(February 3, written by Dave and Nancy)
We’re back in the real world. Back to normal life. Life is less complicated in some ways, much more complicated in others. We don’t have to fret every night over where we are going to sleep and what we are going to eat, or if the water is potable. Toilets seats every night – woohoo. We do however, have to do to deal with things like driving a car, getting lost in the huge grocery stores, deciding which flavour coffee to buy at Starbucks and which of the 20 topping choices we should chose for our morning bagel. We haven’t ridden our bikes since returning and in fact, they are now at the shop being fully stripped for frame repair and a full overhaul. The guys at the Bike Gallery in Portland have been super helpful and we are happy that Co-Motion (our bike builder) agreed to handle our broken downtube bottle bosses as a warranty issue.
This trip was our second, greater than one year, multi-country bicycle trip. As such, we sort of knew what to expect. We were on the road for 20 months and travelled nearly 27,000 kilometres, but we didn’t really anticipate returning with amazing revelations or insights. When you travel for long periods of time on a bicycle you see lots of new things but because you travel slowly, things rarely change in a way that seems dramatic to you. This is different to travelling by airplane. For example, on an airplane you can leave a modern, smooth running western city in the morning and be in the craziness of a chaotic, developing world city that same afternoon. Bikes slow travel down, letting you take in the world around you at a more leisurely pace.
Travelling north to south through the Americas we crossed 15 international borders – not counting the back and forth we did several times between Argentina and Chile. Crossing from the USA to Mexico was probably the most significant border as it was there that Spanish became the official language. It was also this border that we more or less stopped drinking unfiltered tap water and no longer disposed of toilet paper in the toilet. Undrinkable tap water created an extra task for us every day (filtering or buying water). The toilet paper thing didn’t really slow us down, it was just a little odd until we got used to it. It is kind of weird being back in the States now and not knowing what to do with the toilet paper when you are sitting on the toilet (ok, over sharing perhaps).
While Spanish became the official language when we crossed to Mexico, we heard plenty of English throughout Baja and in fact there was almost always someone with a little English all the way south. For sure, we found less English in the rural areas of Latin America, but to be honest, the speed at which people spoke Spanish was probably a bigger issue. By the time we reached Chile and Argentina, our Spanish was much better but I can’t see us ever listening or speaking fast enough for the Chilean and Argentinean folks. We had plenty a good mutual laugh interacting with locals in these regions who spoke just as fast right after we asked them in Spanish to “speak slower please.” It was even funnier, the third or fourth time we had to ask for slower – slow is just not something these speakers did. But it was all good fun.
We were unable to speak much Spanish when we crossed into Mexico. For sure our two months in the immersion program in La Paz, Baja was time well spent. Our skills improved a lot by the end of the trip but we were still limited to having mostly eating, drinking and sleeping conversations – basic tourist stuff. Conversations about politics, culture or complex issues always felt just beyond reach. Of course, had we studied as planned after stopping riding each day, we would be much more fluent. Hard as it is to believe, having our notes in a pannier inside the tent right besides heads every night did little to improve our Spanish communications skills – no matter how close the pannier was…
Best and worst of list
As is our tradition in these summary posts, we’ve put together a list of best and worst. This is not intended to be comprehensive as we’re too old to remember what we had for dinner yesterday, much less what happened every day over the 20 month trip. Thankfully we have our blogs to jog our memories. Here are some trip highlights.
Best new food Dave – Mexican mole. I’m not sure that we’ve had mole before riding Mexico and I’m also sure that I didn’t like it the first time that I tried it on this trip. They served it a lot in Mexico’s central plateau and I acquired a taste. Depending on what you read, there are 3 to 7 basic flavours of mole. I liked the spicy, less chocolate versions. Nancy was not overly enthusiastic about any of them.
Best new food Nancy –Argentina empanadas. We’ve certainly had empanadas before this trip and we also ate many of them along the way before reaching Argentina. Reaching the Argentina border however, we found small, super flavourful empanadas with the perfect balance of pastry dough and filling. It probably helped that the Argentina empanadas were preceded by the relative food desert of Bolivia and “nothing but fried chicken” Peru. Anything other than fried chicken would have tasted good at that point – see “Food we most tired of” below.
Food we most tired of – Chicken, so much chicken. Starting in Central Mexico and pretty much continuing all the way south, we ate chicken. We ate fried chicken, broasted chicken, chicken rice, chicken on rice, boiled chicken, chicken soup, and well, you get the point. Chicken is the go-to food by locals in Latin America and in many cases, the only food that you can find in small town restaurants. We don’t mind chicken but how much chicken can a person eat before one starts to grow feathers? I’m sure that we neared this threshold a number of times.
Best “foreign” food – Hands down, Chinese (or Chifa as they call it) fried rice. From Guatemala through to Bolivia, Chifa fried rice was the safe, go-to-meal choice. I’m not sure that Nancy will be able to look at a plate of Chinese fried rice again, ever, but it got her through more than a dozen Latin American countries with minimal stomach issues. I know, more chicken. But it worked. And for the record, very few Chifa restaurants were run by actual Chinese like you’d find in other parts of the world. It was just normal Latin Americans cooking up Chinese food – go figure.
Best food eaten only once in your life – Dave’s 4 egg, 4 fresh oyster, heart attack special omelette that he ate at the Dock of the Bay dinner in Bay City, Washington (eat to ride, ride to eat).
Best meal not eaten – We started the trip riding with Mark and Chris. Mark was a backpacker with limited bicycle touring experience, thus he started the trip with backpacker freeze-dried meals for every night. We managed to find enough cafes selling moose burgers so that Mark did not eat all of his meals. He kindly gifted us a freeze-dried Red Beans and Rice meal that we officially dubbed our emergency meal – we carried it all the way to Ushuaia. Not having a food emergency was a good thing. For the record, we didn’t pay Mark for the meal so we’ve mailed it back to his house (watch for it Mark, it’s on its way). We consider the debt closed and don’t plan on charging him rental or transportation fees for the time we looked after his meal in our panniers.
Best clothing choice Dave – Throwback, Icebreaker wool cycling shorts. I bought these in Australia but they always seemed a little warm to wear riding there. Starting in Alaska, they were the perfect weight. One of my saddest moments of the trip was when I had to bin these now see-through-shorts somewhere in the Mexican highlands. I had worn them nearly every day riding day for the previous year – at least I got my money’s worth. I was sadder still was when I contacted Icebreaker only to learn that they had stopped making the shorts. Forget about them sponsoring us with free shorts – in fact, I may never ride in Icebreaker shorts again. Sad.
Best clothing choice Nancy – Icebreaker wins this one as well. Nancy picked her Skin 200 weight long sleeve half-zip black wool shirt. She wore it riding day after day. She wore it sleeping, around camp and in many a hostel. It didn’t get washed nearly as often as probably should have but it rarely smelled. Either that or our fellow travellers smelled just as bad and they didn’t notice – or perhaps they are just polite.
Best bridge – the Bridge of the Americas, Panama – way too narrow, way too many cars, no shoulders but almost out of thin air, a motorcycle policeman pulled up behind us and blocked traffic as we rode safely across. Mentally, this was the half way point of the trip, so it felt good to cross. I kept telling Nancy that it was all downhill from there (except maybe for the uphill bits in the Andes).
Best dirt road – We specifically took bikes on this trip that could handle the rough roads of South America. The bikes did great. To be honest however, we are roadies at heart and prefer pavement to dirt. If we had to pick a “great” dirt road, we’d probably have to choose the Carretera Austral in Southern Chile. More than 500k of CA’s 1,200k is dirt. Most of the dirt was smooth and rideable without having to get off and walk or push. The scenery throughout was simply stunning.
Worst dirt road – As noted above, for us as roadies you could almost say “any dirt road” to this category but a winner needed to be named so we picked the road leading to the border of Ecuador and Peru. This road snaked up and down several short steep pitches towards a remote border crossing. The uphills were pushfests, the downhills were bumpy and barely rideable. Both of us came off a couple times on a long, hard day.
Best crazy road – this is a tough call. The Cassier Highway in Canada was crazy for the sheer remoteness along the entire route. The Devil’s Backbone between Mazatlan and Durango, Mexico was crazy for the never ending haze filled mountain ridge top views. The 60k downhill off Calle Calle pass in Peru was crazy for how long we rode downhill – it took more than two hours and about wore through a set of brake pads. The Carretera Austral was crazy for how beautiful it was and how hard it made us work day after day. But we had to pick a winner. We eventually settled on Highway 3N between Mollepata and Pallasca in the Peruvian Andes. The number of switchbacks on this road leading down to the Rio Tablachaca, and then back up the other side was just crazy. The switchbacks of course made riding easier, except for how many times we had to stop to take photos or simply say WOW, going both up and down. It was a stunningly crazy road.
Best bear encounter – all 27 of them, simply because we walked or rode away from each one without a scratch.
Worst bear encounter – none, see above.
Worst traffic – Probably our rush-hour dash across Cali, Colombia with what seemed like every one the two million residents in their car. Luckily we met local cyclist named Yves on the way to our hostel. He kindly guided us through all the turns helping to minimize the amount of time we spent looking at our phones for directions. He was really keen about our trip and even offered us a free t-shirt when we arrived at the hostel.
Best new phone application – tie iOverlander and Komoot. The former was essential in helping us find places to stay in remote areas and the latter enabled us to see the profile of most days before we started to ride. The jury is still out on how different the trip would be without any devices. It would be less planned, more edgy, but on the positive side, it would have been more dependent serendipitous help of locals. At some point, we really need to do a trip the old fashioned way again. Right Nancy? Now where did she go, she was here just a second ago…. Nancy? Nancy?
Best piece of equipment not used – the tourniquet that our friend Pete gave us (it is best for obvious reasons). First runner-up, all the extra spare bike parts that I carried – they slowed me on the uphills and generated no end of ridicule from all of the weigh-weenie bike packers we met but I was more than happy to know that they were there. Peace of mind is worth something and besides, I like riding uphill slowly with four bicycle tires wrapped like a Christmas present on the back of my bike.
Best piece of equipment used – Nancy’s kettle (and our immersion heater before we bought the kettle). Laugh all you want, having instant hot water anywhere that you have power is really great. Our weight weenie bike packing friends may mock us but watching them drink cold, instant coffee (yes, they really do this) made the sound of our kettle gurgling away all the sweeter.
Best new word learned – Aguacate (avocado in Spanish, Mexico through Colombia), Palta (avocado in Spanish, the rest South America). Clean/safe vegetables were hard to find at the best of times in Latin America. The humble avocado became our go-to staple. If seemed unfair to have to learn how to say avocado in Spanish twice, and also slightly wasteful, as we could have learned two different words had all the Spanish speakers agreed on one translation.
Worst dog – nearly all of the dogs in Peru – they loved to bark and chase us. Hands down, the winner is the rascally mutt we encountered on Peruvian National day riding between Tarma to Huancayo. The varmint appeared to be sleeping but suddenly woke and pounced. He got a hold of Nancy‘s leg and proceed to try tearing her off her bike. Thanks to her leg warmers Nancy’s skin was not broken, she stayed upright and so far, 6 months later, she seems mostly normal – no foaming of the mouth or such. We’ll continue to monitor.
Best rock throw of trip – see above dog – throwing rocks at above dog and house where said dog lived. I’m not sure that rattling stones off the garage door did any good but it made me feel better.
Best new animal(s) – four way tie, llama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco – Once we hit the Andes in Colombia we started seeing these closely related South American camelids nearly every day. We couldn’t help wonder what they were thinking whenever we passes them – they have such expressive faces and for the most part weren’t at all bothered by us passing. And besides, I’ve been trying to work the word “camelid” into a conversation ever since we returned from South America. It’s not a word that fits easily into cocktail party conversations.
Worst night’s lodging – We had some doozies but mostly Nancy (our scorekeeper in this catagory) would note, “I’ve stayed in worse”. When we rolled into the Hotel Samantha in El Palmito, Mexico we had to wait for the owner to arrive on his horse – we should have known. We got a hot shower but it leaked badly – at least they gave us a mop. There was no WiFi but they had a TV, with one channel showing Spanish soaps. There were no sheets on the bed so we just slept in our sleeping bag on top of the bed. It wasn’t all bad however as there was a toilet seat, even though the seat and the whole bathroom needed a serious cleaning. All this, for the princely sum of $13 USD – I guess you get what you pay for.
First runner up – Hotel Primavera in Zacatecoluca, El Salvador –No WiFi, no shower head, 13 inch TV with one channel and a bad picture, 1970s A/C, hourly adult hotel with guests coming and going all night, dirty, pet raccoon with mange in courtyard, but at least it had a toilet seat. Oh yeah, it gets a special mention for being way over priced at $30 USD.
Best night’s lodging – The Salt Hotel at the end of the Salar de Uyuni. An amazing hotel at the end of the long 2-day ride across the world famous salt flat – clearly a place where all of the normal tourists would stay. We felt like royalty but were nearly thrown out for literally destroying the dinner and brekkie buffets (how embarrassing). And we’re sticking to our story regarding who emptied all the packets of instant coffee from the free coffee bar – didn’t see anything, nope, not us.
Best campsite – another tough call. We really enjoyed the Canadian Provincial parks, and in particular those with a shelter, fire wood and a wood stove. Some of the abandoned buildings we stayed in while in Patagonia were unique for entirely different reasons. While picking a winner was hard, we settled on the “Hanging Glacier View” free camp that we found along the Carretera Austral. We hit this campsite on a glorious, rain free afternoon with riding companions Sarah and Andy – spectacular views, clear running water from a creek and river, flat tent sites and good company – a perfect night.
Best abandoned building we camped in – It is really hard to believe that we’d have such a category. Nancy is a good sport but I didn’t think I’d ever ask my wife to doss in abandoned buildings. When you are in the Patagonia steppe and the wind would shred your tent, well, you’ll take anything that provides shelter. It was a tough call, but we’d probably pick the abandoned police station at Rio Pelque as our favourite – mostly clean, windows intact, water from a river nearby, clear welcoming signs from other cyclists and only one car passing on the road all night long.
Best region – Patagonia, hands down. We often get asked which country we liked best. This is a really hard question because every country offers more good than bad. So, rather than picking a country, we are picking a region. We loved Patagonia. Bear in mind that Patagonia is huge and growing every year. It grows as more places in southern Argentina and Chile call themselves Patagonia to cash in on the notoriety (like hotels claiming that George Washington slept there). For us Patagonia ended up exceeding expectations. From the beauty of its National Parks, to the remoteness of the steppe, from the abandoned buildings to the flashy tourist towns, it was cold and windy and super challenging to ride at times but overall, it was magical – we loved it.
Best tourist find – While we’re sitting in a cabin in the Oregon woods, casually reading the latest Outside magazine, really just minding our own business, what should appear in an advert in the back of the magazine? None other a “New Remote Trek” in the Peruvian Andes – 17,060 foot Rainbow Mountain. The trek is offered by worldexpeditions.com – you know, for people who go where few have gone. The trek is new, it’s edgy, it’s just discovered, it is so out there that it is World Expedition’s lead ad (a slightly misleading ad, given the number of tourists we saw there). And to think, we rode our bicycles there from Alaska. How cool is that!
You really can’t expect to ride as far as we did, on as rough of roads as we did, and not have some sort of gear failures. Of course, our bikes were the single biggest worry but in large part, our Co-Motion Pangea bicycles performed very well. Most of our issues were replaceable parts that you’d expect to wear out. Those that weren’t we sort out with minimal fuss and no impact on us continuing to ride.
2017 = 3
2018 = 10
2019 = 0
Total = 13 flat tires on our bikes
We also had a flat tire in a taxi riding up into the Cordillera Blanca Mountains The taxi driver changed this one on his own and as such, it is not counted in our totals. Our worst day we had three flats before we’d even left the hotel room – Oruro, Bolivia – but we still managed to ride 80 miles that day. Flats are just part of a bike tour.
Tires used – 5 sets on the rear, 4 sets on the front. We put new tires on in Portland, Oregon (3,000 miles), La Paz, Baja (2,000 miles), Quito, Ecuador (4,400 miles) and in Mendoza, Argentina (5,400 miles – rear only). Our front tires currently have over 7,000 miles on then and they look pretty good. We always try riding with Schwalbe Marathon tires – the gold standard used by long distance touring cyclists. I probably changed tires before necessary most times simply because we were at a location where we could get new tires. I firmly believe however, that changing tires “early” leads to fewer flats.
2 broken rims 2017 – One in Portland, one in La Paz, Mexico. Incorrectly spec’d rims by bike maker were rescued by above and beyond warranty support provided by rim maker Velocity. One rim failed at 3,000 miles, the second one at 5,000 miles – well before they should have. They broke along the rim braking surface even though we have disc brakes and the rim surfaces had no wear. I found “the best” wheel builder in Baja California to rebuild the broken wheel, plus the two that had yet to fail. Even though he looked to be all of 16 years old, he obviously did a great job as we had no broken spokes or wheel issues the rest of the trip.
Shifting issues – we loved our Rholoff 14-speed internal hubs. They greatly reduced chain and drivetrain maintenance throughout the trip. The hubs stiffened up towards the end of the trip, making shifting harder, to the point that Nancy sometimes had to stop and get me to shift hers for her. A liberal dosing of oil on the cables worked for a little while and then we ended up changing the cables on her bike, which seemed to do the trick. I changed oil in them as per manufacturer’s schedule throughout the trip but they’ve probably reached the point of needing a full internal service – not something you can do in South America as it requires a specialized shop. We developed pretty good calluses on our shifting hands.
Broken waterbottle bosses – Out of necessity to carry more water than day riders, we carried larger bottles on two of our four frame mounted cages. The bosses where we mounted these bottles broke in Peru. We replaced them with hose clamps and inner tubes. We are getting the frames repaired back here in Oregon. I wish that our experience could convince Co-Motion to gusset their bosses, but I don’t think it will.
Bottom-brackets – both of our bottom brackets developed creaking sounds. We had Nancy’s replaced and both lubed up several times during the trip. Nothing ever failed and eventually, we just settled on not letting the noise bother us.
Pannier nuts – We had several pannier nuts come loose and fall out during the trip. The first time this happened, we lost a bottom hook on one of Nancy’s bags. We learned our lesson and checked these bolts every week or so. One or more bolt/nut was loose just about every time but we managed to catch them before any fell out fully and didn’t lose any more parts. The bag maker, Ortlieb solved this problem by telling people in the owners’ manual to check their bolts regularly – another place where a more permanent solution should really be designed.
Total mileage ridden by country
The table below breaks down where we rode, by year and by country. The chart is miles, not kilometres. For me at least, there are a couple surprises in this chart. First, Mexico tops the mileage chart. I would not have guessed this in advance – Mexico included lots of west to east riding, rather than north to south like most other countries. Second, Chile and Argentina are really long countries. They start and finish at the same latitude – so adding their miles together would be the same as riding either top to bottom yielding roughly 3,600 miles – long countries indeed.
All riding on this trip was on the right hand side of the road.
Where did we sleep and how much did it cost?
First a few comments about budget. We didn’t really have one. Having kept detailed daily spending notes on the last big trip, we knew what a normal day had to look like for us to complete the trip and not spend too much money. Keeping daily spending logs is really tedious – think lots of questions such as “how much did that medialuna cost?” and then keeping a running total day in your head every day. As I said, tedious. The table below reflects where we rested our heads nightly.
|Private home Bed||37|
Planes, Trains and Ferries
We had to take a plane to get around the Darien Gap, between Panama and Colombia. We could have taken a boat but this would have meant five days at sea on a small sailboat. Long-time readers will know that Nancy is not a big fan of boats, much less small sailboats on the open sea. So we flew, the only flight of the trip. Other travellers we met were about a 50/50 spilt on flying versus boating to get around the gap – pick you poison.
We took 11 ferries on the trip. Nancy wore her seasick bands on all of them and arrived at the far end without issue. The bumpiest but most scenic ferry was the Inside Passage from Prince Rupert to Port Hardy, in BC, Canada – scenery makes the bumps easier to tolerate. The most “interesting” ferry was probably from La Paz to Mazatlan in Mexico. This was an overnight sail so in order to get a little shut-eye, we set the tent up under a set of stairs out on an outer deck. This worked pretty well, except the outer deck was also where the smokers took their cigarettes. Almost half of ferries came when we were riding the Carretera Austral in Chile. All of these ferries were smooth rides except for the last one across Lago Villa O’Higgins. Thankfully, this last one was not long.
We didn’t take any trains but we rode the aerial tram to escape the crazy rush hour traffic in La Paz, Bolivia. We rode into town but it was downhill and we could keep up with traffic. Getting out of town we could have reversed our ride in (much slower), or take the commuter cable car. It was nearly perfect except for the 4 flights of stairs we had to climb to reach the platform. Luckily we were riding here with our strong young German friends, Phillip and Tine – teamwork makes the dream work!
Best new trip saying – seriously, do you have to ask? See above paragraph – Teamwork Makes the Dream Work. Nancy? Nancy? Dang, she’s disappeared again, that’s the second time that’s happened while we’ve been writing this blog.
Are we writing a book?
Lastly, are we writing a book? We get this a lot from regular readers. The short answer is ”probably not.” I read somewhere a quote that went something like “I like having written, I hate to write”. Plus the sheer number of travellers we met on the road doing just what we were doing, clearly, we are not “that” unique.
Regular readers will know that I wrote more blogs than Nancy. She is by far the better writer but writing a blog every day is really hard. It is doubly hard at the end of a hard day riding, after you’ve found a place to stay, something to eat and lastly done some research about the next day. I learned to use the blog and editing my photos as a way of decompressing. Nancy learned to use planning the next day’s route, final destination and lodging options as her way of decompressing. Teamwork makes the…. You get the idea.
While writing a daily blog is sometimes hard, it’s only a page or two. It doesn’t require a theme or ongoing plot. You can hammer it out with little concern about what you wrote the day before and in my case at least (because I have a great editor), little concern for perfect punctuation and spelling. A book is clearly a whole different kettle of fish.
Anyway, it was a great trip. More Adventures in Midlife were definitely had by all. Thanks for reading and coming along for the ride. And thanks for all the comments and likes. It was great to read everyone’s comments when we got up in the mornings – some days, it just what we needed to keep moving forward. And just in case you are wondering, yes, Inge is a real person. You’d be forgiven for thinking that her nearly daily comments full of enthusiasm and encouragement was some sort of auto responding encouragement robot. But no, Inge is definitely real, the better half of the Pete and Inge team. Pete rode with us in California and Nevada. Inge rode with us every day as our most supportive commentator. Thanks Inge, and everyone else for sending us positive energy through your comments!
Where to next?
Not sure. Maybe Japan, maybe Europe again, maybe something else – stay tuned, we’ll keep you posted through the blog. Nancy is making lists. I’m getting bikes serviced. We’ll see….