A BIG CHANGE – Plan C for Covid
After almost three months of quarantine in Argentina, I’m now at last back in Europe having made the difficult decision to leave South America due to Covid-19. Not an easy choice, as it puts an end to a plan that I’ve held for more than five years to cycle from Patagonia to Alaska. Not that this means an end to my ride around the world; far from it, but undoubtedly this marks a major change of plans.
When Covid-19 first came to South America I decided to stay in Argentina and wait out the quarantine. At the time, things were far worse in Europe than they were in Latin America and for various reasons it didn’t make sense to me to fly ‘home’. I would have been in quarantine in Europe just the same as I was already in quarantine in Argentina. I felt that the hysteria surrounding Covid was an overreaction and flying back at that point seemed to me like a panic move. I figured I could always fly back later, but I never really expected to have to do it – my expectation was that I would probably be in quarantine for a few months and then things would start opening up again.
Clearly I was wrong. The situation now, three months later, is the reverse. Europe is recovering, and opening back up again for the summer. South America on the other hand is the epicentre of the virus, with many countries suffering terribly. The quarantine in Argentina continues (at least in Bariloche where I was), now one of the longest and most heavy handed in the world. Borders remain shut and with South America now in winter, cases may not yet have even peaked. The economic fallout has barely begun, and it will almost certainly be devastating.
With things opening back up in Europe, coming back started to have an undeniable appeal, especially because by switching hemispheres, I would also be switching seasons. I would be going from winter to summer, and from a country in quarantine to a region opening back up for tourism. Travel would almost immediately become possible again and my options would be far less limited. That said, those aren’t really the reasons that I ultimately decided to leave South America. My reasons were more long term.
Looking ahead, I’ve had to think a lot about what the next couple of years are likely to look like; both in South America and the rest of the world. The more research I’ve done, the more convinced I’ve become that there is going to be a second wave of Covid, most likely once winter starts coming back. In Europe that would be this year, towards the end of 2020. In South America that would more likely be around May/June 2021. When that second wave comes, another quarantine seems almost inevitable.
The relevance of this to my journey in South America is that I eventually concluded it would not be conveniently possible to continue cycling north, at least for the next year. Timing the seasons is very important in South America if you want to avoid getting stuck in the wrong place at the wrong time; for example I would really want to avoid Peru in the wet season.
With the expectation of further quarantines in winter (which incidentally is the ideal time to be riding in Peru and Bolivia), making through progress north becomes very problematic. My best guess was that I would probably be able to travel relatively comfortably in Argentina and Chile over the summer months, but that I would then get stuck in another quarantine before being able to get far into Bolivia. Losing a few months in lockdown at that time would mean losing another season in the high Andes – and that is precisely the area I am most excited for in South America. I probably wouldn’t be able to have a full unrestricted winter season in Peru and Bolivia until at least 2022.
On the other hand, if I returned to Europe I could travel over the summer and then look to find some work to see me through the winter. Assuming Covid comes back travel would be very difficult, so it would be a good time to stop and earn some money. From Europe I would have so many more options. South America is so far away, and with all the travel restrictions it has become quite isolated from much of the world.
There is another factor as well. The economic fallout from Covid-19 is going to be devastating all over the world, but nowhere more so than in Latin America. Many South American countries were already going through economic crises before Covid had even started, and the combination of poverty, high population densities, fragile economies and colder weather means much of South America is uniquely vulnerable. Crime is sure to rise as a result of desperation – South America was already (in my opinion) the highest risk continent in terms of crime, but this is now certain to increase. As a touring cyclist you are incredibly vulnerable, completely at the mercy of anyone that would wish you harm. You can’t hide, and if someone comes at you, you can’t run either.
I still don’t think the risks would be high, but they would certainly be higher than they were before. Particularly in remoter areas, I would also have anticipated reluctance from locals to welcome strangers. These isolated communities are at very high risk from Covid, with no access to healthcare and generally older populations. Their isolation is also their defence, so a stranger on a bicycle; who for all they know is carrying Covid with them, is not likely to be a welcome sight. Even if they did want to welcome me, I couldn’t responsibly get too close to them anyway just in case I had inadvertently become infected . Those interactions with locals are a huge part of why I choose to travel by bicycle, and for the next couple of years in South America I just don’t see it being the same. I could have lived with travelling in isolation for a while, but not for a matter of years.
In the end, I decided that it is not ‘now or never’ for me in South America. I can (and will) always come back, so it just doesn’t make sense to try to force it now. So I left Argentina. More than 100 hours of transit time after leaving Bariloche I finally arrived in the UK, where I’m now finishing off my two weeks of self-quarantine. Unless the incredible happens and Covid miraculously disappears over the next few months, I won’t be flying straight back to South America to continue from where I left off. I am instead switching to my plan B. Or plan C, I suppose. ‘Plan Covid’.
Once my quarantine period is done, I will very shortly be heading over to the European mainland to spend the remainder of the summer bikepacking on the continent. Mostly I plan to spend my time in the Alps, though I will be flexible. In anticipation of further quarantines and travel restrictions, I intend to stop before the winter to find some work in Europe – possibly in the UK but it could potentially be in Germany or Spain as well. I will just have to find something that will let me keep earning money even if there are further quarantines.
It’s worth at this point addressing the question of whether travel, at this point in time, is really a responsible thing to do. Although I’ve talked about Covid ‘coming back’, it obviously has not gone away and is very much still here. Certainly there is an argument that travel at these times risks spreading the virus and that it is therefore selfish and irresponsible, and it’s a fair point. Travel is not absolutely necessary, it is a privilege. So why do it now rather than staying at home?
For me, it comes down to risk. If I believed that bikepacking in Europe would be a high risk of spreading Covid-19, I would not do it. But by taking all the necessary precautions (only stopping for food every week or so, using a mask and sanitizing before and after shopping, using natural sources for water, exclusively wild camping, avoiding interactions with anyone and being completely self-sufficient – essentially following the methodology I outlined in my previous ‘Coronapacking’ article), I do not feel that bikepacking is a danger. No more so than simply living at home and going to the supermarket every few days. Being responsible about Covid is important, and it’s something I do take seriously. But travel is important to me as well, as long as I can do it responsibly. On that basis I do believe it can be justified.
Next summer, 2021, I plan to fly to Alaska to begin riding south. Essentially I will now be riding the same route through the Americas as I’d planned, but in the opposite direction. Summer ‘21 in Alaska and Canada, then another winter season of working – hopefully in Vancouver if I’m able to get a working visa. Spring/summer 2022 would be in the US, which would have me hitting Mexico towards the end of ‘22. By doing it this way, I’d be giving Latin America another two years to recover, by which time I hope things will be returning to something closer to ‘normal’.
It’s funny, South America has always been the continent I’ve been easily the most excited for. When I started travelling 10 years ago, South America was the place that most fascinated me. I could have gone straight there, but on some level I think I wanted to ‘save it for later’. Maybe I just wanted to keep it as something to look forward to. So instead I went east, starting in Asia and Oceania. It’s a quirk of fate that I should finally reach South America, fulfilling a more than ten-year long dream, only to have it snatched away. Such is the way of things.
I have no complaints. At times like this I am acutely aware of my privilege. Millions around the world are suffering because of Covid. Hundreds of thousands have died, and many more will continue to die before this is all over. That a bicycle trip has been inconvenienced is inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Although I’m sad to have left Patagonia, a part of the world with which I had hopelessly fallen in love, I am happy with my decision to leave. Come what may, even if it proves to have been the ‘wrong’ choice and things recover much more quickly than I expect in South America, I will have no regrets.
There are silver linings. It’s nice to be back in Europe and to have the opportunity to catch up with friends and family. I’m very much looking forward to exploring more of Europe, and it feels amazing to be out of the winter. From an expedition perspective it’s also nice that I can now comfortably restock and repair – some of my kit was really starting to get quite worn out and it’s much easier and cheaper to get what I need in Europe than it would have been in Argentina. I even have a few new sponsors. Lara will be getting a slight makeover, and for the ride in Europe I’ll be able to go more streamlined than ever – ditching my winter gear and needing far less food/water capacity. It will be all about going fast and light.
I’m feeling positive. I’m really excited to get back on the bike and explore the Alps, a region I’ve seen very little of with a bicycle. There are already some amazing bikepacking routes established in the region, and I’m eager to discover some new ones as well over the next few months. I’m looking forward to catching up with some old friends, and to taking advantage of what I hope will be a much reduced number of tourists in the mountains this year. It will be amazing to get riding again, even if after more than three months of inactivity my legs are really going to feel it!