In mid-2015, my friend Robbie and I entered Guatemala at the town of Melchor de Mencos, a warren of concrete and timber splatted onto a hillside overlooking the border with Belize. Over a couple of weeks we followed a series of highways deep into the state of Petén, by far the largest of Guatemala’s 22 departments, a panhandle wedged between Belize to the east, the Yucatan Peninsula to the north and the Mexican state of Chiapas to the west.
Petén was less developed than Mexico or Belize, which we had already travelled top-to-bottom over the previous seven months. City infrastructure sagged under decades of neglect, while the villages were idyllic collections of timber huts roofed with thatched palm fronds. Women did their laundry in creeks by the roadside, then slapped the clothes dry against the concrete foundations of broken bridges.
We didn’t encounter any foreigners during our time in Petén. The closest we came was a glimpse of blonde hair through the window of a speeding tour bus, on its way from the tourist towns of Guatemala’s mountainous south to the famous Mayan ruin at Tikal.
But that didn’t mean we were lonely. Our days were filled with passing conversation: downtrodden plantation labourers, grinning washerwomen, domestic travellers. We asked farmers’ permission to camp on ranches and, in the villages, were beset with irresistible hordes of children screaming “greengo!” In one town, a man approached to shake our hands. With a genial grin he asked, “¿Por qué en bicicleta?”
Why on a bicycle?
This is a question I still get nowadays, when I tell people about that trip and others I have taken since: “Why would you do such a thing by bicycle?” As modern humans, we spend our entire lives relying on combustion engines to get around. The idea of travelling long distances under pedal power is inconceivable to many of us.
I experienced that same incoherence when I encountered cycle touring for the first time: a Swiss couple inching along a dusty road in central Australia on a loaded tandem bike. I was a teenager. I remember watching them through the rear window of our air-conditioned four-wheel drive. Why on a bicycle? I wondered.
The answer to that question is different for everyone. Some like the exercise and the physical challenge, the physicality of long distance cycling. Others like to eat as much as they can without fear of getting fat. For me, I like it because it subverts the old cliche that “it’s a small world.” Airplanes, highway networks and the internet all support this illusion. We watch mountain ranges and enormous, nameless cities slide by underfoot until our attention shifts to a steward approaching with the drinks cart. This small world is a miracle but, as any experienced cycle tourist knows, it’s also an illusion. Planet Earth is a much larger and stranger place than our technology might lead us to believe.
I also like travelling by bicycle because it fulfills the promise of another cliche: the journey is more important than the destination. This makes intuitive sense to us as human beings, but in the last century or so we’ve sacrificed real journeys in return for our small-world technology.
For example, after high school I took a traditional Australian’s “gap year.” I travelled from the Netherlands as far south as Morocco, then looped up and around the Mediterranean all the way to Egypt. It was an epic journey, but it was a journey of destinations. I was constantly stumbling out of central stations, looking for a hostel. Everything around me — the culture, the language, the currency, the food — had changed while I dozed in an overnight bus. I love bicycle touring because it lets you watch those changes unfold over days or even weeks. Forested mountain ranges turn into wide deserts before your eyes. As you move, the unfolding landscape changes the animals who drop by to check out your campsite each night, and the people who live nearby.
In a world of flowering environmental consciousness and severely circumscribed travel, I sense that bicycle touring may be on the cusp of a golden age. Cross-country cycling trails are opening up across Europe, the United States and Mexico, for example, and on social media I see an increasingly diverse global community of cyclists taking to the road and not turning back by bedtime.
But getting started on your first bicycle tour is still a challenging proposition, both in the material and mental sense. It takes time and resources to assemble the gear you’ll need, and the internet is full of debates about bicycles and packing lists that, to the beginner, can seem dense and intimidating. And while gear is an understandable concern for the budding cycle tourist (and a kind of obsession for certain corners of the web), it only forms part of the picture. What does everyday life on the bike actually look like? Are there any rudimentary skills I should have? Where should I go? Do I need to be physically fit? Should I go it alone, or find a travel partner?
This series of blog posts isn’t going to explicitly answer those questions for you, but it will provide a framework that can help you prepare for your first bicycle trip and prioritise your mental energy. We will touch on gear, yes, but we’ll also talk about bicycle touring culture (and how it’s evolving), route planning, language, budgeting, navigation, companionship — all important aspects of life on the road.
I’m going to cast the widest possible net with this series, recognizing that everyone is different and has a unique set of questions and concerns. This means that not every post is going to be relevant for every reader. I encourage you to start on this landing page and scroll through the topics as they fill out. Can’t find an answer to your question? Hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Wishing you tailwinds until next time,