In 2016 British adventurer Laura Bingham cycled 7000 km across South America in 6 months, through 5 countries and over 5000m high Andean passes, without any money and completely under her own steam
Witnessing both her cycling partner Cho and fiancé (Explorer and Guiness World Record holder Ed Stafford) knocked off their bikes by passing trucks on separate occasions along the way, she completed the mammoth expedition to raise awareness and money for Operation South America (OSA). We caught up with Laura to learn more about her epic adventure, what motivates her, and what advice she has for other female travellers.
Matt Clark: Hi Laura, thanks for taking the time to speak with us today! What led to the original idea of cycling across South America – without any money?!
Laura Bingham: No problem! Well, when I got back to England (from sailing across the Atlantic in a 38 foot catamaran with two blokes and a cat called Cuba) I consulted my bucket list – a list of 87 different points I want to achieve in my life, ideas and things – and one of them was to cycle across a country. And then I was looking online and stuff, and then I saw that a woman called Juliana Buhring has the world record for cycling around the world, and I thought hmm, well, I could do that! So then that was my first plan, to cycle around the world. But I realised that I was more about the journey rather than the race, so I limited it to just South America – because I speak Spanish and I have this absolute love for South America, having lived in Mexico.
Then I thought, well, a lot of people cycle South America, so how do I make this different? I found this charity called Operation South America, which looks after girls that don’t have parents, or whose parents don’t have enough money to care for them, so I thought, well, why not live like them and do it without money? It made it a bit more different, and helped immerse myself within the culture, ‘cos I think if you’re staying in hotels and getting around the country in a sort of more money-fuelled way you’re not really gonna live like the locals. So there were a few different reasons as to why I chose to cycle without money – the charity influence and to immerse myself in the culture, and to just be a bit different really!
MC: Were you always into cycling?
LB: It was a very very random thing. When I sailed the Atlantic, I’d never sailed before, so it was one of those ‘well I’ve never done it before, but I still accomplished this big task’ type things. Even though I know how to ride a bike, I’d never done a tour, or never really got into cycling that much, but I always think the best way to learn how to do something is to jump in at the deep end – then you’ll learn how to swim pretty quickly, as you’re not going to learn how to sink. So I thought the best way to learn about bikes is to go and do a big tour and be immersed in that culture.
It’s really interesting how every sport has its own culture. I use to work in polo, looking after the horses, and suddenly this whole world opened up to me of all these people whose lives revolved around horses, and then when I sailed, it opened up this whole world of all of these sailors and sailing communities, and it’s the same with the bike. Now that I’ve sort of dipped into this world, there’s this whole world of cycling and all of these people that love cycling – and cycling is their life – and I think it’s the most wonderful thing to just try something new and experience that separate world.
MC: Would you say you were always adventurous growing up?
LB: Yes I think so. I think if you asked my Mother that, she would always say I was a little madam haha. Always liked the centre of attention and the limelight; always had to be different and doing something crazy.
MC: Is there anyone that’s inspired you in your travels and adventures?
LB: My family’s got a good heritage. I’ve got some good ancestors within my family history, but over the past couple of generations there hasn’t been so many do really impressive things, and I really want to, sort of go down in history, just to keep that legacy, that lineage going. That has been one of my biggest inspirations and driving force: my bloodline.
More current people would be my other half (Ed Stafford), who’s been a huge inspiration to me. Just watching what he does and what he has been able to accomplish in his life makes me realise how achievable these things are. And whilst I’ve been travelling I’ve met so many incredible people with so many different lifestyles that I’ve just gradually come to believe that anything is possible – you just have to go and do it!
MC: Do you think there’s any rivalry between you and Ed?
LB: Absolutely not. Absolutely no rivalry whatsoever, and that’s the gods’ honest truth. He’s been nothing but loving and supportive towards me and all of my dreams, and I pray that he would say the same thing about me.
MC: How did the practicalities work in South America? Were you always able to find food, water and shelter?
LB: No hahaha! There were a lot of days that I did, but there were quite a few days when I didn’t. In the Ecuadorian Andes there were a lot of days that I went very hungry. It was raining a lot, so even when I did have rice or any type of food that I could cook, I wasn’t able to because I couldn’t get a fire going, so I’d go hungry that evening. I’d ask at houses for – I want to say the English word but I can only think of the Spanish word haha – help… In spanish it’s posada, which is like help with somewhere to stay and food and stuff.
I asked at a lot of houses, and a lot of houses didn’t want to help, and the next house would be 4-5 km away. So I’d have to push the bike 5km up the hill, ask at that house and they’d say no, and I’d keep going, and I’d ask at the next house and they’d say no, all while being very wet and cold and hungry, so… There were a few bad days like that, but there were also so many days were I didn’t even have to ask. Especially in Paraguay and Argentina, there were just so many people willing to help.
MC: What sort of equipment did you take?
LB: I took an amazing Genesis Croix de Fer 30 bike! One of them – there were two as I had a partner with me for the majority of the way (though that was rotating with a different partner at different points) – actually got hit by a car and crushed, so we found someone to weld it back together! I don’t know how the bike managed to get across the continent but it’s still going really, really strong despite having been bent… The bike is MESSED UP, but it still works really really well, so I think it’s an amazing example of just how good a bike it is! I also had a load of great equipment from Gore and Rab that saw me through a lot of different weather changes – I really really highly recommend all of those brands!
MC: How did you prepare or train for the expedition?
LB: I went on several bike rides around England, and I made sure they weren’t just day journeys, and that I’d have to camp somewhere and try and get used to the whole ‘cycling-camping, cycling-camping’ thing. But I tried to do a bit more mental preparation because I know that your body can endure pretty much anything, but it’s your mind that you have to convince. So I did a lot of more mental preparation of just… telling myself to persist, that it’s ok… I listened to and watched loads of motivational videos – there’s a youtube channel called Motivational Madness and I’m just addicted to it because it’s just such an empowering channel, having someone constantly in your ear telling you that you can do it!
I downloaded a few of those videos whilst I was away, and on the really really hard days and weeks I’d have to listen to those videos pretty much on reel, just nonstop, just to give myself the willpower to keep going, because I knew it was going to get better… I just didn’t know when haha!
MC: What was the hardest part of the trip?
LB: The Ecuadorian Andes. After I left that, I had a really, really black spot in my heart and I felt very very depressed. I always say that I have a sunshine inside of me that makes me really happy, and a positive person, but after Ecuador I said to my fiancé, “I don’t know where my sunshine is, I can’t find it!” It was only in Paraguay that I found it again, when all of the people started being really happy to see me, and randomly waving at me and smiling and putting their thumbs up and giving me little toot toots of happiness rather than big long ‘ggggggrrrrrr get out of the way’ toots.
Because of the lack of support, because the indigenous people don’t like strangers up there, and the cold and the rain, and being hungry, and not being able to speak English, it was so draining that I ended up in a little dark spiral. But then through all of the generosity of people… In Peru they were generous but not so smiley, Bolivia they were more generous and bit more smiley, and then in Paraguay, I just couldn’t find any frowns whatsoever, they were just completely smiley.
MC: What was your absolute top highlight?
LB: Food! Haha! Being in Argentina and having wine and meat and people just giving it to me, and that all over the place, was amazing! There was also a day in Peru that was really sunny (after I’d been in the rain and cold so much), and I’d just got rid of the trailer behind me so my bike felt really light! I remember just going back and forth on the road and swerving all around the place, singing, and feeling really really happy ‘cos my bike felt so much lighter and I wasn’t having to go up and down the Andes! The other really happy memory was when I’d crossed the Andes for the third time, and I knew I didn’t have any more hills to do – that was a really really good moment haha! And then also going to Operation South America, and seeing all of the girls. There are 21 girls there that just want to hug you all of the time; they just want to talk to you and play with your hair, and they’re just the sweetest things ever!
MC: Can you tell us a little more about Operation South America and the work they do?
LB: I would love to! It’s run by a married couple, and they started the organisation after their first son died at the age of 9 from Leukaemia. They decided to leave the city and moved to the country, and tried to find something different to do with their lives – with a big life event like that people tend to change their direction. They met an Englishman called Phil Granger in a little village, and hatched this idea to start a girls’ home. There’s generally a group of 20-25 girls there at a time, because that’s the amount that they feel they can give good attention and loving support to. But they NEED more help, and more people to come in and look after these girls and give them the one to one attention that they need.
So they give a home to these girls, and they feed 70 different children from different areas too. The girls are all there for different reasons: some of their parents don’t have enough money to look after them, some of them have violent parents, some of them don’t even have parents. So there’s a load of different reasons that they’re there for, but the organisation gives them a safe place to sleep, food, and more importantly education – they have language classes and computer skills classes. And the reason that I like the organisation so much is that they teach them what they’re worth. They teach them they can do anything they want to, and to aspire to be the best that they can be.
MC: Obviously travelling across South America alone as a female could potentially be quite dangerous. Did you have any scary moments?
LB: Yeah. In Peru, there was an incident that happened that I’m dealing with personally with the people around me, but it definitely showed me the importance of travelling with someone, because I cycled for about two weeks alone. And then, something happened that made me realise the importance of travelling with someone, which is why my fiancé then came, and then I had a fellow adventurer come out, and then a sister and then another sister.
There’s definitely a bigger threat to a lone female. I personally believe that women are just as strong as men, and being female doesn’t limit us to anything, but I do suggest that if you’re a lone female wanting to travel, you should find a companion or make sure you’re in a group.
MC: Do you have any other advice for women about travelling safely?
LB: Make sure when the sun goes down, you’ve got a safe place to sleep. Whether that’s in a garden, or just away from the road. If you’re camping make sure you have a lock, so you lock the inside of your tent so people can’t just open the tent whilst you’re sleeping. That’s one of the biggest lessons I learnt from the trip. And just keep your wits about you – listen to your gut. If your gut is telling you something is a little bit off, don’t risk it. Just move away from that area.
MC: Do you have any words or advice to inspire other women or girls who want to plan similar adventures?
LB: The sky’s the limit! You just have to have the confidence to go and do it. There’s so many people I hear saying “oh, I wish I could do something like that…” But you can! Everyone can. You just have to decide, and then take actions on it. To have a dream and to make that your goal to achieve. Just because you’re a woman doesn’t mean you can’t do things – everything is possible.
MC: Is there one single biggest thing you learnt over the trip?
LB: How important it is to smile. How much a smile can mean to someone. When I was 16 my Dad had a blood clot in the head, and went into the hospital to have surgery. I remember walking up to the hospital and not having the confidence to go in… Walking home I smiled at someone and they didn’t smile back, then I smiled at someone else and they didn’t smile back, and then the third time I didn’t have the guts or the willpower to smile again, but I received the biggest smile that I ever have and I’ve never forgotten it. That thought me a little bit about the importance of smiling, but through this entire trip… People didn’t smile in Ecuador, and I got that dark spot, I lost my sunshine, and in Peru they weren’t so smiley still… And then as the countries went on the smiles got bigger and came more often.
If you see someone in the street, and you catch their eye, just give them a really big smile! They could be having an awful day, they could be in a horrible place, but that smile could be a little ray of sunshine that just shows them that there are nice people in the world. And if you see someone on the street, if you see someone travelling, give them a bottle of coke or something. When you give something to them, don’t just throw it at them, because that still makes them feel really insecure and bad about themselves. If you give it to them with a smile, and give like it’s giving you pleasure to give, it will change their day.
MC: So what are your plans for the future now? Any other trips or projects in the pipeline?
LB: I do! I’m getting married in two months, so that’s my next adventure. But after that I am planning a slightly different adventure. My whole sort of ethos to my life is to always be trying something new. I’ve done the sailing, and I’ve done the cycling, but the next one is a whole different page of the book. So people are definitely going to have to follow me on Instagram and Twitter to find that out, as I’m keeping it a little secret haha!
You can follow Laura on Instagram and Twitter to keep up to date with her adventures.