There seemed to be no end to the rain. At the foothill of her next incline, Andrea Molina looked around the Andes mountains she was steeped in and knew she needed to climb out of this and get some rest. The 30-year-old Salvadoran cyclist had been on a cross-continent bike journey with her partner, Jake, for almost a year. The beautiful Colombian terrain she found herself in was magical, but being caught in a rainstorm in a rural mountainous area amid the mud and wind was a bit terrifying. They were hungry. They were grumpy. And damn, they were tired. The rain got harder, the thunder struck, and there were no flat spots on the too-dark-to-see land. She felt defeated. But in the middle of their trail, they spotted two cows. And after that moment, she knew they were going to be all right. They had to be.
These were the moments Molina didn’t expect to encounter when she dreamt up her cross-continental bike ride from Mexico to Argentina and began her trek two years ago amid the Covid-19 pandemic. Her exchange visitor visa (J-1) was expiring, and with no way to renew it, she was forced to return home to El Salvador. Except, her immediate family no longer lived there, there was an infectious disease devastating the world, and El Salvador was responding by arresting people arriving to the country. “I felt like I was backed into a wall with not many options,” Molina tells Refinery29 Somos. With few alternatives, she needed to make this journey — both to have something to do during her time in limbo and to make a statement about the myth and politicization of borders.
Still, it wasn’t an easy decision to make. Just five years ago, Molina was scared to get on a bike, cross borders, or be outdoors. To mentally prepare, she started seeing a therapist. To physically get ready, she biked around her Washington, DC neighborhood, an activity that was still new to her. Molina started cycling as a 20-something-year-old college student in Maine. Having migrated to the United States at 18, and knowing little English and even less of her New England college town, she biked to get acclimated. In the bike-friendly city of DC, where she later relocated for work, she cycled even more, falling in love with the sport. But she quickly realized that biking wasn’t just foreign to her as an immigrant; many communities of color in the U.S. did not have access to outdoor spaces.
“The cycling world is mostly dominated by white men with money who can buy bikes and can take time off to do these trips. I haven’t seen a lot of women who look like me much on this trip,” Molina tells Refinery29 Somos over the phone from Oaxaca, Mexico, where she is taking a break from her odyssey while awaiting her visa to travel through Peru. “It has been hard to encounter people who don’t acknowledge me or who ignore me because I don’t look like a ‘cyclist,’ because I look like a random person on a bike.”
It's no secret that there’s a lack of diversity across outdoor activities and spaces. In the U.S., more than 70% of people who visit national forests and refuges are white, and communities of color are nearly three times more likely than white communities to live in areas with limited access to nature, including parks, paths, and green spaces.
These stats don’t sit well with Molina, who wants to see more women from the Global South on cross-country and cross-continental trails. For the San Salvador-born cyclist and educator, biking is a symbol for freedom. “Crossing borders as a Brown Salvadoran short woman can be very empowering,” she says, chuckling. She has already cycled across several borders during her trip through Mexico, Central America, and South America, each one as staggering as the first. For Molina, borders always sparked fear. Not only did the media portray them as a place of danger, but the stories she heard growing up also made them seem scary. Living in El Salvador, she understood that traveling north to the U.S. could lead to violence or even death. As she got older, she also witnessed the effects of border crossing. As a teacher in DC, she taught students whose parents hid their ankle monitors. These moments were a stark reminder that she and her community were not welcome in this country.
Crossing borders as a Brown Salvadoran short woman can be very empowering.
To be crossing borders and riding across Latin America now feels like a gift. For Molina, this multi-year and multi-continent bike expedition is about mobility, access, and reclaiming the things that she once feared: cycling, borders, and the outdoors. This was especially true when she reached her homeland. “It felt like a very personal journey going back home to El Salvador. As an immigrant, I have so many traveling restrictions in so many places because of my Salvadoran passport that I felt like I had to reclaim my access to mobility and access to crossing borders with this bike. It felt meaningful to do that, to go back home on a bike given the context,” she says.
But traveling as a woman with a Salvadoran passport has its challenges. Molina has been detained, interrogated, and her passport has been taken away. As she crosses countless borders from Mexico to Argentina, she’s deeply aware of what being a Brown woman on a bike can indicate. “I was a migrant for almost 11 years in the States. There was a lot of uncertainty based on my visa. It was stressful,” she says. “It feels similar on the bike.”
As a woman of color reconnecting and learning more about her Indigenous Lenca identity, Molina feels lucky to be taking this journey for joy and recreation rather than survival. Though she still has anxiety with every border crossing, she knows she carries generations of women behind her who are relishing in the bliss she’s finally able to claim for herself. To center her joy is a privilege her family hasn’t been afforded. The economic and social inequalities in El Salvador are stark. At the end of the war, about 60% of the Salvadoran population lived along the national poverty line. It was necessary for her family to live life in survival mode. “This bike trip belongs to all the women in my family who don’t know how to ride bikes, to all the women who haven’t had the time or privilege to go on an adventure because they had to just survive,” she says. “I feel my abuelas and my ancestors coming with me on this trip. They dreamt of this life for me, and I feel very lucky that I can live it.”
I feel my abuelas and my ancestors coming with me on this trip. They dreamt of this life for me, and I feel very lucky that I can live it.
But just as joy has opened up Molina’s world, so have moments of defeat. As she awaits her Peruvian visa to continue her trip, she remembers the cows she encountered on that stormy evening in the Colombian Andean mountains. “When you see cows, you know there are people around. So we kept biking, hoping we’d run into people who would let us camp,” she says.
Molina eventually spotted a casita far on the trail and finally bumped into a couple of people who were shocked to see them so far into a remote part of the mountains. After having some coffee, Molina and Jake’s new hosts offered to let them stay on their dairy farm in a rustic barn house. To their surprise, one of the farmworkers was also lodging there, a Venezuelan migrant living in the Colombian mountains. He told them he knew what it felt like to be wet in the rain, wishing that someone would help you, and assured them that they were welcome.
For Molina, after a whole day fighting the rain and mud, and a lifetime fighting for joy and redefining home across borders, this moment was special. “The three of us were not from this country. We were not from these mountains, but he was still so generous and loving. That day wasn’t about how many kilometers we covered; it was a reminder that we are not just biking to get to places. These interactions mean so much.”