Cycling South America

We love adventure here at IGO, so when someone does something epic, we’re always keen to catch up with them afterwards and get the low down. This week we’re talking to Georgia Graham, who spent 8 months bike-packing across South America with her boyfriend Jesse, to talk mountain passes, mental strength and equipment tips!

Hi Georgia, can you give us a brief overview of your trip…

We flew to Chile, on the 4th November last year with the aim of going from the Pacific Ocean in Chile, through Argentina, Bolivia, Peru and Ecuador before finishing in Cartagena, Colombia. Overall, the trip took us 8 months and we covered 6,889km before returning to England in July this year.

And what were your first impressions of South America?

We landed in Santiago and stayed with an artist we found on AirBnB. It’s a very European city, developed, wealthy and therefore expensive! We spent a couple of days here rebuilding the bikes we’d brought from the UK. I’d bought mine at Brixton Cycles; it was specially designed to take a lot of weight with a steel frame, solid pannier racks and hydraulic disc brakes. Everyone had said to us to get hydraulic brakes – when you’re descending mountains with a bike and bags that weigh about 25kg they really do come in handy.

SNOW AT THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN PASS

After this we headed out to the Pacific coastal town of Valparaiso, before crossing back into Central Chile for a couple of weeks. We then faced our first big climb over the Andes following the Cristo Rendetor pass into Mendoza, Argentina. This was about 3,200m of altitude gain and was incredibly hard – I didn’t feel like I was as fit as I needed to be and it was freezing and snowy at the top. We were wearing hi vis jackets to try and avoid being run over by crazy truck drivers who drive like nutters through the avalanche avoidance tunnels. I was really dreading it beforehand, but in fact it wasn’t as bad as I imagined – we didn’t have to push our bikes, it was a fairly consistent gradient so we got into a good rhythm and kept peddling. Your mental state is super important for moments like that – you have to be in good spirits and believe you can make it to the top.

Sounds tough! What did you do at the top?

When we finally got to the top we needed to find somewhere sheltered from the wind so we could sleep as it was so cold. We found an old ski lift and thought about camping there, but it just wasn’t right. There was one hotel nearby that was really nice, so we splashed out and treated ourselves to one night there. A comfy bed and incredible breakfast were very welcomed! The next day on the Argentinian side we couldn’t go on the pass over the mountain as it was shut due to snow. We tried to take the tunnel that goes through the mountain but bikes aren’t allowed – fortunately a truck kitted out for carrying bikes showed up and took us through, all very civilised and organised.

After reaching Mendoza we headed north to Jujuy along the famous Ruta 40 that goes all the way through Argentina. We thought our bikes would be fine as we’d deliberately got really fat tyres, but at some points along the road there was so much sand it was impossible to cycle on. We then climbed the Abra Del Acay pass, which is the highest road pass in South America at 4995m. The lack of oxygen made it really hard to breathe – when we camped on the mountain we would wake up gasping for breath in the night needing more air in our lungs. The final 15km took an entire day as we had to push our bikes most of the way – it was just too hard without oxygen. The whole pass took us 3 days in total carrying with us all our food, sleeping equipment and water. Nothing grows there – it’s like being on the moon and in fact the area around it is nicknamed the lunar valley.

So what equipment did you take? 

We had to carry everything on our bikes, so wanted everything to be as light as possible. We had two panniers on the front and two on the back (rucksacks are uncomfortable and make you sweat and lose a lot of water). We took a lightweight MSR tent and a primus multi-fuel stove, which was expensive but meant we had more flexibility with fuel; we could use petrol from a gas station, white spirit, anything really. Gas canisters are super expensive out there so weren’t a great option. A chopping board was also an essential – not only for preparing food but just as a flat surface for a whole variety of things.

In terms of clothing, gel padded shorts and gloves were an essential – the gloves help protect you from the vibrations but even so my shoulders and neck hurt the most. We also didn’t take cleats, but had cages and sturdy Salomon shoes that were good for walking and other things besides cycling. We had cycling caps and wore helmets in cities and whilst descending – Jesse goes as fast as he possibly can downhill – complete nutter.

And what about food – what did you eat?

We ate more or less whatever we could get hold of – for example in Argentina their diet is mainly meat and rice and not many vegetables, so that’s what we ate. We took lots of nuts (not salted), oatcakes, tinned tuna, sardines…. When you’re really hungry anything tastes like the best meal you’ve ever eaten. Our staple meal was tuna sweetcorn mayo pasta, accompanied by endless chocolate bars. When we were near civilisation, we’d look for the busiest café to have lunch in, as that’s usually a sign that it’s got good food!

What was your worst or scariest moment, and what was the best?

We were actually very fortunate and didn’t have any terrible moments, although there was a slightly scary one when we were at the top of a 4000m pass in Peru. It was freezing, it felt like we’d gone through three different climates to get there – desert at the bottom, the Alps in summer in the middle, and Scotland at the top. Imagine trying to put a tent up in howling winds and ice… we found a wood shelter in an old waterworks and settled there and as we were cooking we looked up to see a man just watching us. Silently, he walked away, but we were freaked out he was going to come back so slept with our Opinel knives by our heads just in case.

LAKE TITICACA

My most treasured memory would be Lake Titicaca – the highest navigable lake in the world. Some people live on islands in the lake and never touch land. The salt flats in Bolivia were amazing too – we went just after it had rained so the reflection of the sky in the water made it hard to tell where the sky ended and land began.

As you know, IGO’s Morocco challenge is coming up, which involves two cycling legs. What advice would you give to someone embarking on this or a similar cycling challenge?

Well, apart from good protective shorts and gloves as I mentioned above, long sleeves can offer good protection from the sun which is obviously important if you are out all day. Use a camelbak for water that you can strap to your bike, bungee cords (the most handy thing on the planet) and also have some electrolytes or coconut water (a natural electrolyte) in a sports drinking bottle. Eat little and often, and just keep the pedals turning!

Thanks Georgia – for more pictures from her trip check out her Instagram account – @GeorgiaGAdventures



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