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Note: I have been lucky enough to cycle in Colombia twice. At the end of my South America cycle in 2013 and at the beginning of my cycle to Alaska in 2018. This is a write up of the second trip.
It’s well-known that Colombians love dancing, coffee, and football. Something that fewer people know is that the nation is absolutely obsessed with cycling. I have cycled in over 40 countries and I have never met such enthusiasm for the bicycle. It is wonderful to see. Everyday you will see a host of lycra clad cyclists out for a spin. The love of the sport runs second only to football. They are very proud of their cycling heroes. Luis 'Lucho' Herrera is a household name in Colombia for becoming the first Colombian to win a stage of the Tour de France back in 1984. Not the race, just a stage. He was also the first amateur cyclist to ever win a stage of the Tour. Colombians love to see their country positively represented on a global stage. Colombian cyclists have been doing that for longer than anyone else. Today Colombia boasts some of the best pure climbers in the world and given the terrain and altitude it is not hard to see why. The Andes Mountain range begins in the southern part of the country and then fingers out into three distinct chains trisecting the country. Often hitting altitudes of well over 3,000m. With many of the climbs starting down in the valley, almost at sea level, Colombia boasts some of the longest climbs in the world including THE longest climb in the world. The Alto de Letras.
The Alto de Letras
I remember thinking a couple of days into my trip that what i needed was a really long climb to dust off the cobwebs and break my legs in to climbing mode. Careful what you wish for. The Alto de Letras starts in the sweltering heat of the valley at 500m. It tops out on a cold, windswept pass at an altitude of over 3600m a staggering 80km later. To put that in perspective the legendary Alpe d'Huez is a mere 15km long. I set off at dawn. It was a little disconcerting when i found myself flagging after 10km realising i still had 70km to go. I resolved not to think about it. By a happy coincidence I happened to be doing the climb on the same day as a professional cycle race. I had a head start and found myself leading the race 20km up. By the 22nd km I was dead last. A few of the support race cars stopped to give me water bottles. A team car driver pulled over and said 'I have just the thing to get you up the climb'. I half expected him to bring out a bag of amphetamines but instead he handed me a rock of 'La Panela'. Panela is basically unrefined sugar. Nearly as hard as a brick, it is sourced from sugarcane, which is commonly grown in Colombia's warmer climates. Panela has long been a part of Colombian culture. In areas with extreme poverty, most caloric intake is through panela, due to its very low price. This was true in the impoverished regions from where Colombian cyclists came from in the 80's, and continue to come from today. No Colombian cyclist sets off without it. When your legs start to wobble half way up a climb you can reach into a pocket and take a bite of panela to give yourself a new lease of life. I began to wonder how I ever managed without it.
Trusty Colombian bike mechanics
I continued on my way. The views getting gradually more dramatic as i inched my way up into the clouds. Stopping every now and again for a bite of panela and some bread and jam. The heat of the valley had given way to cool mountain air. The climb went on and on but i got into a nice slow rhythm and tapped it out all the way to the top where i collapsed into a cafe for coffee and cake. The race leaders did the climb in a little over 3 hours. I took a little under 9. On a fully loaded tour bike a few days into my trip i was still pretty pleased with my efforts. There was still just enough daylight to get me down the mountain to the city of Manizales where i proceeded to lie down for the next 16 hours.
Although the mountains are the undoubted highlight of cycling in Colombia it is well worth a trip to the coast to sample Colombian Caribbean culture. Be prepared to sweat buckets as you meander though the flat lands following the famous Magdalena river. The cycling is easy but the humidity is something else. The afternoons are like an oven. This is Garcia Marquez country. You can visit his childhood home in Aracataca which has now been turned into a museum. Santa Marta and Barranquilla are vibrant, colourful Caribbean towns but the jewel in the crown is Cartagena. Home to some of the best traffic light entertainment i have ever seen. One of the oldest colonial cities in Spain it was an important port as the Spanish flooded the continent in the 16th century. Cartagena later played a significant role in Colombia gaining its independence. In 1811 it was the first city to declare independence from Spain. Today it remains an important trade and shipping port. The old city has been beautifully maintained and you get a real taste for the history as you amble around the narrow colonial streets.
Old town Cartagena
Arguably the greatest things about Colombia is the people. Colombia is considered to be one of happiest countries in the world. This is largely down to the easy going attitude of the Colombian people. It has a culture which values what they have. They see themselves as survivors. Colombians believe that money is nice but is not the most important thing. I saw evidence of this value system everyday. The local people are very keen to engage you in conversation and go out of their way to make you feel welcome in their country. Colombians live for the celebration. The South American country has more festivals than days of the year. Everywhere you go you hear music and laughter. Music is in their blood. It's a passion they carry throughout their every day. That and cycling.
Bogota. At an altitude of 2,600m it is one of the highest capitals in the world. Surrounded by mountains on all sides you can leave your door at 6am and be up a high mountain pass at 7am. Bogota, like everywhere in Colombia, is incredibly bicycle friendly. Bogota first started its weekly ciclovia, when over 120km of roads in the capital are closed for cyclists, back in 1974. A tradition that originated in Colombia and has spread all over the world. It still continues to this day. You will find similar ciclovia's in other Colombian cities.
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Colombian weather is astonishingly consistent all the year round. The temperature is the same month in month out. Hot on the coast and cool in the mountains.
Good mixture. If you want asphalt then then stick to the main roads that connect towns. They are almost all paved. Expect plenty of trucks but they generally give you a wide berth. If you want some dirt roads then take the minor roads that don't head directly to a town. They are almost all dirt roads but rideable and you can get away from the traffic and experience the peace and quiet of rural life in Colombia.
Not straightforward. A lot of the land is fenced off. I would often have to jump these fences and try and camp discreetly. That said when local farmers did come across me they were nothing but friendly. The fences are generally to keep the animals in than people out. Extremely hot at sea level makes camping unpleasant but hotels are cheap and plentiful. Camping gas is easy to get hold of in the big cities but you are unlikely to find any outside of the cities.
This is South America. Nothing to worry about. General policy is to get 90 days on arrival.
There is a bicycle shop in every town. Mostly accustomed to dealing with road bikes but the mechanics know bikes inside out and will get you moving again whatever your problem.
My all time favourite airbnb up in the mountains above Medellin. Wonderful hosts.https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/24378157
My AirBnb Hosts (Rafael, Elena & Miguel) took me on a day trip to Guatape
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