Cycling in Latin America

I spent 10 months riding my bicycle from Buenos Aries in Argentina up into and through Mexico. I had a truly enchanting time. I met truly wonderful people, encountered rich cultures and rode through diverse landscapes. I grew strong in body and heart. I often felt free and alive, and along with all this adventure came great happiness.

In this post I share some hints, tips, and suggestions for cycle touring in Latin America that I hope may help, encourage, inspire, reassure anyone thinking about making a journey of their own in these lands.

I hope it helps. If it does then please tell me, if it does not then please also tell me, perhaps I left something important out, and if you have any questions then feel free to email me (see above under contact).

Where I went

latin america whereI spent time cycling in Argentina (1 month), Uruguay (5 days), Bolivia (2 weeks), Peru (2 months), Ecuador (2 weeks), Columbia (1 month), Panama (2 weeks), Costa Rica (1 month), Nicaragua (2 weeks), Guatemala (3 weeks), and Mexico (2 months).

You can find more details and information on my route here.

My route took me through high mountains, across deserts, along tropical coastlines, and into jungle, with all the transitions in between. The climate I experienced varied from hot summer sun, cold (but not snowy cold) high altitude, and rainy seasons.

My personal favourites were Mexico and Argentina (the hospitality of their people), Costa Rica (the happy nature and happy people), and Peru (the magnificent mountains – particularly from Cusco to Ayacucho – and rich culture). I didn’t enjoy my time in Panama very much (very hot, difficult to get off the busy Pan-American highway, and very limited inexpensive amenities – I’d highly recommend getting over to the Caribbean side if possible coming to or from Costa Rica).

Note: due to a foot injury I only cycled for one day during my time in Nicaragua and did not cycle at all in Honduras or El Salvador – a little more on this in a bit under unexpected happenings (#8).

1. Learn the language and speak with people

The people I encountered in Latin America touched my heart deeply – they are generally friendly, trusting, and generous. Although there are plenty of touring cyclists in Latin America it is often an unusual sight for local people and many people will be intrigued and want to know more. I would often only need to roll into a plaza or some other public space with my fully loaded bicycle and somebody would come and want to talk to me.foru generationI arrived in Argentina with some knowledge of Spanish and my language skills improved immensely along the way and without a doubt knowing at least some Spanish enriched my experience. Travel by bicycle in any country is often a great opportunity to learn a local language because it often brings contact with people who don’t speak your language. However, Latin America is particularly good for learning Spanish because firstly, outside of tourist places English is little spoken giving you plenty of opportunity to practice, and secondly, Spanish is the dominant language in the region and so even as you cover large distances going from country to country and experience diverse cultures the language generally stays the same (other than accent differences and sometimes very challenging dialects).

It is certainly possible to get about by bicycle and have a very enjoyable time without any real grasp of Spanish, however, learning whatever you can before and during the journey will without doubt enrich your experience – even a basic knowledge will go a very long way.

Notes: I intentionally chose to stay in Spanish speaking countries on my journey to improve my Spanish, rather than go to some places like Brazil where the dominant language is Portuguese. Also spare some consideration and respect for any local languages. Spanish is the language of conquest and although many indigenous languages have now been lost there are many that are still widely spoken. I found being curious about the other languages people spoke and just asking how to say something basic, whether remembered or not, was normally appreciated.

2. Allow people to give

People like to help. I would say this is true no matter the culture (it increases happiness and fosters connection with others) but in some cultures, like Latin America, the importance of giving is well understood and seems to come much more naturally than in other cultures I’ve experienced. On my travels sometimes even the smallest conversations would lead to an offer of some sort of help – local information, food, water, bike equipment, a place to stay, money even – and I often accepted what was offered. The help offered was unconditional as far as I could perceive it and I developed some very dear friends as a result.full belly, happy heartAlthough my experience of people’s generosity and openness differed from country to country it nearly always exceeded that of levels I’ve seen in my own culture. The people of Mexico particularly touched me in this regard. Argentinians and Uruguayans were extremely helpful too. Generally, the further I was from more typical routes or big tourist areas the more hospitable people seemed to be.

Of course having some knowledge of the language helped create these experiences. In fact, I wonder if the generosity and openness I experienced in Mexico was because it was the last place I rode through and my Spanish language skills were at their best then. But actually I think not – Mexicans are just awesome!

3. Beware of the dog

There are many potentially dangerous animals in Latin America – snakes, bears, wild cats, and so on – none of which I ever actually saw. Generally, animals don’t want a confrontation and if you leave them alone they will leave you alone.

The most threatening animal is without a doubt the dog. There are a lot of dogs in Latin America – often streets dogs with no “home” – and they chase cyclists and sometimes do so extremely aggressively. In my experience the extent to which dogs made chase differed enormously by country, e.g., Colombia rarely, Peru and Bolivia a lot, in Costa Rica most dogs are fenced in but still bark. Nevertheless, wherever you are it can sometimes be quite scary and it is important to be aware of dogs and have some way of dealing with them.

Some people like to carry a stick that they can pull out on a dog. Others just stop and walk with their bike. One guy I met has a machete and he just stops and brandishes it at them. For me the best way was to just focus on my cycling (otherwise I tend to lose speed and balance) and just outpace them – I might shout something like “hey” at them suddenly as it often seems to startle and stall them a little, and if they get too close I will kick out at them. Do whatever is best for you but importantly try to be a bit aware of them as you ride through small villages and towns.

People do sometimes get bitten, some dogs do have rabies (although very few as there are vaccination programmes in many places). As it turns out I got bitten by a dog and it was a pretty horrible experience (although it wasn’t in a chase type situation I was on my bike and had slowed down a bit to speak to some children and just didn’t notice a dog approaching – read more here if it interests you). I’m fairly certain the dog didn’t have rabies as it didn’t seem rabid but I read up about rabies and got scared and so I went through the process as if the dog did have rabies. It might be wise getting vaccinations for rabies before you travel – normally a course of 3 or 4 jabs with enough time intervals apart – and tetanus. I wasn’t going to get a rabies jab because I thought I’d left it too late before leaving for my trip. I’m glad I did because if I hadn’t had any vaccinations before I was bitten the procedure to deal with it would have been much more difficult, perhaps even impossible due to limited health resources in some countries.

4. Enjoy free camping (plus other hints on accommodation)

Wild-camping

joyful spotI stayed in three campsites my entire time in Latin America – 2 in Argentina, I in Colombia – basically because there aren’t many. However, it is generally quite easy to find camping spots in Latin America. Wild camping is generally not a problem and I’d highly recommend doing that because I had some beautiful evenings that way (read here about how I search for a spot). If there is no-one around and you are well hidden, then it is not likely to be a problem.

Free-camping

However, I might be more courageous than most people when it comes to wild camping so if it is not for you then that’s OK (read the section #13. fear) but you can still free camp quite easily but you’ll need to ask people (“hola amigo/a, hay un espacio para acampar cerca de aqui que es seguro?”, “puedo acampar cerca de aqui?”). I did this many times, particularly when there were lots of houses around and no real “wild” space. Often I ended up camping in people’s gardens or even invited to stay in their homes and fed. Re-read the section on allowing people to give #2. Again I had some very beautiful evenings like this so I’d highly recommend this too.campinh in someones gardenQuite late in my trip I began using the App. Overlander. It gives information on places to “camp” – ranging from established campsites, informal campsites, to wild-campsites – and also where there might be other useful things for people travelling overland. It is more geared towards people using motorised transport i.e. lots of parking lots in cities on it, reflecting the proportions of the sort of people who are using it, but every now and then it can give some good ideas about where to camp. Plus, if you find a spot you can put it up for other users!

Warmshowers

Most touring cyclists will know about Warmshowers – a site where not currently touring cyclists (or just all round good souls) host other currently touring cyclists in their homes. It is an excellent way to connect with local cyclists and you will get an excellent and unique perspective on the place where you are staying. I’d say it is perhaps the most useful when staying in big cities. However, I didn’t have that much success with Warmshowers in Latin America – there were either not many hosts in some places or the requests I sent didn’t get any response. Over the 10 months I only stayed with 4 hosts (1 in Argentina, 1 in Colombia, and 2 in Costa Rica). It’s useful but I wouldn’t rely on it.

Bomberos and Casas de Ciclistas

Two other useful things to know about are the “bomberos” (firefighters) and the “casas de ciclistas”.

For some reason firefighters in Latin America like to help out and so it is always worth knocking on their door and asking if they can help you when you arrive in a city and don’t have anywhere. Not always but often they will let you sleep in the station and/or give you food. I only stayed in one overnight myself but could have stayed in two others had other options not arisen. On another occasion when I knocked on at the “Bomberos” they couldn’t give me shelter but they did their best to feed me. There were only 2 other times that I knocked, and nothing came of those.WP_001362The casas de ciclistas (houses of cyclists) are literally that – a house/home that will give shelter to cyclists. I only stayed in one in Quito, Ecuador, so don’t have much experience, but it was refreshing to meet so many other cyclists – there were 12 of us over the three days I was there. You might have to pay/donate a little to stay in these but it depends, certainly ask and be open. Here is a list (it is possibly partial, I am not sure).

These options all require some effort, courage, and openness, but they offer really interesting insights to people and culture. There are anyway plenty of inexpensive hotels. I tended to stay in hotels when I needed time by myself, but I also took hotels when I was feeling meek.

5. Enjoy the food

For me food was a bit of a struggle in Latin America – prior to this trip I was mostly eating a vegan diet but I knew beforehand this would be very difficult to maintain whilst in Latin America. Thus I just stuck to vegetarianism for the most part but even this was quite difficult in some of the more meat orientated cultures – e.g., Argentina, Mexico – and generally I did get quite fed up with rice and beans whenever I ate out. I think I missed out on experiencing an aspect of culture here but I did what I thought was right for me in those moments.

Mostly I cooked for myself on my camping stove (even in hotels) and for me that often anyway makes for much more nutritious food than I could buy outside. In many countries, in the tropical climates, there is an abundance of inexpensive fresh fruits and vegetables, and grains available that would be expensive super-foods outside of these areas (e.g., chia seeds, quinoa, avocados). Certainly go and check out local markets for food – they also became one of my favourite places to be – I’d often go grab a juice, hang out, and just watch people live their everyday lives.

WP_000592Street food is often tasty and is a great way to sit down with locals and create connections. Some might say there is risk involved due to questionable hygiene but if you go to the busiest street vendors this normally implies no one is getting sick form their food.

6. Water – filter it and have enough

Water quality is not very good in many parts of Latin America and so buy a decent water filter and use it. It will save money, minimise your use of plastic, and keep you healthy. I didn’t filter water when it was clearly already filtered, when someone I trusted told me the water was safe to drink or when I was in the mountains and the water was close to source and tasted good.

How much water is enough? It depends on you and where you are. When I began my trip I had 2 one litre bottles of water and I found that was sufficient for the most part (I did at times find myself gasping for energy drinks – pushing too hard and not getting enough electrolytes). There were generally plenty of water sources and when I camped 2 litres was enough too (0.5l for washing me, 1l for cooking, 0.5l for drinking). When I was in the desert I made sure I had a further 1.5 litres bringing me up to a total of 3.5 litres. In the hotter areas keep and eye on your electrolytes.

7. Money – how to not spend for more enriching experiences

You don’t need a lot of money to have a happy time on a bicycle in Latin America. Money may enable certain experiences but having money can at the same time limit our experiences. Perhaps we decide to take a hotel room because we are afraid of camping wild. Or we might take the convenience and perceived safety of eating in a restaurant rather than buy food to prepare ourselves or eat with local people in the local market. We can choose to do lots of things that we are supposed to do when in tourist destinations or we can just sit and be.

My most memorable experiences were those that didn’t involve any money – cooking my own food whilst wild-camping and gazing out onto a beautiful landscape, creating connections with people I randomly met, sitting watching the world go by in busy markets and plazas, and of course whizzing down mountains that took me the whole day to climb. See the previous 3 sections, and read this about money and happiness when travelling.

It is relatively easy to get by on less than $15 a day. I didn’t watch my budget with particular vigilance for a few reasons. First, I had enough money for my travels, second, some countries were so inexpensive it didn’t seem an issue, and third, I have a natural tendency to seek experiences that don’t cost so much as for me generally they are more valuable and bring more happiness and fulfilment. But on the whole I did spend less than $15 on general day to day living, but sometimes spent much more when I wanted to specifically do certain things (for example, getting across the Darian Gap – see #12 below , going to see Machu Picchu, which weren’t even close to being my most exhilarating experiences). I know I could have got by on much less overall if I had needed and sometimes wonder whether I might have found myself feeling even more fulfilled. I met a number of cyclists who were living day to day and were funding their travels by working here and there and selling things, like jewellery, that they had made. They were having an amazing time.

Sometimes things were so relatively inexpensive I didn’t actually track what I was spending at all. Actually I became more vigilant when I was in Panama and Costa Rica, when things were much more expensive. In Panama I found it difficult to sleep if I was in my tent because of the heat and all the hotels I came across, which weren’t that many, were very expensive. Food was expensive too and I struggled to find local markets. Thus I found it difficult to stay on budget there. In Costa Rica, on the other hand, I found it quite easy to sidestep many expenses that non-cyclist travellers might experience there i.e. I did a lot of free/wild camping – oh their beaches – and cooked for myself much more with food I easily found locally.

Generally, when things were less expensive in a country I was less vigilant with how I spent my money and often made poor food choice items (high sugar items in shiny wrappers like chocolate, biscuits, and fizzy drinks) and I was also more likely to stay in inexpensive hotels. Thus I may have spent more per day than I did in Costa Rica in less expensive places, yet Costa Rica was one of my favourite places.

Tip: generally, you will probably draw out bundles of cash from cash machines (to avoid fees each time). If you do have a budget per day put the big bundle of cash some place safe and then put the amount in your daily money bag and spend from that. Each day take from the big bundle and add it to your daily money bag. Sometimes you might spend a bit over or a bit less but this is an easy way to keep track of what you are spending.

8. Unexpected happenings – mechanical issues, injuries…

Sometimes things you had never anticipated might happen. They might change your whole trip. I had a couple of minor mechanical issues whilst on the road – brake problems, bike rack issues (screw came loose) – and I dealt with them temporarily until I got to the next town or city. Be aware that in some countries you might not be able to find specific parts easily – I’d recommend carrying things like a spare chain and brake pads. But whatever happens you will find a way of getting to the nearest city – an unofficial bus stop request or hitching – people will help. Obviously you should know how to repair a puncture as you will get some – although I only got 4 in my entire time in Latin America.

Other things might happen too. For me there was the dog bite incident and I also twisted my ankle in Nicaragua and I wasn’t able to ride for a few weeks. Again you will find a way of dealing with these issues and you will find help. After the dog bike incident, I got a ride in a pickup truck easily to the nearest city, which was 80kms away, and then I went to the hospital. After I twisted my ankle I took public transport all the way through Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Honduras. Although I heard lots of fear generating stories about these places I would have really liked to have cycled a little in these places as when I passed through they were beautiful and I met other cyclists who had cycled through and they had a really enjoyable time.

If you are away for a long time something will almost undoubtedly happen. You will find a solution. Be confident.

9. Stay aware on the roads

The cycling culture is very different from what I was used to in Europe. In fact, there is often no cycling culture (cycling is often what many people just have to do when they can’t afford a car) and as a result motorists lack awareness of the vulnerability of cyclists and may pass you in what appears to be an inconsiderate or even malicious way. I wrote a blog post on how to stay safe among other traffic based on my experiences in Latin America (link here) but my advice boils down to being extra aware of motorists and of norms in different cultures (i.e. in Peru slower vehicles are generally expected to get out of the way and even off the road if there is space). But in addition to that definitely have a rear view mirror, create additional space for yourself on the road, make yourself more visible, and ask local cyclists about what roads to take (avoid busy roads with little space and take tranquil roads even if they are a little longer).mirror10. Don’t rely on only one mapping tool

 

Different mapping tools have disadvantages and advantages. I like paper maps as they can help planning over long distances (also I have had many local people become fascinated by my paper maps). I like asking directions from local people as it can be connecting, plus local people will be able to provide information about road conditions (i.e., whether a road is a dirt track or tarmacked). I like GPS and downloadable maps like Maps.Me as they can be useful just to check you’re on the right route and useful when lost. However, never fully trust the bike directions with Maps.Me – it’s algorithm does whatever it can to take you away from major roads and this can lead to detours up into mountains and ridiculously un-rideable roads).

I use a combination of all three as relying on one source got me into difficulty a couple of times. If you are not taking a major road, then it is worth checking with someone local the conditions of a road – personally I prefer tarmacked roads over dirt track roads and GPS or paper maps are unlikely to show you.

11. Take it easy and give yourself a break

It can be challenging riding a bicycle in Latin America as there can be sudden climate changes and sometimes difficult landscapes to cross.

Climate and body awareness

I began my journey in Argentina in November (end of spring) and it was hot and got hotter as I went north. When I reached Peru it was the middle of the wet season and although it was very hot I was often at high altitude (I got up to 4,500 metres) where it was also quite cold. I experienced humid heat in Panama and Costa Rica on the cusp of rainy season there, and then had dry summer sun on the coast and in the deserts of Mexico. Obviously it is important to have the equipment to deal with the diverse climates (e.g., warm sleeping bag and clothes, wet weather gear, sufficient water capacity).

I had not cycled in many of these climates previously and so I didn’t really know or even really consider how much they would affect my body and its ability to cycle. Like me you may not always be able to go as far as you think and may find yourself caught in the middle of nowhere where there is little support or basic amenities. A number of times I had some rides which had me arriving at a hotel, often far short of my destination, completely debilitated and barely able to speak. As you change climate give yourself some time to understand how bodily needs might change and how your daily cycling strategy might need to be adapted.

In Panama I had a fairly horrible time so when I arrived in Costa Rica, which has a similar climate I set myself two rules – no cycling after 11am and no more than 50kms (30 miles) a day. To hell with schedule and plans I wanted to enjoy the journey. I then just accepted that later on I might need to take another form of transport to get further north.

Other ways of transporting you and your bike – bus, hitching, boating

You don’t have to cycle everywhere! It is OK to give yourself a break – you probably deserve it. It is easy to take you bicycle on a bus in Latin America. There is no special packaging required; the bicycle just goes under the bus. However, Mexico excepting, there is normally a surcharge for the bike. Plus in Latin America buses will normally stop wherever you signal them to stop i.e. the middle of nowhere which is important if something mechanical happens or you get caught out.

You might want to hitch a ride up a mountain (I did this once in Guatemala) or people may offer you a ride (sometimes people stopped to offer rides and I did take them a couple of times when it felt right).

WP_001257I’d also highly recommend taking a cargo boat down the Amazon river if it suits your journey – the bike is stowed beneath and you swing on a hammock for a few days. There are faster boats too. If you are interested in what the general experience was like take a look at my blog post taking boats in the Amazon basin. Note there is a surcharge for the bicycle on boats which relative to the price of a passenger ticket I thought was quite high (although overall it is an inexpensive way to travel and the main way that locals travel in that region so a good opportunity to connect).

12. Getting across the Darian Gap

Colombia and Panama may share a land border but crossing by land is completely inadvisable. There are no roads – just thick, largely impenetrable, jungle known as the Darien Gap. Even if a person has the necessary experience to get through thick largely untracked jungle it is a route for drug smugglers and once a hotbed for guerrilla warfare – there is no knowing who might be encountered on route.

People either fly or take a boat. I took a boat, an expensive sailing boat ($550 for six nights cruising around the San Blas islands on route), but after all the cycling I’d done up to then I felt I deserved it and wanted to have the experience. It was a pleasurable experience (read more here), but there are certainly other less expensive ways. I don’t have details. If you do let me know so I can put it up here for others.

13. And lastly. . .be aware of any fear but don’t necessarily listen to it

The only thing we have to fear is fear itself

Fear is quite normal. Most people experience it to some extent. Even though I’ve wild-camped more than 500 times in my life I still watch my mind go through all of the “what ifs” each time I settle down for the night. Sometimes it is worse than others times but I tend to just ignore it because it normally has no basis in reality – I’m in the middle of nowhere and actually people are very kind.

Yes, awful things can happen. They happen all the time throughout the world, often rare isolated incidences which we may hear about. But also awful things might be happening every day single day in the homes of people we live near and we might never hear about them. Good things also happen too, very often, yet we rarely hear about them. My advice is to be aware of what your mind is doing yet pay attention to the present, what you see before you and are experiencing in that moment – if something in your body is telling you something is dangerous then listen to that. Just stay aware.

I admit I was really scared generally about cycling in Mexico because I had so many warnings but as it turned out the people in Mexico were the friendliest of them all and as I rode each day I saw nothing to warrant the warnings I had been given. Often we hear things third-hand and people pass around stories feeding each one another’s fears. My advice is just to be aware of how fear is fed in conversations with others and try not to participate in it. Listen to those who have actually been to the places you are going. Fear can prevent us from experience really wonderful things. But saying that you don’t always “have to” challenge fear. I succumbed to the fear sometimes and just took a hotel rather than camped but on the whole I ignored it and had a truly fantastic time.

I’m fairly certain you will have a fantastic time too and I hope this blog post was of some use. Again if it was the let me know, if not then let me know too, and please message if you have any questions.

camp tree river

***I’m currently on a big cycling tour and most of my writing is about happiness and finding happiness through people I meet and the places I visit and how the bicycle has helped me to do this. So please follow me if that interests you. I have written some cycle tour specific posts and you can find these here.

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