Last year, Cat Taylor quit her marketing job at a San Francisco startup and has been traveling through South America by bicycle ever since (she's currently in Patagonia!). She'll be the first to tell you she knew next to nothing about bikes and learned most of what she knows through experience (and watching YouTube videos). Today, Cat talks about making big life decisions, bathing in glacial-temperature rivers, and choosing skin care products fit for life on the road (two words: lip balm).
How did you decide to make such a huge life change — from working in marketing in San Francisco to biking through South America?
The decision to pack my panniers and hit the road was both the most difficult and the easiest life choice I've made. Difficult because it was, as you said, a huge change — and that's scary. Instead of focusing on my fears (I'm not strong enough to travel by bike; I'm going to get robbed; the money will run out), I simplified the question, and thus the decision: Do I want to travel and see more of the world? Yes. In that moment, I knew I had to find a way to make it work. There's no time like the present!
My boyfriend, Kale, and I began planning. We'd first heard of tour biking while backpacking in the mountains of northern Vietnam (our previous, and much shorter, overseas adventure). There, we befriended an Aussie who had toured through Europe and Tasmania. According to him, there is no better way to experience a place than by bicycle. After doing some research, we agreed that traveling by bicycle would give us nomadic freedom and an unforgettable adventure — no matter where we were.
How did you decide on South America?
Narrowing it down to South America was really easy. I hadn't been there (neither had Kale) and our planned departure date was in South America's spring (our fall). But picking a starting point within South America was the tricky part. To help decide, we made a list of what we were looking for in a destination — a temperate climate, a low-ish crime rate, ample coastline (which usually means fewer mountains to climb) — and voila! We discovered Uruguay.
Did you have any biking experience prior to your trip? How did you prepare?
I had very little biking experience before the tour (think: not-even-taken-a-SoulCycle-class status). I was a total noob. The first ride was around an empty parking lot near the bike shop where we purchased our bikes. It was scary and the journey ahead, daunting.
Initially, Kale and I had great ideas of how we would train for the trip. We lived on a hill, so we thought we could bike up the hill everyday (before or after work) to get in cycling shape. Quickly, that turned into going on short rides when we had time, approximately every other weekend. In total, I probably had about 100 miles in the saddle before we packed our bikes in boxes and flew to Uruguay.
Despite not (really) training, I eased my nerves and prepared by watching YouTube videos, attending (free) REI bike workshops (think: how to change a tire), and disassembling and reassembling my bike.
What's a typical day like?
We'll wake up sometime between 8 a.m. and 9 a.m. on a typical day. When it's rainy or chilly, sometimes it'll take me a few hours to actually emerge from the warmth of our tent. In warmer climates, when the sun hits our tent, it turns into an oven — in those places, we're generally up much earlier. Our mornings are casual and we take our time. I fire up our stove and boil some water for coffee and oatmeal while Kale packs up the bedroom (deflates our mats and stuffs the sleeping bags) and replenishes our water. We usually start biking around noon, after our gear and panniers (bags for the bike) are packed and reloaded on our bikes.
We ride anywhere between 10 and 50 miles; depending on the weather, road conditions, camping options, and morale. When we're hungry, we'll stop for lunch (ideally somewhere with a view, but that's not always possible). Using maps and the super handy application, iOverlander, we'll begin looking for a place to camp for the night.
We aim to have chosen a spot to camp by a few hours before sunset. If we're in or near a city we'll usually be in an established campground or hostel, otherwise we try and find free places to pitch our tent. We've camped by rivers, on cliffs overlooking waterfalls, behind gas stations, in people's gardens, in the yards of government buildings. The main things to look for in a potential spot are water access, visibility from the road (less is better), and wind protection.
After setting up our tent, we'll get clean, change, collect water, start a fire, cook some dinner which is typically rice or pasta with veggies. If we're lucky, wash it down with a little wine. We usually go to sleep an hour or so after sunset, sometimes later if we're hanging out with other campers and/or we have a roaring campfire.
Has it been challenging?
Definitely. Riding uphill is slow and can be a bitch. And riding long distances on bumpy ripio (gravel) roads can be dizzying. But the views from the top of a climb and the rush I get looking back at where I've come from is an unmatched feeling and makes the sweating worth it.
Not only is it physically demanding (my bike is heavy, especially when I am carrying wine), but it's also mentally exhausting. The things that stress me out now are totally different and much more fundamental to survival. Do I have enough food to make it to the next town/store? Where's the next stream where we can fill up our water bottles? Where am I going to sleep tonight? Why are these passing trucks not giving me more space?! Another thing I have to monitor is the condition of my bike. Is my chain lubed? Are my racks on securely?
Where have you travelled to so far?
Uruguay, Argentina and Chile. You can scope our route here.
What has surprised you about life in South America?
Each country and region we've traveled through has a rich and distinct culture, yet one thing consistently surprises me: the warmth and friendliness of the local people. They are chatty especially when they see our bicycles, patient with our (lack of) Spanish, and quick to offer us food, water, and oftentimes even a place to stay.
Has your beauty routine changed a lot since you started traveling?
So much. In my previous life, I always tried to keep things simple. Things became a whole lot simpler on the bike. When a shower becomes a luxury and your bathroom is behind a nice looking tree, "beauty routine" takes on a new definition. No makeup. My hair goes in a braid and under a buff, hat and/or helmet. Sometimes I'll go a week without looking in a mirror. At first, these changes were weird but I've gotten used to it, and honestly it's quite liberating.
In the morning, I wash my face using a baby wipe, but if our camp spot has water access, I'll use face wash. Then, I'll apply sunscreen and brush my teeth. The whole process only takes a few minutes and I spend most of my morning enjoying a cup of coffee.
I keep sunscreen and Chapstick in my handlebar bag for quick access while I'm riding. When we're finished biking for the day, I wash my face again, change out of my bike clothes, and give myself a refreshing baby wipe shower. Occasionally, bug spray is necessary if we're camping by a river. I opt for a DEET-free lemon-eucalyptus alternative. I try to remove it once I'm safely back in the tent. Baby wipes, FTW!
How do you maintain your skin while on the road?
A typical day means dirt, dust and sweat. And no shower. Thankfully, in Patagonia (where I am currently) there are plenty of rivers and lakes, which boast some of the purest water in the world. As you can imagine, they're glacially cold, and given the frigid temperatures and added wind chill, jumping in isn't usually something I like to do.
The sun's ultraviolet rays are more intense in the southern hemisphere (mostly due to the ozone hole), so it's easier to burn. I wear a hat under my helmet everyday to keep the sun (sometimes rain) off my face. I use a Neutrogena face stick which has been a lifesaver (sunscreen is really expensive in South America). The outside may be a bit beat up, but it still works like a charm! ;) Baby wipes are necessary when water isn't accessible to use face wash. Occasionally, a little lotion is necessary. I have some face lotion and a small tube of moisturizer.
I've accepted that having perfect skin isn't something that really goes with life on the road. For me, it's about keeping my skin as clean and healthy as I can.
What's the last product you used 'til there was nothing left?
Good ol' fashion Chapstick. For long windy days on the bike, it's especially clutch. I carry three sticks: one in my handlebar bag, one in my toiletry kit, and one in our first aid kit. Before traveling by bicycle, I'd inevitably lose my Chapstick before it ran out (sometimes finding it months, even years, later). Now, since everything has a home on my bike, I successfully finished a whole stick!
What's one thing you wish you packed?
I wish I packed less, especially less clothes! If I had to pick one thing, it would have to be a bigger cooking pot. Food is very important after a tough day on the bike and my current pot holds just over one liter. It's neither easy nor enjoyable to cook in a tiny pot. I am really excited to find a large pot for the next tour!
What's one thing you miss from home?
Other than my family and friends, it's gotta be tortilla chips... or salsa... or hummus. Surprisingly, throughout our journey I found very few markets with tortilla chips. Good salsa and hummus is also difficult to find. To cope, I've resorted to making my own tortillas, tortilla chips and hummus (when we're in hostels and have access to an oven). Hummus is a little more difficult to make when you don't have a blender, but it is tasty, nonetheless!
What has been the best meal of your trip so far?
Chivitos. A chivito is a sandwich with a thin slice of asado (steak) topped with cheese, veggies, olives, eggs, and ours came with a special homemade sauce. We had the most delicious chivitos while staying with an Uruguayo family, at their family beach house in La Floresta, Uruguay. There, we dined on some amazing food, including homemade chivitos, grilled on a traditional Uruguayo parrilla (a slanted, wood-fired grill).
What advice would you give to someone wanting to follow in your footsteps?
Just do it! The hardest part is actually convincing yourself that it really is possible. Your friends and family might think you're crazy at first, but that's normal — just stay positive and keep them involved. For us, our blog has been an effective tool for keeping in touch with everyone back home. The training and preparation doesn't matter — you'll get in shape as you go, you don't need the "right" or "best" gear, and you're as young as you'll ever be.
Where are you headed next?
After a family vacation in Hawaii, we'll be cycling around Oahu, then we're headed to Washington State to begin biking the west coast of the U.S., from north to south. I'm from Duvall, W.A., and really excited to explore my own backyard from the bike! Be sure to follow our journey on our blog.
What has been the highlight of your trip so far?
Reaching the end of the Carretera Austral (an 800 mile long highway which runs through rural Chilean Patagonia) and crossing the Chile/Argentina border at Villa O'Higgins. The border crossing which consisted of two boat rides, a tough and rocky uphill, and 3 miles of pushing my bike on a trail through rivers, mud and trenches.
Be sure to follow Cat on Instagram to keep up with her adventures. Check back next week for the latest installment of 52 Faces, a weekly series that spotlights the beauty routines of inspiring women. Last week, Allie Hoover, an L.A.-based promotions manager for a global travel retail company (think: luxury airport shopping), talked about the sheet mask she swears by for glowing skin and the best beauty products she discovered while living abroad in Hong Kong.