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BIKEPACKING: A Girl, A Bicycle and 6000km from Argentina to Colombia

How i bought my first bicycle and pedaled through South America, living in a tent, and why everyone should do the same.
I guess, this is the most crazy thing, i have ever done in my life. In June 2015 in Buenos Aires i set on a bicycle with my new friend from Uruguay, and we went north. It was the first bicycle in my life. And the only one on which i pedaled 6000km, crossing South America from Argentina to Colombia.

When in February of the same year i was leaving my office job in Qatar to go to Brazil (read here about my life before travel), i was holding a suit-case – suit-case, can you imagine, not even a backpack! Of course, i had no idea, that after three months i will change it for special bicycle bags and my 6-months planned trip will extend for other two years!

In fact, i still don't have a good backpack!

Evgenia Berestneva
Text Author

Love is All You Need

Together with my suit-case i came to Montevideo. I could't turn my eyes of Rodrigo, who was working at the reception of my hostel, so i invited him to the student concert in a city park. Regardless that he almost didn't speak any English, and in Spanish i could only say «yo cocino arroz – i cook rice» and «perros no beben leche – dogs don't drink milk», which i learned from Duolingo classes, we still managed to have a three-hour conversation. We talked about everything, including exciting ways to travel – hitchhike, hippie van, sailing boat across the ocean, and bicycle.
When after couple of weeks we were laying hugging in a tent, which he put on the roof of the hostel, he said: "I think, sometimes, I fall in love a little bit too fast. Way too fast. Un poco demasiado rapido".
Leaving Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia, 2015.
He had a ticket to Europe in one month, where he had a job and university waiting for him. But, when I left to Buenos Aires, he wrote that he would love to travel with me a little bit, cancelled his tickets and after three weeks came to Argentina by bicycle.

I thought, this happens only with very crazy people you read about in internet or watch on TV. But, when i was looking for a bicycle, a tent and bags on Mercado Libre (here you can buy new and secondhand things), googling for tips for bicycle travel and studying maps, even though adrenalin was pumping high, i already could feel that it wasn't just an idea anymore – i was doing it for real!

Let's Go!

We left sunny, but already winter-cold Buenos Aires on 8th of June, 2015, at 3.30pm. Nothing could stop us: neither the fact, that the sun would go down before we even get out of the city, no that we decided to go to Chile in the beginning of the winter, equipped only with summer tent, light clothes and amateur bicycles. Breaking the rule #1 – "Don't pedal after dark" – before it could even be applied, we desperately wanted to run away from traffic and concrete, and to finally start our marathon in the search for adventures.

When we were «sitting before the road» (as Russian tradition says), i was telling that i'm only afraid of two things – homeless dogs, and homeless. Not only i never had a bicycle before, i have never went camping in my life either. And during the first night we already had to put a tent in the dark on the territory of some electric station, and cook dinner in a can from peaches.

Here are some videos and photos from the first night:
Before we took off
What i was thinking before we started our 6000km bicycle trip through South America. Buenos Aires, Argentina, 8 June 2015.

Tired and Scared

Of course, i was peeing in my pants, in case you were wondering, whether i was afraid. I was imagining not only wild animals and perversive thieves-maniacs, but also night monsters, like in X-files, that didn't let me sleep for the first two months. I was waking up in the middle of the night and couldn't fall asleep anymore, listening to every sound until the sunrise, while Rodrigo was snoring peacefully by my side. He totally didn't care where to put a tent – even in the middle of the square, like a Christmas Tree. That's why i was trusting him and kept sleeping badly. Because i knew that he was my only hope i was waiting for so long – a person, with whom i could start such an adventure on bicycles. And who also, like me, enjoyed wild conditions, simplicity and low costs (one more story on how to cut costs traveling).

In the beginning we were pretty tired. Because, like most new bikepackers, we didn't have anything in common with velo-sportsmen. We didn't go to gym and didn't run in the mornings. That is why we started from slow 30-40km per day, considering that we were pedaling from 8 in the morning until 5 in the afternoon. The road was almost flat, and this was its problem. Wind in the face and monotone fields just made it worth.

But, at least, being tired we could fall asleep at 8pm, after the most tasty dinners in my life, even though we ate just pasta with tuna or rice with vegetables, and vice versa. And after a month, nothing hurt anymore – we got used.
Cycling through the North of Argentina, 2015.
When, for the first time, i got scared of the dog, barking and running to me from the roadside house, i turned my bicycle towards the highway and heard Rodrigo screaming behind: «The truck!» I managed to hide from a passing-by lorry, but Rodrigo looked at me very seriously and very firmly said:
«Never do this again. It's better you get bitten by a dog, then hit by a truck»
Like this i lost my fear of dogs, calmly slowing down every time they were chasing me on the road.

It took much more time to fight the fear of people. During the first week we refused multiple invitations of way too persistent old man, who wanted to host us in his house on the outskirts of the village. We were starring at his machete, tied to the bicycle boot, and imagining how he eats us for lunch and dinner for a month, after carefully cuting us into small pieces.

However, the further from the capital, the kinder people seemed to be. Of course, in reality, it wasn't about the people – it was us, who were becoming more open and trusting. Suspicious in the beginning, very soon we were looking for accommodation through Couchsurfing with excitement, when after 5 days on the road without shower and sleeping in a tent it was time to come back to civilization. We learned how to trust, because total strangers were unexpectedly loving and caring. For example, giving us the keys from their mountain summer house, where we were enjoying our time alone, meanwhile the owner woman was passing-by sometimes, bringing us apples and sweets.
It was always difficult for me to choose a place for a night, because from one side the tent shouldn't have been seen, so people won't attack us, and from another side, it shouldn't have been far from the road, in case of attack of wild animals. Of course, there were no any wild animals along the national roads. But this didn't stop my imagination to draw the whole safari in my mind.

Everything has changed when we reached Bolivia. People here were so poor and simple, and the roads so inclined and deserted, that sometimes we didn't have any choice, except of putting a tent right beside the road. We stopped fearing people, because they seemed to live in a totally different dimension, making one with cold mountain landscapes, not even acknowledging our existence.
Cycling in the mountains on the North of Argentina, 2015.
Tafi del Valle, covered with clouds, during cycling trip in Argentina, 2015.
Tunnel in Bolivia, 2015.

Going North - To the heat

As you might have understood, we didn't get to Chile as we have planned. Somewhere on the way to the center of Argentina we were looking at our tent, covered with frost at the sunrise, holding a bottle with water turned into ice, and thinking that, probably, we are not quite ready to cross snowy mountains yet. That is why from Cordoba we turned up North, because in South America to the North means to the equator, to the heat.

After two months and couple of thousands kilometers through the deserted mountains of the North Argentina, we finally reached Bolivia. We were expecting very hard conditions ahead, so at the frontier market we bought one more sleeping bag to serve as a blanket, a lot of crème with SPF50+, lip butter, glasses instead of contact lenses and a speaker, to bring our spirit up during the tough times!

The roads of Bolivia, unexpectedly, happened to be really good. Except for one stripe of 100km, which took us 4 days to pass - without asphalt, up into the mountains, together with sand storm – most of the time we weren't pedaling, we were walking!
These kind of moments, of course, are the most memorable. You don't remember easy quick donwhills with wind and sun in your face. You remember when it's all fucked up. Probably, we are made to overcome challenges.
Even though, it was never really-really tough, because in the end you are the one choosing the rythm and the speed of your journey. If tired, you can always stop, rest and keep going when ready. Of course, there are some bikepackers that make 150km in 5 hours. But majority is just enjoying the process.

One more flashback about Bolivia is camping in Salar de Uyuni, where due to a very strong wind we couldn't even walk and had to put our tent right in the middle of the salty desert. It took Rodrigo an hour to dig tent pegs into salty crystals, hard like stones, meanwhile i was tying a tent to the bicycles, so we wouldn't be blown away!
Camping in the mountains during cycling trip, Argentina 2015
Quebrada de las Conchas (Shells' Ravine), Argentina, 2015.
Peru mountains, 2015.
Our adrenalin disappeared quite fast. We got used to the road, and even started to have a daily routine that began to bore us. Everything didn't seem to be so unreal anymore. In Russia i have never seen people, traveling on bicycles, but in South America they were plenty! We were meeting couples from different parts of the world, who were going from Alaska to Ushuaia – the most southern point on the planet, or in a contrary direction – from south to north along Panamericana. We were meeting people, who were living like this for years – on a bicycle and with a tent. In the beginning we were taking pictures and exchanging contacts, but after a while got used, and were just stopping to chat a little bit.

With Rodrigo we travelled together to La Paz, in Bolivia, where we stayed for one month and a half, after which we split our ways. Seems like this part of the adventure will be left for another story – how i decided to keep pedaling alone, and in May 2016 came to Colombia, crossing Peru and Ecuador.

Happiness Recipe

This bicycle adventure has been over a year ago. However, i didn't stop thinking since then that i really would love to start traveling by bicycle again.

On the road you feel yourself to be a superman. There is no place for weaknesses, fears, shame, doubts, «i can not». On the road it's easy to be strong, everything is easy and possible. To climb 2000m in 50km, to reach a village you need, to find a place to sleep, to don't get frozen in the snow, even if the clothes are totally wet. Just because you have to go forward. So you keep going, even if you got a flat tire already two times in the last three hours.

And absolutely doesn't matter that reaching the mountain top you have been walking for the last three hours, that you can't breath anymore, feeling hot and cold at the same time, like having a fever. Because there, at the cross-over, you enter a special «zen-like» state of mind, being totally hypnotized, looking at the endless mountains, valleys, clouds rising from below your feet, far from noise and people, getting filled up with happiness and calmness. It's so good to be up there, that you are not looking forward for a quick downhill anymore. You don't want it to be over.
At the highest mountain pass, 4.850m., Peru, 2015
Quebrada de las Conchas (Shells' Ravine), Argentina, 2015
By bicycle to Machu Picchu, 4.316m cross point, Peru, 2015
A very special picture of the country is forming in your mind. Very different from capitals, big cities, monuments and tours in national parks. You see that in general people live the same way everywhere. They harvest corn, raise cows, pick up bananas. Sometimes, they are looking at you like a total weirdo, but sometimes they are stopping by to give you some water and say encouraging words, amazed by what you are doing.

And to be happy is very easy. Managed to put a tent before the dark and make a dinner – happy. Didn't rain on the way – happy. Not a very hot day – happy. Uphil wasn't so hard as you expected – happy. Didn't get frozen in the night – happy. There are so many simple reasons to be happy, that nothing else is needed: no things, no people, no money, no fame, no love. It just feels so good to be there, on the road, on the bicycle, alone with yourself and with nature.
Finally and most importantly – it's the best way to learn how to live in the present. Because regardless what you have planned for a day and where you want to get by the night, most probably, it won't happen this way. It will rain, the wind will become too strong, you will get a flat tire, find yourself in a sand storm, get wet, or just get tired, or maybe meet somebody on the way, and end up sleeping somewhere you couldn't even imagine. So there is no more need to plan, to know and to control. Everything will fall together as it was supposed to. And this ability to go with the flow, without unnecessary expectations and regrets, is what helps you to be happy anytime and anywhere.
Cycling to Machu Picchu, Valle Sagrada, Peru, 2015
The story about everything and nothing. But no, the idea was to ignite at least a little bit your interest in bicycle adventures. I hope, you felt something.

Let me know your thoughts and feelings in comments! I am curious! And if you have any questions about traveling by bicycle and wild camping. Because i'm going to prepare another story with FAQs and practical tips for bicycle travels in South America. And i don't want to miss anything!
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Did you like the story? Check out my YouTube channel to watch the video version of "Life Before Travel: Why I Quit My Job and Went for Solo Travel in Latin America"

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