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Ciclocultura Colombiana

13 November 2018

By Jane Shearer

"Stay safe", everyone said. "Be careful". Their fear and concern were infectious, by the time we left for Colombia I had to keep myself away from the internet, stop searching for tales of mayhem and terror there. Four weeks later, this picture records the reality we encountered - welcoming, helpful with not a hint of danger. Everyone we asked (handily my partner Chris has Spanish dialled) said that in the past we could have been at risk, but now things in the eastern Cordillera of Colombia (and much of the rest of the country) are calm and people are getting on with normal lives.

San Mateo mayor’s office visits Gambita, and includes Chris & Jane in their party.

Another marked aspect of Colombia is the widespread enthusiasm for cycling. From when we arrived at Bogota airport, and were enthusiastically shown pictures of the immigration officials' bicycles on their cell phones, the Colombian love of bicycles and bicyclists was constantly evident. We passed by the home towns of Nairo Quintana, two times 2nd place getter in the Tour de France, and 'Superman' Lopez, another world class roadie and hill climber; everyone was glued to television screens watching them compete in the Vuelta a Espana and happy to talk about their local heroes. We cycled out of Bogota on a Sunday, the best day to leave because many streets are closed to allow citizens to cycle unimpeded. On our climb up La Calera, our first 3000m ASL pass (Bogota is at 2600m), we cycled with hundreds of others. Our main problem was disengaging from conversations so we could actually make it out of town. On our way out of Bogota we saw this banner. It's a sentiment that New Zealand could do with more of!

Of course! Banner on the El Calera road out of Bogota.

Our cycle route only covered a small part of the country; we cycled just under 1000km over 21 days, with a solid 23 000 metres of climbing!

Our circuit in the Cordillera Oriental.

The vast majority of our cycling was on unsealed roads; the larger roads in Colombia didn’t look so appealing for cycling, with considerable and fast traffic. Having said that, there was no shortage of roadies cycling on the main roads and our limited experience suggested that vehicles generally respected the rights of cyclists to be on these roads. However, we preferred the unsealed roads, which were in very good condition and had very little traffic. On many days we saw one or two cars, a few motorbikes and lots of people on horseback. Logistics are easy, however, as there are lots of villages; the country has 50 million people and they all have to live somewhere! We found a place to stay in even the smallest village (8 houses), so we ended up carrying our tent, mats and sleeping bags for a nice tour of the Cordillera Oriental. With Chris's Spanish, it was far more enjoyable to spend time with local people than to isolate ourselves in a tent. Having some grasp of Spanish definitely enhances a Colombian experience; the only conversation in English, other than between Chris and me, was a 1 minute interaction with two Australians on a motorbike.

Horses and ponchos are ubiquitous on the back roads of the Cordillera Oriental.

Our bikes and gear were well matched to the Colombian roads, both in terms of surface and steepness. We carried about 13kg each (excluding food and water) in bikepacking style on our Bombtrack Beyond Plus 2s. Our Bombtracks have SRAM Eagle derailleurs which gave all the gearing we needed, and we cycled tubeless without a single issue.

The Bombtracks view the snowy peaks of El Cocuy National Park.

The scenery was way more spectacular than I was expecting (though I would have to admit to having only a superficial concept of Colombia before travelling there). Every day brought new vistas of more mountain ranges. And the vistas were matched with regular descents and ascents. Each day's route was planned on the basis of the vertical metres and number of climbs, as opposed to horizontal distances. A regular occurrence was starting out at one village, seeing another village on the opposite hillside at about your elevation, descending 1000m to the river in between, then climbing back out of the valley again. In the picture below, our high point from the day before was at the top of the ridges in the centre right of the image; we then descended from 3000m elevation to the river at 1300m, only to climb back up to 3000m again! The majority of our riding was spent between 2000m and 4000m ASL. This does take some time to acclimatise to.

Jane goes up again, from Soata on the way to Onzaga.

The highest point in our riding was 4200m and we got to see plenty of the special vegetation called 'paramo' that is prevalent above 3500m. I loved the frailejones plants which are characteristic of paramo; they are like daisies on steroids. The paramo vegetation performs a very important local management function; the plants absorb a large amount of water in the stem and root systems and release it gradually into the rivers that run down to the more populated areas.

Chris in the frailejones (Espletia) at 4000m.

There was no lack of food and drink on offer in every Colombian settlement, although vegetarians might find the options limited. Options for a vegan diet would be very lean indeed. Colombians like meat, a lot. I ordered a vegetarian lasagna and the waiter asked, in a concerned tone, whether I realised that there was no meat in it! Cheese was common, including on icecream sundaes. Every smallholding appeared to milk cows; there were milk churns deposited by all the gates as we cycled by, and there were milk runs on all the back roads. One of the highlights of Colombian food, for us, were the juices. Colombia is the land of juice and one can fuel a cycling trip on a plethora of options – passionfruit, papaya, mango, strawberry, blackberry, mulberry, pineapple, guava and more. Colombia is also the land of coffee, of course. 'Tinto' is the normal drink – black coffee (not to be confused with 'vino tinto', which is red wine).

Jane drinks jugo (guava and mango) in Villa de Leyva.

The highlight of Colombia was, in summary, the combination of the scenery and the hospitality we experienced every night. The friendliness of the community is particularly surprising given the last 60 years of civil turmoil, with the communist guerrilla forces laying down their arms only 1 year ago after the peace accord 2 years ago. There is a variety of landscape that we didn't get anywhere close to – we stuck to the high mountains where the temperatures were cooler, but for those with a more marine inclination, the north of Colombia is on the Caribbean Coast. Colombia is a cost-effective place to travel. Rooms with attached bathroom costing $12-20NZD in normal towns and $40 in tourist destinations. The fixed meal of the day, or a plate off the menu, generally costs $3-5 and those juices are around $1. Colombia is seen as one of the up and coming tourist destinations; our experience is that there is every reason for that to become a reality.