Dirt Roading in Colombia

by Cass Gilbert

'The Only Risk is Wanting to Stay', promises Colombia's latest tourist advertising slogan, printed over glossy photos of idyllic Caribbean coastlines, perfectly preserved colonial towns, rolling, lush coffee plantations and a Latin couple dancing hot cumbia. The words reference a darker past, to when hostage taking was all the rage and when this South American republic was touted as the most dangerous country in the world. Whether this tag was overhyped or not, it's fair to say Colombia has long had its issues.

Fast forward twenty years and life is changing. With the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar removed from the picture in 1994, the government has embarked on a concerted clean up campaign to shed the country's narcotraficante image and push its remaining revolutionary guerilla army, the FARC, deeper into the jungle. While human rights may remain a dubious grey area, the result is improved security in much of the country, and with this, a reopening of its doors to tourism.

My own journey took me from the warm, translucent waters of the Caribbean Coast, where I'd arrived by sailboat from Panama, with plans to pedal across one of three gruelling cordilleras to neighbouring Ecuador. Having begun my ride in Alaska, following quiet dirt roads much of the way south, I was determined to keep to the real Colombian backcountry, even if it meant adding significantly to the distance. And the country's improved safety record had really opened up the possibilities for exploring its more remote regions.

Plenty of cyclists make the pilgrimage south, often as part of a larger ride. In the mountain village of San Gil, I teamed up with Belgian Arnaud, on a quest to cycle every country on the continent, and climb each of their highest mountains. Together we encountered local rider Alonso, a student harbouring dreams of cycling all the way to Argentina. A keen mountain biker, Alonso knew the trails intimately, so we were delighted when he suggested riding together for a few days. It was a shared opportunity. For us, spending time with a local and being guided along unmarked tracks. For Alonso, who'd never camped out before, he gained insights into long distance touring, and brought his dream closer to realisation.

 

What followed was one of the finest week's cycling I had experienced on this journey. We crossed from Santander into Boyaca, a notoriously mountainous province. For good reason it is a breeding ground for many of Colombia's strongest hill climbers. The area was lush, rugged and utterly remote. We shared the muddy roads with colourful old Dodge trucks collecting cow's milk to sell at the markets, and families on horseback. We wild camped in San Juan de la Montana, rode through tiny settlements of poncho-wearing farmers, pushed our bikes up impossibly steep terrain and experienced the Paramo, home to the gangly frailejon. Spread in great swathes across the high altitude mountains like an invading force of punk-alien creatures, these bizarre, triffid-like plants can tower six feet high. They exist only in this area of Latin America and are crucial to its ecosystem, by gathering moisture in the air and feeding it slowly into the earth.

 

By now we'd worked out a formula... begin the day with breakfast around camp, put in a few hours of hard riding, and then refuel at lunch. Comida Corriente, the omnipresent set menu, can be found in every eatery across the land. We would gulp down the soup of the day, before tucking into an enormous platter of rice, beans and the inevitable hunk of meat - washed downwith a fresh fruit juice. And all this, for less than a few dollars. Bananas were plentiful and allowed a healthy alternative to energy bars. We would supplement them with Colombia's wonderful array of exotic fruits. One day it might be the frog spawn-like granadilla, from the passion fruit family. Another, the enormous sweet mangos that left my hands sticky and belly bloated. Or even sour lulus - best eaten with scrunched up eyes and puckered lips. Come dusk, we'd seek out a ranch, and ask for a spot to pitch our tents. We were rarely turned down and more often than not, a handwas waved in the direction of the finca's orchards. "Help yourself", we'd be encouraged.

 

Over and over on this trip, I was reminded that treading the unbeaten path often leads to the richest encounters. Further south, Arnaud and I veered off the main road once more and ventured into the coffee growing plantations of La Argentina. One morning, camping in a farmer's field, we were were awoken while mist still lingered in the mountain folds. "Buenosdias, amigos". Cups ofpiping hot coffee were pressed into our hands by the farmer's neighbour, Isidro, who'd come by to invite us to tour his organic coffee farm. Nerve endings buzzing with the best coffee I'd tasted, we were then plied with arepas, traditional corn cakes. The neighbour's neighbour, not to be outdone, also arrived bearing edible gifts - yucca and plantanes. We left, tackling some of the steepest terrain so far, riding well above our fighting weight.

  

As rewarding as Colombia's backcountry touring proved to be, it was perhaps the country's incredible bike culture that was the most unexpected highlight. I knew about its peloton of Le Tour-worthy hill climbers, but had no idea that its cities were so progressive. An event called Ciclovia drew me to thecapital of Bogota and its sprawling mess of people-packed streets. Each and every Sunday of the year, key streets are closed to motorised traffic and over-run by legions of bikers, walkers, rollerbladers and skate boarders, young, old and families alike. There were food stalls, yoga and family dance classes, all in the name of health and self-propelled awareness. The scheme started in the early '80s and currently covers 120km of routes. 30 per cent of the population partake, every week - that's some two million people. A resounding success, its blueprint has been repeated all over Latin America. Which begs the question: if cities as vast and confusing as Bogota, Caracas in Venezuela and Guadalajara in Mexico can organise traffic-free days like this, what's stopping it from spreading across the Western world?

More trail-related adventures lay ahead. Yet further south, the road from Mocoa to Pasto was a roller coaster that climbed over two and a half thousand metres in altitude. Extra challenges were presented by a landslide that stopped everyone - including those on bicycle. The army soon arrived,and together with a gang of truckies,we cheered on two diggers, locked in battle like jousters, as they struggled to clear the precarious stretch of mountain road. After a day's wait, we finally squeezed our way through the gridlock on either side. Three high passes lay ahead between us and the border with Ecuador. Along the way, we passed roadside shacks selling both the familiar and the bizarre: coffee, soft drinks and cuy, grilled guinea pig - a local delicacy. We camped around the peaceful waters of Lago La Concho, set at a lofty 2700m, before hitting the small settlement of El Encano to snack on more regional cuisine... paper bags of pork crackling and roasted corn, flutes of stuffed corn and cheese, and freshly made potato chips, mixed with chards of paper-thin fried plantanes. A hungry cyclist's paradise.

It was with a heavy heart when we left Colombia behind and crossed into Ecuador. The last two months had challenged my preconceptions of this Latin American country. To those who embrace its challenges, Colombia offers endless dirt road possibilities, an incredible variety of scenery, a rich bicycle culture and above all, warm and welcoming Colombianos - only too proud to show off their land to adventurous bicycle tourers.

Nitty Gritty

  • Safety: Colombia is a far safer place than even a few years ago. But like anywhere in Latin America it pays to keep your wits about you, particularly in the cities. Also there are still movingregional pockets of trouble to avoid. Locals will tell you if there are any zonas rojas - red zones controlled by the FARC. 
  • Bikes: A burly mountain bike is best for tackling the backroads. The major cities have glitzy, modern bike shops stocking every kind of spare. Even backcountry villages have inner tubes and basic tyres, and enough inventiveness to keep you rolling. 
  • Go light: Colombian backroads are ferociously steep, so keep a beady eye on the scales when you're packing, and you'll enjoy the riding all the more. 
  • Budget: you can get by on US$10 a day if you're camping, double that if you mix in hostels and hotels. Food is plentiful and cheap. Bakeries and street food abound. There's no shortage of exotic fruit, and tap water is generally fine. 
  • Good times to go: The weather can always be mixed in the mountains, though July-August and December-March are the driest months. 
  • A few highlights: Cartagena, on the Caribbean Coast. Mompox, a peaceful, time warped colonial town on the river Magdalena. The star-filled skies of El Desierto de la Tatacoa. The perfectly preserved colonial towns of Barichara and Villa de Leyva. San Agustin and its megalithic statues. For more stories and photos, see www.whileoutriding.com/category/colombia/