Cycling South America

Cycling South America

A land of extremes

That moment when you say "yes" to a crazy idea. What was once an idea, now started to take on the shape of reality. It was the beginning of March when I was presented with the idea to cycle across South America. I had just come off another three month tour and was already looking for the next big thing. This trip would be demanding. We'd be dealing with language barrier, poverty, and extreme weather conditions. From the time I said yes to this grand adventure, I knew it would be like nothing I had experienced before. And I was right... The biggest hurdle happened before this trip even started. When I said yes to this trip, I said yes to a three month journey by bike with someone who I had never met. Jake was someone who had done a number of prior expeditions. He had the experience which I lacked, yet someone who seemed to share my lust of adventure. Even though we'd talk almost daily, he was a complete stranger.

Peruvian Coastal Desert

Goodbye Canada

As the fire season came to an end in Alberta, I'd make my way down to a small city on the Olympic Peninsula. It was a two day drive through Alberta, British Columbia and finally, Washington. By the time I reached the Skokomish Valley, it was completely dark. A small secondary road took me well off into the country side. There were few homes, and an eeriness I couldn't quite shake. Watching scary movies before meeting strange people in strange places is not one of those ideas you'd recommend to someone. Images of the chain saw massacre played through my head asI drove further into the Valley.  Finally after six months of non-stop communication, I was meeting the guy that I'd be sharing the next three months with. We'd have a week to go before our flight out of Seattle. A critical period of time where we'd need to get our life belongings in order, but most importantly, time spent getting to know each other. Expeditions are hard, and with the wrong person they can easily become a hostile environment. So for the success of our trip, we needed to get along.

Let the Adventure Begin

After 22 hours of air time, we finally made it to the east coast. The bustling city of Rio de Janerio was in full hype as the 2016 summer Olympics were taking place. It was the first time that North Americans would be allowed into this country without a visa. Larger cities had always felt overwhelming for me and with a population of over 6 million, this would be the largest city I had ever stepped foot in. Security was at an all time high; men with machine guns patrolled most areas of the city, walking around in their camo.    After three days of being in the city, both Jake and I were ready to leave. Although the night before consisted of a few too many beers. The alcohol sweats began as I tried to pack up my bike and by midday, temperatures were easily in the high 30s. A poor decision on our part because this day would prove to be a lot more challenging then anticipated. We left the ocean shores and entered an entirely new world. It wasn't the glamourous beaches and metro hubs we had been use to. Instead, the streets filled with smoke and sewage, livestock roamed the streets, houses stacked on top of each other and the streets littered with garbage, but it was still Rio. We had entered Favelas. 

Bolivia Andes Foothills

Leaving Rio

Notorious for drug trafficking and gang related wars, we had entered one of the most dangerous places to be in South America. We rode well past dark with no end in sight. Officially, we had left Rio's boundaries but still overpopulation crowded most of the surrounding area. Finally, we had reached a point where neither one of us could push on any further. By some miracle, we had found a couple of trees that would shelter us from people passing by.

"JAKE! JAKE, DO YOU HEAR THAT?!"

It was now four in the morning and what sounded like gunshots could be heard in the distance. "Amy, calm down. It's only fireworks."   But still I remained on edge throughout the entire night.

It's Going to be Okay

The further from the coast we got, the more relaxed we started to feel. Brazil transformed from what seemed like a third world country to a fairly modern place, full of western influence. A web of beautifully paved roads took us west across the country, although not the lush green forest I had expected. Instead, Brazil was a place thriving off agriculture. Fields of red stretched far off into the distance where coffee, soy and cotton grew in abundance. It was the equivalent of the Canadian Prairies, only difference being the unique creatures we'd encounter throughout the day.

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Brazil made for some easy riding; Made even easier by the locals. People proud of their culture, friendly people, who wanted you to love their country just as much as they did. It was beautiful, and the people were kind but something felt like it was missing. Other then the striking heat, it lacked challenge, and this trip started to take on the shape of routine and consistency. In the town of Caceres, we sat down, maps sprawled across a table. Here we would have two options: 1. Continue north through Brazil on the inter-oceanic or 2. Cut into Bolivia. We didn't know much about Bolivia, other then it was much less developed and according to the Brazilians, extremely dangerous. 

Detour to Bolivia

It felt like the change we needed. As we crossed the border into Bolivia, we left behind the nicely paved roads and a sense of security. The only thing that stood in our way now were a number of teens, dressed head to toe in camo, holding AK47s.

"Jake, were screwed. They're not going to let us in"

My mind was racing thinking about the distance we'd have to back-track but never in my life had I meet someone who was such a smooth talker. Within minutes, Jake had these teens showing us all their life possessions, going through old photos and taking pictures with us. We were now officially into Bolivia, and thanks to Jake, the transition was much easier then expected.

It was here on the roads in Bolivia where we'd learn the value in basic necessities, a place where hardship could be felt. Days were long and drawn out as the amazon heat had completely surrounded us. Towns were limited, We were carrying enough food for three days and over 12 litres of water at a time. Our bikes had managed to get by throughout Brazil but once the roads became rubble, they slowly started to break down. Every day, something would need to be fixed, racks were breaking, tires were popping; Everything seemed to be going wrong. 

Ecalyptus Plantation Brazel

To make yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations was an art form, one we would soon learn to master. Instead of riding during the day, we'd crush distances at night. The rainy season was now just starting to begin and everyday storms would hit us. Instead of finding shelter, we'd embraced these daily down pours. It was all about adaptation.

The more we rode through Bolivia, the more we fell in love with this tiny country. It was a place rich in culture and history, where meals would be shared and people worked hard for what they had. Eventually through it would introduce us to our biggest physical challenge, the mighty Andes.  For some strange reason, we imagined perfectly paved roads leading us into La Paz, but it was a miscommunication between us and the locals. Instead, the gorgeously paved roads took us to the state of La Paz, 400 km away from the actual city.

High up in the Andes

We climbed up through the thick Amazonian jungle, pieces of road washed away by recent storms. There was only a thin track big enough for a single car. We dodged heavy traffic, managing not fall off the mountainside. The road terrified us, one side hugged the mountain while the other dropped off nearly 200 ft. In a day, we'd well exceed over 8,000 ft of elevations gain, only to lose it shortly after. But finally, we came to our final ascent, a mountain pass that would take us high up to into the Peruvian Altiplano.

The road contained a number of switchbacks, taking us higher and higher into the Andes. For the first time since we left Brazil, we were now seeing tourists. We watched as hundreds of people from all over the world were making their descent down into the city of Coroico, although Jake and I would be the only two riding up into La Paz. Two hours from the top and affects from the high altitude started to set in. No longer could we ride. Instead, we pushed our bikes towards the top, gasping for air. 

Dealing With Altitude Sickness

 It wasn't the celebration one would expect. We had made it, but it took nearly everything we had to get to the top. Our day was not even close to being over, we would still need to descend nearly 3,000 ft into the city of La Paz, then navigate through a city of over a million. For the first time in over a week, we were going down hill. It felt good to finally get some speed and cover distance. Jake was far in front of me when affects of the high altitude started to set in. "You got this girl, just keep going a little further." My mind was now a haze, all I wanted to do was curl up into a small ball on the side of the road.

By the time I reached Jake once again, my body was shaking uncontrollably, my core temperature had dropped severely and no matter the amount of layers I put on, I couldn't keep warm. My face was completely pale and lips started to turn blue in color. "Jake, we need to find a place to stay, quick." We still had to navigate through over a million people before making it anywhere close to the city centre. We spent some much needed time resting and recovery, taking our first real break since Brazil.

The Peruvian border was now only days away and we were determined to make it into our final country. Although not fully recovered, we decided to trek on. By mid day, I realized that it had been a bad call to leave the city. Food was not settling, my immune system was at an all time low and everything was making me sick. I was a hot mess. But not even hot, just a complete mess. Jake and I talked it over, and we agreed I'd need to get better, but it would be a few days still until we'd reached a town that would provide any sort of accommodation.

Push to the Pacific

Our only choice was to push on. In record time, we reached this new country. It was merely a simple bridge crossing taking us from one country into another. Here we'd find no people, only a sign that read Peru. Less then a thousand kilometers remained in between us and the Pacific Ocean. It wasn't even two months on the road and already, the finish line felt near. We had climbed our biggest obstacle, and a large down-hill still remained. For weeks, we rode at over 12,000 ft, as our bodies had now fully adjusted. Towns were spread far apart in the Altiplano, which gave room for animals to graze. Llama, Alpacas and cattle roamed freely, shepherds their dogs never too far behind. 

The grasslands started to turn into large sand dunes. A complete transformation; We had rode up the Andes through thick jungle but now all we could see was sand, towering well over our heads. We were in one of the driest places on earth, a place know as the Atacama Desert. 

Yungas Pass into LA Paz

 

We had smelt it before we saw it. The smell of salt water was strong but pyramids of sand blocked our view. Ocean and sky seemed to blend together in a dull blue, contrasting perfectly with the sandy shores. It was all down-hill until we reached the coast, a perfect way to end the trip. Exactly sixty days since we left Rio De Janiero, and here we were staring at the ocean once again; This time though it was the Pacific. Life in South America wasn't easy, Cycling in South America wasn't easy, it had seemed like a life time since we had started this journey. All of it now part of the past.

"You know Jake, I'm going to miss this."

"Me Too."

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