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10 Questions: Bike Touring Across The Andean Puna

Posted April 8th, 2013

The Puna, or Altiplano, is a high altitude region of the Central Andes spanning southern Peru, western Bolivia, north-east Chile and north-west Argentina.

It is one of the most extensive areas of high plateau in the world, and Harriet & Neil Pike explored the Puna extensively by bicycle in 2010 and 2011. They recently took the time to answer 10 Questions about their bike tour through the area.

Chasing llamas to Sajama, Bolivia.
Chasing llamas to Sajama, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

1. Which route did you take in the region?

We spent nine months in 2010 and 2011 on the Puna, first cycling northwards through Argentina, Chile and western Bolivia before taking a circuitous route through southern Peru. Still eager to continue exploring the area, we then did an about turn and cycled south through Chile and Argentina.

Continue reading this edition of 10 Questions…

10 Questions: Cycling On The Andean Puna

Posted April 4th, 2013

The Puna, or Altiplano, is a high altitude region of the Central Andes spanning southern Peru, western Bolivia, north-east Chile and north-west Argentina.

It is one of the most extensive areas of high plateau in the world, and Harriet & Neil Pike explored the Puna extensively by bicycle in 2010 and 2011. They recently took the time to answer 10 Questions about their bike tour through the area.

Chasing llamas to Sajama, Bolivia.
Chasing llamas to Sajama, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

1. Which route did you take in the region?

We spent nine months in 2010 and 2011 on the Puna, first cycling northwards through Argentina, Chile and western Bolivia before taking a circuitous route through southern Peru. Still eager to continue exploring the area, we then did an about turn and cycled south through Chile and Argentina.

2. Why spend so long cycling there?

We were fascinated by the desolate landscape with its sprinkling of salars and colourful lakes, and volcanoes dotting the skyline. We loved the wide open spaces, the big skies, and seeing more camelids than cars. Going hours without encountering another human being made any meeting with a friendly local person, in an area you wouldn’t think it possible to eke out an existence, all the more special. Above all we enjoyed the sense of freedom and the challenge of having to be self-reliant, carrying all we needed – our food, clothes and home – on our bikes.

Cycling on the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia.
Cycling on the Salar de Coipasa, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

3. How useful were maps for route planning?

The availability and accuracy of road maps very much depends on the country. Good maps are available in Argentina. Likewise, you can find Chilean maps that are of reasonable quality. There are maps of Peru and Bolivia that show main roads accurately but despite buying a wide selection we didn’t find any that were reliable on minor unpaved roads. Often the smaller roads we took didn’t exist on maps and there were few road signs to follow.

4. How did you navigate in remote areas without maps or road signs?

We spent a lot of time in internet cafes looking for information on cyclists’ blogs and poring over satellite images on Google Earth, searching for small unpaved roads to cycle. We then noted down GPS co-ordinates of landmarks such as rivers, junctions or settlements and used these to help us navigate. Sometimes this was overkill and we could get by on the ground by asking local people, but on many occasions we were grateful to our GPS to know which way to turn at forks in the road.

Local drivers can also be an excellent source of information, though be wary of asking directions from people who don’t travel the roads very frequently – they might provide you with an answer, but it could well be guesswork.

5. What can you expect to encounter weather-wise?

All year round, the region sees warm days and cold nights. We were grateful for our four season sleeping bags as the temperature regularly falls below zero at night, and -20°C isn’t uncommon in June or July. The best time for cycling in the northern Puna is the dry season (April–October) with its blue skies and days without a cloud.

In southern areas of the Puna the summertime from December–March is better as this avoids the often savage winter weather. At any time of the year don’t be surprised if you encounter fierce winds. While it may not have Patagonia’s reputation for strong winds, much of the Puna can give even the windiest parts of Patagonia a run for their money.

Camping on the Puna in southern Peru.
Camping on the Puna in southern Peru. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

6. Is the food anything to look forward to?

Um, in a word, no. Many parts of the Puna, particularly in Chile and Argentina, are very sparsely populated so you’ll usually have to fend for yourself. Carry a few days’ provisions and cook on a camp stove. Small villages in Bolivia and Peru often have a basic restaurant but the difficulty in growing local produce and of importing fresh supplies from afar means that you’ll have to get used to surviving for days at a time on the staples – rice, eggs, potatoes, chuño (freeze dried potatoes) and hearty broths.

In Sajama National Park, Bolivia.
In Sajama National Park, Bolivia. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

7. What are road conditions like?

There aren’t a huge number of paved roads and those that have been tarmacked are usually busy with truck and bus traffic. Heading onto unpaved roads means taking pot-luck with the surface. The Bolivian altiplano has a reputation for having bad roads, but it by no means has a monopoly on them. In all countries of the Puna you can happen upon a good consolidated unpaved surface or find yourself rattling over corrugations or floundering in sand. As a rule it’s best not to expect to travel too quickly!

8. Most of the Puna is above 3,500m. Did you have difficulties with the altitude?

Apart from going very slowly and panting a lot up to the first few passes, we were lucky and didn’t have too much trouble. If you haven’t been at altitude much before it’s a good idea to read up about Acute Mountain Sickness at sites like www.altitude.org beforehand, then take it easy and gain height slowly to begin with.

Near Laguna Negro Francisco, northern Chile.
Near Laguna Negro Francisco, northern Chile. Photo by www.andesbybike.com

9. As well as cycling, you also hiked on this journey. What’s the Puna like for hiking?

Hiking up mountains was almost as important a part of our trip as the cycling, and we spent many happy days cycling to mountains on the Puna, dumping the bikes and then heading off on foot with backpacks. Most of the highest mountains in the Andes lie on the Puna, and with few exceptions they are non-technical ascents. If, like us, you love the wild, barren landscapes and don’t mind going a while without seeing a tree, there are plenty of opportunities for exploring the Puna on foot.

10. Any advice do you have for other cyclists heading to the area?

Choose your tent carefully, and then look after it well! It needs to be good in strong winds so geodesic tents are better than tunnel tents and will give you a quieter night’s sleep. Try not to leave it up for too long in the sun. The fabric will soon degrade due to the high intensity UV. Be warned that in the dry Puna regions tents shrink, so unless you can vary the length of the tent sleeves it can be difficult or impossible to get poles in.

Also, treat all zips with care as they become fragile and regularly break in the dry atmosphere. On leaving the Puna we were left with few working zips despite having become very adept at fixing them with candle wax and pliers!

More importantly, research your route before heading out to the remote areas – on many roads you can go hours or days without coming across water, supplies or a village. There is plenty of information on routes we took on our Andes By Bike website.

Thanks to Harriet & Neil Pike for answering the questions and providing the photos. Check out their Andes By Bike website for more information. If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.

10 Questions: Bike Touring Through Cuba

Posted November 10th, 2012

Welcome to Cuba!Our trip to Cuba is now just one month away, so when Gili and Maya offered to answer some questions for us about cycling there – based on their own trip to Cuba in 2011 – we jumped at the chance.

In their answers to our 10 Questions about bike touring in Cuba, they reassured us that bicycles shouldn’t be too hard to take on public transport, if necessary.

Generally the drivers were very accommodating and we put our bikes in the hold, either as is, or removing one of the wheels if necessary. We found out the schedule of the bus in advance at the bus station, so we didn’t wait long. The buses we took were the Viazul buses.

And they told us how much we’d likely pay for a double room in a family-run B&B:

We generally paid $20-30 U.S. as a couple for a private room, with breakfast and dinner for two. In touristy areas (such as Trinidad and Havana), during peak season and if there are very few casas in the area, the price might be at the top of that range.

Read the full article: 10 Questions: Cycling In Cuba.

10 Questions: Three Weeks In Cuba

Posted November 1st, 2012

Gili and Maya are a Canadian couple (originally from Israel) who spent three weeks cycling Cuba at the end of 2011.

With preparations for our own trip to Cuba in full swing, we were thrilled when Gili and Maya offered to share some of their planning wisdom and trip experiences with us. Read all about it in the 10 Questions below, and check out their trip report on their website.

Welcome to Cuba!Welcome to Cuba: a great country for bicycle touring. Photo by  Gili Rosenberg.

1.Which route did you cycle and how did you settle on those areas for your trip?

We flew in and out of Varadero, and cycled Varadero-Havana-Viñales-Cayo Jutias-Puerto Esperanza-Viñales-Pinar del Rio-Maria La Gorda (the south western corner of Cuba).

After that, we took the bus to Cienfuegos (in the center) and cycled Cienfuegos-Santa Clara-Remedios-Sancti Spiritus-Trinidad-Rancho Luna, and finished by cycling to Playa Larga and catching the bus back to Varadero.

Since we were planning to visit Havana, it made more sense to travel in the west or center of the country. Going to the east would have required a long bus or train ride. We decided to split our three weeks between the west and center in order to add more variety to our trip. We chose to cycle shorter days, leaving more time for exploring the towns and talking to locals, so we cycled an average of around 70km a day.

Camping On The Beach In CubaCamping on the beach in Cuba. Photo by Maya Goldstein.

2. Was it easy to arrange public transport for you and your bicycles?

We used public transport several times: a minivan from Maria de la Gorda to Viñales, a bus from Viñales to Cienfuegos and a bus from Playa Larga to Varadero.

Generally the drivers were very accommodating and we put our bikes in the hold, either as is, or removing one of the wheels if necessary. We found out the schedule of the bus in advance at the bus station, so we didn’t wait long. The buses we took were the Viazul buses. There are also several local bus companies but we were told tourists can’t take them.

3. How was your experience with the Casa Particulares?

We loved staying at the casas! It was an excellent opportunity for interaction with the locals.

We asked our hosts to prepare most of our breakfasts and dinners and the food was generally very good or excellent, and we rarely finished it all. The rooms were comfortable and had a private bathroom with a shower – this appeared to be a government standard.

On one occasion we arrived at the town of Guane and there were no casa particulares. We ended up cycling to a nearby town instead (Isabel Rubio) but it wasn’t far. Another time we arrived in a village to find the only casa full but they arranged for us to sleep in the house of a relative of theirs.

We generally paid $20-30 U.S. as a couple for a private room, with breakfast and dinner for two. In touristy areas (such as Trinidad and Havana), during peak season and if there are very few casas in the area, the price might be at the top of that range.

Cycling In CubaQuiet roads are one of the main advantages of cycling in Cuba. Photo by  Gili Rosenberg.

4. What about money in general. Did you convert any money to local pesos? Did you carry all your cash with you, or could you use ATM machines?

We converted a small amount of cash to local pesos (moneda nacional). This can be done easily at the CADECA offices located all over Cuba. We found that $20 U.S. took us a long way. We used it mostly for buying fruit, vegetables, pizza and snacks. Some restaurants won’t accept moneda nacional from tourists and might insist that you order from the ‘tourist menu’.

We carried all our cash with us and we were comfortable with this, given the high safety standards in Cuba and the length of our trip (three weeks). We don’t remember seeing any ATMs and were told not to rely on them.

5. Was it easy to communicate with people? Did most speak English, or did you learn some Spanish before arriving?

We both speak some broken Spanish, enough to talk about day to day things and a bit of politics. We got the impression that not many people speak English but we always chose to practice our Spanish so we are not sure. Knowing some Spanish would be helpful and would allow for more interaction with the locals but, as almost everywhere, knowing the language is not a necessary condition for traveling there. Regardless, it might be worthwhile to bring a small dictionary or phrase book, as we did.

6. What about finding food? Some cyclists report that it can be difficult to buy lunch, snack food and fresh fruit in particular. 

We brought camping equipment with us, a stove and some homemade dehydrated meals. We mostly ate these meals on the two nights that we camped and on a few other occasions when it was convenient.

We don’t necessarily recommend bringing this gear with you. We could have done most of our trip without it, perhaps making some minor changes. Generally we had no trouble finding food to eat. Lunches were most often a Cuban pizza (available all over, cheap, fresh and tasty) and sometimes bread from a panaderia (a bakery), or a sandwich from the cafeteria.

In larger towns we found markets for fruit and vegetables, which were a good place to stock up. There are “dollar stores” in most towns that are often well stocked with snacks. Look out as well for tiny fruit or juice stands on the side of the road and especially guarapo stands with freshly pressed sugar cane juice.

We once cycled into a small village just to find that they were having some type of festival, with lots of interesting street food, but most of the time we settled for yummy Cuban style pizza, often baked in an old metal barrel.

A Cuban Family Travelling By BicycleA Cuban family travelling by bicycle. Photo by  Gili Rosenberg.

7. Which maps and guidebooks did you use and would you recommend them?

We had Bicycling Cuba (by Wally and Barbara Smith) and the Lonely Planet Cycling Cuba guidebook. We mostly used the routes from the first book. Both books are outdated, but not much has changed.

We also bought the comprehensive “Guia de Carreteras de Cuba” (road guide of Cuba). It’s very detailed and neat but not necessary if you are following routes from the guidebooks. For exploratory trips, we would definitely recommend it. We bought a copy at a bookstore in Havana but they might be difficult to find in smaller places.

8. Of the places you went, which ones would you recommend to others?

It is hard to choose a favorite place, there were so many!

In the west: the Viñales area is picturesque due to the sheer limestone humps (mogotes) and we have good memories of the fruit stands in the area. The fishing village of Puerto Esperanza was a tranquil spot. The causeway to Cayo Jutias was an exhilirating ride and camping on the beach there was beautiful.

In the center: a bit more traffic and more urban, we liked Remedios which is a small and atmospheric town. Cycling the dirt road from Cienfuegos to Playa Giron was a highlight. Snorkeling in the cenote near Playa Larga was excellent, just come early to avoid the masses and bring a snorkel (also useful for various beautiful reefs).

We tried to stay away from the resort towns and tourist hot spots. We passed briefly through Varadero and would not recommend lingering there. Trinidad was the most touristy place we hung out in. Despite the many tourists, it is a beautiful town with lots of live music.

Trying out sandy trails in CubaTrying out sandy trails in Cuba. Photo by Gili Rosenberg.

9. If you had to do the trip again, what would you change?

We would try to spend more than the three weeks we had, allowing us to stay more time in each place and getting to know it better.

Perhaps we could have left our camping and cooking gear at home, since we ended up using it only on two occasions. It could be necessary though, for a more exploratory trip. We do plan to return to Cuba in the future, this time traveling in the eastern part of the country. We were told by a friend, before we left, that we were bound to fall in love with Cuba and so it was…

10. Since bike parts aren’t readily available, did you take a more comprehensive tool kit than normal? 

No, we brought our normal tool kit, which contains basic items such as two extra tubes each, a flat repair kit, chain breaker, spoke tool, extra spokes, a cassette remover etc.

Looking around us we saw many Cubans on bikes but most of them had what we would consider major problems, such as completely bald tires, missing brake pads, no seat, etc. For basic repairs, ask around and probably someone can be found to help you. The improvisation skills that keep American cars from the ’50 and 60′s going might allow some problems to be solved in creative ways so keep an open mind.

For example, we were told that flat tires are fixed by carefully ironing on a small piece of rubber. Some repair parts can be found but they appear to be mostly low quality Chinese products (which might save the day, nonetheless). We gave away some of our spare parts such as all our bike tube patches and brake pads to very enthusiastic Cubans that clearly needed them more than we did. If you’d like to do something good for the local bike community, consider bringing some additional bike parts with you to give out.

On a side note, internet access was also not often available, as far as we could tell. This is not necessarily a bad thing! We only encountered it twice: once in Viñales where the communication office had three slow computers, and once in a casa particular.

More information about cycling in Cuba:

About The Authors: Gili and Maya live in Vancouver, Canada. They enjoy dark chocolate, dazzling fields of wild flowers, eating ripe fruit straight from the tree, the wonderful smell that wafts from their oven when they are baking, and other small delights. Life is delicious, carpe diem! Their website is: http://inmagicland.com

10 Questions: Cycling Across Tibet

Posted January 2nd, 2012

From 1999 to 2001, Bob Foster rode his bicycle around the world.

He began in Malaysia and headed north to China, Tibet and Pakistan. From there, Bob toured the Middle East and Europe before flying to Central America and meandering his way home to California.

In this edition of 10 questions, Bob tells us about his time in Tibet, one of the most challenging parts of the entire adventure. You can read more about Bob’s adventure, and his upcoming book, on his Cycle Nomad website.

Bob Foster In TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

1. How did you end up cycling in Tibet, and why did you choose that destination above any other route?

I was touring from Malaysia to France. Unable to traverse Myanmar because of visa issues, and without the desire to cycle through Mongolia or Siberia, Tibet was the only option. Also, I was intrigued by a romanticized Western vision of Tibetan culture.

2. Tibet has a reputation as being one of the world’s more challenging cycling destinations. Does the reality live up to the hype?

If you are well-trained the elevation will slow you down, but it won’t stop you. The difficulty, for me, lay in the winds and hail storms. They can zap every last ounce of motivation.

Tibetan roadsPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

3. Because the terrain and climate can be extreme, did you have to carry any special gear?

You will want a four season tent, a robust windbreaker and a balaclava. Essentially, be ready to cover every square inch of your body. Also, be sure to bring extra off-road tires. Although the Chinese are paving the plateau at a breakneck speed you will likely be off road for a good portion of your ride.

4. How did you load it all on the bicycle, and keep your wheels in sound shape while going over rough roads?

Being on a world tour, I had 22 kilos of gear. The most common mistake beginners make when touring (myself included) is to put the majority of the weight in the back panniers. When you stop to think about it this doesn’t make much sense because when you are sitting on your seat you put the majority of your weight on your back wheel. I have found that it works best if you distribute your weight 70/30, with the front of your bicycle carrying the 70%. And given the rough roads in Tibet, it wouldn’t hurt to have tandem-gauge spokes on your wheels.

5. Was it tough to find the essential daily supplies like food and water?

As long as you plan you’ll be fine. Bring lots of dried foods, a map with rivers and bodies of water, and two water filters (I’d suggest a Steripen and a high-end filter pump as a backup). You should never have to go more than 80 kilometers without finding a source of water.

Beautiful TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

6. Any local delicacies cyclists should know about?

Know that even in the most unimaginably remote parts of Tibet you will find kind-hearted nomads offering you yak butter tea. The salty, viscous sludge lines the back of your throat and oozes down the sides of your stomach. You will probably feel like a dog eating peanut butter, using your tongue at the roof of your mouth to try to remove the pasty film of salt. The preparation methods can be difficult on Western bellies, so you will likely be breaking into your Imodium stash if you want to ride the next day.

Tibetan Town

7. Tibet is also a place where you aren’t supposed to travel independently. Did you have any problems with police, or sneak under check point barriers at night?

When I was traveling in 2001 most of the Public Security Bureau (PSB) officials working the checkpoints were shocked to see someone alone on a bicycle. The usually cheered me on. The few that looked at my passport did so with a greater sense of curiosity than official duty. That said, the political climate in Tibet is constantly changing so be ready for anything.

8. Did you have much contact with the local people? What was their reaction to passing cyclists?

Children sometimes threw rocks at me as I rode by. At other points, groups of women and children would wait for me at sandy river crossings then grab hold of my bike and demand money and Dalai Lama photos to let me go. Please be considerate of the cyclists who will follow you and refuse to give in. On several occasions I held out for over 30 minutes before they let me go. I offered gifts to many gracious Tibetans who hosted me during my traverse of the plateau, but never did I pay ransom.

Tibetan SignPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

9. What is your most treasured memory of cycling in Tibet?

Leaving. Cold wind became the enemy in an exposed valley of the plateau, where on several occasions it forced me into dusty ditches the size of small cars, where I would feel ambition bleed out of my youthful body. When the wind would abate, I moved on, yearning for Kathmandu, shower and a moist slice of carrot cake with icing so buttery that you could slurp it.

The intensity of the wind met a serene hypoxia on the top of the last pass before leaving the plateau: Tong-La.

The drive to keep moving was like an incandescent cole that moved me with a fear of death, yet in the delirium of the hypoxia I began to laugh without ever contemplating stopping. Upon reaching the far end of the pass the peaks of the snow-laden Himalayas spread out before me with a grandeur that commanded reverence. For a moment I made no effort to understand or marvel. The stillness consumed me with the emotional rapture of riding a roller coaster on LSD. I subconsciously observed that the dirt road moved cut sharply down the most conservative grade of the slope. The valley I was to descend lie straight ahead.

As the bliss transformed into uncontrollable shivering I murmured to myself, “f*** it,” and let out barreling down the scree slope ahead into the glacial valleys of the Himalaya below. Bliss.

Mountains in TibetPhoto courtesy of Bob Foster, the Cycle Nomad.

10. What’s one essential Tibet experience that no cyclist should miss?

Descending from the plateau because it is not any one experience that will change us, it is the context of the experience. Tibet is a psychologically grueling cycling environment. From the intense climbs to the gale-force gusts on the passes, it will wear you to the bone. When you come off of the plateau and hear the chirping of birds, feel humid air caressing your skin and bask in the glory of a warm shower you will never feel more alive.

Thanks to Bob Foster for answering the questions and providing the photos. Do check out his Cycle Nomad website for photos, maps and more. And watch for his upcoming book!

Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling Tibet:

If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.