Cycling South: Starting at the End

In new series about cycling through South America, Ben Bateman reflects on just how much trouble he’s gotten in already.


Ben Bateman (left) and Sam Welch (right)

Stand on this craggy shore and look south to find an interminable, icy sea, reaching out to Antarctica, bearing well-stocked boats and tourists in the blissful pursuit of penguins. Turn around and you’ll see streets climbing the steep hills into a small town, and in the center of that town is the dubiously named Status Casino.

ENTER A BEGGER, I imagine, and you may leave a prince, heir to the tourist town that is Ushuaia. It’s the southernmost city in the world, and not shy about letting you know — signs everywhere proclaim “El Fin Del Mundo,” which lends a tonal majesty to all proceedings. “Of course you can do laundry here,” my hostel manager Gabriel says, “everything is possible at the end of the world.”

BUT THE END OF THE WORLD is just the beginning, as the tag line for this film doubtlessly reads. My friend Sam and I, running on some bastard combination of optimism, insobriety, and ambition, decided some months ago to bike across South America. What happened between then and now has yet to unblur, but suffice to say that on Tuesday we stepped off a plane with two bikes, bags full of gear, and a tween’s command of Spanish split between the two of us.

OUR PLAN is to bike up to San Sebastian, head east into Chile, and find our way to La Carretera Austral, a supposedly gorgeous route that works its way through Patagonia. From there we go north through Chile, Peru, Ecuador, and finally Colombia, with its disconcerting slogan, “The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay.”

TRANSLATION has been the most amusing of our problems, from Sam asking a postal clerk for thirteen lightenings (he meant stamps) to the horrified face of the cab driver when I said there were a lot of beautiful girls in Buenos Aires (apparently “girls” does not cover women). A somewhat poor understanding of the number system caused us to barter up our laundry prices, hand over far too much money for simple items (though thankfully merchants have given back the excess), and awkwardly tag along on the end of a funeral procession under the belief that a street’s numbers continued on the other end of a cemetery (they did not).

HOPEFULLY WE WILL LEARN, but until then there is a world fraught with simple social situations waiting to be confused, and we are moving towards towards them one pedal stroke at a time.

If you want to catch more of Sam & Ben’s adventures, you can find out more at their website Again with the Biking.

Ben Bateman is an editor at The Bygone Bureau. He grew up on a mountain in the middle of Nowhere, CA, and his eerily encyclopedic knowledge of nowhere and mountains stultifies critics and other animals. You can email him, follow him on Twitter, and read the rest of his work here.