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Tips & Tricks From 20 Years Of South American Bike Touring

Posted June 2nd, 2013

When it comes to bike touring in Latin America, there are few people who have explored the area more extensively than Gareth Collingwood.

Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni, by elpedalero.

For over 20 years, he’s cycled independently and unsupported through every country in Central and South America and the Caribbean.

In this interview, Gareth shares his experiences and memories of travelling by bicycle in South America. You’ll find more bike touring tips and tricks on his website,  El Pedalero.

1. You describe Latin America as “the world’s greatest adventure travel destination”. That’s a big claim. Why do you think it’s true?

Good question! It is a big claim, yes, and not one I make lightly.

Let’s start with the geography. Latin America has the planet’s longest mountain range, largest jungle, driest desert, biggest salt flat, widest street, highest waterfall, tallest volcano, and longest road. That’s quite a playground for an adventure cyclist.

And there’s the abundance of animal and plant life. On the list of the countries with the highest biodiversity in the world, Latin America has six in the top ten! Brazil, Colombia, Peru, Mexico, Ecuador, and Venezuela, with Brazil at number one (surprise, surprise).

Latin America is also a place of mystery and intrigue. Wherever you travel, you’re never far from the ruins of some lost, ancient culture. Tikal, Palenque, and Machu Picchu are all worth visiting, although I prefer the lesser-known, harder-to-reach sites such as Yaxchilán (Mexico), Kuélap (Peru), and my favourite, Ciudad Perdida (Colombia).

Then there’s everything else: the food, the music, the colonial architecture, the leafy plazas, the hidden beaches, the native traditions, the bustling markets, the crowded streets, and the lonely highways.

But most of all, what makes Latin America great is Latin Americans. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve been invited to dinners, put up at people’s houses, given lifts when I’ve been stuck somewhere, and otherwise helped out by friendly, generous, warm-hearted Latinos from all corners of the continent.

I don’t think I’ll ever be finished exploring Latin America.

Making Friends, Oaxaca City, Mexico
Making Friends, Oaxaca City, Mexico by elpedalero.

2. It’s such a huge area and not everyone has years to explore it. If you could recommend just one or two areas to focus on, what would they be?

This is a very difficult question to answer. On the one hand, whichever place you choose, it’s going to be fantastic. On the other hand, you’ll be missing out on a hundred places just as remarkable. Here’s a solution: Get a pad of Post-its. On each square of paper write one place from this list.

  • Argentine Patagonia
  • The Central Andean Altiplano
  • The Chilean Lake District
  • The Mexican Colonial Heartland
  • Central America
  • The Yucatán
  • The Amazon
  • The Gran Sabana
  • Western Cuba
  • The Chaco
  • The River Plate
  • Southern Brazil

Now stick the Post-its all over a wall and throw a dart at it. Whichever Post-it the dart lands on, that’s the area you’ll focus on. The entire continent is amazing and you have to start somewhere, so just start riding.

The Endless Climb, Chilean Andes
The Endless Climb, Chilean Andes by elpedalero.

3. How about a country that’s often overlooked (but shouldn’t be) by most bike tourists?

It’s a tie between Venezuela and Paraguay.

Cyclists skip El Salvador because they think it’s too small to be interesting (not true). And they skip Colombia because they think it’s too dangerous (also not true). But they skip Venezuela and Paraguay for no real reason at all, which is a shame because they contain landscapes unlike any other in the world.

Venezuela has the Gran Sabana, the Llanos, the Orinoco Delta, the world’s highest waterfall, and the Caribbean’s longest coastline. It claims the starting point of the Andes and the headwaters of both of the Orinoco and the Amazon rivers (the Casiquiare Bifurcation).

Paraguay has the Chaco Seco, the Chaco Húmedo, Cerro Memby, Saltos del Monday, Jesuit ruins, and friendly Mennonite communities who are incredibly generous toward travelling cyclists. And the wildlife here will amaze you – Paraguay is the only place I’ve ever seen a wild jaguar while cycling!

Both countries still have all the colonial charm, delicious coffee, unmonitored children, and subtlety-free television programming you’ve come to expect from any self-respecting Latin American nation.

Red Soils And Green Grass On The Gran Sabana
Red Soils And Green Grass On The Gran Sabana by elpedalero.

4. Is there anything in particular that bike tourists should pack for a trip to Latin America that they might not normally have in their bags?

Yes, Spanish! It’s compact, it’s lightweight, and it won’t take up any room in your panniers.

Seriously, a good working knowledge of Spanish will get you out of more jams than your multi-tool, your first aid kit, and that notarized photocopy of your passport combined.

Until you start speaking and understanding Spanish, you’re missing out on the real Latin American experience. And you’re missing out on making lifelong friendships with some of the most generous and warm-hearted people on the planet.

And once you’ve got Spanish, it’s a lot easier to understand and start learning Portuguese for your trip through Brazil.

Bicycle Repairs, Santa Marta, Matanzas, Cuba
Bicycle Repairs, Santa Marta, Matanzas, Cuba by elpedalero.

5. Mental preparation is also important for a bike tour. What are some typical South American challenges that cyclists need to be prepared for?

Garbage! Garbage in the streets, garbage in the rivers, garbage in the forests, the deserts, the beaches. It’s not like this everywhere, obviously, but it’s certainly going to be something you’ll see plenty of on your travels in Latin America.

Noise! Screeching engines, screaming children, blaring loudspeakers mounted atop moving vehicles. And, of course, the music. I love music, but not 120 decibels of pumping reggaetón at 4:00 am from a car stereo parked outside the window of my hotel room!

Dogs! Not all dogs. Just the ones that roam the countryside looking for bikes to chase and ankles to bite.

Bugs! Not the big, ugly ones, but the small, swarming ones: the mosquitoes, the tábanos, the coliguachos, the jejénes, and of course all the microscopic, water-borne invaders.

Unexpected Companion, Bolivia
Unexpected Companion, Bolivia by elpedalero.

6. Where will your next tour in Latin America be, or have you explored it all by now?

I don’t think I’ll ever be finished exploring Latin America. I may have toured through every country, but that doesn’t mean I’ve seen it all. There are so many hidden corners and mysterious landscapes still to see. My next tour will be several years long and will focus on discovering these places for myself. Right now, I’m researching areas within Northern Mexico, south-western Brazil, central Chile, and Colombia’s Pacific lowlands. But as usual, I’ll be winging it once I’m there, making it up as I go.

I’ll also be revisiting some old haunts. It’s been so long since I first travelled in some of these areas it’ll be like visiting them for the first time. For example, many of the horrendously-rough gravel roads I cycled in Patagonia back in the 1990s have now been paved. It’ll be a treat to ride these roads while enjoying the scenery instead of staring at the gravel in front of my wheel, trying to pick the best line!

To learn more about Gareth’s adventures, see his website: El Pedalero.

Brompton Folding Bike + Trailer: A Perfect Touring Combination?

Posted May 2nd, 2013

Can a Brompton folding bike and a trailer make the perfect combination for touring?

Stijn on his Brompton + Radical Design trailer

In this guest post for TravellingTwo, Stijn de Klerk checks out the performance of the Brompton with the Radical Design series of trailers.

***

A couple of years ago I decided life without a car made a lot of sense.

I still need to drive a car for work but do most other things by bicycle. My trusty full-size bike is often used for local shopping trips, and I bought a Brompton folding bike so that I could use the bike in combination with the train more easily.

With these two bikes I had most transport and travelling requirements covered, except for the times when I needed to transport something big. This was why I added the Radical Design Cyclone trailer was added to the stable. I don’t use it a lot but when I do use it, I love it.

Radical Design Cyclone

Unloaded, it’s hard to even tell I’m pulling a trailer at all. It functions perfectly and it’s built to last. Even better, it’s as much a duffle bag as it is a trailer and it converts from one into the other in under a minute.

Hooking the trailer up behind the Brompton was obvious as both the trailer and the folding bike are portable. I then started thinking: “wouldn’t it be great if the Brompton would fit inside the Cyclone trailer?” but unfortunately the Cyclone was too narrow for this. Then, lo and behold, Radical announced the Chubby trailer: made wider and shorter than the Cyclone and designed to hold a folded Brompton.

Chubby Trailer

As I’m a keen bicycle traveler, the next question in my mind was if I could use the Chubby plus a Brompton bike to create a combination that would allow me to take a train, plane or bus anywhere, including a lightweight camping set-up but with a minimum of the normal packing and luggage hassles that often go along with taking a touring bike and all the associated gear on public transport.

The moment of truth arrived when my cycling friends – Friedel, Andrew and Shane – conjured up the plan to take folding bikes out on a camping trip. The company that makes the Chubby, Radical Design, was kind enough to lend us one for the occasion. I picked it up a few days before the trip, so I had my chance to give it a test.

Basic Chubby Touring Setup
The total weight of a Brompton with a Chubby trailer and a bit of gear comes in at around 20 kilograms. That’s 10-14kg of Brompton bicycle (depending on the model), the Chubby itself (6kg) and your tent and sleeping bag (4kg). This is light enough to pass as regular check-in luggage with most airlines, and you can still carry the trailer (complete with bike and gear inside) by its shoulder strap over short distances. This video shows how it all works.

Any other camping kit or other gear has to be carried in a day pack (as carry-on) or in a small duffle bag (as additional check-in luggage).

Quality And Durability
The heritage of Radical Design’s Cyclone trailer (first produced in 1997), means the Chubby has a long and thorough design evolution behind it. The whole trailer oozes quality and durability. I might even go so far as to say that it’s slightly over-engineered in places, even though it’s considerably lighter compared to many other bike trailers on the market like the B.O.B, Burley trailers and Monoporter. The Extrawheel is perhaps the exception, but that’s a bit of a different proposition.

The overall robustness of the trailer shines through in the Chubby bag. It weighs in at a hefty 4kg (two thirds of the total weight) but equally will take a lot of abuse as it’s made from Cordura 1000 Fabric. Since the bag is there to protect the Brompton, it warrants the weight penalty of this heavy fabric to a large extent. The bag has a beefy, lockable YKK zipper and is reinforced in places where it matters, with extra padding to protect a folded bike inside.

From an engineering point of view I love the all-stainless steel, ball joint and quality Polyoxymethylene (POM) hitch construction. It’s one of the best and most elegant I’ve come across so far while looking for a bicycle trailer, in terms of sturdiness and one-hand ease of use.

Chubby ball hitch

The wheels are easily removed by pressing a button at the center of the hubs, which releases a quick-lock mechanism. They can be used in one of two positions: in the cycling position or in a second location further back on the Chubby, which then turns it into a walking trailer.

The hubs themselves are aluminum with industrial style sealed ball bearings on a steel axle, laced with stainless steel spokes into Brompton-size rims. This means a good selections of tires is available to suit any need and will match up nicely with whatever you are running on your Brompton.

Chubby hubs

Stable Cycling
After giving the Chubby a look over, I decided to take it for a ride around town. As with my Cyclone trailer, I noticed that the two-wheel design made it relatively easy to move around by itself and hitch on/off compared to single-wheeled trailers. This two wheel design makes it inherently more stable, which makes cycling with it a lot less nervous and it can handle higher payloads then most single wheeled trailers. 

Once rolling in cycling mode, it becomes apparent how well-mannered this trailer is. When not loaded too heavily, one hardly notices that it’s there. Due to the fact that it has two wheels, it doesn’t negatively influence the stability of the bike and it’s even possible to rock the bike from side to side going up steeper inclines, much like you would an unloaded bike. One might think it would introduce more rolling resistance, but this is hardly noticeable and I suspect this is due to the relatively light loads the trailer tires need to support.

The only downside to the design might be that two wheels instead of one don’t track as well when on rough terrain or when mountain biking but I wasn’t planning on taking the Brompton on that sort of trip anyway.

Another big revelation was how easy it is to pack and unpack all the gear from a single hold-all style baffle bag. There is an inherent ease of having all your gear behind just the one zip and the amount of space is a dangerous luxury.

Loads of Space

Conclusion
Ultimately, I didn’t get the chance to put the Chubby through a full touring test. The weather forecast for our Easter tour was miserable and I didn’t want to return a completely mud-covered Chubby to Radical Design. That means this test and review won’t be truly complete until I can take the Chubby on a longer ride but my first impression was very favorable.

That said, I did take my Cyclone along for the weekend ride and this confirmed my suspicions about a trailer and Brompton being a perfect combination for touring. I’ll definitely be taking my Cyclone further afield this summer, and maybe one day I’ll add a Chubby to my collection as well.

***

Thanks to Stijn for sharing this review. More thoughts about using a Brompton for touring (based on our Easter trip) have been shared by Shane.

Our Easter Tour: On Folding Bikes In The Freezing Cold

Posted April 2nd, 2013

Over Easter we went on a short bike tour through the east of the Netherlands with several friends. There were six of us in total, riding four folding bikes and two ‘big wheel’ touring bikes.

Easter cycling Tour

It was unseasonably cold (barely above freezing during the day) but despite the chilly weather we had a super time riding from Arnhem to Roermond. Below you’ll find the short film (in an English and a Dutch version) to tell the story.

Thanks to our friends Stijn, Shane and Marieke & Anthony for the great company, and to the lovely owners of the Landgoed Geijsteren and Raayerhof campgrounds, where we stayed in trekkers huts so that we wouldn’t have to suffer through sub-zero temperatures at night.

Here’s the film in English:

And in Dutch:

One Month Bike Tour Of Cuba (Part V)

Posted March 27th, 2013

Our Bicycling Cuba book assures us that the ride from Sancti Spiritus to Trinidad is one of the most beautiful in Cuba, and it’s not wrong.

Before long, we’ve cleared the city limits of Sancti Spiritus and we’re cycling on blissfully quiet and wide-open roads. Only a few Cuban cyclists, and the occasional car, keep us company.

Local cyclist in Cuba

The mountains in the distance grow closer, and we’re almost tempted to follow one of them into the foothills. In another time and place (without a baby, and on full-sized touring bikes) we might have done just that. This time, however, we settle for a picture in front of the mountains.

Group shot!

After several shots, this is the closest we get to all of us looking at the camera at the same time. Luke has actually been distracted by a passing motorbike and turns his head at the critical moment. That’s okay. Group pictures are nice to have but this road is even better! Look at those blue skies. Gorgeous.

Cycling to Trinidad from Sancti Spiritus

About halfway down the road, we stop for something to eat in a roadside village. We order the vegetarian pizza, and when we spot this box near the restaurant we’re happy we avoided the meat!

"Meat For Tourists". Eeeewwwww.

Tinned Meat For Tourists? What in the world is that about? We’re not sure that we really want to know. What we are sure about is that we don’t want to try any ‘Fiambre de Cerdo Turista’ – imported from Poland to Cuba.

We finish our pizza instead, and top up with some cookies and a generous drink of water. Luke is now interested in the water bottle, so we spend quite some time teaching him how to drink from it.

Luke learns to drink from a water bottle

Around 4pm we roll into Trinidad, with its colourful houses. For the first time on this trip, the guesthouse of our choice is full, so Andrew has to wait by the curbside with Luke for a few minutes, while Friedel goes in search of accommodation. It’s not a problem. Within 15 minutes we’ve found a nice room, just around the corner.

Waiting....

We get cleaned up and go out for another pizza. It’s rapidly becoming our staple food. While we’re waiting, Luke practices his waving skills with the daughter of the pizza shop owner.

Waiting....

We’re comfortable here, and still taking things easy so we plan to spend a few days in Trinidad and the surrounding area before turning north towards Havana to complete our trip.

*This is the fifth in a series of journal entries about our one-month, 750km tour of Cuba. See the first entry, the secondthe third and the fourth. More coming soon!

Cuba’s Bicycle Culture In Photos

Posted March 25th, 2013

One of the great things about touring in Cuba is seeing all the ways bicycles are used in daily life, and how much is done with so little. 

Bicycles are a key method of transport for the average Cuban, whether they’re taking their kids to school or selling produce at a street market. Here are just some of the photos we snapped of Cubans and their bikes…

This carrot seller was spotted in the central city of Cienfuegos.

Carrots For Sale By Bicycle

He wasn’t the only one selling food by bike. We encountered this man near Viñales, taking bok choy and spring onions to market on a bicycle that wouldn’t look out of place back home in the Netherlands.

Bok Choy seller and his delivery bicycle

This man was selling apples in Santa Clara.

Bicycle apple seller in Santa Clara

Even cakes were being transported by bicycle!

Trinidad cake seller

Also in the streets of Santa Clara, we saw this lady taking her daughter across town.

Cyclists in Santa Clara, Cuba

She was using a bike seat like this. We saw thousands of these wooden children’s seats on bikes across Cuba.

Bike with a child's seat (very popular in Cuba)

Wood was also used to create make-do pedals.

Wooden pedals!

Such repairs were probably done by a road-side bike mechanic, like this one in Trinidad.

Bike Mechanic in Trinidad, Cuba

Or possibly by one of these guys, who were selling bike parts at a market.

Bike parts stall at a market in Trinidad, Cuba

They didn’t have anything fancy to sell, but they did have a basic selection of parts including gear cables, bearings and pedals.

Bike parts stall at a market in Trinidad, Cuba

Back to people selling (and carrying) things by bike, we were impressed by this very large box on the back rack of a bike in Santa Clara. We don’t think the bike was actually carrying a washing machine – probably the box was filled with something lighter. We often saw such boxes being used to carry multiple loaves of bread, for example.

Cuban cargo bike

We also took note of this fellow, who had his hands full as he cycled through Trinidad!

Cyclist in Trinidad

And finally, this Bici Taxi driver showed us how hard he worked for his fare in Havana. We hired him for a ride to a local restaurant and marvelled as he propelled all of us – plus his heavy bicycle – through the traffic.

Bici Taxi

Kudos to the cyclists of Cuba!