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Cycling in South America, south to north, or the other way around?

Cycling in Belize
April 28, 2019
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Gregory Hook
May 20, 2019

Cycling in South America


From Bogota to Ushuaia or from Ushuaia to Quito, both are iconic bicycle touring routes and every year there are many cyclists undertaking this adventure. South America is twice the size of Europe, it is anything but flat, there are many unpaved roads and the weather has a big influence. Cycling in South America is much less predictable than in Europe so you better leave prepared. How much time do you need for cycling in South America? Do you want to start in Colombia, or in Ushuaia? What is the best month to leave? When are the rain seasons? We cycled through almost all countries of South America, both from north to south and vice versa. These are our tips.

A year on the bike in South America

From Colombia to Tierra del Fuego is at least a distance of 10,000 kilometers and easily 15,000 kilometers with all the detours and unpaved routes. We always plan our routes based on an average distance of 50 kilometers per day over the entire route. That includes all rest days and non-cycling days. Quickly calculated, you get the following results:
10,000 kilometers - 200 days
15,000 kilometers - 300 days
You probably plan more non-cycling days because there is so much to visit and discover in South America so that you can easily reach 365 days. We cycled 16,000 kilometers in South America and needed a year and a half. In the end our average cycling distance is less than 50 kilometers a day. Every couple of months we take a two week break, we received regular visits from parents and family and we lived in Ushuaia for two months.

Cycling in South America, south to north, or the other way around?
Cycling in South America, south to north, or the other way around?

Average daily distance in South America

We cycled about 16,000 kilometers in more than 500 days. That is an average of 30 kilometers per day, but we cycled less than 50% of the days. In reality, we cycled an average of 70 kilometers a day, which is a strong average in South America. Especially in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru, 70 kilometers of day is a huge amount. More to the south there are more plains, the climbs are less long, but you have to deal with the Patagonian wind. These are our average distances in South America:

Argentina: 69,9 kilometer
Brazil: 66,6 kilometer
Bolivia: 67,6 kilometer
Colombia: 64,1 kilometer
Chile: 61,1 kilometer
Ecuador: 55,5 kilometer
Paraguay: 84,3 kilometer
Peru: 77,1 kilometer
Uruguay: 69,9 kilometer

Starting in Ushuaia or in Colombia? Or maybe in Quito?

Where do you start a bicycle trip in South America? Starting at the end of the world, or arrive in the most southern city in the world? Or rather from cold to warm? Most cyclists go from north to south because of a number of reasons. The most important reason is the wind, but there are several pros and cons.

North to South:
+ In general, the wind in South America comes from the north-west. Generally, cyclists from north to south have more tail wind, especially in Patagonia this will be a huge advantage.
+ Arriving in Ushuaia, the end of the world, feels like reaching the limit of the earth. It's really an end.
+ Colombia is a bicycle-friendly country to start a trip, with exceptionally hospitable people. From the first moment you get absorbed in South American culture.
+ It is getting colder and more remote, although that is not a plus for everyone.
- Patagonia is the most expensive region in South America. You will have to save some travel budget for the end of the world.
- Medellin lies a 1.500 meters above sea level, Bogota a 2.600 meters. And there are waiting a lot of altitude meters from the first meters.

South to North:
+ Starting in the end of the world. You can't start more south because there is nothing, that is a nice idea.
+ Life is getting cheaper. Patagonia is the most expensive, but from the north of Argentina everything is cheap.
+ The Andes is lower in Patagonia. You start at sea level with relatively few altitude meters.
- A lot of headwind, especially in Patagonia.

TIP : Maybe you are thinking of starting in Quito, but we strongly discourage this. The traffic in Ecuador is busy, the climbs are very steep, the people are less open and it is more expensive than in the neighbouring countries. For us Ecuador was the least fun to cycle in South America and would not recommend it as the starting point or end point of a bicycle trip in South America.

The seasons in South America

The climate in South America varies strongly by region. There are rain forests, deserts and the Andes. A bike ride through South America will mainly go through the Andes so we base the best travel seasons on it. From north to south:

In Colombia, Ecuador and Peru you can cycle all year round, but in the rainy season many dirt roads will be more difficult to pass and you will miss the beautiful views. There will be more snow in the Andes and some roads might be closed.
Due to the heavy rainfall there are major flooding each year in Bolivia and northern Argentina. Roads and even complete areas can be closed for a couple of weeks.
On the altiplanos in the north of Chile it can rain unexpectedly between December and February.
Patagonia is under a thick layer of snow between June and September. Many mountain passes are closed. For example, the special border crossing between El Chalten and Villa O'higgins opens from the first of November. We cycled in the north of Patagonia in October. The nights are still cold with freezing wind from the mountains.

Cycling in South America, south to north, or the other way around?
Cycling in South America, south to north, or the other way around?

How long do you cycle in every country?

The overview below shows how much time you need per country, based on the average distances and altitude meters you have to do.
Colombia (1.500 kilometer): 2 months
Ecuador (1.000 kilometer): 1 month
Peru (3.000 kilometer): 3 month
Bolivia (1.000 kilometer): 1,5 months
Northern Argentina and Chile (2.000 kilometer): 2 months
Patagonia (3.000 kilometer): 2,5 months

Best departure date: November to February

In the overview of the seasons it is immediately noticeable that you can cycle almost anywhere in the good seasons if you choose the right departure month. Arriving or departing in June to September is immediately excluded by the snow in Patagonia. All other months are in possible, although the period between November and February is the best departure month.

The overview above is an indication of a travel schedule with departure in January based of the time required per country.

Tips and highlights in South America

Cycling in Peru
Cycling in Bolivia
Cycling on Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia
Cycling the Carretera Austral in Chili
The coffee route in Colombia
The car free cycling route in Peru
Cycling around the Cordillera Blanca
Cycling through Reserva Ecologica El Angel
22 photos that inspire you to go to Argentina

Cycling in South America, south to north, or the other way around?

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  1. Callum says:

    Some really excellent tips here, fantastic article! Really found the graph with the best seasons in particulary useful. Im planning to take 18 months off work starting mid-june this year & wanted to start my round the world journey by riding South America top to bottom. Unfortunately I will only be able to take around 6 months in SA, so will be comparitively quick vs your year long tour. I wanted to ask what your thoughts would be on starting in Bogota at the end of June & arriving in Patagoni ain December?

    • WeLeaf says:

      Hi Callum,
      Sorry for our late response. We didn’t see your question :(. It will be a very good challenge to do it in 6 months, but it’s possible! The time frame June to December is perfectly possible if you go from north to south. We know people who left Ecuador in May and arrived in Ushuaia in December, so almost the same time frame.
      Good luck!

  2. Henrik B. says:

    Very interesting to read up about these tips. I have been eyeing south america for a long time now. 1 to 1,5 years is a huge commitment. How was it with the sense of security? Was there ever a time or place you had to be especially watchful?
    Guess stuff can happen everywhere, but if one cycles in Norway or Peru is probably a difference, no?

    Thanks for the great article.

    • WeLeaf says:

      He Henrik!
      It’s really nice that you are considering a trip in South America. You won’t regret it, and 1,5 year will feel too short 😉
      We never felt unsafe in South America and cycled for 1,5 year. We only met good people and everybody treated us so well. The news makes us believe that South America is dangerous because they only show the bad things that happen. Off course you need to be cautious and don’t do stupid things, but that counts in whatever country. We felt very safe and would recommend everybody to travel there! The chance that your bicycle gets stolen is bigger in The Netherlands than in Bolivia ;). There are parts that are known not to be the safest areas, but it’s easy to avoid these, travel in a group or take a section on a bus. Once you are there, you get used to the culture and will feel safe very soon!
      Good luck and go for it!

  3. Peter Wright says:

    Hi, any advice on what kind of bike is needed? Cheers.

    • WeLeaf says:

      Hi Peter!
      This really depends on the route you will choose. We used 25 year old touring bicycles with 28″ tires and 32mm tubes. Those did well, even on most unpaved roads. We met people on road bikes travelling in South America, but also on fat bikes. It really depends the terrain and roads you want to follow. In general: the rougher the terrain (lots of dirt roads, single tracks) the wider your tires and lighter the setup of the bicycle. But if you would follow lots of paved roads, you want thinner tires to go faster.
      We used 28″ wheels, which are not so common in South America. 26″ is het easiest to find, but 29″ is becoming very popular.
      Regarding the gear system: there are travellers with Rholoff hubs, but most use a normal derailleur. The knowledge on the Rholoff’s is very limited in South America, but a Rholoff shouldn’t break…
      So, there is no typical bicycle you need. It’s possible with every kind of bicycle and all depends on your own preferences.
      Good luck,

  4. Henrik again says:

    Thanks for the reply, WeLeaf.
    Absolutely the media is usually painting a grim image NOT western world places. Same is true about e.g. Iran. Only heard good things, meaning great hospitality from fellow bikes who spend time down there.


  5. Jean-Gabriel says:

    Hi Olivier,

    Congrats on your journey.

    I’m planning to ride part of the Pan-Am highway by bicycle. I understand that it’s more of a concept then single route. Does all the roads accept that your ride your bike or are there some highways where riding a bike is prohibited?

    Thank you!

    • WeLeaf says:

      Hi Jean-Gabriel,
      It’s more of a concept indeed. For example, in Peru you can follow the road along the coast (which is busy), or you through the mountains. And also in the mountains there are several options (Peru Divide or asphalt roads, etc). You can cycle on almost all the roads in South America, although it’s not always recomended. The main roads in Ecuador or along the coast in Peru have a lot of transit.
      Good luck with the preparations!

  6. Cemal says:

    Great article…Its very clear for me any more…Thanks a lot…

  7. Kate says:

    Hey guys!!! Thanks so much for the article. Also loved your video on YouTube! We’re looking at starting in August/beginning of September and aren’t sure where to fly to based on the weather?! Also how did you know what to pack as appreciate lots of diff climates for one country!! Do you have a packing list or any tips / recommendations you can make? Xxx

  8. James Mc says:

    Guys thank you for this wonderful article. The approximate dates are especially useful. I am planning a tour from BA south to Ushuaia next year (prob landing in BA in early Sept), then heading north to Ecuador. This has given me plenty to consider

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