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A few days before our trip began my friend Jeff texted me: “Dude! Do you think Tomás carries a gun? People tell me things can be sketchy down there.” I think to myself: “He’s only just now feeling apprehensive?”
Looking around, I see mountains and valleys, with even more mountains and valleys beyond that. Jeff is suffering somewhere lower down the climb. I wonder whether he’s still concerned about needing a gun. If Tomás did carry one (and he does not), Jeff might ask to be put out of his own climbing misery when he catches up.
Up here, at 10,000 feet (more than 3,000 meters) above sea level, oxygen is hard to come by. Nearby farmhands play tejo, a sort of cornhole-style game in which players toss metal discs toward explosive targets loaded with gunpowder—all the while drinking plenty of beer. And a rhythmic sonic backdrop from an old boombox fills the air for the other riders inching their way up. This is the third climb today, our first ride of the trip, and the tejo players look a whole lot more acclimated to the altitude than any of us This is
Colombia, we are high in the Eastern Cordillera at the northern edge of the Andes…and the country is already weaving some magic on us.
“IS IT SAFE?”
It wasn’t so long ago that Colombia seemed like a travel curiosity, a place off-limits to tourists who prized their safety. Drug wars, jungle cocaine labs, Juan Valdez and his coffeepacking donkey, cartels, guerilla soldiers and Escobar. These familiar tropes continually color our perception. Conversely, Colombia has produced countless cultural icons like author Gabriel García Márquez, artist Fernando Botero and an impressive list of musical talent. While Medellín was once regarded—in the early 1990s—as the most dangerous city in the world, Colombia also ranked second in the world in a 2018 Gallup happiness-index poll. Sensationalism sells stories, but it leaves the more complete picture obscured in shadows.
This is a country of often head-spinning juxtaposition and change, and my friend Tomás Castrillón, an economist-turned-tour operator, has invited me here to experience it by bike. For 10 years, his company Cyclotá has taken cyclists on Colombian adventures. European cyclists have more quickly embraced this destination than North Americans, but that is changing, and with good reason. Colombia is a temperate, ecologically diverse, reasonably safe, close, affordable place to travel to, and it’s in the same time zone as New York. For North Americans, Tomás explains, “Colombia is practically your own backyard!”
Jeff is quick to say he wants to come along. I am a little surprised. While he’s a seasoned traveler, Colombia is more off-the-beaten-path than his usual trips to Europe. Most other people I invite stare incredulously, then ask, “Is it safe?” Or “Can I think about it?” Nobody actually thinks it is safe. Jeff’s enthusiasm probably means he’s ignored the fine print. On this occasion, I am grateful for that inclination to shoot first and ask questions like “Does Tomás carry a gun?” later.
This trip represents something seemingly profound and personal for Jeff. It is filled with unknowns and things he cannot control in a place with a language he does not speak, on routes that are completely unfamiliar. Colombia has, for me, only existed selectively in my imagination. I need to see, hear, smell and taste it myself to make it more real, more personal. Tomás plans 12 days of riding meant to give us both a more profound connection to the country and to ourselves.
MYTHS & LEGENDS
After an initial day of feeling the effects of Bogotá’s high elevation, along with a bit of cultural vertigo, we’re met at our hotel by Tomás and his crew. Lars, a rider from Berlin, is along for this first leg of our trip. Once a straightedge punk, Lars is now a vegan triathlete who owns a corporate communications company. Cyclotá’s support staff includes two drivers, Jaime and Carlos, and a professional photographer named Juan Felipe Rubio, who learned English by memorizing Beastie Boys lyrics. It’s a colorful bunch.
We drive several hours northeast to Boyacá, a highland region that symbolizes the heart of Colombia’s national identity. In the early 1800s, this is where the country’s libertadores forced out the Spanish rulers. We begin our ride in Villa de Leyva, a stunningly preserved 16th-century town with cobbled streets and colonial charm. Nairo Quintana’s childhood home is nearby and for the next several days we feel the terrain that has shaped him into one of cycling’s most formidable professionals.
Tomás promises challenging riding; and he delivers. Our supposed warm-up day has several long climbs that poignantly emphasize the oxygen debt we are all enduring. We find villages with farmers transporting their goods in donkey carts. The roads are mostly quiet and smooth, which make the long descents fast and thrilling. The first day ends at a 350-year-old hacienda with thick adobe walls and rooms heated only by a wood-burning hearth.
The days that follow are diverse and exciting. Long gravel descents take us through dense forests where the air smells of ripe guava mixed with truck exhaust. In small villages, old campesinos dry coffee beans on the ground while loose dogs wander freely or flop onto their sides in absolute stillness to escape the heat. We ride into more small colonial towns with old cathedrals facing cobblestone plazas.
Our second ride closes with a 24-kilometer climb that Juan colorfully names “La Gonorrhea.” It’s the kind of long climb that suits me. The base is hot, but the temperature drops halfway up, the clouds become moodier and the air turns to mist. I find my tempo and pass Lars, who is struggling because of bad gearing. Further along, Jaime hands me something to eat and shouts “Bien, bien, mijo!” The final kilometers are cold and wet, and the fog is chewy. Just before reaching our van at the summit, I see the ghostly silhouette of a farmer walking his horses on the other side of the road.
Our last ride on this leg is a rainy dash into Bogotá along a rolling course on smooth pavement. We pass Lake Guatavita, the alleged birthplace of the myth of El Dorado—a legend that captivated the obsessive gold lust of early conquistadors. In it, a king from the local indigenous Muisca people ceremonially covers himself in gold dust and floats on a raft to the center of a lake. Tour de France champion Egan Bernal, himself a golden legend, is from a nearby town. After a final climb back up to 10,000 feet, we descend into the expanse of Bogotá.
YOU SHOULD SEE IT ON SUNDAYS
Colombians have a rich love affair with the sport of cycling. The Vuelta a Colombia, which started during a bloody 10-year civil war known as La Violencia, has been held annually since 1951. In the 1980s, Lucho Herrera emerged as Colombia’s first major GC contender. Today, top-level pros such as Rigoberto Urán, Nairo Quintana, Egan Bernal and others are certifiable superstars.
A Saturday in Bogotá is where I begin to comprehend this impressive passion. Juan takes Bradley—an acquaintance from Los Angeles—and me on his local climb, Alto de Patios. Along a city bike path there’s a digital sign displaying “51,300.” Juan explains that this tallies the number of riders who have passed the spot in the last 15 days. We join a large group of other riders also heading up Alto de Patios. Although the climb is only 6 kilometers long, this two-lane road is steep in parts and crowded with cars and cyclists. Hundreds of riders of every size and shape on every kind of bike imaginable—from old steel mountain bikes with flat pedals to high-end carbon road bikes—pedal their way up the mountain. It is packed.
Roadside shops and cafés begin lining the route a kilometer from the summit. At the top, we stop for a snack in Bike Nerds, a cycling café lined with vintage steel frames and shiny, well-preserved Campagnolo groupsets. Another group of cyclists makes its way into the café as we are leaving. One of them is kitted out head-to-toe in official Movistar gear; I have trouble deciding if he is Nairo Quintana or a very prolooking 10-year-old.
We descend amid the chaos of cars, bikes and even horses, while more riders keep coming up. At the bottom, Juan casually remarks, “You should see it on Sundays.”
Our initial ride through Boyacá was a gentle appetizer, but Tomás has concocted something heftier for the rest of the trip. Colombians who first made a name for themselves at Europe’s grand tours in the 1980s were called “beetles” for their uncanny ability to scurry up climbs. For the next six days, we follow their old training routes, traversing a mountainous course from Bogotá to Medellín over all three branches of Colombia’s Andean cordilleras
Alto de Letras is the so-called queen stage for this leg of our trip. At 82 kilometers, it’s advertised as the longest climb in the world, and its reputation looms over these first few days. Every climb is a reminder of the one to come and an opportunity to practice efficient pacing and extreme patience. There are plenty of surprises before Letras though to lighten our creeping anxiety. On the first stage, Tomás arranges for us to stay at a boutique eco resort hidden away on a remote coffee plantation. For all the climbing we do, I have never found longer, more flowing descents anywhere else. They are pure joy.
Letras, for me, is a bust. A vicious flu knocks me flat in the night. As the others depart, I am too wasted, too incapable to even stand, to feel regret at missing the day. Jaime pours me into the car, hands me an Alka-Seltzer and we drive off. Even in a semi-conscious haze of my own magical realism, I can still feel the challenge of Letras from the passenger seat. The climb twists, turns, refuses to relent until it tops out at 3,650 meters (just under 12,000 feet). At the summit, Jaime stops the car. I step out for a labored breath of air, but immediately have to sit on the ground. A feral puppy sneaks out from behind some tall grass, crawls into my lap, and licks my face. After waking up much later in a darkened hotel room, I down two bottles of Pedialyte, learn that Jeff and Bradley rode beautifully to the top of Letras, and then fall back asleep until morning.
The remaining rides are smooth, uneventful and mostly healthy. From Letras, we descend to the Cauca River floor, riding between fields of endless coffee trees and thick tropical vegetation, past tiny, isolated villages with people simply living their everyday lives. Our route crisscrosses the Cauca, wedging us between the sharp, narrow walls of the Central and Western Cordilleras. On our final stage, we leave the river behind, climb toward Medellín and travel deep into the Antioquia region. This area suffered mightily from past drug and paramilitary violence, but today feels confidently serene. Realizing that this is our final climb makes it even more comfortable. The accumulated fitness of the preceding days helps too.
Not far from Medellín, we end at an open-air restaurant on the side of the road, where an old cook grills sausages over a wood-fired stove. We laugh while enjoying fruit smoothies and listening to the music Juan plays from his phone. In these last days, a tired serenity has suffused the group, enveloping us like an intoxicating cumbia song. That feeling makes us a little more subdued and a lot more in tune with life’s rhythm here. It is more organic, more like summer camp and more “now.” We all have become more open, quicker to joke and laugh. Each of us has surrendered to Colombia in our own way. Jeff and Tomás confess that this ride—and our time together—has been transformative. If the alchemy of any cycling adventure can very often be defined by the collective sum of its experiences, then the people on it are the catalyzing ingredients. That is particularly true of this trip in this place.