Why are you traveling?
The idea of leaving home to discover new places has always fascinated me. As a kid I flipped through my father’s National Geographic magazines, mesmerized by aerial photos of the Amazon, close-ups of tribes with tattoos and hoop rings, cities surrounded by mountains, landscapes locked in time. As I grew older I came to realize if I’m to ever experience these things I would have act instead of dream. This South American bike tour, believe it or not, is the end result of pure logic. If adventure is to happen, it must happen now while I’m youthful and free of responsibilities. Simply put, I’m traveling now because I can.
What do you hope to achieve through this trip?
The main reason for this trip is adventure, but since I’m a very goal-oriented person I’ve listed some of my more concrete to-dos below. Feel free to harass me via e-mail or call me out if you feel I’m deviating from these goals during my travels. Humiliation can be a great motivator.
Why travel by bike?
People have reacted differently upon hearing my travel plans, with responses ranging from “That’s amazing” to “You’re going to die!” Admittedly, this South American bike tour is more ambitious than anything I’ve ever done. (The farthest I’ve ever biked at one time was 100 miles during an American Cancer Society Fundraiser). To make the trip manageable I’ll break it down to smaller pieces. Instead of overwhelming myself with the vastness of South America (read with echoey booming God voice), I’ll concentrate on getting from A to B each day. I’ll focus on the now. People, scenery, food, music, culture are more accessible with slow travel. I can literally stop and smell the roses, at anytime, for as long as I like, and even take a long nap amongst the bees. Why not? Also, bike travel is cheap. Since my funds are limited biking allows me to travel farther, longer, with a more up-close and personal experiences. In the end, it’s all about the stories and people you meet.
Why travel South America?
Moreso than any other world region Latin America best matches my desire for adventure and personal growth. Marked constrasts in landscapes, language, people, cultures, socio-economic structures, and belief systems will constantly challenge me physically and mentally. Everyday will have the potential to amaze. Through my photos and writings I hope to share that sense of amazement with you. On a personal growth level, I’m most interested in learning from South Americans who have vastly different perspectives and backgrounds than myself. Also, Brazilan Portuguese can only be learned in Brazil.
How much do you plan to spend per day?
Based on research and other bike blogs, I don’t plan to spend more than $20 per day on average. Trinidad, Venezuela, Colombia, Chile, and Brazil are relatively expensive while Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Uruguay, and Argentina cost less. I’ll note every purchase in a small notebook, then post my weekly total expenses on this blog along with distance traveled, average miles per day, etcetera. My reasons are two-fold: 1) to keep my budget on track and 2) to help others plan similar trips to South America.
What is your route?
I will backpack Trinidad and Venezuela, then begin biking in Cartagena, Colombia when I reunite with my faithful friends Bob & Surly in July 2009. By February 2010 I hope to be in southern Brazil for Carnaval! Please see the ‘Route’ tab for details.
How many miles will you travel per day?
My average day will cover about 45 miles. In my mind I’m a machine with limitless energy. Somedays mountains, gravel roads, flats, rain, and my archnemisis wind will likely low-blow me back to reality. Once, when stating my case for aerodynamics in the anti-sleek sport of loaded touring, friend Matt Cunningham replied wisely, “It’s not a race.” It’s not a race indeed.
Did you train for this trip?
It depends how you define ‘train.’ In Austin, Texas I rode my bike to and from work an average of 35 miles a week. However, there is quite a difference between 35 miles and 270 miles—the latter my likely per week itinerary in South America. Am I worried about not being in shape? Not really. My body will adapt quickly, and more importantly I’m mentally prepared. I’ve heard though the first three days of any bike tour are brutal on leg muscles. Stay tuned for chiseled thigh photos.
How do you know where you’re going?
The truth is I still don’t know exactly where I’m going—except in a general southernly direction down the continent. Some would call this poor planning. Flexibility, my flexible friend, begs to differ. Besides a fairly structured safe passage through the Colombian countryside, I’ll mostly rely on local word-of-mouth information for route planning. There is no better resource than the people who intimately know the area. Backroads with beautiful scenery and wide shoulders will take priority. Main highways with heavy traffic will be avoided for safety reasons.
What about the language barrier?
After several years studying and living in Spanish-speaking countries I feel comfortable with the language. Some friends have called me the most non-Latino Latino they know, which I silently let ride, because it’s an equally ridiculous title to defend or deny. When I arrive to Portuguese-speaking Brazil I plan to take language classes, find an apartment with Brazilian roommates, and fully immerse myself in the culture. Since Portuguese and Spanish are 89% the same I’m confident I’ll learn quickly. Don’t be put off by traveling just because you don’t speak the host country’s language. You’ll learn to communicate your basic travel needs quickly. Besides, English is universal. It’s highly likely someone else will understand you. If the mere mention of diptongos and subordinate conjunctions excites you, this Wikipedia article regarding Spanish-Portuguese similarities may be of interest.
Won’t you be lonely?
Sometimes. Loneliness is an inevitable part of travel. I accept it as part of the greater learning experience. Many people find this attitude strange—why be alone when you can be with others? From past travel experiences I’ve learned independence, confidence, innovation, and dare I say ‘wisdom’ are gained from the open road (and empty nights staring out a hotel window). Without distractions I hope to have very real conversations with myself.
I’m approaching loneliness as just another challenge and realize it will make me an all-around stronger person. With that said, traveling is an extremely social activity. With a smile and basic hygiene regiment, you will meet people. Hospitality sites such as Couchsurfing provide instant social circles all over the globe. As a foreigner people are curious to talk with you (especially if you roll up with a big yellow bike trailer). Sometimes chance encounters seem straight out of movie scripts. Overall, the lonely times will be overshadowed by memorable experiences with people along the way.
How will you communicate with friends and family in the United States?
At no other point in human history has it been easier to stay connected. Thanks globalization. Skype is free for computer-to-computer video calls. Skype’s computer-to-landline calls are some of the cheapest per minute charges around. The sound quality varies, depending on the internet connection. Pennytalk’s sound quality and ease of use is excellent, but my experience is limited to one international phone call. Jaxtr allows users to make international phone-to-phone calls for free. Gmail chat, MSN messenger, and Facebook will also be used to stay in touch.
What will you do for entertainment?
Biking will keep me entertained. If you say anything enough times it becomes true, right? Off the bike photography, reading, writing, and people-watching are my main hobbies, which are conveniently free and can be done anywhere. In cities I plan to take yoga & photography classes, check out local film scenes, get rowdy with bike clubs, and volunteer. In the countryside I’m perfectly content with a book, campstove-cooked meal, and a blanket of stars overhead.
Do you have travel insurance?
I bought the Multinational Underwriters’ Worldwide Health Extended policy for US $384. This is one-year policy covers medical emergencies when traveling anywhere outside the United States. This policy covers non-competitive biking. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to secure renter’s insurance to cover personal property while traveling internationally since I didn’t have a permanent residence at the time of application. If you’re planning a similar bike tour I highly recommend both medical and property insurance. Feel free to contact me anytime if you have questions about travel insurance. I’d be happy to tell you what I’ve learned from my research.
JUNE 2010 UPDATE: The Multinational Underwriter’s Worldwide Health Extended policy has been discontinued. For my second year of travel I recently purchased the HCC Medical Insurance Services Atlas International excluding US Visit policy for US $387. I included the optional “Hazardous Sports” policy since amateur sport activites (e.g. bike touring) were not covered completely in the basic policy. I found this new plan using Squaremouth.com, a user-friendly travel insurance search engine that allows you to compare different policies on the same screen and even customize them to meet your travel needs.
Will you carry a weapon?
A surprising number of people have recommended I carry a firearm, some jokingly, others not so much. (Note: none of them have actually been to South America). This is not an option for several practical reasons, such as differing gun concealment laws throughout South America and my complete lack of interest in shooting anyone. A more effective way to deal with dangerous situations is to avoid them altogether. Common sense, first-hand information from locals, and truly listening to your instincts will keep you safe. My safety philosophy comes from trail-and-error and more recently from “The Gift of Fear: And Other Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence” by Gavin de Becker. I recommend this book to anyone who wants to stay safe without confrontation. Worse case scenario, my bodyguard gots my back:
What visas are required in South America?
Bolivia and Brazil are the only countries that require U.S. citizens to get a visa. Both cost US $135. To avoid border surprises with uniformed men with rifles its best to follow regulations. The dumb American act, though a trump card in most out-of-country situations with authorities, can only get your so far. Here is an interesting story of bike tourist Japhy Dhungana’s Bolivian border adventure.
JUNE 2010 UPDATE: Chile requires U.S. citizens to pay a US $135 visa when arriving by air, not by land; Paraguay a US $40 visa; and Argentina a US $131 visa when arriving by air or land. Thanks U.S. government for these gifts of reciprocity.
JANUARY 2011 UPDATE: There is a better way to keep track of South America’s endless bureaucratic mumbo jumbo. Click here.
Where will you sleep?
The short answer: wherever it is safe to do so. For longer city stays I will contact members of the free hospitality network Couchsurfing. For short city stays I’ll occasionally ask the local fire department or police station for shelter, a common bicycle tourist practice that always involves funny photos with bright red helmets and serious poses with uniformed men. Also, economic hotels, hostels, and guesthouses are readily available throughout South America (a bed in Bolivia can be as little as US $1.50). Many bike tourists receive homestay invites from people they meet along the way. When biking through the countryside I’ll stealth camp beside the road. Don’t worry mom, I’m sneaky.
How are you paying for this trip?
Every cent for this trip was earned, saved, and put in the bank little by little. There is no magic formula for saving money (though there are several tricks to earning more which I’d like learn). Saving takes sacrifice, dedication, and focus. The good news: overtime ‘sacrifices’ become habits. My lifestyle is now the same whether I have a specific savings goal or not. For example, money-saving tactics like drinking only tap water with restaurant meals, not owning a car, having a roommate, renting movies from the library instead of a video store, bringing lunch to work, etcetera all now come naturally. Ask yourself before every purchase: is this as important as my ultimate goal? These minor changes alone save thousands of dollars a year. Keep in mind too the cost of living in certain regions of the world, such as South America, are much lower than in the United States. Traveling can be cheaper than staying home! Periodically I will post tips about how to make travel financially possible.
How long will you be gone?
I do not have a return ticket to the United States. Toward the end of my bike tour mid-2010 I’ll be on the lookout for professional work firstly in South America, secondly in the rest of the world. I’d like to pursue opportunities that may only present themselves during this unique period of my life when I’m without responsibilities and completely mobile. Professional work in South America’s Southern Cone and Brazil is my main interest; however, teaching English in Asia, working on private yachts in the Caribbean or Mediterranean, manning an Antarctic research station, and many others options that haven’t revealed themselves yet are all possibilities.
JANUARY 2011 UPDATE: It’s now 2011—where did the time go? I’m in Brazil and loving life. Really loving life. I plan to resume my bike tour toward Argentina—from Florianopolis, Brazil and passing through Uruguay en route to Bueno Aires—sometime in March 2011.