(Photo: Claudia and Ale, Puerto de La Libertad, 2023.)
We were excited to catch up with our good friend Andrea Molina. Following her multi-year bikepacking trip from Mexico to Patagonia, Andrea is back in her native El Salvador. We asked her to tell us about riding bikes in the capital city of San Salvador and the community of cyclists she’s building. This is her story.
Am I going to get killed for riding my bike here?
Five months ago I moved back home. I missed being close to family, and wanted to have that experience for the first time as an adult. I also love riding my bike everywhere, so moving to a car-dominated city has been a real challenge. Riding in a city with heavy traffic when you’re the only cyclist can be a defeating feeling.
I was born and raised in San Salvador but spent half of my life studying and working abroad. I learned to bike as an adult (age 22) and gained lots of confidence on two wheels, thanks to the wonderful bike lanes and cycling community I had in D.C. With that confidence, I went all in and spent three years biking the length of Latin America. During my trip, although I was mostly in the mountains, I biked through most of the major cities in Central and South America. From my bike, I was able to get a sense of how easy, common, or safe biking was in those cities. El Salvador’s capital, San Salvador, was veryyy far from the top of “Best places to ride a bike” list…lol
Sajama National Park, Sajama, Bolivia. 2022
The bikepacking trip of my life finished this past March, at the southern tip of South America. I’ll leave that story for another time, but once it ended, I was overwhelmed by the feeling of joy for having accomplished such a journey, but the uncertainty for what was to come hit me all at once.
(Arriving in Ushuaia, Argentina, March 2023)
(Map of our trip, June 2020 – March 2023)
To my surprise, although El Salvador lacks bike infrastructure, there are lots of bike groups, high-end bike shops, a vibrant enduro and MTB scene, multiple social rides every weeknight in and around the capital, and at least 2 bike events every weekend. There are lots of people riding bikes here but few people use their bikes to move around the city. A lack of bike lanes, terrible traffic, pollution, and minimal laws protecting cyclists or pedestrians make El Salvador a tricky place to be a bike commuter. Whenever I’m lost in a cloud of smoke from a bus or rushed by a car going too fast, I think about cities like Minneapolis, Medellin (Colombia) or Portland and think, “Damn. One day things will be different!” As I try to stay alive biking in San Salvador, I dream of the day when our cities can feel safe for people riding bikes.
Showing up for each other
Women across the globe are forced to defend their place in all aspects of their lives, and that includes while riding bikes. Shortly before I moved home, I learned about Cicla 28, a new women’s bike collective based in San Salvador through Instagram. Cicla promotes bikes as an alternative form of transportation and as a response to harassment many women experience when taking public transportation. Most Cicla members are new to cycling, and by “new”, I mean that they learned how to ride a bike within the last few months. One Sunday morning, I met them at a park for a picnic and I felt I was getting to know these folks more. Laura, in the leopard print in the photo below, arrived at the gathering by bike. As she slowly pedaled towards us, the group of ten women got up to welcome her with hugs and a standing ovation. “Oh my goodness, look at you!” “You’re biking!” “You’re doing it!”
With Cicla 28 in San Salvador, May 2023.
I soon learned that Laura had learned to ride a bike two weeks ago. From scratch. Cicla runs a bike school for women and she was a recent graduate. This was also Laura’s very first time riding alone in San Salvador, which is an intimidating city even for a seasoned cyclist. Laura told us, laughing, that she even fell while coming to the gathering. You could tell that she was proud of herself. It was a very special moment to witness.
Riding a bike in a car-centric city like San Salvador requires bravery. A supportive community makes a huge difference. I’m glad groups like Cicla are around because they literally change peoples lives. It made me feel grateful for the bike events and community I had back in D.C. that made me feel I belonged to the world of bikes.
Riding for deeper connections
A week after settling in El Salvador I had a specific goal: I wanted to make friends and ride bikes. I knew Claudia, wearing a purple helmet in the photo below, from Instagram, but we had never met in person. One day, I thought to myself, “Let me just invite her for coffee.” We made it happen and she was awesome. She’s a freelance graphic designer and a mom and, despite her many responsibilities and time constraints, she was eager to make bike plans. Life can get busy, especially for people raising kids, but her dedication to carving out time for biking was contagious. A few days later, Claudia invited me to ride with two other women: Ale and Ana Yancy.
Ana Yancy, Ale and Claudia at the Monumento a la Reconciliación on our way to ice cream
We met at Parque Bicentenario in San Salvador and rode our bikes to got ice cream. It all went so well that we decided to set a date for our first overnight adventure! We planned to bike to the beach through the mountains. We created a WhatsApp chat (which, in El Salvador, meant we were serious about this) and started ironing out the details. I felt so grateful for people like Claudia, who connects folks and builds community. I did not really know the other two women, Ale and Ana Yancy, but they seemed nice. I was hungry for friendship and deeper connections. I wondered if these folks were looking for that too.
Loading my bike with all the appropriate gear is second nature to me at this point, but packing for an overnighter was a new experience for the other folks. Bike camping is new to folks here and access to camping equipment and bike gear are significant hurdles too. We decided to prioritize the riding, which would take us through the mountains of Comasagua: a steep, meandering route to the beach that promised quiet roads. Since riding 35 miles with 3,500 feet of climbing can be intimidating for a first ride, we decided to make it a little easier by staying at a hostel. That way we could leave the camping gear at home and lighten the load on our bikes. The day of the trip, we gathered at my house, strapped some panniers and backpacks onto rear racks, and took off.
As my legs warmed up to the first hills, I couldn’t stop thinking, “My first bike trip with new friends. It’s happening!” We slowly made our way into the mountains, away from traffic, and luckily we only shared the narrow mountain road with a big bus once.
As the climb continued, the dormant San Salvador volcano watched us pedal deeper into the cordillera. With the help of our granny gears and multiple snack and puppy-petting breaks, we were almost at the top of our biggest climb.
Water breaks are my favorite part of a group ride. That’s when I find that people open up about how they’re really doing. We talked about our legs feeling tired, how scary it is to be chased by dogs when you’re pedaling down a steep hill, and how special it felt to be on this little adventure together. I felt like I was getting to know these folks more.
By noon, we had done most of the climbing and decided to stop for lunch. I was impressed by everyone’s positive spirit. Folks remained animated, sharing jokes, and being kind to one another. We packed our stuff and prepared to do the last 15 miles. The road down was smooth and steep. The small mountain town of Tamanique marked the end of cooler weather. From there the air turned humid and hot; we were getting closer to the coast. We zipped down and reached the busy road where coconuts, ice cream, and frozen chocolate-covered bananas were being sold.
Our first stop was a celebratory ice cream on the beach. Most ice cream vendors use bikes to move around the beach, which felt like a fitting welcome to the sea-level tropical heat. The sugar gave us the energy to push on with the last 5 miles to our final destination: a sea-front hostel. The arrival felt triumphant. That afternoon we stared at the ocean for hours. We had done it!
The next morning, we made (local!) coffee outside, walked to breakfast, and watched the waves crashing in the rocks. We made plans for future rides, but mostly we talked about ourselves and how special the previous day’s ride had felt. I realized that, like me, my fellow riders were thirsty for connection and I was glad to be there, eating beans and fried plantains with them. We’re hoping to get out in November and invite more folks. Cars won’t stop us!
Making stuff happen:
Cities across the globe were built for cars. Unfortunately, San Salvador is not a unique case. The voices and experiences of women and cyclists are very often ignored in how societies are planned. This is why women-led groups like Cicla 28 are so crucial in connecting riders and building safer cities. Cities across the United States and Latin America are in constant change. People on bikes are pushing back and reclaiming public space while attempting to build community and stay alive. I’m committed to that work and I know it will take time. I’m always in awe when I see large groups of folks riding out to a Coffee Outside event or a campout in the US or Canada. I think, “One day!”
I know there’s power in little trips like the one my new friends and I did to the beach. Since we lack the bike infrastructure, it’s on us to make things happen. At the end of the day, it’s us cyclists looking out and creating spaces for each other.
I’ll admit that settling in a city with little bike infrastructure, after 3 years of living on a bike has been tough. But I’ve been inspired by the projects and people I’ve come across, and I look forward to helping contribute to the movement to make my country safer for cyclists. There are some things that have been helpful to keep in mind when considering the work we have ahead of us:
– Prioritize building community. Biking with people is a great excuse!
– Building takes time. Don’t rush it but dont drop it!
– Plug in and connect with folks that are already doing the work!
All that said, El Salvador is a beautiful country with a rich, if painful, history. I look forward to getting to know it more intimately, on my bike, pedaling alongside other women. My hope is that by next year, we’ll have enough practice and knowledge to gather a group for next year’s Swift Campout!