By: Mark Greiz
You ask me why I pedal to far away places;
I smile and close my eyes,
Words can’t describe the reason why;
The blue water glistens, the birds fly high.
January 29th, 2018. Although it was the height of summer, it was a cold and windy day in Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city in the region of Magallanes and Antartica. My plan, cycle north over ten thousand kilometers (6,300 miles) to Guayaquil, Ecuador within the five months I allotted myself. Several miles out of the city and as I headed inland from the coast I was blasted with powerful direct headwinds of up to 80 kilometers an hour. My legs cramped up and my progress came to a standstill. I barely rode 60 kilometers that day and slept in an abandoned wood shack on the side of the road.
I did not know that those headwinds would be with me for most of the journey, taunting me, punishing me and testing the limits of my patience.
For me the allure of extreme cycling touring is more than a mere physical pursuit, it’s a form of spiritual cleansing and renewal. As a marketing consultant and adjunct lecturer in New York City, I know what it is like to lose touch with nature, to live within our own secure bubbles, daily routines and mundane pursuits. Although New York City is a megapolis, it is easy to feel claustrophobic and to feel disconnected from life. Cycling alone through remote regions, sleeping rough in the wild and challenging my body both physically and emotionally, not only humbles me but also lets me peer deep within my soul. It grounds me, it brings me an inner peace, often times fleeting, but easy to conjure back up in my time of need.
On this most recent trek across South America, I cycled 10,400 kilometers (6,500 miles) and encountered some of the strongest and most consistent headwinds I have ever experienced lasting for days and weeks on end. I cycled through hailstorms, through deserts and towering mountains in the Andes. I camped rough on the side of the road, in deserted shacks, in my tent tucked away in the woods or the desert sands, in abandoned trailers and forsaken structures. I was sideswiped by a motorcycle in the Argentinean Pampa, having to pick my bruised and bloodied body off the road to continue riding in the scorching heat. I cycled on long stretches of deserted road with nary a car in sight, as well as through dreadful traffic with tractor-trailers speeding by inches from me. I experienced the mystical allure of the high Andes as well as the raw beauty of the Patagonias.
Starting the trip in Punta Arenas in the Southernmost region of South America, I cycled north through the Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia, passing remote regions were I encountered punishing headwinds daily, as well as some of the most scenic spots on this trip. While I feel that cycling the Carretera Austral in Chile is overrated and filled with cyclists heading south on short excursions, for the more intrepid cyclist there are still some very technically challenging and unfrequented routes to take, one of them being the off-road stretch from Chile Chico on the shores of the majestic Lake General Carrera to Puerto Guadal. After cycling north on the Carettera Austral I turned back to Argentina and crossed the border near Futaleufú, a beautiful area surrounded by pristine nature and fast flowing rivers.
Crossing the border back into Argentina, I cycled to the quaint European style city of San Carlos de Barloche on the shores of Lake Nahual Huapi and then onward to the charming Spanish colonial city of Salta, Argentina. What stood in the middle between Barloche and Salta was 2500 kilometers of mostly remote, flat and arid scrubland. Averaging 100 kilometers a day, I cycled this whole stretch within 24 days taking only one rest day. The riding was dull and monotonous and I encountered daily headwinds making for long, hot and arduous days. Villages were few and far between in this part of Argentina where numerous estancias occupy the barren land and fences run the length of the terrain. Most nights are spent sleeping meters from the side of the road hidden behind some thorn bushes, fighting off insects and watching rodents scatters about here and there, the sound of nocturnal animals adding to the midnight chorus.
Argentina is rife with visible wildlife from guanacos, lizards, wild boar, different types of rodents, tarantulas, fox and large birds related to the ostrich. There is no shelter from the sun during the day and there is no choice but to cycle into the wind for hours on end enduring the heat and rationing droplets of water to quench an unending thirst. Cycle, sip, sweat, sleep, cycle, sip, sweat, sleep, cycle, sip, sweat, sleep on the side of the road, day after day, week after week.
After having cycled over 2500 kilometers in flat arid plains and ready to depart Salta, it was time to climb into the mountains as I headed back to Chile. The route I chose was through Argentina’s Puna region to the desolate border at Paso Sico. The Puna region or Atacama Plateau stretches from North West Argentina into southern Chile. It is an arid and remote area consisting of high plateaus with elevations between 4000 to 5000 meters. The road from Salta to San Antonio de Los Cobres was several days of climbs on windy, paved and often winding roads, then there were 150 kilometers off-road were I cycled on gravel, rocks, and sand as I made my way to the Chile border at Paso Sico. The region is stunning in a rugged, harsh, yet calming way; alpacas roam freely and nary a passing vehicle is encountered on the whole road to Paso Sico. As I camped out nightly in the windswept and freezing high plateau, the night skies lite up with a myriad of stars, I was mesmerized by the sight and humbled by the majesty of this otherworldly landscape.
As I sat outside one night starring at the sky, pen in hand I began to write…
Sleeping under a glowing moon,
There is no other soul for miles to see;
What does it take to still your mind,
to set your body free?
Sleeping under a glowing moon,
From the daily grind I chose to flee.
The only companions present now…
are the stars, the sand, the gods and me.
Having crossed back into Chile at Paso Sico, the region was equally barren and stark, the roads winded up and the headwinds were fierce. It is a rough region to cycle in and an equally brutal region to sleep out in. As I slept out at high altitude in frigid temperatures amid violent winds I found comfort knowing that in a few days time I would begin my descent in the Atacama desert and arrive in the land of espresso, cold beers and pizza- the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama.
Days later, drained and ragged from a period of poor eating, long arduous climbs and sleeping out in harsh conditions, I cycled into town a zombie on my steel horse. As I cycled through the maze of dusty, narrow streets of San Pedro De Atacama I was overwhelmed, there was a cornucopia of activity, tourists on rented mountain bikes, artisans hawking their wares, backpackers sipping lattes chatting away about their most recent adventures and poseurs, the kind of which of might see in Pai, Thailand flaunting away on the corners.
I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong.
After just a couple of days in town and having eaten my fill of quinoa, pasta, salad, and pizza, I felt the long lonely stretches of road beckoning me once again. San Pedro De Atacama is like a trap and it was time to leave its grips before it was too late. From San Pedro I would continue my descent through the desert to the coast, sleeping in abandoned shacks on the side of the road or camped in the desert sands. For days, I followed the scenic northern Chile coast north passing seaside shantytowns where the locals eek out a living from fishing and seaweed harvesting until I reached the coastal city of Iquique. From there it was a few more days to the Peru border.
After crossing into Peru at the Arica border, I followed the coast north then turned inland. Leaving the coast I would now need to contend again with high peaks as I made my way to Arequipa and then Cusco. The road from the coast to Cusco is mostly climbing with elevations between 4500-4800 meters with a mixture of different conditions; there were stretches of dreadful traffic and utter mayhem as hundreds of lorries would pass in waves of caravans inches from me and other areas off the beaten path where Alpaca graze freely in the high Andean plateaus while Quechua shepherds tended to their flocks.
Cusco is a beguiling city; once the capital of the Inca Empire, the city center is filled with Spanish colonial architecture, trendy eateries, and hordes of tourists. It is easy to get seduced by her charms and I knew I had to leave after only three days or else I may have never left. After departing Cusco I cycled north on the Andes route passing small Quechua villages and larger cities including the charming city of Ayacucho with its historic city center. This city retains much of its old world charm but lacks the foreign tourists that crowd into Cusco. Cycling north on route 3 is a continuous cycle of slow climbs with elevation gains of 2000 meters in one shot and fast descents with numerous passes between 4500 and 4900 meters.
While most cyclists on the Andes route continue on to Huaraz, I decided to take a lesser-known, far-flung road and make my way back to the coast. At the small village of Shelby on route 3N, I decided to head east to the compact coastal city of Chancay, some 200 grueling kilometers away. The majority of this road is rocks and dirt with an arduous and long multi-level climb with the highest pass topping out at approximately 5030 meters (16,500 feet). It is a wild, rugged and awe-inspiring landscape where Alpaca graze casually next to crystal clear mountain lakes and not a soul for miles around.
As I stood at the high pass at 16,500 feet, I noted the dirt road snaking its way down the mountain. I took solace in the fact that this was my last climb of the trip as well as my last portion of off-road riding. I stood silent, gazed into the distance, mesmerized by my surroundings, relishing the solitude.
Descending to the coast was technically challenging as the roads were steep, winding and mostly rocks. As I descended from over 16,000 feet to sea level the topography slowly changed from cold wind swept arid plateaus, to lush mountain vistas with fast running rivers and then to the heat, stench, and pollution of the Peruvian coast. From Chancay it would be about another 1600 kilometers to Guayaquil, my final destination. Although this part of the Pan American Highway is filled with trucks racing up and down, for the first time on my trip I had no headwind and even some days with a slight tailwind. My progress was quick, almost too quick beckoning the end of the trip. I cycled hundreds of kilometers mostly through desert and then up the coast to the Ecuadorian border, sleeping along the way in dreary, dirty towns and alone in the desert wilderness.
Crossing into Ecuador I cycled for days through mile after mile of banana plantations in the heat and humidity. As I approached Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city I knew my trip was coming to an end. My emotions were mixed; I was glad that the trip was coming to an end, yet feeling incomplete, that there is still more riding to be done and more places to see. I turned 50 years old on the day I crossed the border into Ecuador-“maybe I am getting to old for this,” I thought to myself. Sleeping rough off the side of the road for days on end does not excite me as much as it used to, but the cycling life is constantly enticing me back. There is a little voice in the deep recesses of my brain often urging me to pack up my bike and head off to some distant land. My thoughts were running rampant as I cycled through the traffic-clogged roads. As I made my way over the bridge that crosses the Guayas River into downtown, my rear pannier swiped a truck tire on the side of the road and I went flying. My arms and legs bleeding and swollen; I was in pain and disbelief that an accident would welcome my entry into town.
I picked my bicycle up, reflected for a moment, “maybe I am getting too old for this.” I got back on my bicycle and rode through heavy traffic into downtown Guayaquil; the trip was over.Tweet Print
Words and photos by Cass Gilbert
“Que huevito!” they cried out as he passed. As I had suspected, Sage was proving a big hit in South America. His locks of curly blond hair, those big blue eyes and – at the tender age of 18 months – his endearingly wobbly gait, had all the women and schoolgirls swooning. They scooped him up in their arms and peppered him with kisses, the fortunate among them rewarded with a smile. And thus was born Sage’s travel persona: El Huevito, or ‘The Little Egg.’
To those in search of Latin American adventure, Chile makes a fine introduction. Few countries have it beat for sheer beauty and diversity. Long and skinny in proportion, Chile crams it in: a slender land of volcanoes, beaches, lakes, desert, vineyards, high plateaux and Patagonian steppe, corseted between Andean mountains to the east, and Pacific surf to the west. What’s more, its infrastructure is amongst the most developed in the region, making it particularly appealing for families cycling with a trailer in tow.
To the lake!
Given such a menu of natural beauty from which to gorge, my Nancy and I decided it best to hone in on three of its dominant themes for our visit: lakes, volcanoes and beaches. Thankfully, the country has a system of excellent, affordable long distance buses, and we were soon shuttled south of Santiago, all the way down to Villarica in the Lake District. A region renowned for the perfection of its bodies of water and the majesty of the volcanoes that preside over them, it made the ideal base from which to find our bearings and settle in to Chilean life.
As a seasoned solo bike tourer, I knew I was in for a radical change of pace, compared to any of my previous travels alone. Over the last few years, I’ve taken it upon myself to link the dirt roads that course through the Americas, riding from Alaska to Cuzco. I’ve pedaled my way through the crumpled ranges of Mexico’s Sierra Madre, the remote singletrack of Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast, the coffee plantations of backcountry Colombia, and the mining roads of Andean Peru.
Exploring South America has become a passion, and naturally I was excited to share my enthusiasm with my son and partner. But this would be something completely new. It would also be Sage’s first ever bike tour, let alone his first Latin American experience. Prior to the trip, we’d experimented with overnighters in New Mexico, introducing him to camping. Traveling around Santa Fe in the trailer was second nature to him too, generally having the pleasing effect of lulling him into a peaceful sleep. But Nancy and I both knew this trip promised a whole new universe of challenges—and hopefully rewards.
So instead of my usual quest to seek out the remotest of dirt roads, or clamber over mountains, or camp in abandoned houses, we kept our sights within reason, appreciating the importance of being off the bike as much as on it. Indeed, many would have ridden in a single stint what took us several days to cover. But Sage prefers to appreciate life at a more leisurely pace, stopping to smell the roses along the way. “What’s the rush, papa?” he might have been saying, as he ambled off to pet another feral dog, or inspect a rock of particular interest. And who were we to disagree? Rediscovering the world through Sage’s eyes proved to be a highlight of traveling together, as we marveled at his unconditional interest in everything that surrounded him.
Our first night camping was in a farmer’s field, pitched under the cosseting arms of a giant oak tree in full autumnal bloom. Sage observed us set up our brand new tent, as if appraising our efforts. He was eager to be part of the team, so I sent him off to deliver tent stakes to his mother, in what was to become our daily ceremony. “Shoes off in the tent, Sage,” we said, when the tent was up, laying down the camp craft ground rules. He’d duly oblige, before slipping into our portable cocoon and helping-in his eyes at least-to inflate his diminutive Therm-a-Rest.
As a family, we prepared dinner together that first night on the table of an uneven slab of wood, cooking up fresh produce we’d sourced in an outdoor market in Villarica. Then Sage indulged in a favorite pastime— expressive dancing, hands arcing through the air to the falling leaves that swirled in the wind. But his highlight that day was surely the enormous pig that snuffled over, inspecting him as it might a small piece of juicy cauliflower. Sage was positively delighted.
Over the next few days, we worked our way up and down the steep rolling, gravel roads of the region. And ridiculously steep they were. Sometimes, they spiraled so abruptly skyward that it required the two of us pushing my bike together, with all our might, feet scrabbling, to the brows of hills. As I quickly found out, a bike, trailer, growing baby, food, and all the paraphernalia of toys we carried amongst our entourage certainly makes for good strength training. By comparison, my fat-tired Surly Pugsley felt positively buoyant when unladen. In any case, our toils made for good excuses to pause regularly, when we saw horses and cows to show Sage, or a patch of grass to picnic on. Passing through small settlements, our preferred food stops involved piping hot empanadas, the Chilean speciality, which we’d all blow on then eat in harmonious, contended family silence. Sage would then retire to his chariot for an afternoon nap, and a couple of hours later we’d seek out a suitable spot to pitch the tent, whether it be an organized campsite, or an impromptu opportunity we chanced upon.
Journey to the Monkey Puzzle trees
Our first destination was Coliseum, a small hamlet nestled at the foot of the Conguillío National Park. But just as we arrived, heavy weather rolled in after days of warming sunshine, forcing us to forgo our portable home for the cheapest room we could find in a local hospedaje. It was bare bones: the door refused to close, creaking petulantly, and the lopsided bed threatened to swallow Sage whole. So began El Huevito’s initiation to dirt-bag touring. Soon, our combined belongings were strewn around our shoebox of a space, clothes of all shapes and sizes hanging from windows and door handles.
Porridge was cooked up on the floor of the bathroom and the bed quickly filled with bread crumbs. Of course, the matriarchal owners of the hospedaje were quickly won over by Sage’s blue- eyed charms, calling out his name and luring him into the kitchen, the social centre of the premises. To Nancy’s chagrin, he’d return from such forays laden with a soft drink and biscuits, when prior to the trip, his impeccable diet revolved around the finest home cooked, organic goodness the Santa Fean farmer’s market could offer.
There was nothing to do but wait out the storm for a couple of days, as Sage bounced around the walls in his sugary fix. When a break in the weather finally came, our patience was rewarded with cinematic views of the conical Llaima Volcano, towering overhead at 10,252 feet. Come morning, we made a dash for the park itself. Following soft and loamy dirt roads, we climbed ever upwards into this wild, beautiful and other-worldly place, striking out across its volcanic lunar landscape, where islands of fertile land lay stranded between lava flows frozen in time—or at least until the next eruption.
With a 1,500 foot climb to tackle that day, we made it, just, to the enchanting Araucaria araucana, standing nobly in tranquil groves around the park. Their nickname was as appealing as their appearance: Monkey Puzzle trees are so called as it’s considered that climbing them would flummox even a monkey. I could see why. These bizarre, bandy, Seussian-like creations reach up to 130 feet high, and their tentacle-like branches are clad in stiff, sharp edged leaves, surely protecting them from any primate intrusion.
To the beach!
Mission accomplished, it was time to gather our belongings, scour the room for toys, and move on once more. Appreciating the way rain douses family holiday-making with a perfunctory fizzle, we headed north, in search of beaches and sunshine. Our destination, Valparaíso, is well known in Chile as an artistic city rich in muralism, and perfectly located to spend our last few nights camping along the Pacific. So away from the damp and humid Lake District we fled, via a 12-hour bus ride that required both stubborn haggling to secure safe passage of our booty of bikes and trailer, and the challenge of coaxing Sage through the night without one of his famous meltdowns.
Thankfully, animals and objects all survived, largely unscathed, to be unceremoniously ejected into Valparaíso’s bus station in the early hours. It was our first experience of urban riding, South American-style. Where we’d meandered through a quiet, traffic-free Lake District, here we tussled with cars, dodged kami- kaze buses, and hopped jagged curbs, the trailer dancing graciously but unintentionally on one wheel at times.
The hostel we found in this ramshackle port’s bohemian district was perfect. Adorned with pictures of bicycles in every room, La Bicyclette was run by the ever-smiling Giles, a relocated Frenchman who bobbed around us enthusiastically and mollycoddled Sage. “No problem, no problem,” he soothed again and again, showing us to a bright and airy room, its windows opening out onto a colorful street scene below, as he advised on the best places to walk.
Giles was quite right. Family cycling isn’t much of an option in Valparaíso, given the crazy traffic that plies its streets, and the even crazier inclines etched into the hills of this lopsided city. So steep are the roads draped across the hillside that each year the city hosts an urban Red Bull challenge, in which downhill riders tear down its stairways and barrio backstreets, the angle of which puts San Francisco to shame.
Instead we took to the city by foot, investigating its fish market, exploring the preserved house of national poet and Nobel Prize in Literature winner Pablo Neruda, and appreciating the wonderful array of murals for which Valparaíso, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is known. Quite literally, the city is painted in color. Like a giant outdoor gallery, one piece of street art after another graces all but every wall, with barely a blank slab of dreary concrete to be seen.
Munching on our Chilean empanada staple, we ambled down its maze of precipitous passageways, and admired its mishmash of architectural styles, houses stacked up like Jenga. Sage seemed to enjoy himself too, running, wobbly-legged, down the steepest of its inclines. Emitting peels of baby laughter, he gathered a drunken-like momentum with each step, tottering ever so close to the tall curbs that match him for height, as we chased after him with nervous exhaustion.
When it was time to escape the city, there was no avoiding a herculean climb: a 1,300 feet elevation gain over just a few lung-busting, vein-popping, sweat-inducing miles. With just a few nights left in Chile, we made for a remote headland we’d been told promised peace and solitude. The ride there, rollercoasting up and down a network of dusty red dirt tracks, was bereft of traffic but exhausting. Again, the challenges proved worthwhile. The dilapidated campsite perched at the end of the headland may have been a babysitter’s nightmare, complete as it was with spools of discarded barbed wire and rickety walkways, but it boasted its own private cove of unimaginable beauty.
There, we dined at sunset, gazing out into the vastness of the Pacific and watching pelicans swoop overhead, which incited excited squeaks and finger jabbing from Sage. Come morning, we beachcombed to our hearts content, clambering over rocks, sifting through flotsam and creating collections of shells. Sage, Befriender of Feral Animals, even found himself a kitten as a playmate, before it was time to load up once more, return to Valparaíso and begin the process of retracing our steps home.
All in all, our first family cycling trip had been a definite success. Looking at the world through Sage’s eyes had proved to be, in itself, a journey of true wonder, equal to the best riding we’d enjoyed over our three weeks in Chile. Sometimes, it was as simple as noticing the way in which he watched birds fly by, or looked out to sea, or stared up at trees. There were so many moments to cherish: playing chase around the campsite table, reading bedtime stories together in the tent or introducing him to portly pigs. The family bond is strong in South America, and the manner in which everyone we met interacted with us, warming immediately to Sage, introduced a new richness to traveling.
I can’t claim it was the smoothest of rides, or that we slipped into family travel effortlessly and gracefully. It was hard, harder than I’d envisaged, despite all my studious planning and fretting. At times Sage struggled, and at times we all struggled. But even with hindsight, I’m not sure it could have been any other way. This was living, each and every moment of the day. It had brought us closer as a family. Together, we’d learnt and grown.