I love meeting inspiring women travelers – even if it is just online. And because I don’t like to keep their stories to myself, I love writing up our conversations for our inspiring women series.
Sissi Korhonen reached out to us a few weeks ago, asking about guest posting for our blog, and casually wrote the sentence, ‘I will be away from internet connections for the following week, as I’m cycling in rural areas in Northern Argentina.’ I was intrigued. There was this woman cycling through South America on her own and wanting to tell her story – it was a no-brainer!
So here is the story of a woman solo cycling across South America – and everything you need to know to plan a similar adventure!
Hello Sissi – first, tell us about your adventure in South America!
I’ve been traveling in South America for 15 months now. I started my trip in Ushuaia, Argentina, in November 2015, so I basically began cycling from exactly the opposite side of the world to where I’m from (Helsinki, Finland). At the moment I’m in La Paz, Bolivia, slowly making my way through South and Central America towards Mexico.
I’m planning on staying on the road for about eight more months, but as I don’t have any fixed deadlines, I’m just letting the journey unwind bit by bit.
So there is no goal at the end of it all?
Geographically the goal of my trip is Mexico, but if I never make it all the way there, I definitely won’t be upset. I’ve already experienced much more than I could’ve ever wished for during the past 15 months.
Initially, the aim of my trip was to learn as much about local cultures as possible, through local people. Nearly every night in Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil and Paraguay, I stayed with locals who spontaneously invited me over and offered me food and accommodation. Thanks to these encounters, I’ve not only learned to speak fluent Spanish, but have also gotten to know the real gem of Latin America: the hospitality and warmheartedness of local people.
The publicity Latin America gets in other parts of the world is not always the most positive. In fact, the news stories that reach us are usually the ones concerning crime and poverty. I haven’t cycled through Central America yet, but what I’ve learned is that South America at least is far from the picture we are given through the media. In South America people care about you. You’re never left alone.
Why did you choose to cycle rather than backpacking in a more traditional way?
Coming from Northern Europe, using a bicycle as a means of transport comes naturally to me. Back home I’ve always commuted to school, to work and everywhere else by bicycle, as many other Finns do as well. Yet, before landing in Ushuaia, I had never cycled even 60 kilometers consecutively.
The options for my journey were either buses, hitchhiking, a motorcycle or a bicycle. As I get easily scared in fast vehicles on bad roads, the option of taking local buses was quite easily discarded. As for hitchhiking, although it gets you close to locals in a very unique and beautiful way, I wasn’t convinced about hitchhiking through some Latin American countries alone. Deciding between a motorcycle and a bicycle was the hardest part, but in the end what mattered is that I wanted to proceed slowly, whilst also getting a good amount of daily exercise. Sometimes I wish I’d gone for the motorcycle though!
And why South America?
A couple of years ago, I traveled through Africa and fell in love with it. Had I not wanted always longed to experience Latin America, I definitely would’ve gone to Africa again. Yet, this time I wanted to go to a place where I can communicate with locals in their own language and thus not feel so much a foreigner all the time. Moreover, due to my climbing hobby I knew that Latin America is full of amazing nature spots and breathtaking landscapes!
For some reason I’ve never felt very drawn to Asia, and the language issue also immediately removed it from consideration… Europe was out because I already know nearly all European countries through hitchhiking, and the USA and Australia were out because I’ve lived in the US and thus know the culture quite well already. Moreover, the English speaking world just doesn’t have that element of improvisation that Africa and Latin America do. It’s something about the spontaneity of locals that attracts me on these two continents and, even to my own surprise, makes me feel very much at home!
What was your route so far?
I started my trip in Ushuaia, Argentina, which is the Southernmost tip of South America. From there, I made my way through Argentinian and Chilean Patagonia to Bariloche, Bahía Blanca and Buenos Aires in Argentina. I stayed in Buenos Aires for 1,5 months before continuing on to Colonia del Sacramento and Montevideo in Uruguay. I cycled the whole coastline of Uruguay up until Florianopolis in Brazil, from where I headed towards Paraguay. Crossing over the Paraguay in Guaíra in Brazil, I cycled through the infamous province of Canindeyú in Paraguay, before reaching the capital, Asunción. I stayed for two months, after which I returned to Argentina, this time to the Northern parts of the country. From Salta, I returned to Asunción for Christmas and ended up staying in Paraguay for two more months!
Then, I hitchhiked to Salta (I didn’t feel like cycling the same 1000 km again!) and cycled from there to the northernmost province of Argentina, Jujuy. At the moment I’m in La Paz, Bolivia. Contrary to my plans, I’m crossing Bolivia in buses, in order to reach warmer climates and flatter cycling grounds soon. I’m just not up to the rains and the altitude at the moment! As soon as I reach Arequipa, Peru, I’ll start cycling again.
What are your favourite spots around South America so far?
South America is full of beautiful spots! One of the most amazing touristic attractions I’ve seen is definitely the Glacier of Perito Moreno in El Calafate, Argentina. Purely amazing! Also the rest of Argentinian Patagonia is incredible – the landscapes are just so vast and empty. There’s nothing like it anywhere in Europe. The same goes for the Argentinian Pampa, which I found extremely fascinating.
If I had to name just one spot it would be the Valles Calchaquíes (Calchaquí Valley) in the province of Salta, Argentina. More specifically the Quebrada de las Conchas. It’s a stunning gorge with red rock all over and a serpentine road which passes through the gorge.
The coast of Uruguay is definitely worth a visit as well, and the most generous and hospitable people in South America can without question be found in Paraguay!
What does a typical day on the road look like?
That’s a tough one, as no day is like the other! Sometimes there are mountains, sometimes highlands, sometimes flat grounds, head winds, tail winds, rain, snow, hot, cold. Sometimes I sleep in my tent, at other times in local houses. Sometimes at fire stations, police stations, road tolls, gas stations. Sometimes I cook my own meals, at other times I eat at small road side “restaurants” or with locals. All these things make each day different.
Yet, even within all these variables I still do have some kind of a routine: Normally, I wake up around 7am, have a slow breakfast and hit the road around 9am. I usually cycle until 5pm (with lunch and snack breaks along the way), which is when I start worrying about where to sleep. I try to time my cycling so, that by 5pm I reach a village (which I’ve marked down beforehand in the maps.me application). If this doesn’t happen, I look for a random house and ask the owners whether I can pitch my tent in their grounds. I prefer this 100 times over wild camping. If I do reach a village, I usually ask some local women where I can pitch my tent. Many times they end up inviting me to their houses, but if not, at least they can give me good advice on where to camp out safely.
After I’ve found myself a place to sleep, I have dinner, speak to locals and normally fall into bed dead tired. However, if I’m in a city, I love to go out and explore the nightlife! Due to this, I usually stay in cities for at least two nights, as combining nightlife and cycling is just not the easiest thing to do!
What’s in your bag?
Ooh!! There’s a lot in my panniers (side bags)! I’m quite vain, so I carry a makeup, a dress and some other completely useless things with me, as far as the cycling goes. Of course, I also carry clothes for rain, cold, hot, mountains, beach etc. I carry a small alcohol stove and food for cooking, and camping gear for camping. As I’m a blogger and journalist, I also carry a camera and a laptop with me.
Most importantly, I carry all the necessary gear for fixing my bicycle when it breaks down in the middle of nowhere. For more specific pictures and lists, please see my blog.
Is there anything from home you really miss on the road?
Yes, a friend to share the road with. I love to travel alone, but sometimes I wish I had a close friend or one of my flatmates here, who knows me well and to whom I wouldn’t have to explain anything at all. Someone I could just enjoy and share moments with, even in silence!
Of course I also miss all my family members, but gladly, I can keep up with them through WhatsApp most of the time.
If not people, the thing I definitely miss the most is climbing! In Helsinki, I have this wonderful community of climbers I adore, and there’s a huge inside climbing gym (Kiipeilyareena) which is like my second home. Although cycling is fun, climbing is my passion, and I can’t wait to get back to it – either here in Latin America or back home in Finland.
How did you prepare for your trip?
I didn’t train at all beforehand. In fact, I was cycling as little as possible, because I knew that as soon as I’d reach Ushuaia, I’d be doing nothing else than cycling for at least a year (which has now turned into two).
As far as bicycles go, I’d been fixing old bikes for my friends, but I knew nothing about the kind of bike I travel with now (20 gears and disk brakes). It’s a far fancier bike than I’ve ever had, and it was given to me by a Finnish brand called Pelago. Luckily, the staff of Pelago explained the bicycle to me inside out, and whatever I didn’t learn back in Finland, I learned during the first month in Argentinian Patagonia. There, I cycled with another Finn, Antti Aittola, who had already been cycling for 1,5 years, also on a Pelago.
How do you finance your trip?
I had some savings before setting off, yet I must say that long-distance cycling (and hitchhiking) is the cheapest possible way I can imagine for traveling. You don’t have to pay for transportation and accommodation, and you can’t buy anything because there’s just no space for carrying anything extra. Therefore, all you spend on is food. I calculate with 5 euros (roughly 5 dollars) per day. So, my budget for one year is roughly 1,500 euros.
However, as I’m a blogger and journalist, I also occasionally work on the road. For example, I’ve been blogging for the Finnish Bicycle Fair (Fillarimessut) and writing a few articles for Finnish magazines whenever I’ve gotten the chance. Therefore, I don’t feel like I’ve left anything behind, but I try to carry my work with me. In Peru or Colombia, I also hope to be able to work as a divemaster for a while, before I continue cycling again.
Was there ever a point where you just wanted to leave your bike behind?
Yes, twice! One time was in the very beginning, in Argentinian Patagonia. The head winds were so strong that I was proceeding at only around 15 kms per day. As Patagonia stretches over 3,000 kilometers, I calculated that with that pace I’d still be there after years! So, I decided to hitchhike for 1,000 km to where the winds were milder. Had I trained before, I could’ve made it, but for a total newbie, Argentinian Patagonia is probably one of the toughest places on earth to begin with long-distance cycling.
The other time is right now! After the altitude of Northern Argentina and Bolivia, and proceeding 20 km per day, somewhere alone in desert-like surroundings, I saw very little point in cycling. There are many long-distance cyclists who enjoy and seek solitude, but I’m definitely not one of them. Quite the opposite: I enjoy dancing, talking and socializing in all possible ways! I also enjoy hot weather, so I was starting to feel quite frustrated in the cold mountain climates (even though the local cultures here are incredibly fascinating). That’s why I decided to take a bus through Bolivia and start cycling again in Peru.
I still daydream from time to time about sending the bicycle back home and continuing the journey on a motorcycle… Yet, for the time being, I’ll still stick to what I already have and see how I feel in a few months.
Is it ever scary to cycle around South America on your own?
Amazingly enough, I’ve only felt scared a couple of times during the trip. Both these times have been when I’ve been sleeping in my tent next to a gas station. Although I prefer to sleep in places where there’s someone around 24 hours, I still tend to get paranoid with all possible sounds around me. Nothing has ever happened to me and no one has even once tried to harm me on this trip, yet I still am aware that I’m a woman sleeping alone in a tent. Although I keep myself alert, the good news is that also locals usually feel a strong need to protect me.
I have been stopped a few times on the roadside and asked if I was interested in paid sex, yet both these times the men have taken my simple “no” as an answer with no further consequences. After these cases I’ve bought myself a tiny pepper spray, which I keep at hand in case ending up in an uncomfortable situation. Fortunately, so far I’ve never had to use it.
What are your top tips for someone wanting to the same or a similar journey?
1) Read about the experiences of other solo female cyclists for inspiration
For example, Loretta Hendersson, who has cycled alone through the whole world, has a website called Solo Female Cyclist, with links to various other solo female cycling blogs and websites.
2) Don’t worry too much about money or gear
I’ve met people who travel with the most antique gear and have crossed continents with it! I also know a man from El Salvador, who left his home with 80 dollars in his pocket and has now been on the road for more than a year. You can always work on the road if money runs out.
3) If possible, learn the local language
Not speaking a local language is definitely not a reason not to go on a trip, but I feel that it’s a huge plus if you can communicate with locals in their mother tongue. You’ll get so much more out of the culture!
4) Contact me for more info and concrete advice
I love to help women who are thinking about going on a solo trip, in any way I can.
5) Just go…you can always return home if you don’t like it!
This is maybe the most important one. If you want to go, try it out. If you don’t like it, no one is forcing you to continue.
On her second Instagram @strangerlessfriends she invites locals from across South America to answer mundane questions about life and collects more questions to ask other strangers. Check it out!Tweet