RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

Colombian Cycle Tour #7

by Steve Gregson

 

Bridge over the Rio Sogamosa near Barrancabermeja, Norte Santander

 

"What! You are cycling in Colombia?" was the usual reaction when my wife Anni and I said we were going there for 6 weeks over the Christmas period, but we had previously enjoyed six tours there all with happy cycling experiences.

The initial difficulty, how to get bicycles to Colombia during an oversize luggage embargo, was in the end overcome by splitting them down to a bare frame without forks then the wheels and all other parts in a separate cardboard box. Check-in desks at Heathrow, Newark and Bogota did not blink an eye. Could this be the best way to transport them to avoid damage? Exposed brake cables, down-tube gear levers and well maintained threads ease the dismantling/re-building.

The trip was to be divided in 3 parts, Christmas and New Year in the Eastern Cordillera followed by a 1000 miles north-south Colombia ride and finally a return to Bogota searching out some rough-stuff.

A December 24 flight via USA to Bogota, then a midnight taxi ride to a central city hotel and a Christmas Day flight to Bucaramanga passed by without delay to let us enjoy what remained of the Christmas and New Year's festivities. Boxing Day was 'un-boxing day' and the 2 bicycles were re-built in a few hours interrupted by a lunch of delicous mondongo (tripe), yuka, mango and papaya. Invited to a highland area outside Bucaramanga, time was spent at a beautiful old farm with antique furniture, lovely food and the owner's still-life paintings.

Bicycles OK so it was off over the Andes through coffee and tobacco farms to Barrancabermeja, a hot Rio Magdalena oil town where we had lived and raced from 1977 to 1979. A 76 mile day with lots of long climbs and descents. Colombian Andes' gradients are not steep, braking and pedalling are not necessary on the descents, being able to relax at 25-35 mph and view the scenery is the reward for the climbs which can be up to 90 miles long! What excitement when we arrive, great to see our old cycling friends, turning up at the hotel or at various bike shops, cafes. Back over the Andes for New Year's Eve and a lovely, stylish party with Anni's friends and family, having to do the Rhumba for the favours they had done for us! I believe the photos must be destroyed! An unforgettable ride home from the party at 1 am on lit streets with lots of 'Feliz Anos' from the outdoor celebrations.

'Little pig did not want to go to market'. Back road towards the source of the Rio Magdalena, west of San Agustin

 

A package of 'spare' money etc had been left in the Barranca hotel bedroom. 'Oh heck', we had realised this on the way back over the mountains - not to worry, a phone call and the package safe and sound, found and handed in by the chamber-maid. Would this have been the case in Europe?

It was an early start on deserted New Year's Day roads over the mountains again to collect our money and travel north to The Guajira to start long 14 days in the saddle riding southwards the length of the country. 2 Bogota ex-racers were to join us with their friend driving a vehicle so this section was on un-loaded bicycles, quite a novelty for Anni and I.

Leaving Villanuevo, the first 6 days were flattish but very hot, initially with views of the snow covered Sierra de Santa Martha then through attractive cattle ranching and agricultural farmland. No large towns at all but most villages had simple hotels airy, secure and clean. Restaurants had well-prepared steak or fish meals. Breakfasts (soup, eggs, coffee) in Colombia are to suit the cowboys that are out all day, also in the saddle. The showers are refreshingly cold. Better than a.c. are the ceiling fans which also dry the clothes overnight.

Overnight stops had been at Codazzi, Curumani, Aguachica, Lizama where by now we were in the routine of awake at 5 am, off at 6, a couple of hours cycling and then breakfast. Roads acceptably quiet and smooth, hard shoulder also rideable.

January 7 to Puerto Arauco, lunch, a beer or maximum two, evenings quiet, write up diaries and have a stroll. We had seen 4 MTB'ers and later a group of Colombians on tour. In the evening we enjoy a walk to the river after an England versus Colombia billiards competition which we won when Anni potted a crucial ball.

A family swim. Country lane near Suarez

 

To Pto Boyaca. En-route Ann and I fall off heavily during a torrential shower, luckily outside an army barracks, attended to kindly and professionally by military medics.

After a week or so the roads began to be hillier.

To Mariquita, a day of many little hills rather like Wales and an unusually lumpy surface to bring pain to a bruised pubic bone! Normally a rest day a week is advisable but we put this idea to the back of our mind in view of the very hilly final week to come through the Eastern Cordillera. It is a pleasant small town with tree lined avenues.

To Cajamarca, a 96 mile day with 3050m of steady climbing and we arrive after dusk, tired but with half the 40 mile tree-lined Quindio Pass conquered. We see with amusement that youngsters hang around on the main street until a slow lorry crawls past then they hang on the back for a lift upwards, returning at speed for a 20 miles descent!

To La Paila, completing the La Linea climb up the Quindio Pass, at 3350m feet and a chilly 9C at the top. Here we needed more than one top layer. A day of 2134m climbing. The views included terraces with farmers walking the steep paths. For the 6 weeks, one lightweight layer was sufficient, long sleeved to prevent sun-burnt arms, sometimes adding a Goretex for an early morning start or a long descent.

To Pto Tejada, using the flat new road to by-pass Cali, we eventually look for somewhere to stay at the sugar cane town but we were beaten back by (unmentionables) and retreated to the outskirts of Cali.

Rio Magdalena near Garzon

 

To Popayan, what a beautiful old, colonial centre, a few days could easily be spent here. A hard, hilly day through coffee fields.

To El Bordo, lots of downhill but nice and hot. We thought we had a quiet hotel until the early hours when we realised the spare ground was a lorry control park. Scenery quite barren and desert-like but great trees and fruit stalls full of tropical delights.

To El Tablon, not knowing about hotels between Popayan and Pasto we are pleased to find one every 15 miles or so however they are certainly not the Ritz.

16 January, to Pasto, a hard day of lots of ups and downs that deaden the legs. Dramatic Andean views down into deep valleys. We are there, success and a celebration dinner. Still not more than 2 beers! Efrain, Colombia's first ever international (1950 Pan-American Games) champion at 80 and Anni with a very bruised arm, riding one-handed mile after mile have both done marvellously well to get there. Straight away we visit the Hospital of the Infants Los Angels which has recieved X-Ray equipment and incubators from the London charity FoCSA which are shown to us gratefully by the directors and medics. This 950 miles fortnight totalled 14144m of climbing, most of it in the final week.

Crossing the Rio Magdalena to Aipa from Villavieja

 

There were no places to stay on the wild, muddy near-100 mile road across to San Agustin so it was a bus trip with the bicycles packed in the boot. It took 4 days of resting the legs, body and mind to be ready for the final return cycling back to Bogota via the Rio Magdalena valley, this part just Anni and I with our usual pannier luggage.

San Agustin is full of interest, markets with fish, meat, exotic fruit and veg and horse drawn covered carts for local transport. Lots of commercial activity. We relaxed by short rides to the Narrows of the Rio Magdalena, towards the Nacimiento and also to the wonderful archiological park of the 3300 BC Petroglyths, all the statues set out with the Andes grandeur in the background. Getting to know the breakfast ladies with their pressed orange juice, immaculate scrambled eggs and hot fresh tinto (strong coffee). Corner shops sell us aperitivo beers and later, treats after our main meal of the day.

21 January. Dragging ourselves away from the delightful and warm (23C at 7 am) San Agustin, we took our time up and down the widening valley northwards staying in Pipalito, Garzon, Riveras where we treated ourselves to 2 days in a really nice hotel with 3 swimming pools. The next day to Aipe was unforgettable, firstly it rained torrentially but after Neiva it brightened up and we experienced our first ever Colombian 'Country Lane' passing also through the Taracoa Desert with its strange sandy pillars.

The winding road had no traffic just a few cows now and again. We thought it too good to last and so it was. Turning a bend in Villavieja the road stopped abruptly at the Rio Magdalena but looking down there was a canoe, so in we jumped for the 'ferry' trip (Anni shut her eyes, the current and rapids shook the canoe) and even I thought we would lose the cycles overboard but the boatman was really skilled and we arrived on the other banking, a bit upstream and then followed a homebound worker on little footpaths across tree trunk bridges into Aipe for the evening. We thoroughly enjoyed a folk music jam session on the pavement outside a small bar, enjoying the heat and the music.

Bicycle shop advertisement needed just a cycle tourist. Agua-de-Dios, formerly a leper colony

 

Following that venture into Colombian Rough-Stuff, we were able to find back lane earth roads to Purificacion and its wonderful church up on the hill, and then on through Suarez clambering across broken bridges and fording shallow rivers being used for family swimming outings. Finally out to an asphalt road at Giradot and saying a sad farewell to 'our' Rio Magdalena. Speaking to the traffic police gave confidence about the cycling and security passing small farms as, again, the Andes closed in approaching the 95 mile long climb to Bogota.

27 January. To Agua-de-Dios which was a leper colony when they believed it was a contagious disease and it remains a small town full of character. A hotel owner presented us with a souvenir 5 cent coin from when the town had its own currency minted to avoid the thought of handling them spreading the disease. There remained 2 more days of steady non-stop climbing with an overnight at El Collegio before reaching Bogota at 2640m. A snapped cable took only 10 minutes to repair at a handy bicycle shop. This route is generally a quiet, well graded route used by cyclists out to train for week-end races, still popular in Colombia.

Finally in Bogota, plenty of capital city interest including the Bank of Colombia's Art Gallery where many Botero, Picasso, Chagal originals are on permanent show. There are small hotels with space to re-pack the bicycles for the flight home, clean restaurants, a historical centre and plenty of bicycle shops. Last but not least, our 2 cycling friends had organised a small reception together with other Colombians we had known from six earlier cycling tours there. It was great to see them again and especially Zipo, the instigator and winner of the first Tour of Colombia.

Bicycles were traditional 531 club tourers, gearing 35 - 88 inches, 700c x 32 tyres and 7kgs of luggage per person. Total 1 puncture. Average daily mileages whilst on the north-south section were 78 and for the rest where we were unaccompanied, 49 miles. Total mileage 1559.

For recommendations on more Colombian cycle touring possibilities, please contact the RSF Advertising Officer, Steve Gregson, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.