You can ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Ushuaia, Argentina, in 46 days, as Nick Sanders proved a few years back; or you can spend five years exploring just Colombia, Ecuador and Peru and still feel like you haven’t quite discovered the region, let alone the continent.
There is no good answer to the question “how fast should you ride South America”, as we all have different bikes, goals, timeframes, and places we want to see. But here are some pointers to consider when planning to ride the length of South America:
If you’re planning to ride the length of South America, keep seasons in mind. January – April is rainy season in Peru and Bolivia, and May-September is wintertime in Patagonia. If you’re starting from the Northern tip in Colombia, you have two choices: make it to Ushuaia before winter (that is, before the end of December) and get back before the rainy season in Northern Chile, Peru, and Bolivia: or hang out in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru for the whole year and head down south once you’ve thoroughly explored the Northern part of the continent.
If you’re starting in Ushuaia, the best months to ride Patagonia are October through to the end of December. Afterwards, get to Ecuador fast because it gets miserably cold and wet in the Andes from January.
There’s a big, easy route running across the entire South American continent: the Panamerican highway. If you want a fast, easy ride, just stick to the Panamericana, and you’ll be just fine.
However, if you plan to explore places off the beaten path, especially off-road, you’ll be heading towards the Andes.
Andes mountains are the longest continental mountain range in the world. The Altiplano plateau in Bolivia is the second-highest after the Tibetan plateau, and the Andes are the highest mountains in the world outside Asia.
In other words: don’t mess with the Andes and calculate your distances with lots and lots of room. Andean roads are very twisty, so you won’t be traveling fast; some are dirt trails, which will slow you down even more; expect the unexpected, even in the dry season – washed out bridges, landslides, protests, blockades (especially in Peru and Bolivia); and finally, the altitude (sometimes reaching over 19,000 feet above the sea level) can be hard to handle for some people.
Take all of this into account when planning your route and timing.
Colombia and Ecuador allow 90 days per calendar year of visa-free entry, while Peru, Chile and Argentina will grant you an extra 90 days (making it a total of 180 days per calendar year) of free stay – all you have to do is a quick border run. Bolivia charges a visa fee if you’re a US citizen, the situation in Venezuela is currently unstable, and Brasil might change their immigration laws again now that they have a new president.
Do your research beforehand and see how much time you’re legally allowed to spend in each country. Always leave a country 3-4 days prior to your visa expiration date – this allows for flexibility if you encounter trouble along the way (again, landslides and protests come to mind). It’s OK if you overstay your visa in most countries, but it’s very much not OK if your bike overstays – it might even result in permanent bike seizure by the customs officers. Plan ahead to avoid pointless bureaucracy battles!