2017 was the Big Birthday year for me with the meter hitting 40 and that called for a big holiday. Big, bold and far away. It was a coin toss between Argentina and Colombia but with a little help from my friends Colombia has won. The plan was using the usual and trusted Exodus.
You can check out their website for the full itinerary but the overview of the trip looked like this:
Packing for two weeks of cycling with a definite one chance of doing a laundry at halfway point is always a challenge. I pulled out my massive suitcase and basically threw in anything I thought I would need. Then my sister got hold of it and went through it with a discipline of a Nazi: Do you need this? Do you need two of these? How cold is it going to get? No. No. Nah. Not these… and I waved goodbye to half of the content. As a result I went and bought a smaller suitcase on the day of the departure and we (read:she) repacked it all.
On a Saturday night I boarded the plane not really looking forward to the 10 hour flight. It went quite smoothly though and finally we arrived in Bogota.
As it turned out, there were a few of us on that flight so upon arrival we were greeted by Andres, one of our guides for the 2 weeks and whisked off to our accommodation. It was around 4 am and we had breakfast at 6am so we could check the bikes, get all the bits like pedals and saddles fitted, and join the Ciclovia – a weekly madness in Bogota when the city gets closed to traffic and all kinds of cyclists come out to ride the main roads.
I must tell you that I could feel the effects of the high altitude straight away. Walking up a few steps in the hotel raised my heart rate so high I felt like I just ran a 100 m. That wasn’t good… How would I cycle and up a big hill, too?
We met with the rest of the team over breakfast as some have arrived earlier. There were 14 of us from the UK, USA, Canada, Austria, Australia, Norway, Holland and Belgium. Quite a mature group, I must say from 40-75 years old. And only two girls!
Here we are in our full glory
I am not going to describe to you our progress day by day. I will talk about the trip focusing on Colombia as a cycling destination, accommodation, places, food & Colombian vibe.
COLOMBIA AS A CYCLING DESTINATION. SHOULD I OR SHOULDN’T I?
You definitely should.
POLICE AND MILITARY PRESENCE
We have all heard stories about how dangerous the country is. I watched “Gordon Ramsey on cocaine” before I left and it prompted me to do my will, just in case, before the departure. Everyone I talked to was like: Are you sure? Is it safe enough? Have you watched Narcos?
Well, I can tell you that – at least the areas we have visited – were absolutely safe. True, we have seen loads of different kinds of police and some military in the cities or on the roads. Loads of them brandishing massive machine guns. But they didn’t seem to be troubling anyone. They were spot checking the locals but everyone seemed calm and taking it as a part and parcel of the everyday life. At no point did I feel threatened.
We cycled mainly on tarmac. There are loads of roadworks everywhere. You will encounter quite a few points where you need to wait patiently where the traffic has been reduced to one lane only. Despite the heat, or maybe BECAUSE of it though, nobody seems to be frustrated with it. You just wait your turn. People selling various drinks and food items, batteries, lighters etc seem to materialise from seemingly nowhere as soon as you stop.
Bogota however has levels of traffic out of this world. The cycling lanes are there and they are away from the main traffic lanes but the levels of pollution due to diesel being the main fuel, make it hard to enjoy cycling I believe which doesn’t stop locals from doing it. The city is vast and enormous and if you need to get anywhere by cab you need to allow plenty of time for the traffic jams.
Away from big cities the road are quite good overall but beware of the ginormous potholes. These get very dangerous in rain or on steep descents especially on winding roads. The focus has to be on controlling your bike and only going at a speed where you are confident you can deal with these.
POTHOLES & OTHER SURPRISES
Another thing is patches of the road with the surface taken off. I think some of these have been left to reduce the speed on the roads. The thing is these bits are worse than what we in the UK know as a gravel road. It can be more like decent size boulders… And since these can materialise at any point, always look ahead to spot them so you can reduce your speed. Still, nothing happened to any of us 🙂 nobody slipped over a high curb or anything. The worst was losing a water bottle and a pump. Just use your head. And your breaks.
DIESEL TRUCKS & BLOODY LONG TRUCKS
Have you ever seen a truck with 6 (SIX!) trailers? You will see them here. And they will overtake you. Watch out! They also spew incredible amount of fumes. I mean loads.
However, no beeping, angry shouting, showing fingers despite our column stretching sometimes for quite a bit. Very polite drivers indeed. And their skill on the road is second to none.
If it rains you need to keep an eye for these:
This caused a right havoc with the traffic but it gave us a chance to watch some driving maneuvers of the truck drivers which put them in the stuntmen category in my books.
ROAD BIKE OR HYBRID?
I would say forget a road bike unless you know exactly where you are going and can be sure you won’t get the dodgy tarmac. Otherwise have an ample supply of spare tyres. We rode Specialized Rockhopper Comp mountain bikes with front suspension.
ACCOMMODATION – TOURISM INFRASTRUCTURE
The places we stayed at varies from city hotels, quite basic standard, to a lovely finca in the mountains. I would say I was surprised on a few occasion that there were any hotels in some of the middle of nowhere places we visited. Hot water is NOT a given though 🙂 My holiday was all organised so I cannot give any advise on how reliable or even possible it is to book ahead online.
My overall impression of customer service in most of the places we stayed at was that is still lacking. However customer services in restaurants AWAY from the tourist areas, so for the locals, is great. Don’t ask me why…
PLACES WE VISITED
I mean where do you start? Wherever you look the views are stunning. You can look at the map above to see where we ended up but what will stay with me is definitely the salt mine in Zipaquira, Buenavista, Salento, Risaralda and Bogota with the Montserrate cable car ride that takes you 3,150 m in about 5min.
The salt mine is incredible:
Buenavista climb – one of the hardest climbs I have ever done:
Bogota on the last day:
Risaralda – stunning little town with one main street running quite steeply up with all side streets falling down and making you feel like you are in San Francisco:
VINEYARD, COFFEE PLACE, ORANGE TREES ETC:
OK, I haven’t got a picture of a typical breakfast but if you visit my post about Costa Rica, you will get the idea: scrambled egg, arepa, yoghurt (from a bag), some sugary cereal, fruit and coffee. It was a bit off-putting as we stayed everywhere (with one exception) for one night only hence every place tried to give us a taste of the traditional breakfast. Yes. Every. Single. One. Of them. So basically we had the same breakfast for 12 days in a row… With a little exception here and there of an extra thing.
Be prepared as Colombians love sugar and sugary drinks. They love coffee, fair enough 🙂 and it is excellent there (and served with a straw) but in the rural places it’s the aguapanela so a hot drink made from sugarcane with cheese dropped in:
Oscar, one of our guides, would even put that cheese into his hot chocolate. Lord have mercy… But you absolutely must try pan de yuca. I could live on these babies.
For lunch and dinners Colombian love their trout (trucha) and meats:
And the food is dirt cheap. That mean burger on the picture above was £3.50. The fish with a massive plantain chip and a drink about £2. And it’s all fresh. Do not expect anything spicy though. Unless it was just our luck that the food was quite bland. Even if you order something that with “Mexican” in its name – nope.
The country is hot, sunny and full of stunning colours and traditional music. Over two weeks, wherever we went we only heard Colombian music in shops, hotels and in the streets. Unfortunately I only managed to dance on one occasion but that was a crazy night. I basically high jacked a manager’s of one of the hotels daughter to be our DJ and danced with one of the guides for a couple of hours! I will definitely be back on a dance focused trip.
We rode in rain, blistering heat, high altitude, sometimes at 7km/hr sometimes at 60km/hr. Wherever you looked there was a stunning scenery. And when you get over the Colombian obsession with sugary drinks and curious things like water sold in 5 liter PLASTC BAGS (?!), it is a fascinating country. Country full of smiling, interesting people. Kinda small people… I was in a spot of bother looking for cycling top as they all seem to be in Quintana size… But I managed to squeeze myself into XXL jacket.
Once you wear a top with COLOMBIA written across, it’s a guaranteed ice breaker. The locals will immediately talk to you in Spanish. Even though one look at your skin complexion definitely proves your passport ain’t Colombian…
SO HOW WAS IT?
It was really good. And again – indoor cycling pays off. I only did 80 km outdoors in the 18 months leading to this trip. then in 10 days I rode over 400 km. I suffered up the 16% gradient but then so did everyone else. My cardiovascular fitness up the longest and steepest climb in high altitude was my weak point. But since I came back my stats on an indoor bike went through the roof. I don;t think it’s going to last long but boy do I appreciate training at high altitude now!
I will definitely be back on a journey focused on music next time round so watch out Cali!