Posted by: standing_baba | December 9, 2009

Bike Tip: Don’t Drink the (Bottled) Water

FOREWORD: This will be the first of a Bike Tip series in which I share knowledge I’ve learned about how to save money on a bike tour.

He got a little dehydrated

On a bike tour little expenses add up. In my experience, long-distance cyclists in South America rarely have bottomless bank accounts. Many jumped into their trip because they sensed the timing was right, that it may be now or never, not because they have the financial security most people assume necessary for trips of continental proportions. These cyclists understand that life is short, that money will not pave the road to happiness or heaven but can, in even limited quantities, make seeing the world entirely feasible. These cyclists trade a certain financial stability to follow their dreams, expand their minds, and live an adventure. Part of that adventure is making the most of the resources at their disposal in order to continue onward.

Long-distance cyclists are excellent money managers, though you’ll be hard-pressed to find a financial adviser that would recommend quitting your job, piecing together a touring bike, and pedaling into the unknown. The great majority of long-distance cyclists—the young ones with minor savings who weren’t willing to bet their health on someday future trips—must constantly find ways to lessen expenses, such as water, in order to realize their travel dreams.

Until I see “Cyclist Wanted to Travel South America: Competitive Wages” in the help wanted section, I’m in the same young cyclist category. Being thrifty and wise with the money I’ve saved is the name of the game.


Drink water, yes. Just don’t drink any water. In most of South America, including in major cities, it can be unwise to drink from the tap. You may get away with a sip in Caracas, a compromised whisky on the rocks in Bogota, even a full bottle chugged in desperate thirst from that unsightly truck stop restroom outside Quito, but you will eventually regret your risky ways in such heaving spasms of guttural agony that you will learn to be more selective about your H2o sources.

SteriPEN: UV light in your pocket

1. Harness the sun. This is not Sunny D’s new ad campaign. It’s advanced technology in your handlebar bag. I highly recommend the SteriPEN Freedom Water Purifier. It’s a convenient, USB-rechargeable water purifier that effectively kills with UV light all those nasty microbes, bacteria, and viruses that would make a long day in the saddle feel like Chinese torture. Forty-five seconds stirring in a wide-mouth bottle—I carry a Nalgene specifically for this purpose—creates safe, drinkable water.

PROS: Device pays for itself many times over; reduces plastic waste; scare/impress rural kids with your magic wand.

CONS: Need to buy batteries; impossible to repair/replace device in South America.

2. Buy chocolate at a pharmacy. Or gum. Or actual medicine if you need it. Why? Because all pharmacies in South America have community jugs of purified water so their customers can swallow the multitude of pills they love to prescribe. Since my above SteriPEN inexplicably stopped working after hundreds of zapped Nalgenes, I now use the Trick-a-Pharmacist technique as my principle refill source. I’ll make a minimum purchase (US $.10), then proceed to fill up my two Naglene water bottles. Is this ethically correct? You decide. Thirst has no moral code. All in all, pharmacists find this gypsy trick amusing and usually want me to stick around to talk bike, which of course I do, rehydrating all the while.

PROS: Practically free water; get to know pharmacists!

CONS: Ethical?

3. Never buy bottled water. I don’t. In addition to my recently purchased 1.5 liter sexy silver Thermos I use for hot morning and evening tea, I already have three other water bottles. Buying another disposable bottle that I’ll toss within hours (or seconds) seems wrong, unnecessary.

Environmental issues aside, I also prefer to buy locally. Bottled water in South America is monopolized almost entirely by the Coca Cola Company. Sleep well, they’re doing just fine financially. Instead, pay local restaurants to refill your existing bottles with the flavored-water or juice that typically accompanies their lunch time set meals. Don’t worry: it’s boiled. And delicious. This option ALWAYS costs less than a bottle of water the same size and your money goes to the people who need it most.

PROS: Less plastic waste; money stays local; flavored-water or juice for less than water!

CONS: Coca Cola sends an assassin to silence me; none.



  1. Nice post,would love to read more tips like this, i bet you have loads….do share, when you have the time

    I were thinking, what if you actually drank the tap water, got sick for a while and then got used to it/immune, as the locals are fine to drink guessing the locals fine to drink it? But then is it a regional thing? would your body keep rejecting the water with different regional varieties?

    Im going to be touring SA soon, i have a water filter,though its ideal for the rural, i cant see my self pumping away every time i need to refill, the steri pen is much slicker..

    Your right buying water is a no go, and an expense i cant afford, guess i’ll have to wait and offered some great solutions though, donde esta la farmacia?

    Quality blog btw, thanks for sharing!

    Also, do you have any tips for learning spanish?
    How did you become fluent?

    • I plan to write two more “Bike Tip” posts, one about finding free/cheap accomodation and another about cheap/quality food. These posts have been on my list for awhile, but as you’ll see when you start your tour many interesting things distract you from writing, which is why you go on tour in the first place. As far as the water immunity hypothesis goes, I think its a myth. The locals don’t drink the water, they boil it. The water is full of constantly changing microbes and viruses that can make feel like death. Even one location’s water can change from week to week, depending on who dumped what close the source. If you want to make your body a living zoo of invisible organisms for the sake of science, please let us know how it goes. Regarding the Spanish, stay tuned for a post about language learning. I also promised one of my best friends who is also interested in learning Spanish that I’d write out a step-by-step plan to become conversational. I’ve been at Spanish awhile and now know what works. I basically became fluent through grammar study/classes first (I have a Spanish major), then living in a Spanish-speaking countries for extended periods of time (besides this bike tour I’ve lived a combined three years in Costa Rica, Mexico, and Spain). Thanks for writing Jason. More bike tips coming soon….

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