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Touring Santiago on two wheels

In Chile, biking is beginning to take root — as both tourist fun and a choice for commuters.

Daniela Werner, a Green Bicycle guide, explains the foundation of Chile’s capital to Australian tourists Andrew and Michelle Clark at a stop in Santiago’s main plaza downtown. (Pascale Bonnefoy/GlobalPost).

SANTIAGO, Chile — Peter Murphy thought that tourism in Santiago was awfully boring. So he got a partner, bought some bikes, painted them green and set up a tourism business on two wheels.

Now, his agency, La Bicicleta Verde (The Green Bicycle), takes tourists through the back streets of the capital to places not usually found in tourist manuals.

“Santiago is amazing, even if Chileans don’t like their own capital. With traditional tourism on buses, you’ll spend a lot of time stuck in traffic and there are streets you can’t go down because they are too small. You’ll never go to the vegetable market, for example,” Murphy said.

Green Bicycle is one of two bike tour agencies in the capital. The other is Paseos en Bicicleta (Trips on Bicycle), set up years earlier and also specializing in non-traditional day and evening city tours and bike trips to vineyards.

A mountain biker from Osawatomie, Kan., and graduate of Gordon College in Massachusetts, Murphy arrived in Chile in 2003 to get his master's degree in international politics. A year later, he got a job teaching at the University of Chile and started looking for ways to combine biking with tourism.

In 2007, he joined forces with a partner, Joel Martinez, a Chilean attorney who biked everywhere as a way of life. Martinez sold his law firm and they put their expertise together.

Students Ignacio Pereira and Daniela Werner work part-time as guides for Green Bicycle.
(Pascale Bonnefoy/Global Post).

The result was an  agency with city tours three times a day, mountain biking up city hills and cycling tours through vineyards close to Santiago. They started out with 10 bikes. Two years later, they had a fleet of 45 beach cruisers and 20 Trek mountain bikes. Their first tour was taken by an 80-year-old Chinese visitor.

Guided by a bilingual Chilean and a back-up biker, an Australian couple and this correspondent cycled through a bohemian neighborhood, visited the home of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda, rode through a busy commercial district full of Asian-owned shops, the vegetable and fish markets, Santiago’s main plaza and the capital’s largest park.

“This is the first time we’ve taken a bike tour, and I think it helps get an orientation of the city first thing on a trip. If you go on a bus, you miss half the stuff. You miss real life,” said Andrew Clark, a member of the Navy from Cairns, Australia, as he sipped on strawberry juice and munched on sopaipillas and merken-covered peanuts at the vegetable market during a rest.

The ride was easy: it was a quiet holiday, with scarce traffic and people on the streets. But on a normal day, Chileans fear pedaling. Drivers mostly ignore bikers, the infrastructure is lacking and often what prevails is an instinct for survival.

“Chile doesn’t have a cycling culture. People and cars don’t respect bikers. I have seen and lived it. The bike routes in the city are made for recreation, not for transportation. There are very few useful routes for bikers — only cars trying to kill you,” said Daniela Werner, the Green Bicycle guide.