My partner, Hana, and I have been cycling for over 20 years. It all began back in the 1990s when we toured around New Zealand on two multi-month trips. Since then we’ve biked all over the world, including the UK, USA, Fiji and the Philippines, but it was our 9 month trip through South East Asia that was truly life changing. We made a 13,000km journey from South West China through South East Asia, right to the bottom tip of Sumatra. When we got to the end, neither of us were ready to stop. It was this trip that gave us the confidence that we had the sticking power for a long journey.
Several years ago, on a week long bikepacking trip through Mexico’s Copper Canyon, we met two cyclists who had ridden there from Alaska. Their gear was worn and weather beaten and the cyclists seemed very at ease and in the moment. They looked like they had been through an epic.
At that moment my curiosity piqued: what would it be like to be within such an immersive journey myself?
After nearly three years of travel, we returned home to New Zealand and spent the next four years working, all the time with the Alaska to Argentina tour in the back of our minds. In early 2015 we committed to it, and started making serious plans; selling our house and reinvesting the money in other property, resigning from our jobs and researching bikes and equipment.
To me, seeing the world from a bike is a very rewarding way to travel. What I love is the way that the world slowly unravels before you — it’s compelling. Each day can be an adventure in itself: you never know quite what the road or the terrain will be like, who you might meet, or what might happen. Coupled with the satisfaction of completing a tough day’s riding in challenging terrain makes for great experiences.
I’d never been north of southern Canada before, or south of the Mexico/Guatemala border. There is nothing like seeing it for yourself — especially from a bicycle. Perched on your saddle you see it all: from the tourist towns to the poverty, the story of the land and its people becomes very evident.
You get to intimately experience the transitions of your surroundings — it’s a powerful feeling to move from desert landscapes to forest to coast under your own power.
On a bike you are also very attuned to and cognisant of your surroundings — the temperature, the smells, the sights and sounds. In developing countries transport is often slow: bicycles, donkeys, scooters, so you are moving at a similar pace to the world around you. People who work physically hard in rural communities can relate to the physicality of cycling, too. They understand it, so it gives you common ground which can help break the ice.
We are halfway through our journey, having made it to Central America, and already the trip has been awe-inspiring. What has struck me most so far is experiencing the diversity of the landscape and how it changes as you ride down from 70 degrees north inside the Arctic Circle — north of the treeline — through tundra, boreal forest, coastal mountains, high plains, desert and jungle as you head towards the Equator. That, coupled with the cultural changes that take place over that distance make it a unique experience.
Through all that distance we’ve covered, the Valle de los Cirios region of Baja California, Mexico is the most remarkable and unique region we have experienced on the tour. It’s a high desert region, typified by rocky outcrops, cardon cactus and the distinctive cirios tree, which is like a skinny inverted turnip with a tuft of growth on the top. Comical in appearance and very photogenic.
We’re now heading deeper into Central America, and have been asked how we feel travelling through a region that isn’t considered to be very “safe”. We’re lucky to have spent four months travelling in Mexico in a camper van, while our trip through South East Asia has given us more confidence than we might otherwise have had. Right now after five months on the road we have not had a single issue or met anyone threatening — the closest thing would be the occasional borracho (drunk), but they’re more annoying than anything sinister.
That being said, we proceed with caution and careful research, but we also have to trust our experience that human beings are inherently kind and friendly, just about anywhere you go. From South East Asia to Alaska to Mexico people have been universally good-willed and helpful. Numerous times we have been surprised by the generosity of strangers; especially when it comes from people who own very little themselves. Perhaps we are just lucky, but I think that the human condition generally is to do good, and it amazes me how many Westerners we have spoken to between travels who are suspicious of other parts of the world: ‘Did you feel safe?’ is one of the questions we are most commonly asked.
There are many experiences that will stay with me from this trip, but probably the most satisfying was the mountainous section of Mexico we cycled from Volcan Nevado de Toluca right through to San Cristobal de las Casas. We rode in remote Guerrero, Oaxaca, Veracruz and Chiapas states and cycled through many isolated towns and villages that had not seen a foreign tourist before; let alone two on bikes. Despite this hyper connected world it is not difficult to get off the beaten track with a willingness to research and throw yourself into the unknown a little.
I think that getting out of your comfort zone like this is the best way to really learn about yourself, and to arm yourself with skills and experience that will lead to greater adventures.
Memorable adventures come down to good decision making and the only way to learn that is to throw yourself into the unknown from time to time.
Of course, there are always challenges to overcome. Navigating while trying to ride in remote areas that are previously undocumented for cycling has probably been our biggest challenge. Sometimes something we have expected to be a rideable road turns out to be a steep and technical hiking track. Then there’s dealing with the elements. Day-after-day cold riding the Great Divide in autumn was a challenge at times, along with some snowy sections, but having those parts of the world totally to ourselves made it worth it. And of course, being on the road for so long means sacrificing certainty, the comforts of home and friendships. The first two we happily let go of, but we do miss friends and family and having long conversations in English!
We’re definitely not alone in our endeavour––there are many people in the world doing cool things on bikes; exploring and adventuring. It’s impressive how big this community is. We find constant inspiration by following others’ adventures on Instagram and often take ideas for our own trips from that. Modern digital mapping, GPS and lightweight electronics have ushered in a new age of bicycle exploration and it’s now much easier than in the past to research routes and peoples’ documentation is much more thorough.
For those looking to embark on their own biking adventure, we have a few tips. Pack as light as possible for the conditions you’ll be riding. Keeping your bike weight down gives you more versatility and mobility and is easier on tyres, rims and your body. Get a smartphone or GPS with the best maps you can find. We almost never use paper maps any more. And finally, those roads are long, and sometimes we need a little push, so we listen to documentary podcasts or audio books, but if we need some speed in the legs, tech house, techno or indie music can do the trick! If you’re in a foreign country, podcast language lessons are invaluable — Coffee Break Spanish is essential for us at the moment and is helping us get around and connect with the locals.
As for us, next up on our trip we have Guatemala and Central America, which will all be new. We’re looking forward to jungle, new birds and animals, Mayan temples and taking a couple of weeks off for more Spanish study. And though it’s a while away, we know exactly what we’re going to do when we reach our final destination in Argentina––start planning the next adventure!
Map of Mark’s journey through the Baja Divide made with Alpaca.
Alaska to Argentina: Traversing the transitions of the land was originally published in alpaca.travel on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.