Off the beaten track: The world’s best bespoke cycling holidays

Saigon to Siem Reap in the saddle: Vietnam and Cambodia. Photo / Supplied

Go camera, culture and cuisine crazy off the beaten track on a bespoke cycle tour, writes Susana Cloete-Jones

Right about now, most of us are testing negative for patience. If you’ve reached the point where you will happily trade what remains of your sanity for the opportunity to go on an adventure: you are not alone.

This urge to explore is in our genes – humans have been wandering to unknown parts for at least 70,000 years – but you may find that abstinence has changed some of your travel expectations. When you have forgotten what a naked face in a supermarket looks like, you probably want to ease back into the travel saddle with a personally tailored trip (that doesn’t break the bank). But you have also never been more ready to go somewhere genuinely exceptional, and life is too short not to demand that the operators are transparent and ethical. Bonus points if your visit boosts the destination. Enter the bespoke cycling adventure.

Social Cycles began with one man’s dream to cycle from London to Melbourne in 2011. Around 28,000km, 26 countries, two-and-a-half years and £ 12,500 ($ 24,000) donated to 13 different NGOs later, founder Brett Seychell translated the experience into a company dedicated to making group cycling adventures available to everyone. The destinations are wild and wonderful with an emphasis on relationships with local NGOs, employing local guides, cultural immersion and sustainability. Clients include everyone from octogenarian New Zealander Judy who has done four trips – including cycling Iran twice – to Susie from England who visited Cambodia with her husband and their young sons.

Why your next trip should be on a bicycle

They say ‘two wheels move the soul’, but the lack of boundaries between a bicycle and the world around it also gives you unprecedented access to the people and places you have traveled halfway across the world to encounter.

A great ride operator will have their finger on the safety small-print and always go at your pace so you can stay active but also have a support van waiting in the wings to sweep you up whenever you need a rest. An excellent cycling trip will hit that sweet spot in the Venn diagram where immersion and luxury overlap. You can tick off the highlights, satisfy your particular interests and even leave a legacy.

But where to go? Here are three extraordinary trips:

The curiously therapeutic effect of Colombia

You can tell a lot about a country from the sport it loves. And when the national pastime is Tejo – throwing a weighted steel disc at a metal ring rigged with gunpowder, you know you have arrived in a place where fantasy meets reality.

Colombia packs a lot of country between the Pacific and Caribbean, the Andes and Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains and the Amazon. From the saddle of your bicycle, you can control the pace that the country’s welcoming mix of Cumbia rhythms, incredible biodiversity and stunning mountain scenery unfold at. This trip covers 300km of mixed terrain with some hills, and rain may occasionally affect the itinerary.

Pacific to the Caribbean: Colombia by cycle.  Photo / Supplied
Pacific to the Caribbean: Colombia by cycle. Photo / Supplied

As the country’s slogan has been proclaiming for more than a decade, “the only risk is wanting to stay”, but anyone with a Netflix account knows that Colombia’s druglord past fueled three seasons of Narcos. Lessons have been learned here, and you can combine cycling and sightseeing with meeting local organizations and former gang members to better understand the peaceful future everyone is working towards.

The local cuisine is hearty – in Medellin, a plate heaped with ground beef, chicharrones (fried pork belly), avocado, rice, beans, plantain, fried egg, arepa (cornmeal cakes), and chorizo ​​is called breakfast. And you can expect to extend your fruit vocabulary beyond passionfruit and pineapple as you try curious varieties such as guanabana (custard apples), guava, lulo – which looks like an orange outside, a tomato inside, and tastes like a citrus tart and tomato del tree.

From Medellin’s ultra-chic El Poblado to the insanely tropical countryside, it’s hard not to channel your best main-character energy. Where else can you cycle from an orchard farm to a coffee plantation and hike under the world’s tallest palm trees?

Colombia is the full embodiment of the modern traveler’s most ambitious dreams, and this experience is capable of redrawing your inner territory, shifting boundaries and limits.

Only, do remember – if you are invited to play the explosive national game of Tejo: the loser pays for everyone’s beer.

Trip notes: You’ll need to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19 at least 14 days before arrival. If you are partially vaccinated, or received your last dose less than 14 days before travel, you must show a negative Covid-19 (PCR or antigen) test. Unvaccinated non-resident foreigners aren’t allowed to enter Colombia.
Colombia can be reached via several destinations in America or Buenos Aires in Argentina.

Follow the Silk Road through incredible Iran

When the shopkeeper in Iran tells you something doesn’t have a price, they don’t mean it. It is your cue to offer to pay. Because being polite is such an essential part of Iranian culture, they have given it a name: Ta’arof is both a verbal dance of etiquette and sweet relief from the pushy street vendors that have become ubiquitous with travel. In Iran, extreme friendliness and generosity is as Persian as pomegranates.

On the Silk cycling route through Abyaneh, in central Iran.  Photo / Supplied
On the Silk cycling route through Abyaneh, in central Iran. Photo / Supplied

A cycle adventure winds through 300km over challenging terrain and against a backdrop of caravanserais, snowy mountains, vast deserts and oasis towns. You won’t be stopping for your favorite tipple (alcohol is legally prohibited for the Muslim population of Iran), but this will leave you free to concentrate on becoming intoxicated with a variety of beautifully prepared, intricately spiced dishes instead. Most meals are served with salads, fresh herbs and Sangak sourdough bread or rice offerings such as Persian Tahdig, made from perfectly fluffy Basmati rice with a delicious crispy bottom. Cycling through Iran allows unprecedented engagement with the country’s people (two nights are spent in local homes), and when time and love are the most essential ingredients, you will always find the best cuisine behind closed doors.

Friendliness and food are, of course, only the trimmings when you are cycling in a country capable of teleporting a traveler through time. According to the Solar Hijri calendar, you arrive in Iran around 6 centuries ago, and if that isn’t trippy enough, you can visit places like the red village of Abyaneh, which is too old to date but still sports street fashion circa the Sasanian dynasty (224–651 CE).

Iran will remind you that we travel not to find the answers but to discover new questions. Intrigue is speckled throughout the country like the tart Zereshk (Persian barberry) you will find in your Persian pilaf: What did Alexander the Great think of Persepolis when he arrived? Why did Darius I Achaemenid, the king of Persian kings, decide to build a city this extravagant, mainly for ceremonial purposes? Did the prophet Solomon really discover the spring that feeds Fin Gardens in Kashan? Why can’t one find its source? And, sitting in the cafe, sipping refreshing Doogh (yoghurt drink) or Sharbat (prepared with rose petals, fruits and herbs) while listening to the sound of the water, maybe the most pressing question of all: Do I really have to leave?

Trip notes: You’ll need to provide a negative PCR test conducted within 72 hours before arrival or on departure, as well as a valid Covid-19 double vaccination certificate issued no later than 14 days before your flight. Iran is a short flight from Dubai.

Find the antidote to ordinary in the Kingdom of Cambodia and Vietnam

Cambodia and Vietnam are celebrated for their rich history, fabulous food and friendly locals, so much so their ever-expanding tourist boom has become the new obstacle. Unless you get on a bike.

An easy 500 to 700km of almost entirely flat terrain (there is one hill) with some off-road cycling will grant you unprecedented access to this ancient trade route and offer rare opportunities to experience the local way of life. This trip is less about being the umpteenth tourist a local shopkeeper has met that day and more about exchanging companionable hellos with children and parents as you pause for a drink in a remote village.

What better way to eclipse the cookie-cutter social media post than steering your bicycle along the paths formed by 300,000 laborers and 6000 elephants to see the sun rising over the largest religious monument on Earth? And Angkor Wat is far from the only highlight on your journey. There is a very specific joy to getting covered in mud as you navigate the narrow paths of the Mekong Delta. And when you run out of road, you can load your bikes on a boat to sail the Tonle Sap River, racing floating houses as they relocate to avoid a storm.

How to avoid the dark side of voluntourism in an area that once was the poster child for the idea? Social Cycles’ unique approach entails carefully picking the local grassroots NGOs by looking at how they perform over time using markers like the number of staff members who previously benefited from the organization’s work. In Cambodia, they support the comprehensive work done by Sustainable Cambodia, which prides itself on empowerment rather than being an aid organization (currently, 18 out of 41 staff members are former SC students).

The point of an adventure is to journey somewhere that at least resembles your everyday reality. Of course, the more extraordinary the destination, the more critical it is to travel with guides who really understand your interests. If the exciting new developments in insect protein fascinate you, you won’t want to miss out on the opportunity to eat a spider. If a silk-worm salad doesn’t bring out your inner Anthony Bourdain, you might want to give that a miss and stick to feeding your inner foodie from the excellent choice of Thai, Lao and Vietnamese cuisine. One warning: Don’t try the Kampot pepper if you love spicy food but have commitment issues. One bite and no other pepper will ever truly satisfy you again.

Trip notes: To enter Cambodia, you’ll need to show a negative Covid-19 (PCR) test result issued within 72 hours before your arrival in Cambodia. Travelers to Cambodia who are vaccinated don’t need to quarantine on arrival. Crossing into Vietnam from Cambodia also means you don’t have to quarantine for three days on entry to Vietnam. Fly to Phnom Penh or Siem Reap via Singapore.

CHECKLIST: CYCLING HOLIDAYS

DETAILS
Social Cycles offers multi-day cycling itineraries in Colombia, Iran, Cambodia and Vietnam, and more. social-cycles.com
All visa and Covid requirements are subject to change.

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