Having previously spent 3 months cycling across Canada, for the next part of our trip we sent our bikes home and set off to go backpacking through central and South America for 9 months.
We were having a brilliant time in South America, but found ourselves missing the freedom and adventure of travelling by bike. So in La Paz, Bolivia we caved in, bought some bikes and set off cycling South America towards Brazil on our second epic journey towards our intended final destination of Rio!
Having travelled in Bolivia twice before, I already knew it was one of my favourite countries and that I wanted to begin cycling through South America tour here. Bolivia provides a completely different type of experience to anywhere else – it’s such a diverse, wonderful and crazy place.
You're truly into the realm of adventure travel as you set off from La Paz. Climbing out of the city, we spent most of our time cycling at over 4,000m, surrounded by barren lands and snow-capped mountains. The scenery is spectacular, but the paved roads soon dissolve into mud tracks leading to lots of falls and spills. Deserts, lakes, llamas and beautifully dressed locals are just some of the sights you’re treated to daily as you cycle through Bolivia.
One of the highlights of Bolivia is the Salar de Uyuni, the largest salt flat in the world. The week-long cycle ride to reach the salt flats on the ‘road from hell’ (bumpiest dirt track we had ever been on) is barren, empty and very tough. On the way, we camped through sandstorms, next to wild llamas and surrounded by desert, mountains and volcanoes.
We intended to cycle across the breath-taking salt flats but encountered one major problem, which was that we hit the wet season. Crossing a lake of water a few inches deep meant we could only pedal about 5kmph and we were left with few options to rest or set up camp anywhere.
We depended on our GPS for navigation here as we couldn’t see the island of dry land we were aiming for. After 3 hours we’d only covered 13km and knowing that we still had 60km to reach the island and another 80km to go the next day, we wisely decided to turn back.
The salt flats attempt was an amazing and memorable adventure, but we were definitely relieved to be back in town where we could clean all the salt off our bikes and from ourselves. During the dry season (July-October), you can camp on the salt flats, stop whenever you want and if you take loads of food and water it would be a much better experience. You will be able to enjoy the silence and beauty all on your own, but for us, the worry of hitting dry land was quite stressful.
Leaving Bolivia, we crossed into Argentina to the bliss of tarmacked roads. We found the Northern area around Salta to be a hugely pleasant surprise with canyons and valleys made of colourful rock.
The canyons gave way to vineyards and very high quality wine! It’s very easy to drive or cycle around here and you’ll find car or bike hire is commonly available. After sampling as many wines as we could(!) we decided our favourite was the white wine of Torrentes.
You cycle through vineyards and on to a fairly dry environment dotted with cactuses before climbing over a high pass. On the other side, you sweep down a long valley through lush rainforest into Tafi de Valle. Never have we seen such a dramatic change in scenery in one day’s cycle and never had we managed 25 miles without touching the pedals! Heaven!
Next, we headed off across the Chaco region towards Paraguay which is a little reminiscent of our previous trip to the Canadian Prairies. Flat farmland or empty nothingness spreads before you for miles and the scenery is unchanging for days on end. We were definitely off the tourist trail and it was about 2 months before we even saw any tourists.
As in the Canadian Prairies, we found the locals to be very friendly so we often camped by small households or farms that were always willing to share food with us. We saw lots of local wildlife which varied from birds of prey, to scorpions, to spiders and snakes.
One day after a few punctures and broken spokes (our bikes were not happy after the salt flat experience) we took a couple of days off in Charata. We felt like celebrities being the first tourists in town for over a year and were even interviewed in Spanish by 2 local radio stations (thankfully Debs is fluent and answered most of the questions!). After our 15 minutes of fame were over, it was time to push onwards to a country we knew little about – Paraguay.
Before we arrived here people warned us that Paraguay could be dangerous and we were advised to avoid it. After less than 2 minutes, a crazy driver swerved in front of us and we were closer to a major accident than we’d ever been. Maybe the warnings were right?
Fortunately, things turned out for the best and we experienced gorgeous days cycling through rolling green landscapes that reminded us very much of England and actually made us a bit homesick. In Paraguay there is a big German influence, so we blended in with the locals who are a mix of white and indigenous population.
The people here are amazingly friendly and again helped us out whenever needed as we camped in gardens and even behind petrol stations. Our short visit ended in Ciudad del Este on the border of Brazil, a crazy and not very attractive city but to its credit - you can buy cheap electronics of any kind.
We had a couple of days at the stunning Iguazu Falls. There are no words to describe these waterfalls so you just have to visit for yourself then let me know if you find any more incredible falls out there! Make sure you spend time on both the Argentinian and Brazilian sides of the falls (the Argentinian side is our favourite).
Running low on time, we took a bus to Sao Paulo so we could enjoy the last few weeks cycling along the Costa Verde. Cycling out of Sao Paulo is like taking the M1 motorway out of London - not ideal and sketchy at best, but we made it alive to the coast and the Costa Verde which boasts the highest concentration of 5 star beaches in Brazil.
Any time the road passed a beach, we took the opportunity to cycle on the sand and through deserted beaches. Our final couple of weeks of South America cycling had more rest days than cycle days - the perfect way to end the greatest year ever!
Our Brazilian highlights were Paraty, a great colonial town and Trinidade - a beach about 20 minutes bus ride from Paraty. We found our own secluded beach to camp on - one of my best highlights was sleeping to the sound of lapping waves.
On Ilha Grande (an island of the coast of Rio) we spent a few days relaxing and walking culminating in a big event for us. I asked Debs to marry me on top of the second highest mountain on the island and she said YES!
So with absolute excitement we took on the last 2 days cycling into Rio. Our last night was fairly scary as the police wouldn’t let us camp next to the station due to risk of drive by shootings. Our sleeping solution eventually materialised in the same way as had happened so many times before - a friendly local directed us to the only guesthouse in town, which turned out to be one of the best places we stayed. Once again our lows were transformed into new highs by the goodness of people.
Well rested, we were able to we set off towards Rio along miles of gorgeous beaches. Once we reached the city, we spent a few days having some well-earned drinks to celebrate the completion of 3,500miles over 3 months and thinking about the need to start planning our wedding!
Bike shops and where to buy bikes: don’t buy bikes in Bolivia. Everything is imported so very expensive. We ended up with second hand bikes from Gravity Assisted Mountain biking (one of the downhill mountain bike companies).
There are no bike shops to pick up equipment. That said, if you ever need solid steel panniers made to last, or you want to learn how a 2 litre Coke bottle can be transformed into a mud guard – Bolivia is the place to be!
I would definitely recommend this company for the Most Dangerous Road in the World as you cycle with 3000 feet drop offs inches from your tyres, and we can help arrange this.
Buying bikes in Chile or Argentina is probably easier and a lot cheaper – we found there were lots of bike shops all over Argentina. After our trans-Canada cycle trip, we are big fans of our Brookes hard leather saddle and could not recommend these enough.
Remember duct tape: our bikes seemed to be covered in this by the end and it kept us going!
Bicicliterias: Oh how we loved these. We did take a crash course in fixing broken spokes so we could fix a couple but more often than not we popped into a friendly Bicicliteria in any small village and for just a dollar, they would make any repairs necessary and off we went. We found out you can cycle with 3 broken spokes, but 4 is impossible!
Food: always eat as much as you fancy and always make sure you eat before you get hungry (little but often). We spent many days between shops so we got use to carrying lots of food, snacks and water with us.
Potential hazards: there are some crazy drivers in South America. We saw our fair share and had some close shaves on more than one occasion. You need to keep an eye out for people cutting you up. Argentinian lorry drivers seemed to be the most aggressive.
Be careful of altitude: the altitude in some places in South America can make cycling a lot tougher. We found we picked up colds quickly and did not get rid of them until we reached lower altitudes. We also got extremely sunburnt no matter how much factor 50+ sunscreen we applied. We devised an ingenious method to protect our noses - egg cartons taped to our sunglasses. Yes we looked very foolish and got lots of weird looks but it worked!
Places to stay: there are people throughout South America offering accommodation to cyclists through the Warm Showers website which is like Couch Surfing for cycle tourers. However, compared to our previous cycle trip in Canada there are far fewer opportunities, so we also used Couch Surfing and had some great stays with local people.
We found locals in small villages and farms extremely friendly – they would let us camp on their land and share their food with us as well as providing the occasional ‘shower’ from a bucket. In Bolivia and Paraguay we found hotels were cheap, but in Argentina and Brazil hotels were expensive and closer to European prices.
When wild camping we were wary of being attacked by locals having heard some stories from other cycle tourers. We fortunately had no such problems and all our experiences were positive.
For more tips, see Greenbelly.co - a handy website with lots of tips and information about getting started on your bicycle touring adventure.
We cannot recommend cycle touring South America enough; for us it was truly the adventure of a lifetime. We found South America to be more adventurous and we felt more 'off the beaten track' than during our previous trip in Canada, although this brought its own dangers and rewards.
One of the biggest benefits of cycle touring is flexibility and freedom, plus opportunities to meet all the locals along the way. We passed through places that no other tourists would see and although there were some lows, as always, the highs outnumbered them hugely!
If you’d like to plan a trip cycling across South America, I can help. When travelling with bikes, do check the airlines luggage conditions. If you fly on American Airlines/ British Airways, they will include bikes if you a) have Brazil on your itinerary and b) your bike falls within 30kg limit (2 bags).
London – Miami – La Paz // Rio – London from £829 pp inc. taxes
If you want to follow a similar route but not necessarily on bikes, then check out these tours from G Adventures which I can book for you: