“No, you can’t take your bike on the bus.” I wish I had heard such an utterance only once or maybe just twice in the last three months, but the frequency with which this crushing blow settled on my ears, constantly left me reeling.
In 2012, as I planned my bike ride through South America, the one limiting factor I didn’t even consider was the inability to bring my bike on long distance buses. In the US, my limited experience with bus travel stems from the many revenue hungry companies that ply the northeastern seaboard with cavernous cargo compartments and agreeable drivers. But that limited experience proved misleading for South America.
Now that, according to the Chilean Post Office, my bike is at the “SHIPPING DESTINATION ARRIVED TO PLANT” at the Santiago airport on its way to my brother in Tacoma, I can look back and evaluate my decision to bring the bike with me on the trip.
Biking Across a Continent
Thousands of bikers every year cycle across the United States. Usually it takes between two and three months, and bikers tackle the route in the warm summer season. Such a trip sounds predictable and enjoyable. Instead, what I envisioned for South America would be like trying to bike to every single major tourist attraction in the United States, from the Californian coast to the Maine wilderness via Miami and Montana. Such a trip would take months or even years, and would lose its focus along the way. Alas, that is what happened to me in South America.
Upon arriving in Buenos Aires, I envisioned busing along the East Coast of Argentina, through Patagonia, and up to the Argentine Lakes District. From there, I hoped to combine busing and biking, making my way north across Argentina and into the Altiplano of Chile and Bolivia. However, I discovered a number of things along the way, which in the end, resulted in parting with my bike.
The moment I decided to mail my bike home, I was having one of the best bike adventures of my trip. Leaving Cordoba, Argentina, I had set out on a four day tour of the mountains and Jesuit estancias surrounding Argentina’s second biggest city. The ride could not have gone better. After the first day finished smoothly, with blue skies an intermittent traffic accompanying me, I set off on the second day unencumbered by doubt.
Lost on my way out of the small town, two local mountain bikers stopped to give me directions. I rode along with one for ten minutes before he rode ahead to catch up with his friends. After an hour of cycling, I caught up to his son who was clearly struggling in the early morning hours. After ten miles, we reached a junction where Dad threw his sun under the bus: “Too much beer last night!”
After the delightful introduction to my day, I began climbing 1000 vertical feet to a panoramic view of an enormous lake resting beneath 6000 feet mountains. For the next hour I coasted along the lakeshore, alternating between agonizing ascents and rambling declines. After two hours of riding, I left the lake, and followed a level, country road, with barely any traffic to interrupt the pastoral ideal.
And even in this wonderful setting, where the trips, both the macro and micro, were playing out as planned, I realized I didn’t want to bike around South America. Here I was, ten miles and an hour from a small town in rural Argentina. Sure, the hostel was nice, and the nearby hiking was fun, but I was thousands of miles from Machu Picchu and months away from Ecuador. With all of the amazing sites ahead of me, why was I biking through this average scenery?
And that’s when I decided I no longer wanted to bike around South America. For the most part, I simply wanted to see more interesting things faster. But the annoyances of trying to carry a bike with me didn’t help either. An American cyclist I met, who biked 8,000 kilometers in South America, said it best: “I love biking, but when you’re NOT on the bike and trying to get it around with you it’s a major PITA.” To list just a few of those pains:
- Every bus company charged me to take the bike along with me. I’ve been on 30 buses in South America, and I’ve carried my bike on 10 of those.
- For every bus ride, I had to completely dissemble my bike and pack it in a box.
- For every hostel, I had to find somewhere to store my bike.
- When packing my bike, I had to track down a bike shop to give me a bike box.
- Every time I arrived in a new city, I had to reassemble my bike in the bus station while guarding everything I owned.
In the end, I’m happy my bike is on its way to Washington. But I’m also happy I brought it with me. Having a bike allowed me to complete some of the best parts of my trip. Cycling through the infamous Seven Lakes in Argentina was one of the most beautiful trips I have ever done. Biking in the Argentine highlands near Mendoza, with America’s largest peak staring out of me, is something I’ll never forget.
I’m excited to do another bike tour. Whenever I do make it back the US, I plan to bike from Seattle to the Yukon. But now I know to focus my path, and enjoy the ride for the ride’s sake. That way, I’ll never have to take the bike on another bus, and risk hearing those awful words again.