Our bicycle route sees us follow the general line of the historic Pan-American Highway, the longest motorable road in the world. However, this will always be subject to change on the advice of locals and when a whim kicks in! We will have everything from hard pack gravel in Alaska, smooth pave in the USA and dirt roads throughout Central and South America to contend with. Through changing climate, landscape and culture we look forward to reading a very interesting story of people and place south through the Americas. Here are some of the fascinating places we will be privileged to see on our way.
Gates of the Arctic National Park and Wilderness, USA
The spectacular Gates of the Arctic National Park lies in northern Alaska and encompasses an area around the same size as Switzerland (34,287km2). The park’s landscape is mainly wild arctic tundra and has many peaks of the Brooks Range within it – signalling the first major mountain ascents of our trip. If we’re lucky, we may even encounter some of the areas abundant wildlife such as caribou, moose and black bears (although we hope the latter stays at a distance!).
Also within the protected area, there lies a wilderness zone. In the US, anything designated as “Wilderness” under law prohibits human activity that permanently affects the landscape. More eloquently put, it is defined as: “A wilderness, in contrast with those areas where man and his own works dominate the landscape, is hereby recognized as an area where the earth and community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” We couldn’t agree more!
Big Sur, USA
Big Sur refers to a 90mile stretch of the California coastline between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It gets its name from the original Spanish language “el sur grande”, meaning “the big south”, or from “el país grande del sur”, “the big country of the south”.
The area is known for its stunning beauty, where the land rises abruptly out of the sea and the road is forced to twist and turn its way through the undulating Santa Lucia Mountains with sheer cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean. We can’t wait to catch one of those famous Californian sunsets on the way south through here.
Mayan Site of Copán, Honduras
Copan is just one of many archaeological sites of the Mayan civilization we will pass by. The Mayan people were historically located throughout the southern states of Mexico and stretched as far south as present day nations Guatemala, Belize and Honduras.
Their cities, such as Copán, reached their highest state of development in the 1st century AD and were known for their advanced written language, architecture and astronomical systems. Copán itself was occupied for over two thousand years and was an extremely powerful city ruling a vast southern Mayan kingdom. Its cultural importance led to it being designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980.
Macchu Picchu, Peru
The city sits in a saddle between two mountains, Macchu Picchu and Huayna Picchu with the Urubamba River surrounding it on three sides. It enjoyed a short lifespan, as its construction in 1450 was soon followed by abandonment in the form of the Spanish conquest in 1572 although there is no evidence that the Spanish actually made it to Macchu Picchu, even though it was just 80km from Cusco, the Inca capital.
Architecturally, the Incas applied a polished dry-stone construction technique which was so exact in measurements; some say it’s impossible to fit a blade of glass between blocks. The surrounding steep slopes were also heavily terraced for agriculture but perhaps had a second function too – to hinder invaders from quickly entering the city. With the site being Peru’s most popular visitor attraction, tourism has become a problem and Macchu Picchu faces a future where human interest and cultural management must be balanced.
Nazca Lines, Peru
The Nazca Lines are a series of ancient geoglyphs located in the Nazca Desert of southern Peru. They were created by the Nazca people between 400 and 600 AD using simple tools to remove the red pebbles on the surface and highlight the white ground beneath. Although some of the lines are just that, others are shapes of animals, birds and human figures measuring up to 200 metres across.
Scientists theorize that the lines may have been etched into the earth to be seen by their gods in the sky. However, others believe they may have an astronomical significance with and used them to point to the places on the distant horizon where the sun and other celestial bodies rose or set. Other (more imaginative) theories suggest that the Nazca lines are runways of an ancient airfield that were used by extraterrestrials mistaken by the natives to be their gods.
Lake Titicaca, Bolivia/Peru
Lake Titicaca is the largest lake in South America and is also the highest commercially navigable lake in the world at 3,811m.The origin of the name Titicaca is unknown. It has been translated as “Rock Puma”, as local communities have traditionally interpreted the shape of the lake to be that of a puma hunting a rabbit.
Titicaca is notable for people who live on the Uros, a group of 42 artificial islands made up of floating reeds. Their original purpose was a defensive one, as the islands could be moved in the event of threat. Today, they are a major tourist attraction and boats leave for them from the lakeside city of Pumo. The fauna of the lake include several threatened species such as the Titicaca Water Frog and the flightless Titicaca Grebe who are both on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.
Salar de Uyuni, Bolivia
Salar de Uyuni is the largest salt flat in the world measuring 10,582km2 and is at an elevation of 3,656m. It is part of the Altiplano – or high mountain plateau – of southwest Bolivia. It was formed by the transformation of several lakes over thousands of years and when they dried, they left behind two lakes, Poopo Lake and Uru Uru Lake and two salts deserts – Salar de Coipasa and the larger Salar de Uyuni.
Salar de Uyuni is estimated to contain over 10 billion tonnes of salt and is also known to hold 50%-70% of the world’s lithium reserves. As far as wildlife is concerned, it is virtually devoid of any life but some giant cacti dominate and in November each year, the area is the breeding ground for three species of South American flamingos. Because of its location, large area and flatness, the Salar is a major car transport route across the Bolivian Altiplano.
Atacama Desert, Chile
The Atacama Desert, measuring 600miles long and hugging the Pacific Coast of Chile, is known as the driest desert on Earth. It is one of the few deserts in the world that does not receive any rain due moisture being restricted because of the Chilean coastal range.
The area has a very small population with most living people living in coastal cities which originated in the 16th and 17th centuries as shipping ports for silver produced in Potosi. Because of its high altitude, nearly non-existent cloud cover and lack of light pollution and radio interference from the very widely spaced cities, the desert is one of the best places in the world to conduct astronomical observations. With average daily temperatures ranging between 0° and 25° Celsius, we’ll have to make sure we’re properly prepared for the very hot days and extremely cold nights.
Patagonia is a geographic region located in southern South America which varies massively in climate, landscape and ecology. The name Patagonia derives from the word marspatagon which Magellan used in 1520 to describe the native people that his expedition thought to be giants compared to the diminutive height of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers at the time.
With an area of about 673,000km2, it constitutes an area of steppe and desert plains, rising in terrace fashion from high Atlantic coastal cliffs to the foot of the Andes. It is often associated with having wilderness characteristics because of the vast, stretching plains and sparse population compared to its land area. The highest winds and riding resistance en route is expected to meet us here, on the final stretch to Ushuaia. Patagonia also has a large Irish ancestry connected to it, with some of the 38,000 people who emigrated to Argentina in the 19th and 20th centuries setting up home here.