RSF - The Off Road Cycling Club

The Adventure Starts Here

 A winter in Colombia

By Steve Gregson

Landing at the mountain top airport at Bucaramanga, Colombia is always exciting but this year, 2 hours before midnight on New Year's Eve, the partying was already in full swing and the fireworks going off in the city below us. In Bucaramanga the cold showers were refreshing!

After a few days aclimatising and a bus trip to Mompox ( historical Colonial town ) and El Banco , an atmospheric port on the Rio Magdalena where having a beer, sitting on a terrace by a bend in that river with our special friends the Angaritas is one of life's great pleasures. That was definitely our last bus trip, we had been scared to death by the driver constantly nodding off!

The 75 mile mountain road to Barrancabermeja is over the wooded mountains and what we used to ride in a day now takes half a day longer. Ah- ageing! It is now mostly paved, but unstable geological connditions make for some interesting surfaces in parts. On the flattish run-in to Barranca., we asked about a new hotel to be told, 'yes , your friends have just gone up the road to find it'. Quite a surprise to realise we had come across the first cycle-tourists ( Polish residents in Edinburgh) in our 8 Colombian tours since 1977. Lots of stories to be swapped and they were glad of recommendations as to how to get off the murderous north-south trunk road and on to wild, steep and unmade roads in the mountains and also to use the small Rio Magdalena river boats. In Barranca., said to be the hottest city in Colombia, the cold showers were not cold enough and sometimes cold water from the fridge had to be added!! Lots of our 1979 cycle racing and ex-work colleagues to meet up with and a few day-tours to the other side of the river over the new bridge. Good to see that cycling in Barranca is still alive, no racing but annual tours and always a few groups out in the early (cooler) mornings.

Repeating this road twice again , plus a 'touch of the trots' ride to Puerto Wilches on a road we were told was so bad that it would be impossibly rough and stony, we finally made it to Medellin for a few days visit with a cycle-racing colleague from 1979 before returning 4 days through high mountain scenery then avoiding the busy trunk road by finding a mini-train now run on the old but broken national railway track. A couple of towns in the mountains, on this line show enterprise by lashing motor cycles or even bicycles to low wooden platforms with seats to make short but ( very) exciting trips along the abandoned Medellin to Bucaramanga railway track. There is nothing quite like taking bends at 60 km/hr to meet another Moto-Rodillo. Discussions as to who shall lift which machine are always genial ( that is if there are any passengers still in one piece!). The return to a few days rest in Bucaramanga over the Andes was our hardest day of the 2 months, with the long 28 mile climb to Portugal done in the heat ( 37C) of the day so quite glad of a well situated hotel at the top of the climb. Showers still cold.

It had taken Anni and myself a few days to cycle to the Hospital Integrada San Juan de Dios, Barichara from Bucaramanga via La Mesa de Los Santos, the Chicamocha Canyon, Aratoca and San Gill. They were very proud of the fact that the FOCSA charity- donated Foetal Monitor, was the only one in the area. Interestingly, they were very relieved when we said we had come from FOCSA to have a look at the equipment etc. as they were half expecting us to have come to take it away!

Leaving Barichara after a couple of days relaxing and walking the Lengqerke 'camino' down to the delightful Guane, it was to be a further week before arriving at Bucaramanga to make 2 further equipment visits. The road to Galan, El Fuente and Zapatoca is unmade and quite mountainous dropping firstly 10 miles down 2300 feet to the bridge across the Rio Suarez. It was Saturday market day in Galan and we were quite amazed at the loaded donkeys making their own way down from the high fincas straight to the market door, the produce unloaded and sold the same week-end. Carcases around the back were being attacked with axes also ready to be sold immediately. Sunday in El Fuente was much the same story and our afternoons were spent walking the local tracks. All very enjoyable in the dry and hot weather, overnights in clean and simple lodgings. It was up, up and up to Zapatoca but no 4 wheel traffic at all in fact the only excitement was when we were chased by 4 turkeys. Evidently they are used instead of dogs to guard the farms. On our rest day in Zapatoca, a bumpy surfaced road took us within a few miles of Betulia but here it was rather cloudy, no long views, a chilly atmosphere so we retraced our route slowly taking in the distant mountains. Marvellous cycling country.
To avoid the 100F+ temperature that we experienced on the way to Galan, it was an early start for the near 5000 ft descent down to where a new bridge was being built to cross the end of the new Puente Sogamosa reservoir and climb the spectacular hairpins before the long run-in to Bucaramanga where we were able to carry out 2 more audits on donated medical equpment .

Marvellous mountain scenery, lots of miles on very quiet unmade roads, interesting excursions by mini-train and chalupa (launch), never rained on, just one thin jersey the whole trip, no punctures, joyful people met en-route, the welcome by our old cycling friends, being chased by turkeys, the murderous bus and motor-bike drivers, clean, simple and cheap lodgings out in the country. Cold showers! The UK winter's aches and pains, frost-biteflesh , chill-blains, rheumatics and arthritis all forgotten. Yes, the experiment to avoid our UK winters had been a success.