There is a typical view of Colombia that extends from a time well past but is forever etched into the memories of both the locals that experienced the time and from those that watched it from afar. Much has been documented celebrated and scorned and central characters such as Pablo Escobar will always be associated with the country. Colombia is a cycling nation. The sport is their No.1 pastime. Professionals such as Nairo Quintana Rigoberto Uran and Egan Bernal adorn large billboards in all major cities and more people are seen on bikes than cars. For some time now it has been well known of the high altitude roads that sit high above major cities like Bogota and Medellin but it is what extends beyond on the gravel roads that connect the small communities and farmlands that bring the true cycling culture to life. This past March while much of North America still sat under inches of snow three local gravel riders from Medellin took on a five-day bike packing route that came close to 500 km while climbing an eye-watering 13,350 meters in elevation gain. The goal wasn’t focused on distance or pace but exploring the beauty and warmth of the regions the route followed and the people that they came across along the way.
Before the sun peeked over the valley in the small town of Llanogrande, Mauricio Ordonez, Paulina Arango, and Camilo Jaramillo had already rolled down the first of many gravel roads. The air was thick and sweet. It wasn’t long before legs were tested with the rising climbs (‘rollers’ more so for the locals) as they weaved their way through the last of the small farms that adorned the steep hillsides. The beauty of Colombia is though you feel like you are far from civilization just around the corner you can come across a small town that pulls you in with the smell of fresh coffee and corn tortillas. The only thing more welcoming than the food is the locals always interested in a rider’s story as they pass through town. In these parts you earn your elevation as the gravel roads keep you above 10000 feet most of the time. We climbed into towns like the colorful Montebello and dove into deep valleys that crossed Rio Buey before ascending La Pena a painful but beautiful climb to end the first day of riding. As the sun sank below the distant mountains the riders turned on lights for the final miles to our base for the night. La Pena is a famous rock climbing area and that evening Mauricio, Paulina, and Camilo traded gravel-riding war stories with climbers whose adventures took place on slabs of granite.
A wildlife orchestra was our alarm on the second morning well before the sun had risen and hit La Pena. We found it hard to leave our mountain view cabins to hit the roads to Abejorral where we had breakfast. A familiar sight during our trip eggs corn tortillas and queso filled our stomachs before we headed out on a short but beautiful climb that opened up views of Los Farallones and La Pintada. The gravel roads here vital as connectors between small rural towns clung to the side of the mountain. It wasn’t uncommon on this journey to only see a car or two during a whole day of riding. In fact, we saw more locals on horses or donkeys than behind the wheel of a vehicle. The heat of the midday sun was only surpassed by thick humidity as we reached our highest point of the day. We stopped in brightly colored pastel towns to escape the heat. We cherished cold local beer and pop as locals went about their normal day. What was to become the norm we reached our night’s destination in darkness. As the town of Aquadas came alive with the sounds of Cumbia music the riders sat wearily filling their bellies with the local cuisine before getting some shuteye for the next days’ time in the saddle.
Our third day took us into the heart of the coffee-growing regions of Colombia. Towns such as Salaminaand Pacora sat perched surrounded as far as the eye could see with coffee plantations. As the first miles of the third day in the saddle began so too did the coffee pickers day. You really couldn’t have painted a more iconic picture of Colombia than of riders making their way through roads framed by coffee plantations. From a foreigner’s perspective we were already in the high mountains. But the town of San Felix was the official start of what Colombian’s consider high mountains. The dirt caked the faces and legs of the riders as we had left the coffee plantations and found ourselves surrounded by tall wax palm trees. We spent our night at a local finca (rural cabin) as lightning and thunderstorms filled the skies.
By the time the riders woke the skies had cleared and the temperatures were already warm. Thick muddy gravel welcomed the riders on day four as they climbed fluorescent green mountains that would top out at 3,700 meters (the highest point in the trip at just over 12,000 feet). Four days of high elevations heat and humidity were making for weary legs as the riders hit the long final descent into the town of Neira. Dusk dust left a trail long after the riders past down the forever winding road. This day stayed true to the trip’s routine of arriving well into the evening. Lights from the town twinkled romantically in the distance a beacon for the day’s destination. There we recharged for the last day of riding with food and well-earned rest.
Mixed emotions greeted us on our final day with excitement to finish but a sadness that the trip was nearing its end. But the motivation of finishing a tough five days in the high country of Colombia had the riders starting at a swift pace. The now-familiar scene of coffee plantation workers making their way to work greeted the riders that morning. In contrast after four days with very few cars it was unfamiliar to feel the buzz of traffic along the rolling roads to Filandia our final destination. The colorful town of Filandia sat atop the final climb of the trip a mirage that was soon to be a reality to the riders. As tourists swallowed up the three riders as they made their way to the final hotel the orange glow of the sunset lit up the sky. Later that night the riders sat around the dinner table remembering the long days in the saddle. Even though they were ready for a few days off the bike Paulina, Camilo, and Mauricio were already plotting their next adventure as the past five days had only touched the surface of what was to be explored here in Colombia.