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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.

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.

Posted April 28th, 2013

It was several months into our world bike tour before we learned what is arguably the most important rule of wild camping. Had we known it, we would never have put our tent here.

wild camping in a river bed - bad ideas!

At first glance, it looks like the perfect spot – flat and hidden from the road by a ridge. This second photo gives you a clue as to why this is in fact a very bad place to camp.

dry river bed

Have you guessed yet? Here’s your answer: it’s a dry riverbed and it’s prone to dangerous flash floods.

The rain that triggers the flood might be miles away. You might never hear a drop of rain on the tent, but a few minutes or hours later the whole river channel can fill with water and sweep you and your stuff away.

Thankfully, we were warned about this danger a few weeks after this picture was taken. We were never swept away, though we did camp next to a dry river once (up on the bank) and watched later that night as it filled with water within seconds. Recently, a Dutch touring cyclist was not so lucky. He lost his leg, and nearly his life, to a flash flood in South America.

The lesson is a simple one: don’t camp in dry river beds, no matter how tempting they seem! 

Posted April 20th, 2013

Of all the emails that land in our mailbox, a good proportion are about touring with technology.

We’ve shared some of our experiences with dynamo hubs and finding power sources on the road, but it’s always nice to get a fresh point of view, so we were very happy to learn that the latest issue of CTC magazine has an article about this very topic.

Touring With Technology

The article is written by Steve Rock. He cycled coast-to-coast across France, using a smartphone, charger and various apps to navigate. The article talks about his experiences with Memory Map software, the Viewranger GPS navigation app, a SON dynamo hub and various accessories from PedalPower.

Read the article here.

Posted in Equipment
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…