Adventure Journal: All Roads in Colombia
The Idea: We’ve talked about riding bikes in Colombia for years, its been quickly creeping its way up to the top of our list of destinations to visit and rid. With the feeling COVID is mostly in the rearview mirror, this seemed like the time to do the things we’ve always talked about doing. Our plan was hatched quickly and without much thought (typical for us): a cycling trip somewhere outside of Bogota, sometime between the week between Christmas Eve to New Years Eve and somehow we'd figure out what ride while there. And of course what is a cycling trip without cycling friends, someone would come along. Our good friends Kristen and Nick are always down for adventure and excited to help make the trip.
The Gear: We reached out to friends near and far who had been or know about Colombia to get a sense of the riding and what to bring as far as bikes, tire widths and gearing ratios. After many opinions, much debate, and no set routes made, Aaron and I decided to bring our GT-1 All Road Bikes, outfitted with WTB Vulpine 36 cc multi-terrain treaded tires and our favorite Shimano GRX combo with a small 34/40t ratio for the climbs. Perhaps the All-Road would be a bit underpowered for super chonky bits of gravel we would likely encounter, not quite the optimal efficient road machine for the amazing road climbs we've heard of, but a great all-around choice for whatever would come our way. We knew that the altitude would be similar to our home where we live in Colorado, about 8300ft elevation. Whatever we lacked in general fitness at this point in December we felt we could compensate for in our living altitude, this ended up being true enough.
Medellin or Bogota? Everyone we talked to had an opinion. It seemed like everyone from Bogota said the riding in Medellin wasn't as good, and everyone from Medellin said don't bother going to Bogota. Quite the rivalry. Ultimately, our hasty flight booking made that decision for us, and we stayed in Guatavita, a weekend retreat north of bustling and millions-of-people-full Bogota.
Travel Notes: What's an international trip without a car rental cancelation? You'll have to ask American Airlines and a big winter storm about that. Eighteen hours after we were supposed to land, the only rentals that were available were a few compact cars. Compact meaning the smallest stick shift car you've ever driven, perhaps ever seen. We prayed that our bike bags would fit, and with a little effort they did (shout out to Orucase)! A Colombian friend called us her hero for renting cars and driving in Bogota. But I never felt exposed or unsafe driving or riding on the roads. Quite the opposite, the traffic ebbs and flows. There are cyclists everywhere in the city and countryside, they’re on every type of road and on every type of bike. Bikes, buses, cars, and motos navigate around each other here in a bit of a dance.
The Stay: Most mornings, we started our day by walking up a few steep blocks (everything is a hill in Colombia) from the Muisca Hotel en el centro de la ciudad a desayuno. Huevos pericos con pan y arroz. Café con leche. ¡Muy bien! Cyclists constantly rode by next to this little café on the main paved road that connects Guatavita to other towns along a large reservoir. Even though many places in Colombia have had an unexpectedly wet year, we got lucky with a week of sun and 60 degree temps. Perfect conditions. We know we'd found a great place, Guatavita is incredibly picturesque, red clay rooftops contrasted against white walled housed and a green landscape as far as the eye can see.
On Bikes: As we first strayed off of this main road, we mainly encountered dirt. Steep dirt. Very steep dirt. We heard that most of the roads in rural parts of the country are maintained by local residents, not the government, and we'd come to recognize a really steep section approaching when the road ahead turned into a brief section of "pavement" (to mitigate erosion in the rainy seasons). We consistently hit these sections of 20-25% grade on all of our rides, and I was glad to have every tooth of my compact gearing. The first ride we did took us immediately up a half mile that pushed these grades, and we only climbed higher from our base elevation of 8,200 feet up to as high as11,000ft at times. So much for easing into riding after several days of airport and car sits.
Once we huffed to the top of these steep sections east and out of town, the views spanned for miles over hillsides of lush farmland and the climbing was well worth the effort. Milk and cheese prevail here, along with a slew of vegetables and herbs. This labyrinth of rural roads are largely quiet and empty from traffic but full of free-range cattle and goat gazes. Major dirt roads turned into narrow dirt road that turn into livestock paths and then into churned tractor trailer lumps further into single track. I was happy to have my mtb shoes as I navigated several opportunities to walk throughout the week.
On one of my favorite rides, we arrived at the end of a dirt road that was fenced off with a herd of cattle and family doing some business on the other side. A few kids quickly rushed over and pulled the fence back, and with a single word exchange, we followed the “route” on our Wahoos through this pasture and onto a grassy hillside where the "road" literally disappeared from under us.
We rode through Reserva Regional Natural Vista Hermosa De Monquentiva, a nature reserve and refuge for species such as the Andean bear, pumas, white-tailed deer, among other species of the páramo ecosystem. I saw a Spanish sign for wildlife, with a picture of a big bear and deer with antlers, at the top of a long climb and it reminded me that we might encounter something back here. We were the only ones I'd seen on these roads, so I started whistling around the steep blind corners as we descended, just in case. We finally arrived at some of the only pavement we rode during the week, climbing to the top of a canyon road that topped out at over 11,000 feet: Alto De La Cuchilla. We hadn't ridden through a town since we started, so we were pretty short on water and snacks, but the unforgettable rippin' paved descent from there to the town of Guasca satiated us plenty and had us wanting to go back for another lap. An amazing sustained road climb and descent connecting vast gravel backroads. We were getting the sense we had only begun to to get a taste of the true road riding.
We did ride a few times on busier highways to make some meaningful connections between towns. This wasn't exactly scary, but I was happy that it wasn't all too often either. Most trucks and cars give a honk as they pass, which I took as more of a friendly hola rather than an aggressive assault as it sometimes feels like in America. It was also certainly the fastest riding we did all week, and there was some sweet relief in these breaks from the grind of climbing. The rolling hills along the reservoir provided great scenery and some great mostly-paved routes.
The Final Ascent: On New Years Eve, we got up early to ride one last time. I wanted an easier, paved ride up the main road from Guatavita. But then we noticed a segment on Strava we couldn't ignore: La Pezueña Del Diablo - The Devil's Hoof. This beast is a half mile dirt climb which gains more than 500 feet of elevation with an average grade of 19.5%. If you've met us, you know that we couldn't not do this. It was exactly horrid, and I walked it almost in its entirety because it was less dirt road and more tractor trench. Rocky, churned-up earth. A straight up that photos will never do justice to. Kudos to Aaron who really did ride almost all of it.
What I've shared about the steep ascents could also be said about the descents. I'd recommend anyone riding here pack extra break pads and make sure to do a few more triceps presses to prep...my upper body was surprisingly tired after this training week. Empanadas, arepas, y helado were satisfying recovery food. A cold Club Colombia in a frosted glass was also an easy go-to.
A Cultural View: While several people warned us to stay diligent, to not talk too much to locals or believe what they said, to hold our belongings tight, we never encountered anything that felt dangerous. We certainly stuck out in a town where we were the only English-speaking few (and Aaron is freakishly tall compared to most Colombians), but we were cared for and mostly just left alone.
We all know Colombia’s recent history, as told through American press and Netflix’s Narcos: a single story of violence and drugs. The comments and questions from nearly everyone I mentioned this trip to, aside from cyclist friends, confirmed this bias. But cyclists know a different Colombia. Every so often, we’d see civilians, sometimes families, in jeans and sweatshirts riding up these steep roads with milk jugs or bags from town. This is a humbling culture of rural Colombian life. If you’re looking for the kings and queens of gravel cycling, they’re here. We may have also seen a certain Colombian Cycling Pro smashing the highway roads on our way into Guatavita.
What we experienced in a short week holed up in this sleepy town on the edge of the bustling city is our kind of riding paradise. It's for those of us who seek out the next off the beaten path, ridiculous climbing and immersive cultural experience. And can manage the intensities of high altitude too! From what we can tell, the rest of the country is at least as challenging and certainly as good. Yeah, we'll be back. After a taste of the Bogota area, Medellin is next.
Words by: Liz Barcheck
Photography by: Aaron Barcheck
Our GT-1 All Road bike Liz and Aaron took to Colombia is quite the all around capable machine. Sometimes "underbiking", sometimes "overbiking" Visit the Mosaic Website here to check out the details!