca, and others).

      Have fun ‘shopping around’ for your destination! Let us know what you choose.

      Suerte,

      Gareth

  6. J. Blake Carr says:

    Greetings Gareth!

    At your suggestions I have decided to tackle Latin American by taking it one section at a time. I shall begin with Cuba in October. Avoiding outrageous airline baggage costs, what do you think is the best way to get from Cuba to the Dominican Republic with a bicycle and gear? I’ve heard Cubana does not charge extra fees for transporting a bike. Do you know anything different?

    Cheers,

    Blake

    • El Pedalero says:

      Hi Blake,

      I was not charged extra when I flew Cubana from Havana to Cancun ten years ago. I don’t know about the DR as I didn’t fly there from Cuba. Sorry I can’t be more helpful. But whatever the situation, you’ll likely have to pay extra if they insist. I always try to argue or charm my way out of extra fees, usually successfully. Always arrive at the airport earlier than you need to to allow for arguing/charming time.

      Suerte,

      G

    • Craig says:

      I just finished cycling Cuba. This is what I was told by Air Canada about the issue: Unlike in most places, it is unlikely you will get charged for bringing your bicycle into Cuba. Because most airlines route their payments through the US, for some reason they won’t process a charge. I don’t quite get it, but I’ve had the same thing verified with another airline. The best thing to do is not to ask, and just show up with your bike.

      • El Pedalero says:

        Yup, I agree; just show up, smile, and don’t ask. That’s been my approach for 20 years and so far I’ve never paid to transport my bike anywhere (including Cuba). Have a great tour, amigo!

  7. bοokmarked!!, I lovе your blog!

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