My GPS was telling me to turn left. “A la isquierda,” the voice in my head kept repeating. To my left was what would barely qualify as a farmers track. That couldn’t be right.
I pulled out my phone to take a look at the map. It wanted me to go left in order to turn around. I had just enjoyed a wonderful, paved, five kilometre downhill cruise, and now I was being told I missed a turn and had to go back up. “Are there other options?” I wondered.
I looked at my Open Street Maps (OSMAnd) app and it did show I could continue to a town called El Carmen, then follow some roads back to the main highway and onward to Villa de Leyva. Or I could turn around, go back up, and follow the route that I originally plotted. I chose option B and so turned around and slowly retraced my tracks, plodding uphill, through the same sweeping curves I’d just come down so merrily.
Finally, I saw where I went wrong. The turn I missed pointed me straight up an impossibly steep dirt road, with a sign pointing to Raquira and another to Villa de Leyva. Those were both on my route, so up I went…
That was day two of my ride from Bogota to Villa de Leyva. I left Colombia’s capital on Sunday, enjoying the weekly Ciclovia, when they shut down the main roads for cyclists and the whole city comes out to ride around. I had read about Colombia’s cycling culture, and here it was on full display. I cruised north through the endless metropolis looking for Calle 85, where I would start the climb into the mountains that dominate the eastern views in Bogota.
The climb was my first big test and I pedaled ponderously up the six kilometre hill, passed by hundreds of cyclists young and old on all sorts of bikes. Once in a while I would pass someone and beam with pride; my bike weighed a tonne and was not exactly fleet of foot. I reached the top of the climb and pulled into a gas station to rest up. Just as I stopped, I was approached by a man and a beautiful young woman, both curious about my trip. I did my best in my limited Spanish to explain I was on my way to Villa de Leyva. I could barely understand them, but the woman gave me the contact of a friend in Tunja, not for from Leyva, and the man, Oscar, offered to escort me part way.
From there, the road rose and fell on pristine pavement. I bombed past Oscar on the downs and he raced past me on the ups. We travelled through farmland and small towns alongside hundreds of other cyclists also out for a Sunday ride. He took me to a small town called Sopo, where I stopped for lunch and he continued his circuit back home to Bogota. He offered to put me up if I returned to Bogota. Unfortunately, I neglected to take his picture.
Also unfortunate, it turns out Sopo wasn’t on my planned route. It wasn’t the end of the world, but I had meant to turn off earlier to follow Embalse (Reservoir) Tomine on to Suesca, where my map showed there was a campsite. Instead, I had to ride through an ugly industrial area towards Zipaquira before veering off and following the road to Nemocon. From there, my GPS track directed me up and over a hill to Suesca, though it didn’t show a corresponding road. Thankfully, the road connected and after a pretty good slog, I was able to whiz downhill before grinding it out to town.
Suesca is a small, unremarkable town that happens to be next to Colombia’s rock climbing mecca. To access the campsite, I followed an old train track, passing people on their way home from their weekend outing. I was the only one camped out there that night.
I was in bed early that night and slept fitfully while dogs barked all around. I was up at first light and started to move, but packing up took longer than planned. I rode out along the tracks and up through Suesca, where the first brutal climb of the day awaited me.
I grinded my way up the dirt road and regretted not being in better shape. It didn’t help that I started at 2,500 metres elevation on a climb that topped out at almost 3,100m. It also didn’t help that instead of following the main road on my phone, I followed the more direct side road. At one point, the road turned to mud and it was so steep that it took all my strength to push my bike up the hill. I also had my first of many encounters with the dreaded South American canine – not the friendly kind that lopes alongside you, but the nasty one that chases after you, yapping away and threatening to bite your ankles.
Of course, with long climbs come beautiful views and long descents. I eventually made it to the top, where I rode through mountainous farmland and flew down into the next valley. There was another long but steadier climb and another descent before I arrived in Lenguazaque at noon, hungry and tired. I was given strange looks as I passed through, and stopped for lunch at a basic restaurant where I was served a huge bowl of potato soup and a plate of meat, potatoes, rice, veggies and fried plantains. It’s the plata tipica and it’s common in Colombia and perfect for the touring cyclist in that it’s cheap and more food than you could eat.
The road out of Lenguazaque was paved and much busier. Big coal trucks rumbled past, but the riding was easy and I cruised along with a full belly energizing me. That’s when I got carried away, missed a turn and went the wrong way downhill.
When I got back on route, I was greeted with another endless climb to over 3,000 metres. I stopped more times than I’d like to admit and as I neared the top, my saddle sores started to get the best of me. I rode standing up, pushed for a bit, and then stripped off my chamois and rode commando to make life easier. For a while the road cruised along a ridge top and whenever I thought the descent would start, it would go up again. I knew my destination was lower than when I started, and I was crushed, and I couldn’t wait for that descent.
When it came, it was thrilling and terrifying. The road was steep, unpaved and rocky, and I bounced along, slowing down for the switchbacks and opening up as much as I felt comfortable on the straights. I paused a few times to rest my arms and when I finally reached Raquira at the bottom of the 1,000m descent, I had to adjust my brakes because they were so worn I was pulling the levers all the way in and couldn’t come to a full stop.
By this point I was so exhausted I ignored the dirt roads my GPS wanted to send me down and hit the highway to Villa de Leyva. I probably should have stopped in Raquira but I was determined to get to my destination. It quickly got dark and the last stretch saw me navigating a maze of farm roads with only my bike light and GPS to guide me. I arrived in town in the dark and still had one good hill to climb to get to the hostel/campsite marked on Open Street Maps. I finally made it, completely shattered after a day that was far too ambitious.
At the hostel I was faced with the ultimate dilemma: whether to eat, shower, or drink a beer first. I did C and B together, then had a quick, cold shower to get the stench off me before going to bed.
I woke up this morning thinking I would have an easy day in the saddle. Instead, after enjoying a free coffee, I decided to rest up. It’s still early in my trip and I’m not really in that much of a rush. I was also pretty exhausted after yesterday. Instead, I lazed around, wandered into town to check out the largest central square in Colombia and bought some groceries. Then I walked back up to the hostel, found a hammock and that’s about it.
You can find the GPS track for this route here: https://ridewithgps.com/trips/20078480
Tomorrow it’s off to Paipa for some hot springs, then I’m going to make way up to San Gil, the so-called adventure capital of Colombia.
Before that, here’s the cutest picture ever. The dog is named Terix and he and his owner have been motorcycling around South America for two years and counting. Follow their adventures here: https://www.facebook.com/terixpelomundo/