Cycling 7,000km Across South America with No Money

Six months, 7,000km and not a penny to her name. How did Laura Bingham do it?

We’re keen to help you make this year your best for cycling. If you have a goal or an event to train hard for, we want to help guide you to success. To motivate you, we’ve been gathering inspiration from incredible adventurers and cyclists alike.

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Laura Bingham is one such adventurer who, at the age of 18, began her travels around the world in an attempt to quench her wanderlust. Having run out of money whilst teaching English in Mexico, Laura couldn’t afford the flight home, and so had to hitch a ride on a sail boat back to the UK, which took 2 months.

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Two years back in the UK, and Laura’s itch to travel and seek adventure lead her on one of the most incredible trips of a life-time: cycling across South America with no money whatsoever. To understand how this trip came to be, we must go back to the beginning.

Where it all began

Being a natural born adventurer, it didn’t take long for Laura Bingham to begin planning her next challenge. Being engaged to a fellow advetnure junkie, Ed Stafford, it was only a matter of time before she hatched a plan to be on her way.

The idea of cycling across South America came from a mixture of her previous travel experiences, and having a good grasp of the Spanish language. She told me: “I loved the South American culture and wanted to explore more of it” – and what better way to explore than on two wheels?

But cycling across countries on long expeditions have been done before, and Laura wanted to do more than just cycle South America, she wanted to do it for a good cause also.

Operation South America

Operation South America (OSA) is a UK based charity working in Paraguay to help shelter and feed children from poor households. The charity offers housing, clothing, food and assistance to homeless children, and those whose parents are unable to afford to feed their family.

“I wanted to understand the feeling of true starvation and desperation.”

This often means that some of the children at the shelter eat every other day, and are unaware that a normal balanced diet generally involves 3 meals per day. It’s for this reason, and for this cause the Laura decided to dedicate her adventure to this wonderful organisation. Rather than just raise awareness and funds, she told me: “I wanted to understand the feeling of true starvation and desperation. Unknowing where to sleep, or where and when the next meal would come.”

It was for this reason, Laura decided to embark on a 6 month cycling mission across South America without any money whatsoever. Loaded with only her bike, bags, camping kit and essentials, she set out.

Cycling across South America

In January 2016, Laura began her grand South American adventure. Starting off in Ecuador, the adventurer allowed herself a week to acclimatise to the heat and altitude. When D-Day approached, she ditched the last of her money and hit the road on what would later be affectionately named, “The Bitch Bike”.

  • Duration: 164 days
  • Distance: 7,000km
  • Route: Ecuador – Peru – Bolivia – Paraguay – Argentina
  • Diet: Boiled rice – maggot infested fruit – scraps – donations
  • Motivation: OSA charity – photos – journal – motivational videos
  • Cost: £0

Laura described the first few weeks of her adventure as being a “dark spot of the journey. Ecuador has such a low standard of living residents weren’t very welcoming. They were reluctant to offer food or shelter and it terrified me that this would be the feeling throughout the whole trip.”

With food being scarce, and feeling like a burden to the community, Laura was beginning to feel the true meaning of starvation from the outset. She explained the feeling of being hungry: “My stomach was in knots. It was hurting so much that every pedal stroke was a chore. It was emotionally and physically exhausting as we ascended in altitude. During the early stages, I was only able to cover roughly 15 miles per day.”

It was during these dark times of the journey that Laura’s photos and journal really came in handy for comfort. Having pre-downloaded motivational YouTube videos, the explorer coaxed herself back on the bike each day, despite the hunger eating away at her.

“I became weary of eating guavas and potatoes as they would usually be ridden with maggots”

As Laura made her way through Ecadour, she felt a warmer reception from the locals in Peru and Bolivia, but still feeling like a burden when it came to donations.

Burning roughly 3000 kcals per day, Laura was forced to find food wherever she could. This would often result in foraging for fruit, nuts and berries although the guavas and potatoes were almost always riddled with maggots. Being that hungry lead Laura to resort to finishing off scrap foods and asking for donations.

She recounts one particular moment of desperation: “I cycled into a small village, being so hungry that I could barely hold myself up straight. I walked into a bakery and just cried. The baker was sympathetic and kind enough to give me  two bags of stale bread. I was so grateful that I hugged him, even though I could tell he wanted me on my way. With those bags of bread, I had to carefully ration them because I had no idea where the next bit of food would come from.”

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When you experience true hunger and starvation like Laura, you begin to develop a different relationship with food. Being so unsure where the next meal would come from, Laura found herself holding onto every morsel, and telling herself at points of hunger, “You could still get worse. Save it for then”.

As Laura made her way through Paraguay, she explained that the atmosphere was so much more supportive with locals being more willing to offer bread, biscuits and cookies as she cycled by. Having the support of the local community cheering her on did a great deal for Laura’s mental state and provided a much needed boost of motivation.

As she reached Argentina, her final country, spirits were high and the amount of support was overwhelming. With the boost of morale, additional food donations and the nearing end of the trip, Laura was able to cover almost 140km per day.

After 164 days and 7000km, Laura finally made it to Buenos Aires where her journey came to an end.

The food – or lack thereof

Six months on from completing her harrowing journey of hunger, discovery and personal accomplishment, Laura is able to look back and reflect on what she learnt and experienced.

She set out to discover the true meaning of hunger and desperation, and with that came a lot of rejection. Laura explained the mental and emotional toll was extraordinary and something she could never have prepared herself for.

When it came to food, Laura told me that “the worst meal was the constant bland boiled rice”, and that in one of the small towns a local man bought her a meal which consisted of half a potato, heart, intestines and liver. Something the locals consider healthy and nutritious, but something far from what Laura was accustomed to back home.

The aftermath

Since coming back from her incredible cycling adventure, Laura has shared her experiences with many organisations, speaking publicly abut the journey. Living without financial or social support, she was able to understand the true meaning of starvation, something that many people live with everyday of their lives.

Upon returning home in July 2016, Laura was thrown into making final wedding arrangements which lead her to marrying Ed Stafford in September. Laura and Ed are about to embark on a whole new adventure: parenthood. Being pregnant isn’t stopping her from making plans for January 2018 though – stay tuned to see where her next journey takes her.

Feeling inspired to set yourself an incredible cycling challenge? It doesn’t have to be across countries, and without financial support, but you can do something to challenge your limits and work towards this year.

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