No rest for tired legs: cycling from Bogota to Cucuta
By the time we reached Bogota we’d been on the road for eight months and our legs needed a real rest. Unfortunately, we were on a tight schedule to make it to Caracas by mid-February so we needed to push on towards Venezuela. We were hoping for an easy ride, but Colombia’s mountains still had challenges in store. Luckily friendly people and jaw-dropping scenery helped make it a memorable section of the trip for the right reasons.
We’d been looking forward to visiting Bogota and had read about the up-and-coming cultural scene in the old colonial district of La Candelabria. The area had some pretty streets, good daytime eating spots and felt safe to walk around, which couldn’t be said for other areas we wandered into. It was a nice place to be based, but there wasn’t so much to do and with the heavy afternoon downpours we could justify to ourselves blissfully long afternoon naps.
So we felt refreshed when we left the city along its many cycle lanes. The setup in the centre of town is mainly on pavements which was a bit hairy, but once we got further north we had space to ourselves (at some points there were wardens employed to clear the lanes of pedestrians!) and quickly made it out of town, the final stretch being along a canal which reminded us of riding in areas of London.
After 25km though, we were spat out onto a three lane motorway squeezed into the width of a dual carriageway. Fortunately, this was short and the cycle paths reappeared all the way to our stopping point of Zipaquira. The early start and unexpected absence of hills meant that we arrived in the pretty white-washed colonial town shortly before the afternoon rainstorm arrived and with plenty of time to explore Colombia’s number one attraction, the Catedral de Sal (Salt Cathedral).
Built inside a salt mine, we had both envisaged, from the description in the guide book, a grand structure made of salt. Instead, we found a cave with some pews and a few crosses. Not as striking as we had imagined, but still impressive in size.
Having spent so much time on the Panamerican we decided to try a different route in the hope of quieter traffic. On our way to San Gil therefore, we were cycling via Chinquinquira. Our first thoughts as we set off from Zipaquira were that we had made a big mistake. The road was narrow with no hard shoulder and a steep 300m climb had us struggling to avoid huge lorries as they overtook us, the traffic being no lighter on this road. However, we did have a beautiful ride around the flooded Laguna de Fuquene. On first sight it was hard to work out why the road wiggled around sticking to the bottom of the hills, but on seeing the water level in some areas it was clear that any road heading straight would be impassable for huge stretches.
The next day, we had a lazy start, to watch Manchester City take a lucky win against Tottenham. We have watched more English Premiership matches on this trip than we have for the last five seasons combined back home, it is so popular across South America. Our departure was further delayed when I somehow managed to get a nail stuck in my tyre as I wheeled the bike out of the hotel, but at last we were on the road.
We weren’t too concerned about the late start as we had an easy day ahead with a long downhill. Or so we thought. Apart from a long, hairpin descent following the tumultuous Rio Suarez most of the day was up and down, which was exhausting on the legs.
It was at this point that eight months of pedalling caught up with me and I turned into an emotional blob, weeping at the sight of long climbs and with no energy to do much on or off the bike. So we stopped for the night in a roadside hotel in San Jose de Pare.
I wasn’t much better the next day, but I had improved by lunchtime under the realisation that crying wasn’t going to make the hills go away, and because Paddy had promised me a day off in San Gil. Focused on this fantastic offer the day went by easier, although it was still a tough 100km, one of those where you have climbed so much you can’t believe that you have dropped hundreds of metres overall.
We had a much needed rest in San Gil and treated ourselves to white water rafting, which was a lot of fun, especially seeing Paddy being caught by the guide just before he slipped overboard. It was a relaxing stay, particularly as there was a power cut from 6am to 8pm across the town, which in the dark took on a peaceful aura without the usual blaring music from behind every door. We even enjoyed a candlelit dinner in one of the few functioning restaurants.
The ride out of San Gil was steep, following a river up the mountainside which had a number of waterfalls the road kept the gradient of. As we made our way slowly up, being overtaken on the narrow road by lorries, sometimes two at a time, we met Alberto a local coffee grower. He invited us into his home for lemonade and a look around his plantation.
It was fantastic to see world famous Colombian coffee being grown on a local scale and to learn more about the work involved in growing the plants from seed to taking the dried coffee beans to market. He and his mother spoilt us with a delicious lunch and nearly succeeding in persuading us to pack it in for the day and stay overnight with them. However, we needed to keep to schedule and reluctantly dragged ourselves away to continue the climb.
For our efforts, at the top we were rewarded with incredible views of Camaha Canyon. Following a road along lush hillside we could see a wide river far below and on the other side completely barren hills. It was an incredible sight and we slowly wound our way down to the bottom, where the temperatures rose drastically and the landscape changed significantly.
At this point we had a choice between another 13km climb heading towards Bucaramanga or swimming in a local aqua park, complete with a dinosaur slide. You can guess which won out.
The next morning, after our climb and a beautifully unexpected descent we arrived on the outskirts of Bucaramanga about midday. The traffic was incredibly heavy and the general Colombian respect for cyclists had disappeared, it was not a pleasant city to cycle into. However, the place was redeemed by friendly motorcyclists who flagged us down to give us cold bottles of water which were much appreciated.
We were now faced with a decision about what to do about the next leg, a 50km climb over 2000m high. Either we could stop in Bucaramanga and rest up to do the climb the next day, or we could start the ascent that afternoon and get a head start. With no desire to cycle further into this huge city and with it being so early we decided on the latter.
The steep climb out of Bucaramanga passed through poorer areas of the city, where litter was strewn along the sides of the street and vultures fought with dogs for the pickings. The road was patchy, with huge holes in places, but it gradually improved and levelled out to a decent gradient for cycling.
After covering 12km, we stopped for a drink in a small village and got chatting to the local police officers. From them we discovered that there was no hotel on the road until the very top, and camping wasn’t an option with the gradient of the hills. Our plan had backfired.
It wasn’t a hard decision for us. Either we freewheeled down the hill to do it all over again tomorrow or we get a lift to the top which the police offered to arrange for us. With legs like lead we opted for the lift and rode in the cab of a truck heading to Cucuta from Cali. The journey, which had taken us weeks, took them just two days. Perhaps it was bad signposting or the heavy fog that enveloped the hilltops, but we missed Berlin and ended up spending the night in the chilly village of La Laguna.
We were disappointed not to have made the climb, our last significant one in Colombia, but we had little choice. On the next day to Pamplona, the few kilometres of ascent also made me realise that my legs probably wouldn’t have made it without more rest anyway. Each stroke of the pedals was like pushing through sand and I was so slow that I was wobbling all over the road.
Luckily most of the way from Alto de Pamplona to Cucuta was downhill and easy riding. We spent a lovely Sunday coasting down into the border-town and were accompanied by two members of the Cucuta Cycling Club who escorted us into the city. There were so many cyclists out on the road, at one point I turned around to see Paddy riding in the middle of a peloton as a group of road cyclists slowed down to quiz him about our ride.
The next day, we cycled 12km to the border with Venezuela for an easy border crossing. Exactly one month before we arrived in Ipialies, Colombia, wondering what lay before us. Most of what we knew about Colombia before we arrived was of complex political situations and high crime rates. What we discovered were welcoming people, diverse and beautiful scenery and hills to test the best.
Colombia’s travel agency says to tourist that the only risk is that they won’t want to leave. They have a point, we will definitely be back to explore the parts we didn’t see this time. However, my legs definitely need a good rest first.