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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.

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.

Interview With Roff Smith: Bike Tourist & Author

Posted March 16th, 2012

In 1996, author Roff Smith embarked on a 10,000 mile solo trek around Australia.

It was, he says, “the toughest thing I have ever done, and the best”.

Roff Smith
Roff Smith, going up Old Putty Road in the Blue Mountains. Photo by Medford Taylor.

Roff finished that trip nearly penniless but launched back into the workforce when National Geographic agreed to publish a series of articles and a book about his journey, Cold Beer & Crocodiles. He’s been writing for that illustrious magazine ever since.

Over the years, he’s cycled on every continent, and he recently took the time to answer a few questions about his bike trip around Australia.

***

1. Was your 1996 trip around Australia your first bicycle tour? In other words, how did you discover bicycle touring and what appealed to you about it?

No, many years earlier in the autumn of 1980, when I was 22, I cycled most of the way across the United States. I started in Laramie Wyoming, where I had spent the summer working as a field archaeologist. My bicycle was a lightweight Trek I’d bought earlier that summer at a shop in Boulder, Colorado, I set off for my family home in New Hampshire.

Although I loved it, that jaunt turned out to be the last for a long while – until I set out from Sydney on that big bicycle journey around Australia.

Roff Smith
Roff Smith, leaving Sydney on his bicycle tour around Australia. Photo by Medford Taylor.

I had in the meantime though cycled a lot as a commuter for work and cycling had always appealed to me as a means of exploring the world, even if I hadn’t acted on that as much as I would have liked. Circumstances kind of prevented that. But when I quit my job in 1996 and money was tight, cycling had some very definite advantages!

2. When you began your trip around Australia, what do you remember about the feelings and emotions of that decision, and those initial days on the road?

Funnily enough, it wasn’t nerve wracking at all.

Throughout my life and career I’ve always been willing to take risks, and odd though it seems now neither the career, financial nor physical risks of taking off on a journey like that troubled me in the least. That said, the first few days on the road, while I settled into this new life, were mentally trying.

I was still in too much of a hurry, hadn’t slowed the pace of my life and thoughts to match that of my bicycle. I was expecting too much, trying too hard. That took about 400 kilometres to dissipate.

It was in Grafton, a pretty town in northern New South Wales, about four days out of Sydney that everything just clicked, and from then on the ride was the single most rewarding thing I have ever done.

3. Australia is currently a very popular place to tour but it can also seem intimidating. Vast distances. Searing temperatures. Not much water. What was the biggest challenge you faced?

People are right to be intimidated to a degree by the vastness and the hostility of the Australian outback. It’s not an issue at all if you are just cycling along the fertile and populated east coast, from Sydney, say, to Cairns; or riding along the southeast from Adelaide or Melbourne to Sydney.

But once you head inland, over the ranges, into the wide sun-bronzed bush, your degree of difficulty goes up exponentially and if you are coming down the west coast from Darwin to Perth or exploring the Kimberley, it can be very tough indeed. On some of the lonelier stretches I was carrying as much as 23 litres of water on the bike, and needing it all.

Roff Smith
A long, desolate road through the Australian outback. Photo by Roff Smith.

It was high summer when I was coming down the west coast and temperatures were soaring to over 120°F in the shade, there were dust, flies and baking headwinds and long, long stretches of nothing. Towns out there can be over 500 kilometres apart! I had to carry everything I needed between places and very much be aware of the dangers and risk averse.

4. And the nicest moment – one truly memorable experience that stands out for you?

There were so many – and in so many different ways.

The people and the hospitality I experienced out there in the bush was beyond anything I could have hoped for.

In my nine months on the road I stayed on vast sheep stations, and million acre cattle properties, mining towns and Aboriginal communities – people opened their hearts and their homes and I was privileged to see life as it is really lived in the bush. As for specifics – where do I start?

Photo by Roff Smith
Giggling girls – just a few of the many friendly faces Roff met on his trip. Photo by Roff Smith.

The young Queensland policeman who was about to get married and invited me along on fishing trip with his uncles and best man-to-be in the wild Gulf Country? I later went to his wedding as well!

Or crossing the Great Sandy Desert – 555 supposedly hostile empty kilometres from Broome to Port Hedland – and having so many invitations from people on remote cattle stations along the way that it took me over two weeks to reach Port Hedland, by which time I’d gained ten pounds and gotten out of shape?

Or the incredibly kind and open family in Warnambool, on Victoria’s storm-lashed coast, who took me in when I got sick much later on in my journey, nursed me through and set me on my way?

There were so many kind people that to name a few makes me feel guilty for the ones I’ve left out, and to list them all would take all day. On the purely personal front, my nights of camping all alone on the vast spinifex plains, a hundred miles from anyone else, and looking up at the immensity of stars overhead – that was simply magical.

5. What advice would you give other cyclists who are contemplating a trip around Australia?

Do it. Allow plenty of time. Bring plenty of water. And open yourself to the experiences the bush has to offer. You’ll never regret it.

***

Learn more about Roff, and read his bicycle musings on his blog: My Bicycle and I

Show 41: Interviewing Amaya – On The Road Since 2006

Posted October 10th, 2011

Amaya on the roadIn this latest edition of the TravellingTwo podcast, we interview Amaya Williams. She’s been cycling the world with her husband Eric since 2006.

We also talk a little bit about our next big adventure – and it’s not directly related to bike touring, but don’t worry… we’re still planning plenty more touring fun in the future.

In addition to the podcast, you’ll find a video at the bottom of this post. It combines photos of Eric & Amaya’s journey, with the interview. Let us know if you like this, and we’ll try to do this with more future podcasts.

Show Notes:

The Sprocket Podcast Interviews Us

Posted July 6th, 2011

Friedel & AndrewWe recently hooked up with the great guys at The Sprocket Podcast, to talk about cycling in Holland, circling the globe using bicycles, cargo ships, and other adventures.

They’ve just published the interview on their website, and you can listen to the entire show here.

If you haven’t heard of the Sprocket Podcast before, some of their older episodes are also worth a listen. In recent weeks, they’ve interviewed Russ & Laura of PathLessPedaled.com, the folks behind RowdyKittens (a blog about simplifying your life), and Joe Kurmaskie, the Metal Cowboy.