When considering a long holiday run, many people tend to restrict their options to places where the locals speak English. This is really a shame: South America offers everything from cities with centuries-old architecture to beautiful nature to a chance to party hard. Best of all, it’s dirt cheap: a quart of beer might cost you $2, while a meal at a restaurant catering to locals can be in the $3 to $5 range. Visa requirements are basically non-existent.
Just like everywhere, there are two types of roads in South America: the good and the less good. Assuming that you’re from the First World, you’ll find that the latter category is a little more common than you’re used to.
Riding between major cities should be no problem, but bringing an exotic bike that works on nothing but billiard-table smooth asphalt is not a good idea. For one thing, even if you don’t plan on taking side roads, you’ll probably want to eventually. For another, if you break down, the local taller might have to order all you need in the way of parts from who-knows-where for delivery in a place without much of a postal service.
Apart from that, it’s best to read up on possible destinations and plan a rough itinerary. Bolivia, for instance, is fantastic with the exception of La Paz, which isn’t even worth riding through. A spare GPS won’t go amiss, as road signage isn’t always enough to navigate by.
Where to Stay
Except in very small towns, you will probably be spoiled for choice when it comes to hotels, backpackers’, hosterias and hostals. Unless you insist on an establishment with a star rating, the best way to find a place to sleep is to ask a taxista or local. People are generally not unwilling to help a stranger out, and many of them will have a niece’s-husband’s-cousin’s-friend they’d be happy to steer business to.
Backpacker’s lodges are fun, as you will be able to meet people from all corners of the world who generally speak English. The downside is that accommodation is usually in dorm room format – comfortable enough, but without much privacy. Small, family-run hotels are another good option. I once paid $8 a night for a double room with en suite bath; nothing fancy, but clean and friendly.
Society in Latin America
As is well known, South America is 90%+ Roman Catholic, but fanaticism is rare. In fact, attitudes toward how other people – including tourists – live their lives are pretty laid-back and permissive. You shouldn’t do doughnuts in front of a church (you weren’t planning to, were you?), but any kind of normal, respectful behavior will raise no eyebrows.
Except for Venezuela, parts of Colombia and slums everywhere in the world, Latin America is a fairly safe place unless you put yourself in danger. That means: don’t walk through bad areas at midnight, drunk and wearing a coat made of $100 bills. Police rarely hassle foreigners unnecessarily, but if one does confront you it is usually not a good idea to try bribery. Just pay the fine and save yourself a world of trouble.
When interacting with locals, you’ll probably be surprised as to the personal nature of the questions they ask right off the bat. Are you married, and if not, why? How much money do you earn? What football (never called soccer) club do you support? From their point of view, none of this is offensive. As an outsider, they can’t get to know you through your family, colleagues and friends, so these are really just icebreakers in a society where la familia broadly defines your identity.
Planning a Trip
Quite a bit of relevant information is available on the internet, including on how to ship your bike to where you want to go. Unfortunately, the truth is that you’ll need to take a Spanish speaker along to get the most out of the experience. In fact, if you can organize a largish group, it might be worthwhile fitting out a van as a mobile workshop – Bikers Basics is a good place to start for things your local hardware store doesn’t stock. Alternatively, several companies offer organized tours and rental bikes.