Here are some things we learned along the way that other cyclists might find useful. Some things may seem obvious and others not. These points are based on our individual experiences and other cyclists may disagree. Anything controversial is indicated in italics.
Everything can break
Even things that aren’t supposed to. Spare parts can save you a lot of headache. Think spare tires, spare spokes, a spare chain, spare cables, spare housing, a spare friction shifter, possibly even a spare bottom bracket, a spare computer magnet, and spare stove parts. Something that can come in very useful is a short piece of steel tubing (like a steel version of the piece that comes with your tent for fixing the poles). You can use it as a strong and effective splint for racks, seat rails, or many other things by splinting the broken item and pinching the tube tight around it with pliers.
26 inch wheels
700c rims, tires, tubes, and spokes are not widely available in most of Latin America. We got by with 700c wheels, but spent an enormous amount of time looking for spare parts.
Clean your zippers regularly
Many parts of South America have lots of blowing dust which can get into the zippers of your tent, clothing, and bags. If you don’t clean the zippers, they can become grooved and eventually stop working. By the time we reached Ushuaia, the zippers on our tent body no longer functioned at all, many on our clothes could barely be zipped up, and others broke completely. Cleaning can be as simple as a wipe with a wet cloth and a quick application of grease.
KISS (keep it simple, stupid)
Rough roads and long distances cause many things to break. Choosing things that can be easily replaced or repaired can save you much time and hassle. Think really hard before choosing a Rohloff hub. The vast majority of cyclists we met with Rohloffs had to send them in for repair at some point. Depending on where you are, this can mean weeks of waiting.
Know how to repair your bicycle
Not only the basics, but hub, pedal, and bottom bracket maintenance too. Make sure you have all the tools to open these things as some mechanics might not.
Being at least conversational in Spanish can significantly improve your experience in Latin America. It opens you up to meeting many more people and to having a much more authentic experience. Plus, outside of big cities there is very little English. Taking an immersion Spanish course is a great way to learn. We studied for six weeks in Guatemala and were happy with the results.
You can find out everything you need to know by asking
Asking a local is usually the best way to get around. Looking for a cheap hostel, a tasty restaurant, or the safest way to get into the centre? Just ask. Hostel too expensive, just ask if they know a cheaper one … seriously.
Get the strongest wheel you can
The weight of a touring bike on bad roads is hard on wheels, especially the rear ones. Strong, double walled rims meant for touring, high quality spokes such as DT Swiss, and a good hub make a durable wheel. We recommend 36 spoke wheels instead of 32 or 40 because they are strong, but you can still find spare rims or hubs if necessary. 26 inch wheels are less prone to spoke breakage. Some people even ride with a rear hub for a tandem bike, although we don’t recommend this. Between the two of us we went through 3 rear hubs and about 15 spokes. We finished with small fractures in our rims but nothing major.
Man, the hills can be steep in the Andes. We unfortunately learned this lesson along the way and had to change our cranksets in Colombia. We ended up with ratios of about 22-34, which got us through without too much pushing.
Budget more time than you think
Everything, including cyclists, moves slower in Latin America. Weather, political events, and broken parts can cause delays. And some of the most memorable roads are slow, bumpy detours which can set you back days. It sucks to skip out on the best parts because you have a schedule to keep.
Tubus (racks) and Ortlieb (panniers), or equivalent
We left home with some Tubus and Ortlieb things, and some not. By the end, my MEC front rack had broken four times, and each front pannier had broken. And our raincovers for the non-waterproof panniers leaked like sieves. Compare this to no problems with our Tubus racks or the Ortlieb panniers and you can probably tell what we’d use next time.
Bring your own maps from home
Latin American maps are notoriously inaccurate and road signs can often be comically wrong. For example, we had three different maps of Bolivia, and the distances never agreed. Or one time we were expecting 80km between two towns that turned out to be 220km! There are several companies which make fairly accurate maps (our favourites were the ITMB maps), but they can be hard to find and expensive. So it’s best to bring them from home. Double checking distances with Google Maps never hurts either.
Pay attention to anything which can rub or touch the frame or racks
Things like water bottles, cables, cable housing, pannier hooks, or panniers can wear through the frame or racks after many kilometers. Yep, that’s plastic wearing through metal. Cover any contact points with rubber or even just duct tape. Then you can simply replace it when it wears through.
Bring lots of spare bolts, nuts, and washers
During our trip we broke 6-8 bolts and lost at least 5 more. Of course, bring spares that will fit all the rack and fender attachment points. Things you might not think of are spare bolts for shoe cleats, panniers, pannier attachment hooks, brakes, and derailleurs (we needed all of these). And of course, bring spares of any oddly sized bolts.
Use bolts that are long enough to stick out the other side of eyelets
As mentioned above, many bolts can break. Our most common failure would be a shear right at the edge (or slightly inside) the eyelet. If the bolt sticks out the other side it can easily be removed with a wrench or pliers. But if not, it can be very difficult to extract.
Check bolt tightness regularly
Duh … but seriously, things rattle loose. Locktite or a redundant nut on the far side can also help.
Bring a water purification system
Distances between towns or water sources can be large in Latin America. Having a purification system can save you carrying large amounts of water. And even when you’re not camping, purifying tap water can save you a lot of money. We originally had a SteriPen, but bought a filter to go along with it since the CR123 batteries ran out quickly and were difficult to find.
Larger water bottle holders are more useful
We found ourselves carrying much more water in Latin America than back home. This was either in bottles/bags strapped to our racks, or in bottles on the bike. And of course, the lower the water on your bicycle, the more balanced the bicycle will feel. You can find water bottle holders designed to fit a 1.5 liter plastic bottle (which can be found anywhere). A thermos also fits nicely.
Consider some method of GPS
Many times roads can be hard to follow or nonexistent and GPS can be a lifesaver. While not ideal, we got by using the MotionX GPS app on our iPhone.
Prepare to be robbed, it could happen to you
While many cyclists don’t have any problems, being robbed is always a possibility. Take steps to minimize the damage by stowing American dollars and document photocopies in different locations (and inside the bicycle). Always lock your bike, or pay someone to watch it for you. Don’t keep anything in your wallet besides a little money. During our trip we had a backpack stolen, a wallet pickpocketed, and clothes stolen out of a hostel. These came when we weren’t expecting it and had let our guard down a little.