While traveling through Bolivia and Chile by bus, train, and plane, I met a couple people seeing South America by bicycle. It's not the first time I've seen this. When Kristin, Eileen, and I were visiting Iquaçu falls, in Brazil, we met a Kiwi couple who had bicycled from Alaska. As if this weren't impressive enough, they had enjoyed riding down the west coast of the States so much, that they'd flown back to Canada and rode to Mexico a second time down the Rockies. Their dog had also been riding in a trailer with them for much of trip, until it died of old age in Central America. A couple weeks later, the same couple rode into the campground we were staying at in the Brazilian coastal town of Paraty, 830 miles away from where we'd met them.
In Bolivia, I met an even more extreme cyclist. At the beginning of my desert tour with the Polish kids, we drove out onto the salt flats, where the locals were harvesting salt. While we were taking pictures, this guy rode up, wondering which way on the seemingly infinite white plain the salt hotel was located.
He introduced himself as Dean from Slovenia. He too had ridden from Alaska, but not just from Anchorage, or even Fairbanks. He'd ridden from Barrow, the northern-most point in Alaska! There aren't even any towns further north in Canada. He'd tried to cross the roadless Darien Gap in Panama to get to South America, but four days into the jungle, was turned back by the Army. He had to take a boat to Cartagena, but also took a side-trip to ride around Cuba.
It was only a few days later, talking to another traveler who'd had a more extensive conversation with him, that I learned the full extent of his adventure. Eighteen months earlier, he'd started riding a zig-zagging tour all over Europe, starting at home in Slovenia, and had been riding ever since. To get to Alaska, he'd ridden from Europe, all the way across Siberia. I guess he plans to fly to Australia and return home via Southeast Asia and Africa.
This guy had been a cyclist basically his whole life. In some ways I was more impressed by the Japanese kid I met in San Pedro de Atacama, Chile. Yokito had only ridden from Quito, but had crossed the unbelievably inhospitable Bolivian desert that had taken me four days to cross in a 4WD SUV. He was getting ready to cross the Atacama, the driest desert on Earth--where no rain fell between 1570 and 1971, where some river beds have been dry for 120,000 years--to get to Santiago.
What was astonishing was that before this trip, he had no real experience cycling. He said the longest he'd ever ridden in Japan was 10km. His family knew he was in South America, but he hadn't told them he was touring on bicycle, afraid it would freak them out. He'd bought a cheap used Trek mountain bike in Ecuador and had rigged racks over both wheels to hang backpacks from, no special fancy biking gear. Once he got to Santiago, he planned to fly to Buenos Aires and head up the Atlantic coast into Brazil. While Dean's feat seemed super-human, Yokito's journey was much more inspiring. If he could make it 1700 miles through the Andes with nothing more than a crazy idea for preparation, what could I do? I used to think riding across the US would be cool, but probably too difficult. But maybe not. Perhaps that's my next adventure.