Bogotá is one of the most bicycle fanatic cities I have ever seen. Every Sunday is Cicloviá, when major roadways around the city are shut to car traffic and many thousands of residents come out to enjoy a car-free pedal. On Wednesday I joined the Gonoraider’s for a nighttime ride at a pace that would be arrestable in the U.S. The 50 or so riders were strong and fast and stopped for nothing, expertly weaving past cars and buses and barely slowing for red lights. It was rare and incredible fun, even though I lost the group early on when a car cut me off in a traffic roundabout. If you’d like to join them, which you should, they meet every Wednesday at 7:30 outside of La Carrulla on Calle 85 (in Zona Rosa). Be warned though, they are extremely fast; bring a helmet, front and rear lights, and prepare to pedal like mad. Despite its lack of good bike lanes, Bogotá has an outsized proportion of bike commuters, due mostly to the traffic and the very poor quality of the Transmilenio, Bogotá’s public transit system, which I swear is managed by 5 year-olds or a flock of turkeys or some other group whose strength is in exhibiting gross incompetence. Anyways, Bogotá – like many Colombian cities – has a vibrant biking scene that you should explore one way or another!
My legs were feeling a little rusty after my time in Bogotá and a week in Cali visiting with friends. From el centro, I went up Carrera 14 I then took a left onto Calle 80, which eventually took me out of the city (note to other riders: there’s a bike path that follows Calle 80, but when you see Calle 80 bridge over something follow the road instead of the bike path – you’ll save yourself some frustration). After an hour or two of riding on flat, the road began to climb. It wasn’t steep or long but my legs, coated thickly with inertia, struggled to make it up. After maybe 4 kilometers I made it to Alto el Vino, which marked the beginning of a long, 2-lane highway descent that continued until La Vega.
In La Vega I stopped for lunch, and was joined by a bizarre cycle tourer who I’d passed on the descent. He spoke in tangents about the bi-annual “conferences of leading intellectuals” that he had attended four times at the “vortex of energies” along the equator in Ecuador. Entertaining another person’s wild theories is all well in good, but with time ticking away and Guaduas, my objective for the day, still many kilometers away, I made my excuses and continued on.
After La Vega, the heat got extreme and the terrain slightly more rolling. I was more beat up than I should have been when I reached Villeta – the town before Guaduas – at about 3:30. I was feeling optimistic, but as I refueled on liquids in una tienda the people there pointed towards the mountains that I was perhaps subconsciously determined not to notice and told me about the climb “muy duro, muy duro!” ahead of me.
Alto El Trigo beat me up. It was long and steep where I wasn’t expecting anything long and steep. It was hot and I was in no mood. The traffic was worse than anything I’d seen previous, long lines of cars and tractomulas spewing black smoke up the narrow and winding road. About two-thirds of the way up, I felt rain and heard thunder in the distance; a perfect pre-text to stop at the ramshackle hopsedaje that had just come into view. I went to ask about a room and the proprietor, an ancient, wrinkled woman sweeping the floor, essentially said that the room wasn’t made and that I should keep going to Guaduas. I tried to convince her to let me stay but she was having none of it. Chastened, I continued up.
After much more climbing and a couple false summits, I reached a largeish truck-stop looking settlement with lots of hotels and restaurants. Thoughts of stopping again crossed my mind, but it became evident that the entire place was without electricity, and a night without food or a shower was a risk I didn’t want to take.
I pushed on, though it soon became clear that I’d reached another false summit; the road continued up or flat for another 4 or 5 kilometers. By the time I reached the promised downhill, it was dark out and raining torrentially. I pulled on my rain jacket, flicked on my lights, and proceeded to descend the 15 or 20 kilometers into Guaduas. It wasn’t quite as dangerous as it seems, the cars going at my pace or slower due to the slippery conditions. By the time I got to town, around 7, I was soaked and shivering like a cat dipped in an ice bath. Everyone else was in shorts and T-shirts – Colombians wearing shorts being a sure sign of a place that is truly hot – but even after showering and drying and putting on all my warmest clothes I continued to shiver for another hour. Still, it felt great to have made it the 130 kilometers from Bogotá, and even better to devour a hot meal. Guaduas is a calm, pretty little town – supposedly the birthplace of Simon Bolivar’s wife – and I’d highly recommend spending the night here instead of Honda if you’re debating between the two.
The next day I got a late start, my body protesting what I had put it through the day before. My plan was to make it to Fresno – about a third of the way up Alto de Letras – but the heat between Honda and Mariquita was some of the most intense I have ever experienced. Colombians call the Magdalena Valley the ‘pressure cooker’ because of its extreme heat and humidity, and I think that description stands up to scrutiny. By the time I made it to Mariquita and sat down for lunch, I had no desire whatsoever to continue on. I’m glad I didn’t. Mariquita, like Guaduas, is a beautiful and cheerful little town, and is the fruit capital of Colombia (mangosteens are born here). Fresno, in contrast and as I would find out the following day, has no charm; it feels dodgy and thrown together, and has a quality that repulses visitors.