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Text and photography: Caley Fretz
The author Louis De Bernières once suggested that there are particular moments — the sipping of coffee on a sun-drenched porch, or a switchback that launches you into the next straightaway as if gravity has suddenly lifted — which, once experienced, condemn one to a lifetime of nostalgia.
We went to Colombia for a vacation, my wife Meg and I and our friends Chris and Kristi. We brought bikes because we always bring bikes, and because there is no better, more vulnerable, or more intimate way to see a place. We rode to Nairo Quintana’s house (sort of) and struggled up one of this planet’s longest paved climbs. We explored a country that was largely shuttered by war less than two decades ago, and realized that just as the world begins to discover Colombia, Colombia is rediscovering itself.
A dozen riding routes lie between Villa de Leyva and the giant murals and statues of Nairo Quintana that adorn the side of a small store outside Cómbita. There are paved options, one around each side of the dark green massif that lies between the two towns, and not-paved roads that skirt the edges, and barely-even-roads that go straight up the middle. We made our Nairo Pilgrimage mostly via a combination of the latter two.
This valley in Boyacá, a state north of Bogotá, is arid and warm, a marked departure from the climate one valley over, which is so green with rain it almost hurts the eyes. Leyva, our start town, is full of bleached white walls and tile roofs. It is paved like a river, with streets of rounded, head-sized stones worn smooth in some bygone era by rushing water. The main square is 3.5 acres of the same ankle-twisting stones; its cobbles are only marginally easier to ride over than charging through a river itself. They are worse than the Arenberg, I tell you.
On the West side of the square is a church. There’s always a church in a square built by good Catholics. To the north sits a string of bars and overpriced restaurants that hire musicians to entertain each evening. To the east, a place to buy Club Colombia, the domestic beer of choice, and to sit outside on wooden benches with backs against the white wall, drinking it. To the south, a pizza place where a young waiter works on his English by performing actions and asking for their verbal counterpart. His studies are nascent. On our second day, as rain rolls in and a perfect rainbow arches over the square, we teach him how to ask a customer if they are ready to order. The pizza he brings is thin and crispy.
Domestic beers are the same everywhere. 2/10 on the taste scale, but 10/10 for ambiance.
Sipping on Salpicón, a ubiquitous fruit drink.
It is our third day in Colombia, and our first big ride. The route we’ve chosen for our Nairo Pilgrimage is the hardest one we could find, but also the quietest. The two often go together, and our motivation is bound up in the latter, not the former. Rather than take one of the paved routes, we will head around the southern bow of the ship-shaped mountain that stands over Leyva’s west side, turn up a canyon, and onto gravel roads toward Chiquiza and then San Pedro de Iguaque and up and over toward Cómbita. We will climb over 7,000 feet (2,100 metres) throughout the day, almost entirely on dirt and gravel, up slopes designed for horses and trucks, not bikes, from valley heat to high-altitude cold, past campesinos bent over potato plots and donkeys weighed down with staples and tiny towns with their own tiny river-rock squares. We’ll top out at 10,700 feet (3,261 metres) and begin whistling back toward Leyva on the paved road through Arcabuco.
At the route’s farthest point: A pair of giant Nairo Quintana statues on bikes, one of which has mechanical legs that spin when it’s turned on, and wall-sized murals of the Boyacán-boy-made-good in various states of stone-faced victory. The larger-than-life shrine sits on the side of a little store just down the hill from the home of Nairo’s parents. It’s not actually Nairo’s house, we find out, but we don’t really care. The Nairo Pilgrimage is just an excuse to go on a really good bike ride.
Getting out of Villa de Leyva on its rough stones takes some effort.
The gravel roads outside Villa de Leyva are a groad dream.
This is why I wouldn’t recommend road tires.
I write this a week after that ride, sitting on the rough wooden deck of a small finca about 60 kilometers outside Bogotá. The place is called El Palacio del Zancudo, the Mosquito Palace, though it is neither palatial nor mosquito infested. It was formerly owned by a trio of famous journalists: Guillermo “La Chiva” (The Scoop) Cortés, Daniel Samper, and Fernando Pacheco, who went by his last name alone; famous periodistas and a Colombian Jack Kerouac of sorts. They wrote columns and books and poetry in the 80s and 90s, a time when any honest writing was going to anger someone, likely someone with either a gun or an army or both, and the three often did.
One night kidnappers arrived at El Palacio del Zancudo. Six of them burst through the wooden door behind me. It’s painted a dark blue and latches with a small metal clasp. Five men were home; three escaped. Cortés and the groundskeeper, Salomon, were taken. They were driven down the road to the Amazonian plains where kidnap victims would never be found and where nobody would dare go looking. Salomon was held for a week. Cortés, then 73 years old, was held for 205 days, listening in secret at night to a radio program that sent messages to hostages. He was freed by a military raid, which was a particularly dangerous way to find freedom. The first thing guerrillas usually did when the army’s helicopters flew into view was kill all the hostages. The threat alone usually kept the army from trying anything too daring.
Guillermo “La Chiva” Cortés was kidnapped from this very spot.
Cortés died in 2013, but Salomon greeted me when we arrived a week ago. We call him Don Salomon, out of respect.
The road that runs above El Palacio del Zancudo heads in one direction to the Amazon, where Cortés and Don Salomon and hundreds of others were kept, and in the other direction over the mountain to Bogotá. It’s a route that we rode on bicycles this week but 30 years ago would have been safe only in a tank. They used to call it “the miracle fish road,” a reference to the guerrilla groups that would go fishing for kidnap victims along it. If you made it past the fishermen, it was a miracle.
This was not that long ago. In the early naughts, no sane gringo drove out to Zancudo for the weekend, as our host, American photographer, videographer, and travel writer Gregg Bleakney, does now. Four American tourists riding their bikes here from Bogotá? Ha! Only four with a death wish. And it wasn’t the only road with such a reputation.
“We wouldn’t drive from Bogotá to Medellin, or even Bogotá to Choachí,” says Francisco Lopez, who now serves as a guide and driver for foreigners here. “You wouldn’t drive into the country at all.” Yet here I sit in the aged wooden chair and at the round desk of the kidnapped Guillermo Cortés. He liked round desks because he felt they invite collaboration. Around the corner Don Salomon reads a magazine, Semana, sitting in a suspended-fabric chair. It contains two ads featuring Nairo Quintana.
Don Salomon crushed us in a game called Rana. He said he was town champion as a youngster.
We rode here via a pass that was bombed by Army helicopters less than 20 years ago. They rained fire on the guerrillas camped along it. The road is now beautiful; newly paved and serpentine, dropping 6,000 feet (1,828 metres) from the páramo, a high alpine ecosystem that provides water for the entire country, down into the jungle. Salomon remembers the war. He’s one of the estimated 17% of the Colombian population directly affected by the violence. He points up the hill and makes the universal sign for explosion, a balled fist suddenly spread open. “Better now,” he says. Having briefly fled, his smile returns.
What used to be called the Miracle Fish Road is now a perfect, 6,000-foot descent to Choachí.
We hear an awful lot about Colombian cycling these days. Quintana and Chaves and Uran and Gaviria and Pantano and all the rest have made sure of that. Where does all the talent come from? I won’t even begin to attempt to answer that question (it’s been tackled with far greater expertise by writers like Matt Rendell in his phenomenal book “Kings of the Mountains”). But I can offer some simple observations regarding the relationship between Colombians and the bicycle.
We landed in Bogotá on Christmas Day, a week ago as I write this. It’s a quiet day in any city and particularly so in Bogotá. “Everyone is with family,” Gregg said. But there was even less cause to worry about traffic as we clipped in and rolled out on our shakeout ride. Every Sunday and holiday, including Christmas, is a Ciclovia day. The city shuts down some 115km of major thoroughfares, including the highway to the airport, to all motor-vehicle traffic. Runners, rollerbladers, dog walkers, kids on scooters, and, above all, cyclists, have the run of the city. They hit the streets en masse, stopping off at liquid refreshment points for a salpicón, racing each other up small inclines, cruising around without a care. There are kitted-out roadies and guys in rubber boots on semi-functional mountain bikes and everything in between. It feels as if half the city heads up the favored local climb, Patios, a 20- to 30-minute effort that switchbacks up to sweeping views of the city of eight million people.
Gregg warned us that a favorite pastime of the locals is putting the hurt on gringos up Patios. He also warned us to watch for talent in unlikely places. He was not wrong. Local riders seemed to take particular pleasure in leaving us behind. Many are young, in their early teens. One kilometer from the top, Meg took a little flier and was matched by a young rider on a mountain bike, perhaps 12 or 13 years old. He rode up next to her, grinning, gave her that Lance-to-Jan look over the shoulder, and dropped the hammer. They raced towards the top; she on her custom Ti gravel bike and he on his old mountain bike, sneakers, and flat pedals. Take a guess who won.
Attacking the locals up Patios, just outside Bogotá.
Signs posted by the city during Ciclovia extol that cyclists are “civic heroes.” Signs posted by the restaurant at the top of Patios remind drivers to “respect, beware, and protect” cyclists. In nearly 30 hours of riding in Colombia, I can count on one hand the number of close passes we experienced. I’d need about twenty more hands to count the “Vamos Vamos!” yelled out passenger windows and by people simply standing by the roadside.
A taxi driver at the end of the trip asked whether I’d ever interviewed Quintana’s parents and explained in great detail, most of which I couldn’t understand, why he’ll win the Tour this year. He told me that Chaves lives on the other side of Bogotá and pointed to a hill in the distance. The father of one of Gregg’s friends in Bogotá keeps a notebook with stats on every Colombian rider in every major European race all year and can rattle off Pantano’s finish place in Stage 5 of last year’s Tour de France (54th, and Fabio Aru won on La Planche des Belles Filles) like he’s telling you what he had for breakfast.
I think you’re probably getting the point.
The streets shut down for Ciclovia every Sunday and holiday.
In Boyacá, heat presses into our backs on the lower slopes of our Nairo Pilgrimage. Baking. The pavement is behind us, mostly, though some of the switchbacks and ramps are so steep that they’ve been covered in 50-metre sections of concrete just so vehicles can get up them. The traction is good so you can climb out of the saddle, but the gradient makes it feel like you’re on a stair-stepper machine. We make jokes about New Year’s resolutions and going to the gym and buns of steel.
Colombians frame weather within altitude as we frame weather within seasons. It’s not cold because of winter or hot because of summer; we’re near the equator and neither really matters. The Andes run through this nation like a spine. It’s cold because we’re high, over 9,000 feet, or hot because we’re low, anything below 7,000. Bogotá is at 8,000 feet and it feels to the average North American or European like perpetual early fall — sometimes hot, but there’s a lot of sweater weather. Medellin is warmer and wetter, known for a perpetual spring. “I’m a 1,500-meter guy,” Gregg says. “You seem like more like a 2,000-meter guy. You like sweaters.” He is correct. In a nation of equatorial weather stability that covers terrain from the coast to 19,000-foot peaks, a change of season simply requires one to go up or down.
Currently, we’re going up.
Maybe I should say who “we” are. I’m Caley Fretz, says so right up top. In the red and black helmet is my wife, Meg. Kristi Diller and the tall guy, Chris Crosby, are in matching gray helmets. We nicknamed Chris and Kristi “The Governor,” after Chris Christie, the former presidential candidate from New Jersey. The Guv’ had the idea to come to Colombia, we decided to follow. It was supposed to be a vacation. But this place is too rich for a cycling and travel writer to show up and not document it. When you sit in Guillermo Cortés’ chair at El Palacio del Zancudo and don’t at least try to spin a yarn I believe they take your international press credentials away.
So here we are. Going up.
The heinous bit is behind us now. This is one of those mountains that allows you to see exactly how far you’ve come, snaking straight up its flank. It makes a quick check over the shoulder a particularly gratifying experience. “We started down there? Yes, all the way down there.”
The road surface is crushed rock and dirt, decently maintained and easily covered on the 32mm semi-slicks we all have on (more equipment detail to come). The road curves back and forth through farm fields tended by campesinos, which I’m told is not a derogatory term but simply the general word for farmer types. They wear the simple clothes of the country and of people without much money to spend on clothes. A man in his sixties is bent over a potato patch, pulling small red orbs out of the earth and tossing them in a white canvas bag. He unfolds as we approach and throws a wave. It’s easy to romanticize these people’s existence as simple and pure in a way rich northerners on yoga mats might envy. But if you watch them work for a while, it just looks hard.
An atmosphere thinned by altitude is like a sweater thinned by age. It doesn’t hold heat well. The campesinos wear ponchos when the sun ducks behind a cloud and then flip them off when it comes back out. Everyone wears ponchos here. The kids on the square, downing aguardiente like water; tourists wandering around Leyva; campesinos outside town. As the sun shifts, the iconic garment suddenly makes quite a lot of sense.
A llama chews at us and a few cows moo at us. A million chickens run about and dozens of dogs look up briefly before going back to napping. The only dogs that try to chase seem to be the ones that are penned in. Maybe that’s a metaphor for something.
We’ve climbed 2,000 feet (610 metres) on dirt, which somehow took two hours, and it’s time for the first stop for water.
You can drink the water out of taps in almost all of Colombia. The water in Bogotá tastes like the water in New York. There’s a flavor to it but not a bad one. As Francisco told me, the parts of Colombia where you can’t drink the water are the parts of Colombia you probably won’t be able to get to anyway, so don’t worry about it.
We rattle across a miniature version of Leyva’s cobblestone square toward Chiquiza’s little store. There we buy two bottles each of water from a woman who seems slightly annoyed that we interrupted her viewing of some soap opera to babble in English and speak terrible Spanish in her direction. The eight bottles, when converted into USD, cost about $1.75.
The middle of a long ride is often the most difficult, mentally if not physically. The road after Chiquiza rolls a bit and then ramps up again, along a ridge to San Pedro de Iguaque. Another hour and we have climbed 3,500 of our 7,000 feet (2,133 metres) but have done so in 15 miles (24km), which means that more than 45 miles (72km) remain. We’re averaging a brisk trotting pace. It’s best not to think in terms of distance on the way up.
For decades, Colombians did not travel in their own country. Everyone I asked said this, adding that if they did need to travel, they did so in airplanes. Or they went to Miami. Both require some measure of wealth, without which travel simply wasn’t an option. Travel for work and commerce continued. But travel for travel’s sake, for exploration and discovery and enjoyment, to see what one’s country holds, hardly existed.
The Colombian people were prisoners in their own cities. “We did not know our own country,” says Francisco, the guide and driver. “Driving was really dangerous. If you tried to drive long distances, six or seven hours, it was really difficult. Because around four, five, six PM, in the night time, the guerrillas come to the main roads, highways, and kidnap everyone, and nobody wants to make that risk. It was dangerous. We didn’t know where they are, or what time, or what kind of road.”
“We knew our own city. That’s it.” He shakes his head.
The result is that parts of Colombia, long a mystery to all but guerrilla groups, are being rediscovered.
There is a ranching region called Los Llanos near the Venezuelan border where all the big landowners were kicked off their land decades ago. Beautiful, clear rivers run through the place, whose name translates literally to The Plains. Parts of the region flood seasonally, similar to the Brazilian Pantanal. The FARC ate all the cattle but didn’t fish much; the rivers are teeming with life. It’s one of the world’s greatest fishing destinations and was essentially rediscovered a decade ago. The only way into the best spots is to fly to one of the old farms’ airstrips.
A string of mountains in the north rises straight from the sea to over 19,000 feet, from beach sand to snow. They catch migratory birds like a giant net. Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, they’re called. Somewhere on the slopes, at some altitude, exists an environment for any creature. Many birds stay, even the ones that are supposed to migrate. These mountains have a greater diversity of birds than almost anywhere else on earth.
Twenty years ago, a biologist named Diego Calderón was kidnapped and brought there. It was one of those regions where Colombians could not go, precisely because it was the sort of place guerrillas took their hostages. He walked the mountains with his captors and heard the sounds of birds he knew and birds he didn’t — and if he didn’t, maybe nobody did. His guards gave him cigarettes but he didn’t smoke. He used the paper instead for notetaking. This year, he returned, walked the same steps, and filmed a rare owl he was sure he’d heard as a captive. It had never before been captured on video.
Imagine, for a moment, an America, France, or Australia in which everyone stays in their own town or city for fear of their own countrymen. If New Yorkers knew only New York. If they couldn’t get to Vermont to ski because they’d be kidnapped along the way. If the people of San Francisco dared not cross the Golden Gate bridge into Marin, as guerillas fished for kidnap victims along the road. After a few decades, New Yorkers would forget what Vermont was like, forget that they could ski. San Franciscans would be able to see Marin and Mt. Tamalpais when the fog lifted but know its treasures only through story. Imagine the isolation. Then imagine it was lifted. That is Colombia today.
There are parts of Colombia that were lost. Some are slowly being found. “To travel in Colombia now is akin to the early ages of Victorian exploration,” Diego says. “You can truly discover.”
Random stretches of perfect pavement are a wonderful respite, even if they keep climbing.
Three hours into our Nairo Pilgrimage, we climb on beautiful, new pavement out of San Pedro de Iguaque to a rolling plateau at 10,000 feet (3,050 metres). Paved roads seem to pop up randomly, often unconnected to other sections of tarmac. This section climbs to a sea of pastureland cut by dirt roads, like off-white veins on green muscle. A bit like Tuscany — beautiful, agricultural — except with a bite to the air that reminds you of your height above the sea. We’re higher than Cómbita and Nairo’s house. Far higher than the highest paved roads in Europe. A storm brews to the west, the direction we must go. Temperatures have dropped into the 50s. But first, Nairo’s.
A descent down to the main road ends our quiet hours on dirt. Since leaving the road out of Leyva perhaps a dozen motorcycles, half a dozen small trucks, and a handful of loaded-down horses and donkeys have passed us. It’s why we chose this way, even though it meant we’ve traveled 32 miles (51km) in five hours. One’s ability to truly explore a place, to stop and smell the roses, so to speak, is aided by a distance from things that can kill you, like giant trucks. The second half of the ride will fly by, anyway; it’s mostly downhill and mostly paved.
Nairo’s house is easy to spot. It sits off to the left on a sweeping right bend and has two massive Nairo statues sitting out front. They are at least 10 feet (3m) tall. The Movistar logos on his jersey have been replaced by the letter N, and underneath it says “Boyaca,” his home state. A massive grin on the larger of the two figures feels slightly out of place for a rider notorious for his poker face, but it fits the mood.
The place is an adorable little truck stop, basically. Except it doesn’t sell gas and my preferred Mega Queso flavor Doritos, it sells Nairo. There are shirts and scarves in yellow, the color of Colombia’s national soccer team, and pink, the color of the Giro.
The small parking lot in front of the building is a rotating carousel of pilgrims like us. They stop on motorbikes, covered head-to-toe in rain gear, or pile out of tiny hatchbacks. A massive truck pulls up. The driver jumps out, grabs a selfie with the Nairo statue, then jumps back in the cab and roars off in a cloud of diesel smoke. Our fellow pilgrims seem excited that the gringos came to see Nairo, too. One man asks if we’ll join him for a picture under the largest statue.
An odd combination of excitement and reverence makes the place feel quite a lot like most of the famous churches I’ve found myself in. Places of hushed delight, as if everyone is worried a saint might peek his head around the door and chide us for making too much noise. Maybe Nairo is home today? Best not to yell, then.
Thumbs up for Nairo’s house. (Mug and shirt images: Chris Crosby)
Rain hit as we descended from Nairo’s. A nice warm shower on the way back.
At least 4.7 million Colombians have been displaced since La Violencia began in 1948, including 2.3 million children. Of the 220,000 casualties attributed to the war, 177,000 were civilians. Between September of 1983 and January of 1991, twenty-six journalists working in Colombian media were murdered by the drug cartels. Nobel Laureate Gabriele García Marquez tells the gripping story of a string of high-profile kidnappings in “News of a Kidnapping;” anyone looking for chilling anecdote to back up the statistics needs look no further.
Colombia’s darkness did not lift suddenly. The process was brutal and violent, ended not by peace agreements but by firepower. From 2000 to 2006 the government killed and captured thousands of guerrillas and paramilitary. President Álvaro Uribe decimated the FARC and ELN, the leftist National Liberation Army, with bombs and bullets. The official guerrilla death toll since 2004 is 11,484. Over 4,000 army and police have been killed in the same time. Another 26,000 guerrillas demobilized and 34,000 were captured. They died by the helicopters that Salomon saw fly over the ridge to rain fire on the valley walls. There were atrocities, horrible accidents, numerous documented cases of huge civilian casualties. There were thousands of displaced people, thousands more forced disappearances.
I will not pretend to be an expert in Colombian politics or history, and Uribe certainly has his detractors. Police-state tactics, including torture and mass killing, were allegedly perpetrated by the army and police forces, events that were used by guerrillas to rally support for their own side. But in speaking to people who live here, it’s clear that most believe the savage effort is why we can drive from Bogotá to Leyva in a van without an armed guard, and ride bikes to Nairo’s house without a concern except our burning legs and aching lungs. It’s why we can ride to El Palacio del Zancudo over the miracle fish road, worried only about the bad weather that moves in while we are over 11,000 feet, and why we can ride what some say is the world’s longest paved climb, Letras, with concern only for the number of kilometers remaining. Today, our concerns exist on a completely different stratum, a more superficial one. Self-inflicted, athletic pain is hardly pain at all, unimportant by contrast, and is proof in its superfluousness of incredible progress. When the dust of war began to settle, Colombia exhaled for the first time in decades.
To Letras. A seven-hour drive from Villa de Leyva to one of the world’s longest paved climbs.
The drive to Mariquita, at Letras’ base, drops off the high plateau of Bogotá and Boyacá and into the steaming jungle and a sudden reminder that we’re awfully close to the equator. “Start early,” everyone says of Letras, first and foremost because it takes a long time to ride 80km uphill and, second, because if you don’t get up and out of the lowlands before mid-morning you might just melt.
Mariquita has the feel of a crossroads town. It’s how I imagine some of the little hamlets of Route 66 felt before the big highways were built. Buzzing with transience. Sustained by the movement of others. There are no big highways here. Everyone has to come through Mariquita and stop at its stoplight.
We roll out at 6am. The sun is about to pop over the horizon and it’s already warm. The climb starts no more than a two-minute ride from the center of town. It points up around a left hand curve and won’t stop climbing for 80km.
There’s a second, even harder way to the top of Letras. It’s the one the Morton brothers took in Thereabouts 3. It climbs 50km of beautiful pavement before turning to dirt that requires a good 4x4 to drive over. We have our driver, César, and a giant van that would never make it. Rain is forecast and 30km of technical dirt that tops out at 11,000 feet (3,352 metres) sounds like a good way to die of hypothermia. Plus the Mortons are a bit faster than us. We take the road, where César can leapfrog us all the way up.
We were told that the hardest sections of Letras are the first 25km, up to the town of Fresno, and the last 15km, because you’ve been climbing for four to six hours and it’s relentless. The middle section features plenty of flats and even downhills to rest and recover but the last 15km does not.
The low slopes of Letras.
They were right about the first 25km. The sun pokes through a low haze as we spin up; a couple short downhills break things up, but grades are steeper than I expected. They can’t continue like this. We’ll hit the top too quickly.
We reach Fresno after climbing for just under two hours. A rough collection of dirt-floor houses rings the edge of town. They slowly give way to slightly wealthier concrete as we enter the center. A mechanic’s shop on the left is doing brisk business; probably replacing all the clutches and brakes we can smell. This town is full of old Jeeps, most with piles of bananas and coffee on their roofs. Today is a market day. All of Colombia is covered in old 4x4s like this, though preferences seem to change as we move between regions. Fresno has its Jeeps, Boyacá was all about the Nissan Patrol and Villa de Leyva, a rich tourist town, was covered in Land Rovers and Land Cruisers. Chris, the owner of an old two-door Land Rover himself, spends at least half his time taking photos of them all.
An open-air restaurant on the right side of the road is the perfect spot for a quick coffee and some calories. We didn’t really have breakfast. Cuatro tintos, por favor. Four drip coffees. Some of the coffee in Colombia is incredible. There’s a place in Villa de Leyva, right off the square to the southeast, that will make you a cup of pour over with pious dedication. Palacio del Zancudo grows its own beans and Gregg assures me they’re divine. This place in Fresno dumps half a cup of sugar in a cup of coffee, apparently a common way to present coffee in certain areas, and it’s barely edible. Oh well, it has caffeine.
A pig in a cage appears to be wheeling itself up the hill until it comes closer and we see the man heaving behind it. A boy turns sausages on a grill, you can hear the crackle of meat and smell the burning fat. We roll out caffeinated with fresh lumps of cheesy bread in our stomachs and try not to remember we’ve been climbing for two hours and are less than half way there.
Letras is part of a small club of massively long climbs. A violent and relatively rare sort of geology is required for the earth to rise so abruptly that we can climb 10,000 feet (over 3,000m) or more in a single go. Wuling pass in Taiwan is 90km long and rises to 10,300 feet from sea level. Haleakala and Mauna Kea in Hawaii are two more options. I’ve ridden Wuling and Haleakala; Letras is different. It goes far higher, first of all. It doesn’t start at the sea, and it doesn’t follow a river or gorge that forces grades consistently up. Instead, after Fresno, it follows a ridge for much of its length, stair-stepping toward the sky. It features more dips and drops, 30-60 second descents, than the other massive climbs. The breaks are nice until the realization strikes that every foot lost is a foot that must be regained. The climb itself goes from 1,500 feet (450m) to 12,000 (3660m), yet you climb more than 13,000 feet over its 80 kilometers. Blame the dips.
I tried to calculate an approximate number of curves on Letras. The road doesn’t switch back upon itself much but instead wiggles incessantly. The longest straight stretches are no more than 300 meters long. On the back of a napkin: There is a curve in the road approximately every 100 meters. Let’s be conservative and say eight curves per kilometer. At 80 kilometers, that gives us 640 total curves. Six hundred and forty new directions, new views. How can an 80-kilometer climb not feel like a slog? By turning in a new direction every 30 seconds.
Sixty-five kilometers in, César has parked the van in front of a small shop overlooking a precipitous, 4,000-foot drop to the valley below. Time for another stop. Kristi orders aguadepanela con queso, a sugarcane broth with blocks of the ubiquitous farmer’s cheese. “Colombian Gatorade,” Gregg calls it. Colombians fill bottles with the warm version at the top of climbs and stick them down their jerseys for heat on the way down.
Queso is cheese, as anyone who has ever been to Taco Bell knows, but in Colombia queso doesn’t generally refer to the vast array of cheeses available. It refers to one particular type of semi-soft, simple cow’s milk product. It only needs one name. If the menu says “queso” you know exactly what sort of cheese you’re getting. Like Bono.
I buy a bag of Doritos, which hits some strange craving. I only buy Doritos on slightly ridiculously long rides. Mega Queso flavor, of course. Maybe a bag of Cheetos, too. We pull out the little Polaroid-type camera left in the van and ask the proprietor to take a quick photo of the four of us with César, our fantastic and jovial driver. The ejection of the tiny rectangle of film startles him and he laughs at his own surprise.
A stop about 15km from the top of Letras for Aguadepanela con queso and some Mega Queso Doritos
It feels as if we could reach up and touch the ceiling of the world. The clouds are right there, just a few meters above our heads. We roll out from our last stop and into the final stretch. It will be the most difficult; we’ve been climbing for over five hours and have about ninety minutes to go. The rolling, ridge-bound road is behind us. Now we switchback up the final meters before pointing straight at the pass. The grades tilt up slightly — 5, 6, 7%.
A tight corner flips left on the backside of a brief leveling. Passing through seems to lift gravity for just a moment. After six hours fighting upwards, it’s not a sensation I’ll soon forget.
Into the clouds now. Whisps catch on ridges to our left, swirl around a lone cow that stares us as we pass. Cows With A View, I’ve taken to calling them in my head, as they stare out over mile-high vistas. A sharp updraft shoots the fog straight up through the crux of one of the corners like smoke billowing from a chimney. Ten kilometers to go. Five. Four. Three. Two.
We break through the clouds a bit. Just a thin layer is left over our heads. With one kilometer to go a pile of buildings slides into view. A flag seems to denote the top. It does not. Keep riding, through the little town, past the Virgin statue, to a nondescript dirt parking lot on the right where César waits, taking photos of us with his iPhone.
The average non-Colombian cyclist is offered two visions of this nation: One, a sort of magical, cyclist-breeding playground and another, a marginally post-war semi-failed state. Visions of Nairo or visions of Narcos. Neither feels entirely accurate today.
In Villa de Leyva we saw a tourist town not filled with Americans or Europeans or Asians but with the middle class of Bogotá. At Nairo’s house, a nation’s pride quite literally painted on a wall. On Patios, the future attacked on flat pedals and stayed away. On Letras, the realization of a bucket-list climb, one of the finest on this planet. In Bogotá, a city of eight million that shuts itself down once a week for bikes. At El Palacio del Zancudo, a man touched by violence whose smile never fails.
This place does not allow for linear comprehension of its past or its present. It is dichotomy. Brutal and bloody; sweet as salpicón.
FARC is not gone. Critics of the current president say it’s merely legitimized. The other militia groups, they aren’t gone either. Some are political parties; others simply went underground. And while the government has put great effort and expense into helping farmers switch to legal crops, the narcotics trade is still far more lucrative. There is no guarantee that the Colombia of today will remain. The state of peace that allowed us such freedom to discover and experience and that allows its own people to finally find and love their own country, that peace remains fragile. There is, however, great hope and positive momentum. There is incredible pride. There is the sort of blossoming that only comes after humanity is confined and then released.
Colombia continues to exhale. You can feel it all around you. The accumulated stress of a place is palpable, I think, and Colombia still has a certain tautness, mirroring the high wire upon which it still walks.
We finished our 11 days in Colombia at El Palacio del Zancudo, down in the summertime valley just outside autumnal Bogotá. We walked the road that was bombed in 2003 to buy beer from the next-door neighbor and wandered the grounds with Don Salomon. We drank perfect coffee on the sun-drenched porch each morning. We sent bird calls into the trees until a screech owl with a flat face and brilliant yellow eyes flew to a branch 10 feet away. It chided us for taunting him.
As De Bernières predicted, we are condemned to a lifetime of nostalgia. I think the only possible cure is to return.
There are dozens of routes from Villa de Leyva to Cómbita, mostly on dirt. Use this for inspiration.
Total ride time: 5:50
Length: 56mi (90km)
Elevation gain: 7,270ft (2215m)
Max elevation: 10,780ft (3285m)
We started in Mariquita and ended with a bit of extra credit climbing up to the hotel at Termalo del Ruiz.
Total ride time: 8hrs 15min
Length: 64.9mi (104km)
Elevation gain: 15,743ft (4800m)
Max elevation: 13,080ft (3986m)
We paid a driver, César Leon, with an enormous van (we didn’t know it would be so enormous, but it ended up being quite nice to have the room) approximately $1,200 USD for all the transfers and as a follow vehicle on Letras. That included all gas, tolls, César’s food and lodging for the better part of a week. You could go cheaper but this isn’t an area worth skimping on.
The driver and van were arranged via Hernan Acevedo of Pure! Colombia, a tour guide service. Hernan was fantastically helpful, responsive, and I highly recommend working with him.
Distances have little bearing on how long it will take to get anywhere. There are few major highways and lots of mountains. Drives that would take a few hours in the US can take a day. Give yourself a full day to get just about anywhere, or fly between cities.
Uber exists in Bogotá and some locals recommended we use it, as it’s more secure. I recall getting a memo from the State Department before heading to Rio de Janeiro to cover the Olympics last year that said the same, so I’m inclined to think there’s something to it.
Lodging is relatively cheap even for nice places. We stayed in the B3 Hotel in Bogotá the end of our stay, a lovely tourist-friendly spot near restaurants for $50/night. There are plenty of similar options.
AirBnB is commonly used and we used it to find a fantastic little spot in Villa de Leyva.
Termales del Ruiz is a hotel near the top of Letras that features hot springs. It’s pricey but worth it. Make sure you walk up the path behind the hot springs pool, where dozens of hummingbirds will flit around your head and land on outstretched hands.
Colombians speak Spanish, obviously. Fewer of them speak English than you might expect, even in the tourism industry. This can perhaps be attributed to the fact that most tourism is still domestic. We saw very few foreign tourists, though we would have seen more on the coasts.
As a result, some basic Spanish is helpful. Hop on Duolingo for a few weeks before you leave and you’ll be fine. Everyone is incredibly friendly and willing to work with you to figure out what is needed.
Speaking of language, the author Louis De Bernières, mentioned in the first paragraph of this story, has a series of books that provide interesting insight into Colombia. They are works of fiction, obviously highly dramatized and quite tongue-in-cheek, but as good works of fiction often do they speak to some fundamental, human truths in ways that non-fiction often can’t. He is particularly adept at capturing the ways in which confusion, corruption, and misinformation can metastasize into violence. I highly recommend picking them up. “The War of Don Emmanuel’s Nether Parts” is particularly entertaining, if often quite grim.
It is possible to ride a road bike in Colombia, particularly near major cities, but I’m not sure why you’d want to limit yourself to one. Bringing a bike with more clearance for big tires opens up a vast network of fantastic dirt roads to explore. What roads are paved tend to be busy, as there are few of them away from big towns and cities. The dirt roads are empty.
We brought gravel bikes with 32mm Donnelly (formerly Clement) Strada USH tires, set up tubeless. There were moments when we wished for larger tires — particularly on the road to Nairo’s when we got three flats — and moments when road tires would have been great, such as climbing up Letras. But overall I think we nailed it. A high-volume semi-slick of some sort is ideal if you don’t want to swap tires for each ride.
For the dirt version of Letras, as ridden by Aaron Gulley for Outside Magazine and in Thereabouts 3, I probably would have mounted 36mm-40mm tires on our bikes. The dirt roads can be rough.
I rode a Franco Grimes, which is currently in for testing. It’s set up with SRAM Force 1x, using a 44-tooth front chainring and 10-42 cassette. I had plenty of gear, high and low. Disc brakes are a good idea since there’s as much down as there is up. Chris came with a 34-tooth little ring and 28-tooth cassette and regretted it. 34/32 would be ideal if you’re running a double. That’s what Meg had on her Mosaic and she found it was plenty.
Yes, you are going near the equator. Low altitudes are hot and muggy. But much of the country is not particularly warm. On our itinerary we experienced everything from mid-80s in Mariquita to barely above freezing at the top of Letras. We brought good rain jackets and used them almost every ride, either in short bursts of rain or simply to descend off cold passes. A decent set of mid-weight gloves is a must, as are layering items like arm/knee warmers, a vest, a cap, etc. Bring a down jacket or similar for cool evenings.
We are lucky enough to live at about 5,300 feet (1,600 meters) and so we’re fine in anything up to 12,000 feet (3,650m) or so. However, having brought plenty of sea-level friends on rides above Boulder, up to about 9,500 (2,800m), I have seen those who are not acclimated suffer horribly. Be careful. Altitude sickness is real and the only solution to it is to drop down, which is hard when you’re on a plateau hundreds of miles wide at 6,000-8,000 feet.
Bogotá is at 8,000 feet (2,400m). That’s high enough to give some folks from sea level altitude sickness, though most will be fine. Villa de Leyva is at 7,000 feet (2,100m), only marginally better. All the good riding in both places will send you up near and over 10,000 (3,050m), which is guaranteed to mess with anyone who isn’t acclimated. If you’re from sea level or close to it, give yourself some time to get used to the altitude before doing any big rides. Bogotá is a good option for that. Medellin is slightly lower, but also hotter. Coffee country could be your best option, as it’s lower as well.
Have more logistics or equipment questions? Hit the comments below. I’ll try to answer or will ask those who helped us figure it all out.