RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Colombia Recyled

Winter 2016.

At 0430 the Baggage Reclaim area of Bogota airport was a quiet place to build up the bicycles before heading towards the centre on dedicated cycle-paths that dipped under junctions-"tricky to construct" said a civil engineer. On to a meeting and lunch with Friends of Colombia for Social Aid ( ) President Maria Cristina. Our 9th Colombian tour was in order to ride again the wonderful mountain roads , to meet ex-BarrancaBermeja racing friends now spread out over the country and visit, check out and meet the users of hospital equipment used by Colombia's poorer children.

From Chia, down, down, down at 33mph into a cauldren of heat for mile after mile round sweeping bends. Cyclists " in heaven". However paid for it next day with 1000mt of climbing and heavy traffic. On to ''our'' Rio Magdalena, sadly very low ( El Nino/ global warming) and with only a few fishermen now earning a living with their hand nets. Honda a hot, beautiful and historic colonial town. We had lived on the Magdalena in 1977-79 and come to love it.

3 days of hard climbing to 3500 mt, and over the Alto de Lettras Pass, views west towards even higher mountains. Dogs not so vicious in these parts and uplifting music played as we passed quiet homesteads perched precariously above steep drops. In Manizales, a visit to the first of the many children's hospitals, the equipment was in good condition and really appreciated and we see a video and have a tour of the hospital by the Director. In the afternoon, a heavy shower and suddenly the 5000mt plus Nevada De Ruiz clearly visible, but without snow these days.

Leaving Manizales, lots and lots of cyclists passing the hotel early in the morning, racers, mountain bikers of both sexes, excellent. Cycling still going strong in the land of Cochise ,Lucho and now Quintana, although nowadays often on MTB's with slicks and in the towns at night with lights ( to avoid heavy traffic and the heat of the day).

Manizales to Medellin.

A dreaded tunnel!!! As we stopped to put on a rear light ,a six-axled "tractomulle" slowed right down, held up a line of traffic and put on his flashing lights, we took the hint and set off right behind him,safely passing through the dark tunnel and waving him onwards. How caring and professional now are those kings of the road! In the afternoon, rewarded after yet another 1000mt climb in 40C temps up to Rio Sucio by finding a central Plaza hotel and even using the room that Lucho Herrara had previously slept in. Perhaps some of his climbing ability will rub off, after all I do have photo of him and myself on a 200 mt long Essex hill! Later that evening a Carnival del Virgen of Candalaria with a procession and fireworks, lots of kids running around in the sparks.

The next morning a visit to the Rio Sucio hospital where 4 FOCSA donated incubators were checked together with calibration, maintenance and doctors' training certs.. All in order.

Lots of climbs, gradiants the usual 5%,then 7,9,10 even 11% and the heat 27C then 30,35,39,40, 42 and topping 43C in the sun. ( Well we were in the sun,no?) Good for losing weight 63kg then 62,61 ! Great descents follow and we see small steel wheel trucks platforms carrying bamboo, brakes are lorry tyre rubber stood on by the driver! Overnights at La Pintada and the lively hill town of Sta. Barbara where a terrace overlooked distant mountains and Rio Cauca before the long fast bendy descent to Medellin. There, 6 FOCSA equipment locations visited as well as ex-racing friends from the late '70s.

Mechanicals so far: 2 tyre problems- new Schwalbes, broken brake cable but more time consuming was after a road-works where they let us sneak through but we rode over new , hot, wet tar and so rose up 1cm with all the grit, glass etc stuck to the tyre and still partly attached after a few days! An own goal!. Our old Raleigh and Hill Special 10 speed traditional tourers still going strong.
Medell?n to Barrancabermeja and beyond. Back pocket notes.

Leaving the Dodgem Car racing that was Medell?n, a run between buses, motos, taxis and bicycles took 17 miles until open country and , what's this, a dedicated cycle path all the way to Barbosa. On to a cattle ranch stay after a windy, rolling day and treelined road. There, treated to a tour of natural swimming pools, breeding sheep and cattle plus a personal show of how fighting cocks are trained- a mixture of ballet and brutality. Sad news RIP- a dear Essex cycling friend. This balanced out by the first-time fatherhood of an Austrian 'boy' himself born in our digs when we were ski instructors in 1969. At San Jose de Nus, how pleasant to sit beside the river enjoying a beer before a short day to Caracoli. Arriving in the afternoon, the sub-gerente declared the hospital 'Super- Feliz' with the infants' medical equipment. The main street there a riot of happy activity, trotting horses, card playing, motos weaving in and out of Sunday strollers. No helmets, no lights, no drunkenness. A Christmas spent there would be a treat. Another day of 3000ft climbing followed, half on unmade roads and a steepness we had not experienced until now, we resorted to pushing the bikes.

In Puerto Berrio, the heat of the Rio Magdalena valley, 37C but the ferocious highway was second choice to a mini-train that works its way through low hilled ranches , its once a day timing dictated by the school run. English speaking travellers quite a novelty , but surely one of life's great pleasures is to sit by an open rail carriage window on an inside bend watching the scenery go by.

'Welcome to Barrancabermeja. 35-40C ' says the sign . It is one of the hottest towns in Colombia, famously, so but once you get used to it, it gets under your skin with its friendliness and vitality. Here we had a challenge to get the town hospital to request FOCSA equipment for infants. 4 years ago we had failed. On to Puerto Wilches, a flat ride but a rough surface but at the end a new hotel, luxury and quite a quiet town. The Tienda Garabato is the centre of our evening relaxation. A visit to San Pablo but too many loud motos so we cross the river in a canoe again and back to some luxury in Pto W. then again back to Barranca where a stay in the heritage Hotel Pipaton, once of ill repute. Leaving Barranca after regular visits over the last 38 years since working there, it was with heavy hearts and lumps in our throats. Even at 43C. would it be the last time? Bucaramanga is a tough 78 miles and 1835mts of ascent, what used to be a one day ride is now ( at our age) one day plus two half days. Air-con barely functioning so wake after the first night ( Lizama) absolutely ringing wet, worse, its raining heavily so we cannot even leave the poor road-side motel- earplugs obligatory.

Stop Press- the Barranca hospital equipment for infants came through. False alarm! Nothing on the digital form! That's Barranca, frustrating. The same too are Internet cafe computers which insist on translating everything, even the surnames on the 'sent to' list.

Bucaramanga and around.

Bucaramanga is surrounded on the south side by high mountains and the 30 mile climb towards Venezualen border is popular on Sunday mornings with large numbers so why not join them? Certainly the 6% gradient is not hard and the 20 miles freewheel back from 2400 mts. after a two hour training session most exhilarating.

Soon it was time to think of the next FOCSA hospital visit which was to Malaga but colleagues said the route was impossibly steep and rough. It was only when hard-riding Barranca cyclists said they had set off at dawn and by dark had still not arrived and there was nowhere to stay that we took a bus trip with two Bucaramanga friends. Again the equipment at the hospital was well appreciated. The next day, it was back on two wheels for our final two weeks in the mountains. A plunge down into the Canyon Chicamocha ( the second largest in the world) to Cepita , then half way up the other side before another plunge down into the canyon on a newly tarmacked ( partly!) road left us exhiliarated and wanting to spend an extra day in the interesting riverside village but time was getting on and the March 10 flight home nearer. Overnight heavy rain had swept small rocks over the road so the ride up was nice and quiet, only 2- wheeled traffic could get through.

There is plenty of history and decent accommodation in the Mogotes, Valle de San Jose and Chaharala area so together with recently tarmacked roads, good progress was made in the high mountains until Barichara was reached. This town is now a popular tourist destination with Boutique Hotels! It also has an infants monitor in the small country 'hospital' which we had visited in 2013 when the staff thought we had come to take it away! It was still in good order and appreciated. The staff certainly remembered our previous visit. Onwards then for 3 days in the most dramatic and unmade steep roads so far where we had to ask where there was accommodation and food. After a rest day in Zapatoka ahead of the final huge drop ( 1879mts) and climb ( 1198mts), there appeared a lone US young lady cyclo-camper awaiting her friend who was 6 hairp?ns behind and walking. Imagine our surprise, when after 9 tours in Colombia, and only a handful of cycle tourists ever met, when 5 minutes further down were an Austrian couple riding from Costa Rica to Tierra del Fuego! We must have spent a good 2 hours chatting. Onwards the same day through fertile pastures to Bucaramanga and two more FOCSA equipment visits, a guitar concert, lunch and dinners invitations, finding a box for the plane home not to mention best of all, meeting up with friends from 38 years ago.

Some final observations : Hygene is much improved, no tummy upsets and we drank the natural deliscious water based fruit juices daily. Traffic discipline is also much improved, no longer do the oncoming vehicles overtake without considering us. Cycling is alive and well, although there are more mountain bikes and a lot of riding the streets in the dark( with lights) when they are quiet. Accommodation quality better than ever. The economy is booming, thus there are many more -'motos' and less walking but this has a health downside. Beautiful Colombia is a real bargain for tourists and with improved security, why not book your ticket straight away? You would not be disappointed. Some final statistics: 1779 kms covered, 3000 ft of ascent covered on each of 15 days. 4 punctures, 7 other cycle tourists met which is more than in all our 9 previous tours put together!.

Steve and Anni Gregson.
Ribble Valley, Lancashire