Interview: Big Sur

Big Sur is the clever name Sarah and James – a couple of relaxed adventure cyclists from the UK – have given their ongoing tour of Latin America. With so many bike touring blogs out there nowadays it takes a lot to even catch my eye, let alone hold my attention. But Big Sur hooked me at once with excellent photos, then held me with exceptionally well-written posts.
But mostly, I like the way they tour.
They’re not doing it for charity, they’re not sponsored by an outdoor gear company, and they’re not trying to break some silly record. They’re simply taking their time, exploring side roads, connecting with people, and having a big adventure in the Big South, the Big Sur… Latin America.
I caught up with Sarah and James while they were waiting out some wet weather before entering Peru.


EL PEDALERO: You’re taking a break from the bikes at the moment to wait out the wet season before entering Peru. Is this the first break you’ve taken on this trip?


Pushing in Guatemala.

SARAH: No, I think we calculated recently that we have almost as much time off the bikes than on them in the last two years! We have unintentionally taken a number of breaks on the trip due to illness – suffering from parasites along the way has forced us to stop and recuperate. This time we stopped to time our entry for Peru’s dry season and we chose to volunteer.

JAMES: No, our trip has turned into much more of a stop-start affair than we ever thought it would be. This is the main reason it has turned from the 18 months we originally anticipated into what will probably be three years by the time we get home! Most of our long breaks have been for pleasure – visiting family and friends in the US and Cuba, studying Spanish in Guatemala, volunteering in Colombia, and most recently working on a farm in Ecuador. Others have been enforced – trying to rid ourselves of parasites in Mexico, and waiting for kit in Colombia.


EP: How important do you think it is – physically, mentally, financially – to take a break during a long cycling adventure like the one you two are on?

S: In order to keep appreciating the new things we are seeing, to approach each experience with fresh eyes and enthusiasm, for me it’s been vital to stop and take a break. It’s easy to become jaded with travelling which then defeats the whole object! The times we have set off again after an extended break, the energy and excitement I feel at getting back on my bike makes me realise we have done the right thing in taking time off. Physically it’s actually pretty hard to get going again. After more than three weeks off the bike, my legs always feel really old and heavy for the first week or so but you soon find your rhythm again.


Chatting with kids in Ecuador.

J: I think it’s vital. As stimulating as seeing new places and meeting new people every day is, even that can become tiring and repetitive. I find that after a while my enthusiasm and curiosity starts to fade, I stop interacting and begin to retreat into my own cycle-touring bubble. I’ve found that taking time off the bike not only gives you time to rest physically, but also re-awakens that sense of excitement and discovery that you have when you set off on the very first morning of your trip. When we left, I thought this trip was all about the cycling, but what we have done off the bike has often turned out to be just as stimulating and rewarding as what we have done on it.


EP: You’ve been on the road for almost two years now. Has this trip changed you? If so, in what ways have you changed?

S: It’s hard to believe we have been travelling for two years; we have become so accustomed to being on the road this now just feels like normal life. I have learned many things about myself and my habits – I never realised how impatient I was before we left and I am trying hard to bring that under control; Latin America is a good training ground for this as there’s a different pace of life here so it’s teaching me patience, tolerance and good humour! Inspired by the hard work of the people we meet in the countryside and also by the alternative lifestyles of other cyclists and travellers we have met, I realise that when the trip is over, I am not obliged to go back to a desk job, I can do something completely different! Physically I have changed very little, really – my legs are stronger, obviously (my calf muscles look somewhat out of proportion), but my body shape and weight are pretty much the same. We make an effort to load up on calories on our rest days and so eating double quantities of everything and maintaining the same weight must mean I am burning off quite a bit on the bike!


Baja, Mexico.

J: I guess superficially I’ve changed in the ways you might expect: terrible hair, awful beard, raging appetite, a profound appreciation of food, shelter and water, and a desire to lead a more minimal life. More than anything though, I think this experience has given me increased confidence and spontaneity. For example, before this trip I would always want to plan things in meticulous detail – kit, route, stopovers. Now I would have the confidence to pick a start point and just go, and be confident that things will work themselves out along the way. In our experience, it’s this flexibility and lack of planning that usually lead to the most memorable travelling experiences.


EP: Latin Americans are famous for their generosity and hospitality. What have been your top experiences with this side of the culture?

S: The three months we spent resting and exploring Medellin and surrounding Antioquia in Colombia were incredible. We made contact with a few people involved in the local bike scene to help us find our feet there, and before we knew it we were welcomed into a network of friends and family that was beyond the realms of hospitality; people who we truly hope we will see and spend time with again. Experiencing spontaneous and immediate hospitality has also been amazing – the guy who stopped his truck in the middle of the road to hand us fruit out of the window or the families who allow us to camp in their yards and who, although they have little or nothing, insist on sharing everything with us.


Cotopaxi, camping.

J: It’s hard to pick – every day we are amazed by the kindness and generosity of people towards two rich gringos who have been riding round for two years just for fun. I think the three months we spent living in Medellín, Colombia will always stand out for me. We were quickly adopted by the local bike community, invited out on local rides, celebrated Christmas with new friends, were fed like kings, and spent more time laughing than we probably had in the last year put together. By the time we left, it really felt like we were leaving family all over again.


EP: One of my favourite things about your approach to adventure cycling is your slow pace. How important is it for travelling cyclists to slow down on a tour? And what’s an example of something you would’ve missed if you’d been in more of a hurry?


Santiaguito eruption.

S: It’s safe to say we are not going to break any speed records on this trip and we are fortunate to have the time and cash to stretch it out to nearly three years. I can’t imagine doing Alaska to Patagonia and only riding on the Pan American Highway every day – sharing the road with heavy traffic, churning out 150km per day, only stopping to sleep and eat. We have met cyclists who do this and to me they never seem like they are enjoying it. When I think back to the memorable experiences we have had over the last two years, the majority have been when we have stopped early or taken a detour to explore something off the bike. The best example I can think of was a 20km detour to a quiet little village called Los Angeles in Mexico. It was at the end of a road and there was no real reason to go there but we just decided to take the road and see what happened. The road itself was incredibly pretty and we ended up meeting the mayor of the town, eating tacos in his yard and swimming in the beautiful river nearby – a classic memory of Mexico for me that wouldn’t have happened if we had our heads down on the main road.

big-sur-pull-quote2J: I guess there are as many different touring styles as touring bikes, but we’ve definitely found that slowing down gives us our richest travelling experiences. For us the great advantage of travelling by bike is the freedom to stop whenever and wherever you like. If you’re flying down main roads in an effort to hit your 120km per day target, I can’t help thinking you’re missing the point. Going slow gives you the chance to break out of your cycle-touring bubble, take minor roads, and start to interact with the people you meet. It’s not normally the stuff you’ll find in guide books, it’s usually just the small, everyday encounters. Some of my strongest memories are what Sarah calls my “old man chats” – my habit of stopping randomly to talk to people (often old men) about anything and everything, from the weather to politics. For example, the other day I spotted a guy wheeling a beautiful old bike into his front gate. I stopped to chat, and he spent half an hour showing us a lifetime’s worth of things he’d collected in his house, from Inca urns to empty coffins. He then explained that he was old and looking for someone to leave his house and collection to, and he’d like to leave it to us. It was just one of those humbling insights into normal daily life, but the perfect example of what I love most about travelling. If we were on a tight schedule, we probably wouldn’t have even been on that slow road, let alone have taken the time to stop and talk.


Cemita, in Puebla, Mexico.

EP: When I tour, I find I spend a lot of time thinking about food; my cravings, my diet, where to find food, how to carry it. Do you think about food often as you ride? Describe your relationship with food.

S: All the time!  Food is a vital part of the trip for me – entering a new country or region and learning about the local dishes, being introduced to new flavours, styles of cooking and traditions enhances the places we go through. Generally, we cook for ourselves but we always try to keep variety and interest by eating locally now and again and then of course there’s the eternal pizza cravings; they never go away and sometimes you just have to give into them! The logistics of finding and carrying food are definitely a big aspect of this trip and finding good nutritious food can sometimes be a challenge – even the tiniest of places in Latin America will have a local shop but often you’ll only find packets of crackers, boiled sweets and fizzy drinks. When we are craving carbohydrates, fresh vegetables and something with flavour and you’ve spent all day pedalling dreaming about what lovely things you can cook when you stop riding and set up camp, finding one of these shops can sometimes be a let-down.

J: Verging on the obsessive. I’m not sure there is a moment in the day when I’m not thinking about food. I go to sleep dreaming of pizza toppings, and wake up excited about breakfast. This trip has given me some of my best food experiences (crispy chicharrón and mouth watering frijoles in Colombia spring to mind) and some of my worst – tedious porridge/pasta/bread combinations become depressing after a couple of years. More than just satisfying the basic need for calories though, I’ve found that food is a great conversation starter, and the perfect way to start understanding national and regional identity. Mexico has been the undisputed food king of the trip so far – each region was a new culinary adventure, and we’ve been craving food with Mexican flavour ever since.



San Blas, Panama.

EP: What has been your best off-bike adventure on the trip?

S: You can’t travel over land through the Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia so we decided to take a sail boat – a bit of luxury but it was well worth it. Sailing through the San Blas islands of Panama was like something out of a dream – palm trees, white sand, turquoise seas. I never imagined we’d visit such a place on this trip; it was a real highlight for me.

J: Climbing Santiaguito, an active volcano in Guatemala. We camped close to the summit in the fog, and about every half an hour throughout the night, the ground would begin to rumble and the volcano would unleash a roar and a covering of ash onto the tent. Needless to say, I didn’t get much sleep. The next morning we climbed up to the crater rim for sunrise – a magical experience.


EP: What single piece of advice would you give to cyclists planning their first big Latin American bike tour?

S: Learn Spanish! It’s absolutely vital for contact with the environment you’re travelling through. Without it you would miss so much – interacting with people has by far been the most enjoyable, exciting and challenging part of this trip for me and it would have been impossible if I didn’t understand a little of their language.

J: Stop reading cycling blogs, stop agonising over bottom brackets, stop planning your route in minute detail, and start learning Spanish! It is by far the most useful and versatile tool you will take with you. Latin America is unique in that with just one language you can experience so many different countries and cultures, so make the most of it! You’ll find that with just a little Spanish opportunities will open up for you: hospitality, adventures, and friendships. It will transform you from a bumbling, gesticulating gringo on a bike into an interesting, real life person with your own story to tell. Learn as much as you can before you go, then budget to take a Spanish course early on in your trip for at least a few weeks. It’s relatively cheap in countries like Guatemala or Mexico, and you’ll make massive improvements. I had a head start in Spanish as I studied languages and lived in Guatemala for a year, but Sarah had zero Spanish when we crossed into Mexico, and is now really confident and fluent. Don’t be put off by your memories of school – learning and using a language on the road is fun, and it will pay back many times over in the richness of your experiences.



Quilotoa, Ecuador.

Visit Big Sur and follow Sarah and James’ adventure as it unfolds!


© El Pedalero, 2013.



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