Planning travel in 2016 is exhausting. Travel fads come and go quicker than your Snapchat and Instagram feeds can predict the latest trends, and as long as technology drives the way we see the world, it will remain an ever-changing landscape to rediscover.
The latest in these trends are the various “travel-isms” that have taken over the industry –Ecotourism, food tourism, responsible tourism, cycle tourism, ect.– that all promote ways to see the world today as a traveler, and not a tourist.
But cycle tourism at its core is not as new of a phenomenon as it’s moniker may lead you to believe. People have been traversing the globe on two wheels for over a century, as early as 1884 when Thomas Stevens became the first to cycle the world in just two years and two months time. (Imagine the snap stories he could have shared!)
The activity has since become a sport, which has evolved into a lifestyle—cyclists have become world travelers, world travelers have become cyclists. And while many cycle tourists now compete to break records for the fastest circumnavigation of the globe by bicycle, others, like professional cyclist Ishbel Taromsari, are taking it slow, spending years in the saddle to not just see the world, but to experience their surroundings to the fullest.
Ishbel is a British-Iranian cyclist who set out to see the world on two wheels in 2014. She been traveling and blogging as the “World Bike Girl” and is on a mission to raise awareness and support for fellow Iranian women to have the right to ride as they wish in her paternal country. She has traveled solo to over 15 countries and has no intention of slowing down anytime soon. She’s one of many peddlers that has fallen in love with the freedom of bicycle travel and the accomplishments one achieves on the open road.
Cycle tourism, however, is not all world tours and Guinness records. This travel style also consists of short, daily rides just as much as month-long trips. It can involve a loaded down cycle, ready to camp in all climates, or can serve merely as a mean of transportation to get you from one beautiful B&B to the next. At its core, cycle tourism serves to give travelers a different perspective of a new place and whether you prefer a grueling or leisurely ride is up to you.
I caught up with Ishbel just before she set out from Bolivia on her way to Brazil to learn more about the benefits of bike travel, and to get a look into the life of a cycle tourist:
What is the biggest benefit to traveling by bicycle?
I’ve traveled the world all different ways—backpacking, hitchhiking, 5-star travel—and for me, the best way to explore a country and their culture is to be on a bicycle. There are different reasons for this, but the main reason is that when you’re on a bicycle and it’s loaded down heavy, it breaks down the barriers of being a tourist with the locals. When they look at you, they don’t see a tourist [but rather] they see this person, and they’re like “That’s incredibly hard.” The locals have this instant respect for you because what you’re doing is different.
How has cycling through South America been compared to Europe and North America?
South America has been hard, it’s been real tough. I advise people who are thinking about coming to cycle South America to start by going out on weekends in their own country first (and maybe do some cycle tourism in Europe) to make sure you have the basics down because it’s tough here! You really have to know your limits when you’re cycling, especially in South America when crossing the Andes, you need to know when you’re close to reaching that line of dangerous cycling and just barely managing to get by in order to get to the top of that mountain.
How have climate changes affected your cycling—especially in Bolivia with the dramatic temperature changes and varying environments spanning a relatively small country?
I cycle four seasons with this bike—that’s one reason why this load is so heavy—so I am set up for all weather. It’s tough because sometimes you are just cold constantly. Like when I crossed the mountains [into Bolivia] I just resigned to myself that I wasn’t going to sleep for a while because it’s too cold. One night I was camping in -20 degrees Celsius and I woke up one morning, touched my hair, and I didn’t know what it was! It was just a sheet of ice and I was confused. It took hours to defrost! That’s how cold it is. You just need to keep moving forward, though, looking for the sunshine.
What has been your favorite thing about Bolivia, cycling aside?
Before I came [to Bolivia] everyone was telling me not to come because it’s too dangerous and that it’s “terrible, horrible and not worth it,” but I got here and I absolutely, freaking fell in love with Bolivia. It’s amazing! Crossing over the Andes from the Atacama [desert] and passing through Salar de Uyuni was incredible. That’s what inspired me to write a book about this country, and I haven’t written one about any other country that I have visited! I definitely want to encourage people to come here.
What is the biggest challenge when it comes to riding solo?
The weather definitely is an issue. When you are in really remote areas you need to plan things [ahead] like, you need to know where you can get help if you run into trouble and where you can get water, for example. There have been times on the trip (like in the mountains) when a massive stormed has dropped at about 4,600 meters above sea level and all I’m thinking about is, “If I could just get over this mountain and still have all my fingers and toes,” because you haven’t felt them for hours and you actually don’t know if you’re gonna have them all or not. There are different phases when you are thinking on that level of survival. One is you just start crying hysterically, but only for a second, and then you are okay, and then you start crying all over again! It’s all just about knowing your absolute limits.
How do you find comfort in being alone on the road for such long periods of time?
The problem that you have when you’re cycling on your own, and especially as a woman, is that you struggle to actually be on your own! That’s because all of the locals want to know what you are doing, they just can’t wrap their head around it. When you do this sort of trip, you’re doing it because you’re ok with being on your alone.
What is your best piece of advice for someone who wants to start cycling and dive into cycle tourism?
Go out with your friends over the weekend in your own country, or in a familiar area, and overnight camp either with your tent or using a campsite the first couple of times. Build it up in this way, don’t just jump into a big tour in a foreign country with no experience before learning your body and learning your limits with riding.
Good luck, Ishbel!