Latin America

The daily trials and tribulations of a cyclist (and his tribe) in Lima

Bike users face a range of problems in Latin America, where two-wheeled transport is not the norm

Nude cyclists during a bike rally in Lima, Peru.
Nude cyclists during a bike rally in Lima, Peru.Ernesto Benavides

More information

At mid-morning, and with the sun beating down, a beige all-terrain vehicle drives up on a bike path in San Isidro, the wealthiest neighborhood in both Lima and Peru.

My humble green bike is now blocked by this gigantic car, which appears unaware of the situation.

—Sir, don’t you see this is a bike route?

— It’s just… I’m sorry but I am waiting for my wife to finish shopping

—You just can’t park here.

—I am sorry, I will only be a minute.

In Mexico, some 200 cyclists are killed each year, especially in chaotic Mexico City

An official from Serenazgo (an unarmed municipal force that helps citizens on the streets) passes by and approaches me when I call out.

He convinces the driver to move his vehicle while at the same time a red taxi parks in the paved route that is solely designated, according to the law, for cyclists.

This is a typical scene in many Latin America and Caribbean countries.

In Asunción, Paraguay, two cyclists were attacked with sticks and rocks last January 5 before their bikes were taken from them. In Mexico, some 200 cyclists are killed each year, especially in chaotic Mexico City.

In Medellín, Colombia, 12 riders died in 2014, according to city transit officials. The majority of incidents took place on exclusive bike routes.

In Lima, where getting around by bicycle isn’t very common, there haven’t been many road deaths. But this situation could change if no one speaks out over incidents like the one that happened to me in San Isidro.

Last May, two cyclists were killed by motorists while they were riding – one of the victims, Gladys Pareja, was a firefighter. She was hit first by a motorist who fled the scene and then, later, run over by a public bus. Her fellow firefighters didn’t have enough money to send her body for burial in her birth town in Tingo María in the Peurvian jungle.

“In Peru, many people look down on those who ride bikes because they associate them with the lower classes”

According to a report released last year by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), 50% of road accidents in the region involve motorcycles, pedestrians and cyclists. There were lower figures for cyclists than motorists or motorcycle-riders in the numbers of victims compiled in the IDB report. But we are always almost (or at least the most) ignored.

A few months back a local organization invited me as a journalist to a conference on climate change. I decided to go on my bike, thinking that those in the high spheres of politics and in international arena had already thought about this idea.

— Good morning, I am here for the global climate change conference.

—I am sorry, you cannot enter with your bicycle. There are a lot of diplomats here.

Santiago Mariani, an Argentinean political scientist who lives in Lima and who is also an avid cyclist, explains the general situation.

“In Peru, many people look down on those who ride bikes because they associate them with the lower classes, who cannot afford to buy a vehicle to get around,” he says.

So, if you want to maintain a certain status or be a proud Latin American of an economy that is supposedly buoyant right now, you can’t ride a bicycle – you must own a car.

The IDB also proposes the following: “If urban bike routes are going to be a viable option they must be part of a network with extensive connections, including with public transport.”

In other words, integration is the only way – if the bicycle wants to be treated equally it must form part of the entire road system.

Currently there are 2,513 kilometers of bike routes across Latin America, according to the IDB. The longest – 392 kilometers – can be found in Bogota. They connect some of the city’s tough neighborhoods located in the Santa Fe district to fashionable sectors of the Colombian capital.

The second-longest bike route can be found in Rio de Janeiro, in which 3.2% of the population uses two-wheeled transport.

If you want to maintain a certain status you can’t ride a bicycle – you must own a car

But it is the Argentinean city of Rosario that takes the prize when it comes to riders: 5.3% of its one million residents ride bikes on a regular basis.

Of course these figures are far lower than in Amsterdam, where 40% of the population gets around by bike.

It is not exaggeration to say that Latin American cyclists are waging a constant daily battle for their rights and safety.

In Lima, around 0.3% of the population use a bicycle on a daily basis, despite the fact that the Peruvian capital is flat and has little rainfall.

—Sir, you have parked on a bike route.

—I will only be a minute…

This time there are three of us who complain to the driver. We are not alone, and we are safe in the knowledge that perhaps the only revolution Latin America will accept is that of the bicycle.

English version by Martin Delfín.