Touring Santiago on two wheels

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.

Both Green Bicycle and Trips on Bicycle sprung up as Chileans seriously begin to consider biking not just a fun ride, but also a means of transportation. The capital is relatively flat, contaminated and congested and it doesn’t rain much: perfect conditions to move about on a bike.

Bikers argue that adopting a two-wheeled mode of transport would make a huge difference in reducing traffic and smog. But with insufficient infastructure for biking, as well as the lack of respect from drivers, most Chileans remain hesitant to hop on a bike, for either their commute or just an afternoon ride.

So, like the chicken and the egg, what comes first? The bikers or the lanes?

Michelle Clark, a nurse from Australia, and Green Bicycle guide Daniela Werner during a tour at the fish market in Santiago.
(Pascale Bonnefoy/GlobalPost).

It appears the cyclists are there, and as in everything Chilean, they have a myriad of organizations to represent them. Ciclistas Furiosos (Furious Cyclists) was one of the first, and for the past 15 years, has organized bike rides for hundreds of Santiago residents through the capital the first Tuesday of the month.

Then there is Ciclorecreovia, which has gotten two municipalities in Santiago to close off several kilometers of roads to cars on Sunday mornings so residents can bike, skate or stroll.

“Cycling is really taking off. Everyone we know in the business — selling bikes, tours, or people who use bikes as a means of transportation — they all say there is a boom,” said Murphy.

The government has taken the hint, and since 2007, the regional government of Santiago has been implementing a "Master Plan for Cycling Routes," which involves constructing almost 430 miles of special bicycle lanes by 2012.

Although happy with more lanes, cycling organizations complain that the ones that exist are often too narrow, sometimes too dangerous and lack proper lighting, signs and parking places for bicycles.

Hundreds of bike lovers were able to participate in a consultation process to analyze the plan starting last June. Four months later, they delivered their conclusions to city government officials, outlining the main perils and barriers, identifying the most dangerous spots and proposing routes that would help bikers not only go for a ride on Sundays, but also allow them to bike to work, school or otherwise use the bike as their main means of transportation.

Last June, President Michelle Bachelet introduced a bill in Congress that would encourage the use of bicycles, facilitate connections between bike routes and the public transportation system, promoting their use in government policies, plans and programs and allow (but not oblige) municipalities to allocate funds for bike lanes and related infrastructure.

Tomas Marin, of Ciudad Viva’s Center for Active Transportation, hailed the bill as a first step in the right direction, despite its defficiencies.

“This law won’t solve everything, but it creates a legal framework that can be improved over time," he said. "We shouldn’t be too anxious. It took Holland 30 years to achieve what they now have.”