It’s just a short 137 mile jump from the frustrating colonial preserve of Villa de Leyva to the hectic reality of big city Bogota, but they are a fascinating few miles. My route sliced through a refreshing variety of life, something I’m discovering to be the norm when cycling Colombia. Another standard while travelling through Colombia is its beautiful colonial towns and seductive scenery, a trend that continued here. But there was also a refreshing departure, the chance to dip a toe into the pool of Colombian industry. Blackened faces and utilitarian towns marked a venture into coal mining territory. A part of the country where keeping up with the Joneses means piling an enormous heap of coal outside your house and having more and bigger dogs. Also an area of Colombia that provides a stark contrast in palette and lifestyle to the brightly adorned Saturday morning Lycra monkey zoo of cyclists I spun through to reach the capital.
Having met only three other ‘gringo’s’ (Mompos) in the whole month after leaving Cartagena, it was with mixed feelings I enjoyed being able to speak my native tongue in Villa de Leyva. Immediately on arrival I was collared in the Plaza Mayor by veteran cyclist Pete Blommer. Then while camped up at Hostal Rancer I was lucky to associate with Jovian, Clare and Eric among others. I had hit the Gringo Trail and although a fun interlude, I wanted to get off it again as soon as possible. It took a few miles but escaping Gringolandia is never particularly hard on a bicycle.
A stretch of paved cruising out of Villa de Leyva and I was in Raquira, on the edge of this particular tourist sphere. A small town renown for its colorfully painted buildings, Raquira’s streets offered a refreshing antidote to the stale white walls of Villa de Leyva. Around the centre of the town virtually every building is artistically adorned with murals, many also drip with artisanal offerings. The vibrancy of Raquira was unmistakable, but it still felt a bit like the stunning younger sister of Villa de Leyva, a Colombia in thick makeup.
From Raquira a tiny blip of a climb took me over the hills and down into the small monastic village of La Candelaria. A few closed restaurants surrounded a concrete football pitch as the monastery lurked in the background. After ten minutes waiting in the only ‘open’ tienda an old lady appeared to sell me some cake. She then settled in beside me to watch a particularly skillful bunch of school kids play football. A lovable old character her smiling face shone through deeply carved wrinkles and she spoke passionately about the village and monastery. Watching the energetic children reflected in her watery eyes it was hard to escape wondering what this lady had seen and experienced in the violent days of Colombia gone by.
La Candelaria marked the start of the fun riding. Of the two roads out of the village I took the one recommended to me by the old lady, obviously an experienced cyclist. It started with a steep stretch of dirt and continued up through small workshops producing bricks and large pots. Men with coal blackened faces rode motorbikes in the opposite direction as yapping, snarling dogs chased me up into the paramos. As the high-point of the day fell beneath my wheels, I took to searching for water to camp. I didn’t have to wait long before chancing upon an enormous supply. Unfortunately the water fell in bucket-loads from the sky and I got caught at the most exposed point of the day in the storm of the day. I must have spent close to an hour huddled under a tree willing the brighter skies my way. They never really arrived so once the rain had subsided to reasonable levels I launched myself into picking a slow course through rushing torrents of dirty water.
Cold, wet and slightly amused, it was confusing to find a paved road leading the final couple of miles into Guacheta. Still, by this point seeking out a hotel room had become an easy decision so the quick zip into town was more than welcome. Fortunately the only hotel in town was a bit of a gem. Believe me, there is a certain satisfaction that comes from watching rain deluge out of the night onto the skylight above a steaming hot shower. In days gone by I would have stuck it out in the tent and those days were fun. On this day fun was chatting to Dora, the friendly hotel owner, as my vegetable stew simmered on the hob. She produced a visitors book and pointed out another cyclist who visited about a year ago. Presumably Casey from Oregon was another ‘victim’ of the rainy season.
Guacheta and it’s neighbor Lenguazaque are functional towns without any colonial pretense or touristic panderings. Good honest and dirty, I quite liked them. The flat space between them belongs to the coal mining industry. Large lorries full to overflowing with coal thundered both ways along this dirty length of road. The impressive volume of water that had fallen the twelve hours before meant I was often reduced to crawling through a thick tarry soup. Swirls of tar and mud patterned the puddles and large globs of black tar-rich mud spattered just about everything.
From Lenguazaque the challenge of keeping white socks clean in a world of blackened dirt was replaced by the more fundamental problems of route finding. With increasing frequency the dirt road I was trying to take to Cucunuba forked with no obvious clues as to where each option led. It’s usually possible to figure out the way on the strength of prevailing tyre tracks and state of the road, but here everything looked possible. The off-chance of a nearby farmer sometimes helped but traffic was too sparse to warrant waiting for direction. So I found myself playing a game of route finding roulette, guessing the way on instinct. None of the roads were on my maps and as I climbed and fell and climbed again the route was starting to bear little resemblance to that I’d mapped out beforehand. When eventually chancing upon a barely legible road sign informing me I was heading back towards Lenguazaque I had no choice but to gamble on a turning. Fortunately it worked out and with the help of a couple of youngsters navigating my way over a pass in the correct direction became a simple task. As the large town of Ubate appeared in the distance my bearings returned. The riding on this little adventure had been great but the black clouds had come in early and still mindful of the chilling cold of the day before I was anxious to reach civilization before the rain came.
Early afternoon, with little idea of where I’d just been, I rolled into Cucunuba and was surprised to find a delightful little colonial town. Mulling over the road ahead, the certainty of more rain and the need to do some work on the bike, the decision was made to cut the day short. Having bargained a reasonable rate for the night I managed a quick stroll around town before the inevitable start of the rain. It was with a certain smugness that I watched the streets fill with water from my hotel balcony.
From Cucunuba a quick paved climb took me over to the dirt roads of Laguna de Suesca. The rare privilege of racing a couple of miles flat road around the west side of the lake then bought on another short climb. Before long I’d descended down into Suesca and reached the end of this legs unpaved riding. From Suesca the road flattened out and being decently paved carried me with astonishing speed around the Tomine reservoir to Guatavita. Just as I was pulling into Guatavita the rain hit. Guatavita is of interest mainly because of the emerald-green lake that share’s its name a few miles away. This lake is the birthplace of the El Dorado myth and an ancient ceremonial site for the Muisca Indians. The site didn’t hold enough of an allure to take me up what would have been a wet climb to reach it. Instead I cowered in a restaurant until the skies cleared enough to look around Guatavita.
Guatavita’s real name is actually Nuevo Guatavita after the original town was submerged with the creation of the reservoir in the 1960’s. The resulting new town is a slightly strange 1960’s take on colonial architecture. Although not unpleasant the place lacks soul. My look around had me chance upon some kind of gathering and the source of frequent ear-splitting explosions. With loads of horses parked like cars in a car park and a bandstand pulsating to local rhythms I thought I’d struck lucky. That was until closer inspection revealed it to be little more that a pit of drunk men in poncho’s stumbling around urinating wherever they chose. My escape down the road to Guasca set up an easy day into Bogota.
Riding through the town of La Calera and up over into Bogota was a quick and painless experience colored by the Saturday throngs of road cyclists that joined me. Cycling is a big sport here in Colombia and judging by the number of expensive bikes I’ve seen probably quite a lucrative industry too. The closer I got to Bogota the more numerous and varied the other cyclists became. 25 miles out of town I’d seen only serious looking guys hunched over and focused, often with a following support car. But as I progressed I started to encounter all manner of Lycra covered flesh. Some of it better off in a baggy cotton t-shirt. It started to feel as if I was in a zoo of Lycra monkeys. As these apes passed me I couldn’t help notice the strange array of riding styles. There were knees dancing all over the place, it was like watching James Brown in his younger funky footwork days. I am sure there is a fortune to be made fixing cyclists broken knees in Bogota.
Cresting the Cerro Monserrate a sign welcomed me to Bogota and a completely new world came into view. I’ve become used to passes revealing stunning mountain vistas or idyllic rural towns, this time I was greeted with city, miles and miles of city, sprawling further than the eye could see. Quite incredible. Quite confusing as well since they decided to change the street numbers a little while back. After a lot of asking I managed to track down Javier, my Warmshowers host in Bogota and am looking forward to sampling the delights of this city I’ve heard so much about.