Compared to Europe and North America, cycling tourism is still in its infancy in South America. But outfitters are catching on that some of the continent’s biggest attractions (Machu Picchu, the vineyards of Mendoza, Rio’s dazzling beaches) are even more spectacular when viewed by bike.
Culture-packed itineraries take in Incan ruins, active volcanoes, and world-class coffee country. Mountain bikers have the Incas to credit for the hundreds of miles of epic singletrack laced throughout the Andes. For technical terrain and big descents, it doesn’t get better than the gnarly mountain trails of Peru and Ecuador. Colombia is South America’s epicenter for road cycling. The country’s impossibly tough climbs condition some of the world’s best riders, but you’ll also find beginner-friendly cycling through the coffee regions and along the coast. The vineyards of Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay are the perfect setting for oenophiles to winery hop by bike. And if you think Patagonia is stunning on foot, wait until you explore its wilderness on two wheels.
Here, we share our top 10 destinations for road cycling and mountain biking, plus the experts who can show you the best routes and trails.
Lakes District, Chile
Chile’s stunning Lake District lies just north of adventure mecca Patagonia and offers just as many two-wheeled adventures. Smoking, snow-capped volcanoes provide a dramatic backdrop as you pedal past bucolic farmland, lava fields, and jewel-hued lakes. Backroads week-long itinerary includes a portion of the famous Seven Lakes Route, which circles around the majestic Villarrica volcano, and the opportunity to ride amongst the monkey puzzle trees of Villarrica National Park.
A cycling trip in Northwest Argentina, home to part of the Inca Trail, is like a history lesson on wheels. Pedal through the UNESCO-listed mountain valley of Quebrada de Humahuaca and break to explore Incan ruins. Most of the roads are flat or rolling terrain and the scenery is ever-changing from salt flats to jungle to rust-colored desert. Adventure & Landscape’s week-long trip covers 30 to 40 miles a day and weaves in wine tastings and cooking lessons, plus stays at local estancias (Latin American cattle ranches).
The Andes of Ecuador
The discovery of hundreds of miles of top-notch singletrack, much of it pre-dating the Incans, has made Ecuador a bucket list riding destination for hardcore mountain bikers. Big climbs and even bigger descents make this advanced terrain. On a ten-day, adrenaline-fueled trip with H+I Adventures riders will drop down the slopes of Cotopaxi, one of the world’s highest active volcanoes, swoop through a cloud forest, and pedal across dusty, cacti-dotted desert.
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
Soccer (fútbol) and surfing still dominate the sports scene in Brazil, but cycling is slowly catching on. Some of the best road riding is in the state of Rio de Janeiro. True Brazil Travel offers a week-long trip that strings together the region’s famous beaches, colonial towns, and fishing villages. You’ll ride a few stretches of hard-packed sand, tackle a tough 2.5-mile climb, and end up in the World Heritage-listed Paraty where you’ll celebrate your efforts with caipirinhas.
Local gauchos still prefer horses to bikes, but casual cyclists love Uruguay’s combination of easy riding set against a backdrop of white-sand beaches, dusty colonial towns, and rolling vineyards. Butterfield & Robinson aptly named its week-long Uruguay trip, “Pure Sophistication in South America’s Secret.” Saddle time is broken up with visits to a sculpture park, tours of wineries, and happy hour cocktails at beach bars. At night, you’ll experience a traditional asado (barbecue) feast.
The Inca Trail, Peru
If downhill riding is your jam, the terrain doesn’t get any better than Peru’s Inca Trail. Sacred Rides’ Inca Adventure–Downhill trip covers 50,000 vertical feet of singletrack in 9 days. Highlights include the Megavalanche downhill course, the big jumps of Huacotto downhill trails, and Enduro-style riding atop the Lamay Valley. There’s plenty of culture, on view too, from the Inca Fortress of Huchuy Cusco to the infinite rock steps of Chinchero.
Casablanca Valley, Chile
The Casablanca, Apalta, and Colchagua Valleys are home to Chile’s oldest vines as well as quiet, open roads. DuVine Cycling + Adventure’s Chile Vineyards Bike Tour rewards your efforts in the saddle with tastings, tours, and picnics at some of the region’s top wineries, including biodynamic producer Emiliano and LaPostelle. Gentle rolling hills lead riders through the Chilean campo (countryside), past sleep farm villages, and under the Arboleda Almahue, a pretty stretch of road decorated by a canopy of trees. Along the way, you’ll sleep in style at boutique vineyard hotels including Viña Vik at La Casona at Matetic.
Central Andes, Colombia
Nicknamed the land of climbers for its steep hills, Colombia has produced some of the Tour de France’s top competitors. Trek Travel has created an itinerary that lets you test your mettle on the climbs that the pros train on. You’ll be cycling through Colombian coffee country, which means plenty of stops to caffeinate at local cafes and on tours of coffee farms. Bragging rights will be earned the final day, when riders climb 4,400 feet over 44 miles from Sazagua to Caz del Chorizo.
Argentina’s most famous wine region is ideal for oenophiles who like a little exercise between winery tours. Mellow, rolling hills lead cyclists from tasting room to tasting room (using the spittoon is advised). Baccus Biking offers self-guided and guided trips that stop at some of the area’s best producers, including Catena Zapata and Achaval Ferrer. Plus, they’ll courier any bottles you purchase back to your hotel.
Patagonia and hiking are inextricably linked. However, cycling is emerging as a new frontier. Intrepid cyclists can ride the length of the Carretera Austral in Northern Patagonia’s Aysen region. If you don’t have time to tackle 770 miles, hit the trails of Torres del Paine. EcoCamp’s guides lead cycling excursions that explore the eastern part of the park, including impossibly blue Laguna Azul.
Emerald Mountains, Colombia
Road cycling is Colombia’s national sport and Skedaddle’s 13-day Emerald Mountains trip stitches together a network of roads to bring you the country’s greatest hits (romantic Cartagena, the Caribbean’s prettiest beaches, culture-rich Medellín). Riders will be challenged in the mountains, especially on the Alto de Letras, reputed to be the longest climb in the world spanning 52 miles. Your quads will get a break as you head into the undulating hills of Colombia’s coffee region and beach time will be plentiful when you reach the coast.