Cycling the Length of South America
Bicycling South America: Escaping court for the open road
By Mark Kennedy
If you happen to run into James Pratt in some random hostel, he won’t immediately strike you as exceptional. He appears to be like any other 20- or 30-something backpacker you might meet in South America.
But behind a Clark Kent-like quality, this unassuming Englishman embarked and successsfully completed a Superman-like feat – he crossing the length of South America solely by bicycle. Biking South America? Yep, the entire long continent, in one mega-ride!
Since beginning the journey in Caracas, Venezuela, in 2009, James clocked thousands of kms on the road, crossing a range of surroundings as diverse as the continent itself; everything from snow capped mountain ranges and lush jungle valleys to windswept deserts and coastal highways.
The intrepid attorney by trade covered the entire length of the South American continent – some 7,000-plus kilometres – ending the ride at its southern tip – Cape Horn, Argentina.
Why did the 28-year-old leave his cushy job at a London-based corporate law firm and subject himself to months of tiring physical exertion, camping out in barren landscapes, and sleeping in churches and on the floors of random strangers?
“I’m not entirely sure,” he said with a laugh. “For me, travel needs to have some sort of overriding objective, and the idea of a super-long bike ride appealed to the side of me that likes a challenge.”
Aside from the thrill of it, he’s putting rubber to road for a charity called Opportunity International, which provides small loans to people in developing countries – including those in South America – who would not otherwise have access to credit.
Initially, many of his friends thought that Pratt, who has never spent any significant amount of time on a bicycle before, was crazy to even think about attempting a journey like this. But cycling thousands of kilometres across a foreign land where he doesn’t speak the language is something he felt he had to do.
“I’ve had an itch for quite some time to do something a bit different that I can be proud of in later life … I also felt that there had to be more to life than the four walls of my office,” he says.
“I also knew that I might not always have the opportunity to come away and do something this selfish,” James adds. “It certainly wasn’t a sense of altruism – the motivation for my journey was, and remains, personal first, charitable second.”
His adventure followed in the footsteps of a growing number of elite endurance cyclists who have taken to covering countries, continents, and in a few cases, the globe, on their bicycles.
The most famous case of long-distance cycling is that of Mark Beaumont. In February of 2008 the Scotsman completed his 29,000 km round-the-world journey in 195 days, beating the previous world record by 81 days.
Anchorage to Ushuaia
In May 2009, Beaumont embarked on a tour of the Americas. His new cycling project will take him from Anchorage, Alaska to Ushuaia, southern Argentina – the exact same place James finished on his own gruelling journey. But he and Beaumont aren’t the only ones currently cycling the Americas. James met a handful of other people also touring South America and beyond. In Colombia he met a couple from Bogota who like him are also cycling to the tip of the continent, then plan to pedal back through Brazil.
Speaking of the land of samba and white sand beaches, James has also met Valdo, a 65-year-old Brazilian priest. With official ‘dispensation’ from the Pope himself, Father Valdo is cycling around the planet in an attempt to spread world peace – a venture that will keep the padre on the road until 2013.
After meeting so many intrepid cyclists like himself, he jokes that maybe he set his sites too low.
“[Meeting other cyclists] puts my rather paltry efforts to shame really,” James writes in a blog entry on his website. “Kind of makes me feel I should have been more ambitious … just kidding, mum!”
Ambitious or not, he’s seen his fair share of hardship. “I have got sick, got punctures, camped out, crashed out,and climbed almost the height of Everest,” he says in another blog entry. “I’ve got hot, got cold, got rained on, got lost and got nipped by dogs.”
It’s no wonder then, that he took a break from the road to relax in a hostel when he reached a major city. He used such times to enjoy more than a few beers and chat up more conventional-type travellers.
Did his mode of transportation win him any points with the ladies?
“My social and sex life is about is good as it ever is, although I’m not sure the sweaty spandex is doing me too many favours,” he says, blushing slightly.
Though cycling 100-plus kilometres a day and enduring the unknown pushed his physical conditioning to the limits, James says the most difficult part of the journey was mental.
“Being away from family and friends can definitely grind you down at times, particularly when you find yourself in a place where you don’t make any sort of connection,” he says, but quickly adds: “But I didn’t set out on this trip lightly so I’m not going to quit lightly either.”
Making connections with people was easier as he pedalled his way south. That’s because the ‘survival’ part of so-called ‘Survival Spanish’ for travellers can be literal in James’ case. When he found himself in the middle of nowhere and needed directions, a place to sleep or supplies, knowing a few phrases in Spanish proved essential.
“One of my objectives is to leave the continent with a working knowledge of Spanish, and I am finding that travelling by bike is a great way to learn the language,” he says.
“Most of the time you are in such remote places that there is no alternative but to get stuck in and converse with people, so it really throws you in at the deep end.”
Some of his favorite experiences happened when his rudimentary Spanish came into play, like the time in southern Colombia when he stopped at a roadside bar to ask if there was a place to stay for the night. A group of guys ended up getting James drunk and he was invited to say at one of his impromptu drinking buddy’s houses.
“I ended up tottering off up the road with them, with them driving and me on my bike, to one of their houses where I met the family, had some dinner and ended up sleeping for the night,” he says with another boyish chuckle.
“I set out on the trip wanting to put myself out there and experience what life has to offer without too much of a safety net – crossing a continent by bike is just a means to an end really,” he says.
“Ushuaia is a fairly remote place. It will effectively be the end of my bike ride. And Cape Horn is a rock in the middle of the ocean so I’ll need a boat to get there.”
James says would have been delighted if there were media interest or a cheering crowd of supporters waiting for him at the end of the continent. But as for hitching a boat ride to Cape Horn, “that’s something I would probably want to keep for myself.”
Today James still rides competitively in many bike races around the world.
After quitting his job at a small Bermuda-based newspaper, Mark Kennedy filled a backpack, bought a one-way ticket to Buenos Aires, and said ´adiós´ to a life of mediocrity. He now spends his time travelling in, and writing about, South America. His most recent work can be found on the web-based magazine ‘On A Junket.’
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