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Bikepacking in South America

From reading about the journeys of cyclists through South America, it appears they had many common experiences. No matter how difficult it became, there were always those moments that took their breath away. No day was quite like the other — mountains, flat ground, winds, snow, heat or cold. Sometimes, they slept in tents. Other times, they experienced the warm hospitality of the locals.

A desire to explore the world outweighs fear

Evgenia Berestneva, who was born in Russia, swapped a well-paid job and security for life on the road. She bought a bicycle and traveled 6,000 km across South America, from Argentina to Colombia, leaving Buenos Aires in June 2015 with her friend Rodrigo from Uruguay.

On the first night, they couldn’t find anywhere to put up a tent other than next to an electric station in the bushes. She didn’t get much sleep that night and slept badly for the first two months on the road, worrying about wild animals and suspicious-looking strangers.

They started at a slow 30-40 km a day, pedaling from 8-5. After a month of this, they got used to the pace and didn’t feel any pain anymore. The road was mostly flat with monotonous fields and the wind blowing in their faces.

Evgenia soon got over her fear of dogs, but it took longer to overcome a fear of people. Slowly, she learned how to trust total strangers who turned out to be kind and caring.

Choosing a site where they would put up their tent for the night was always difficult. They didn’t want to be too visible, but they also didn’t want to go too far from the road.

On their way to the center of Argentina, their tent was covered with frost at sunrise and their water bottles turned to ice. They decided to turn up north from Cordoba to get nearer to the equator and the heat. It took them two months of cycling through the mountains of Northern Argentina to reach Bolivia.

When they reached Bolivia, they found that the people were very poor and the roads were deserted. Sometimes, they had no other choice but to put the tent up right beside the road. Surprisingly, they found the roads quite good apart from 100 km trip without asphalt up into the mountains that took four days.

When camping in Salar de Uyuni, they encountered such a strong wind that they couldn’t walk and had to put their tent up in the middle of the desert. It took an hour to dig tent pegs into the salty crystals, and they had to tie the tent to the bicycles so it wouldn’t blow away.

They met plenty of other cyclists along the way from many different parts of the world. There were people who had been living for years with a bicycle and a tent. After a while, it wasn’t a novelty anymore to meet other cyclists. The first surge of adrenalin had also worn off, and their daily routine even became rather boring.

They stayed in La Paz, Bolivia, for about a month-and-a-half before splitting up. She kept on pedaling alone and arrived in Colombia in May 2016 after crossing Peru and Ecuador.

Staying with locals and exploring local cultures

Sissi Korhonen, a Finn, is another female cyclist who rode through South America. She started her trip in Ushuaia, Argentina, slowly making her way through Central and South America to Mexico. Her goal was to learn as much as she could about the local cultures, and so nearly every night in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, she relied on their hospitality.

She found that South America is full of beauty. She says the Perito Moreno Glacier in El Calafate, Argentina, was amazing and the vast, empty landscapes of the Argentinian Patagonia were unlike anything she’d experienced in Europe.

The Argentinian Pampas were extremely fascinating to her. Her favorite spot was the Quebrada de las Conchas in Salta, Argentina, a gorge with red rock and a serpentine road passing through. In her opinion, the most hospitable and generous locals were found in Paraguay.

A cycling mission without any money

Laura Bingham, a British adventurer, left home at the age of 18 to explore the world. In 2016, she decided to travel across South America from the west coast to the east coast by bicycle. She set out with only a bike, camping kit and some essentials.

She did not take any money with her because she wanted to understand what it was like to be starving and desperate and rely on human kindness to survive. She did this in support of Operation South America, a charity working in Paraguay that offers assistance to homeless children.

She cycled 7,000 km, taking more than 164 days. She also experienced some days that were far worse than others. She almost gave up one day after having pushed her bike up the Andes for days. Her clothes were soaked through due to the altitude, and she was cold, wet, exhausted and hungry.

She had to just keep going when she was turned away by various locals and eventually found a grass patch to camp on. After she had rested, the fog lifted and she suddenly saw the most spectacular view and started to feel happy — despite the fact that she had wanted to give up an hour earlier. She did face times when she was rejected and turned away, but someone always came to the rescue.

The joys of traveling with a bike and a tent

Evgenia Berestneva urges others to experience what it’s like to travel with just a bicycle and a tent. She says it doesn’t matter if you’ve been walking for three hours to reach the top of a mountain and you’re breathless and exhausted.

When you reach the top, you experience a zen-like peace as you look down at mountains, valleys and clouds. She found there were many simple things that made her happy, such as managing to put the tent up before dark and making dinner.

Many of us associate South America with crime and poverty because of what we hear on the news. It’s good to know that these cyclists experienced the spontaneity and warmth of the locals, felt safe on their travels and experienced some amazing moments.