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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 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). The problem is, 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. Yet, 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
3 Responses to “Cycling Latin America: Where To Begin?”
  1. Olivia says:

    Wonderful post!
    I just discovered the beauty of bicycle touring a couple months ago when I spontaneously decided to cycle Thailand. It’s definitely a lot easier to start doing than a lot of people make it out to be!
    I’m planning to do a short 2 month trip to Central America July/August (Guatemala, Cuba, Mexico, El Salvador…? Still haven’t decided) – would you have any insight on buying a bike in either of those countries? I don’t think my squeaky Thai bike can survive another plane trip.
    Happy trails 🙂

    • El Pedalero says:

      Thanks, Olivia!
      Sorry about the delay in responding – I’ve been in away from internet in the Baja back country for weeks.
      To your question: I’ve always taken my own bike on all of my tours, so I don’t have any direct experience. But I’ve met people who have. Most bike shops in the countries you mentioned are scarce and/or junky (like a dollar store with bikes). But here and there you’ll come across a genuine bike shop. If you’re patient, you’ll be able to put something together. Consider it part of the adventure – or even better, a guarantee of adventure. And remember, the best tool you can carry is Spanish!
      Suerte, amiga!
      Gareth

  2. Christopher in Aotearoa NZ says:

    Good thoughts! Indeed, one should strike a path lesser known… thanks for pointing it out.

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