A short flight brought us to Colombia, once off-limits for tourists due to safety concerns, but now an ever more popular destination on the South American circuit. From Cartagena, one of our favorite cities on the planet, we cycled north towards the coastal city of Santa Marta, and on to the dry Riohacha Peninsula, crossing the border into Venezuela at the grotty border town of Maicao.
Initially, we’d planned to follow the coast from Maracaibo, taking in Coro and other popular tourist destinations. But the heat was stifling–unbearable even–so we headed cycled up to the Andes to cool off. We biked up to the Andean towns of Trujillo and Bocono and then back down to the plains of Los Llanos, passing near Guanare, then on to Barinas before heading into the heartland of the cattle grazing country and the small settlements of Bruzual, Mantecal, Achaguas and finally San Fernando de Apure. From that point we had to make a detour of sorts, since there’s no direct road through the Amazonas region. We cycled all the way south to Puerto Paez, right on the Colombian border, and then back north through some remote country dotted with Amerindian villages. At the junction with highway 19, we again headed east towards Ciudad Bolivar. Then it was a straight shot to Brazil, passing through the beautiful Gran Sabana region, the highlight of bicycle touring in Venezuela.
We left Venezuela behind at the tidy border town of Santa Elena and headed into a sparsely populated part of Brazil settled mostly by Amerindians. In Boa Vista, the region’s major city, we stocked up with provisions for the rough ride through Guyana.
The muddy track (we biked here in May, the beginning of the rainy season) from Linden to Georgetown, Guyana’s capital, is one of the more challenging roads in South America. It’s a long slog through some sparsely inhabited areas, but the beautiful landscapes–from wide open savanna to dense tropical forest—take some of the pain out of the ride. Back on paved roads, we blazed through Guyana and onto Suriname, crossing the border via the daily ferry across the Corentyne River.
In Suriname we met some of the friendliest folks of the trip, as we pedaled through mosquito-infested tropical forests, passing cheerful-looking villages with brightly-painted homes on stilts and tidy farms growing rice and vegetables. After a long rest in the lively capital, Paramaribo, we continued our bicycle tour south towards French Guiana.
It was a strange sensation to be back on French soil, munching on crunchy baguettes and shopping at the well-stocked Super U, filling the cart with products shipped all the way from metropolitan France. Viewing the giant sea turtles laying their eggs on Awala beach was a definite highlight, as was visiting the European Space Center at Kourou. Dealing with dengue fever, on the other hand, was the low point of the visit.
After a ten-day recovery period, Eric felt strong enough to continue the South America leg of our bicycle tour and we loaded up the bikes and pedaled towards Brazil. French Guiana south of Cayenne is home to some agonizing hills, but fortunately the road has finally been paved all the way to the border crossing at St. Georges.
Here we hopped on a speed boat across the river to Oiapoque, in remote northern Brazil. After 50 kilometers the paved road came to a brutal halt and we were faced with yet another long slog through mud and muck. Horrendous road conditions coupled with some of the steepest hills of our world bicycle tour made for some tough cycling. Fortunately, the Brazilians have been on a recent paving spree, and the asphalt returned at the busy town of Calcoene, after a mere 160 kilometers of mud. What a relief!
After some relatively easy riding through vast open spaces, we made it to Macapa, and the end of the road. Here we jumped on an Amazon riverboat, the Bom Jesus, for a ride to busy Belem. Back on the bikes, we suffered from heavy traffic, narrow roads and crazy drivers as we made our way south on highway BR 010.
We then decided to cross the border into eastern Bolivia. This region is famous for its Jesuit missions. The riding was rough in many parts and had a Wild West feel to it. Eventually we reached Santa Cruz.
Next we went south through Tajira state and crossed the border into Paraguay.
In Paraguay, we followed the Trans-Chaco highway to Asuncion. Next we headed to the infamous smuggling city of Ciudad del Este and over the border into Argentina and Puerto Iguacu.
After visiting the famous falls, we continued south through Misiones province and on to Uruguay. After a short tour of that tiny country, we took a ferry from Carmelo to Tigre, a northern suburb of Buenos Aires.
We followed windy and monotonous Ruta 3 south to Patagonia. After crossing back and forth over the border into Chile as we traversed Tierra del Fuego, we finally reached Ushuaia in December 2010.
From the 55 degrees south point, we turned around the bikes and began cycling north.
We followed the beautiful Carreterra Austral and part of lonely Ruta 40 on our way to Santiago. From the Chilean capital, we headed east into the Andes. After conquering all the switchbacks on the Cristo Redentor Pass we enjoyed spectacular views of Aconcagua before freewheeling back down into Argentina.
Back in Chile we explored the fascinating region around the Atacama Desert. Next we climbed to almost 4,000 meters and entered southwest Bolivia. In spite of cold temperatures, strong winds and a bout of altitude sickness, we enjoyed the amazing lagunas and wildlife of the region.
From the old railway town of Uyuni we headed to Potosi, onto Sucre and finally Cochabamba. In Cochabmaba, catastrophe struck: Eric’s full loaded bicycle was stolen.
After much consideration, we decided to abandon our plans to complete our South America circumnavigation. Replacing the bikes and gear would have been too costly so we flew to the US to regroup in May 2011.