Bikepacking Colombia

A little drip of sweat in right eye, burns, I stop pushing my bike up the rocky track and try to get a dirty glove finger under my sunglasses to wipe it away. Instead of wiping it out I add glove dust to the sweat mix and wipe it in further, dammit. Try to blink it away. Doesn’t work.

At the top of the ridge Colleen and I stop for a quick snack, I have a pan (as I understand it pan is a bread in any form, in this case a tasty little croissant). The landscape turned to rocky desert in the last few miles. Giant agaves, prickly pear cactus tipped with their little red and yellow strawberry sized fruits, some of them pushing flowers out of the top of the strawberry. 

The ridge we’re on is at 8300 feet, about to drop straight down to town at 7000. Alto Chuscal, the mountain off in the distance pokes up to 12382. We’ll be walking our bikes up that direction in the next few days. Goddamn it is so nice to finally be on a bike tour again.

The last few years were a pain in the ass. Putting it mildly right?

I hope to finish up writing about our last trip sometime, but leaving off where I last wrote on here, we finished riding through Vietnam, then had customs agents at the Laotian border tack on extra visa fees and “favors” (for things like accepting wrinkled dollar bills as legal tender– the visa fee is paid in USD but they have to be perfect crisp brand new greenbacks apparently) until we were cleaned out of cash. I think they’ve changed that, but at that time, at that mountain top outside of Dien Bien Phu the visa fee was equal to all your money. 

We hung out in Luang Prabang– a town full of amazing temples for a week, took a river boat up the Mekong, then rode to Chiang Mai where we stayed for two weeks just cruising around town and eating probably the best food I’ve ever had. Then we decided to head home a little early because it was getting really hot. And thank god we did, we got back to the US the same day as the first confirmed COVID case. If we would have stayed in Thailand another week or two we would have been locked down in a hotel there for months.

After the Vietnam/ Laos/ Thailand trip I came home majorly impressed and inspired by how inventive people there are, how they make anything they don’t have, and the constant hustling. Man the energy there. Vietnam- dudes in the street squatting on the sidewalk with a cigarette, lining something up, squinting, welding. Bam. There’s the shower soap rack you buy in Target. Trucks built from the ground up off Chinese walking tractor engines (think a walk behind snowblower without the plow). Shops pumping out North Face jackets for export, and rip off North Face jackets with the logo upside down for local sale. Thailand- beautiful iron scroll designs on everything including garbage trucks. Everybody hustling. Except when they’re having some rice liquor and smoking Lao tobacco out of that big ass bamboo bong.

So anyway, I came home with a ton of respect, and also majorly embarrassed that I didn’t know how to do much more than install new parts on a bicycle (almost all made in China/ Cambodia/ Vietnam) and maybe screw a couple 2x4s together.

So I started teaching myself to weld and fabricate. It’s hard, and as a not rich person it’s been hard to slowly buy the tools and equipment. I’ve burnt myself and flashed my eyes (basically sunburn on the whites of your eyes from the electric arc, which feels like there are crushed diamonds in your eyeballs for about a week and you have to wear sunglasses inside). Learning the hard way, and I’m way careful now. But I’m super lucky to have a space at work and a lot of fairly basic light structural things to fabricate for Wilderness Voyageurs where I work that are great practice. 

Building bike frames has been a forever dream, that’s what I’m working towards.

Very first metal project, really shitty welding but I was proud of it at the moment
Second project two years ago, tall bike made with my mom’s old bike, another junk frame and some bunk bed scrap
Not great construction but it rides, and is still rolling. My friend Paul trusted it enough to jump up there. I’ve even taken it off some sweet jumps.
Pretty basic steel bike rack I did last year, hand pinstripes
Single wheel chainsaw trailer for our local bike club, Ohiopyle Biking Club
More recent giant bike rack, 12′ tall, 25 wide
I built three of those giant racks, we were out of bike storage space
Welding and fabrication isn’t easy, there’s a ton to learn
Custom 12′ bike tour box trailer I’m working on now, designed and built from scratch. It’s lower than commercially available trailers, has a built in roof rack, and pull out load ramp

My first thin wall chromoly project was a custom rack for Colleen’s bike that I finished a couple days before this trip. It’s half the weight of a comparable Old Man Mountain rack, and no adjustable things to work loose. It was mega challenging to make and I had to try twice. But so far so good.

TIG welding tubing this small is really really challenging, tons of respect for folks that are good at it. It’s going to take hours and hours/ years and years of practice to get good at

A year ago Colleen and I bought a tiny cabin, finally ending our six years of camper life. We’d been looking for a place for the last three years, I was combing Zillow pretty much daily.

Then one of our friends posted on Facebook that this place was for sale, the lady selling it was really nice and just wanted to sell it quick to someone who’d appreciate it, and we were ready with money from half a decade of living for free on company property. The place is tiny with a tiny Western PA mortgage to match. And we got in right before the interest rate hike. So anyway, it took years, but we got really lucky in the end.

There’s plenty of work to do on the cabin, but I like work.

Garbage danger deck I had to tear down (very scary)
The replacement deck I built last winter, winter is not an ideal time to build a deck. My hands kept freezing to my hammer
Big Noodle approved
Colleen did the stain, came out great
Stairs were tricky to space right
Front porch I finished this fall

Colleen started making noise about going on a bike tour in the fall. Then I supermanned over the bars warming up for a Month of Mud race, landed about 30 feet from my bike at 40 miles an hour (that’s what Strava tracked, sounds cool so I’ll go with it). Knocked the wind out of myself worse than I ever have, and I’ve crashed plenty in the last 16 years of riding mountain bikes. Stabbed a big hole in my elbow with a stick, raced the next day.

But my ribs were very sore. A couple days later I was finishing up a project at work, welding the underside of something. Laying on the ground, I did a situp to get up. Three nasty crunching popping sounds, almost passed out. Fuck those ribs are broke.

I didn’t bother going to the doctor or anything because there’s no treatment for broken ribs other than to make sure that you don’t break more of them. So I had to take it easy for about two months. Pavement riding was ok after a week, four weeks to get on gravel, five or six before I could really mountain bike. Fortunately that was November early December and the weather is shitty then anyway. Laying down to sleep and getting out of bed in the morning hurt the most.

So a bike tour was off the table for a minute.

By January my ribs were fine, I could breathe, do situps whatever. At that point I could have spent the rest of the winter in the garage at work and working on the house. But Colleen kept talking about bike touring.

So one day after work at the shop I had a couple beers and bought tickets to Bogota, Colombia. 

Then we scrambled to get all our touring shit back together.

Our friends Pat and Ashley ran us to the Pittsburgh airport in the snow the night before, we stayed in an airport hotel. 4am shuttle for the 6am flight to Miami, van driver was driving wild I was doing everything I could not to spill boiling hotel coffee on the lady next to me. Giant red sunrise at 35,000 feet. Landed in Miami, warm wet air, then 3.5 hours to Bogota. On the ground at 3pm, easy walk through customs. 

Bikes came out right on time, built them at the airport, ditched the boxes, then rode 10 miles to the La Candelaria neighborhood, which is the old part of town. 

The ride out of Aeorpurto Internacional El Dorado was busy, but not bad at all. Bike path half of the way, some class 4 city riding (I’d call someplace like Colorado’s front range or Phoenix Class 2, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, or LA class 3, and Hanoi class 5). There’s a ton of traffic but it moves slow so we could keep up on bikes. And we were out there with a few thousand bike riding Colombians, so definitely not alone or out of place.

The long day on the airplane and Bogota’s thin air at 8500 feet was tough, and I realized my Garmin didn’t have shit for Colombian maps, but other than that it was the smoothest first day of a trip ever.

We pulled into the Cranky Croc hostel, unpacked our bags and passed out.

We planned on three days in Bogota to try to get acclimated. Colleen nailed it with the place we were staying, we were right at the base of one of the most popular road rides in town. Smooth switchbacked road up to the Virgin de Guadalupe at 10,200 feet. 

There were plenty of ciclestas out, all of them dusting us. It’s no wonder there’s so many badass Colombian climbers in the big races, every road goes up here, and in a hurry.

The first day ride was a dizzying head splitter, the second day was way better. The third day I was dehydrated so we walked around to the Botero Museum and the Museo de Oro (Museum of Gold).

And the fourth day we loaded up our ponies and climbed the big hill up to Guadalupe for the last time.

Excited to get going, a little bummed to leave. La Candelaria was fun, tons of restaurants, endless street art. I love rural ridgetop Pennsylvania, but we do give up some things to live in the woods. Being in a city for a few days with art and food and culture and people is totally a treat.

The first day ride was an easy cruise over to Choachí. Up the hill out of town, across a rolling plateau, then a ripping brake burner descent from 11000 to 6000. Holy shit the mountains are big. It’s the goddamn Andes! 

Speed bumps before the corners, launch those to pass busses with their brakes on fire. Topes- clusters of little steel hokey puck sized blisters in the road, better not brake or turn on those, slippier than grease on a goose.

We rode around town found a cool little hotel and asked for a room, asked how much it cost.

“Ciento mil pesos,” the desk guy said

“Uh…” Shit how much is that? A million? That seems like a lot. “Uh…un million? Eso?” I type the number out on my phone and show it to the guy.

“No, un ciento mil,” he says and rolls his eyes. “Hundred THOUSAND.”

“Oh, shit lo siento. Muy bien.”

Not speaking the language is hard. It’s like you go from being a competent adult to a big helpless baby.

I’ve been trying to learn Spanish at home, using Duolingo, reading the Facebook page of this radio station in Tampa I like (92.5 MAXIMA), listening to Karol G constantly– I’m sure to the great annoyance of my coworkers and friends.

I can actually read basic news articles and stuff en Espanõl ok en esta punto. Which is a massive improvement over the D- that I got in 8th grade Spanish.

Speaking is still really hard, and Colleen is still better at it than I am.

But even as dumb as I am, Colombians speak really clearly. I don’t know much, but it seems like a really understandable accent

The next morning we started a ride that was supposed to be 5400 of climbing in 33 miles. And all the elevation was on one climb, 5800 feet to 10200 feet in one shot over 20 miles. For some reason I didn’t think it would be that hard.

After two and half hours, nine miles in, sunburnt sweating and pushing my bike up another rocky steep hike a bike I realized I’d slightly misjudged things.

I stopped in the shade to eat some canned tuna. Colleen pulled up.

“Fuck man I don’t know if we’re gonna make it to Guasca, we’re not even half way,” I said.

“Is there anywhere else we could go?” she said.

We scroll around the offline maps on Gaia GPS on our phones. Doesn’t look like it. Keep walking.

It’s Saturday, probably 30 ciclestas zipped by us down the hill. This is obviously a very popular mountain bike ride, that we were obviously doing in the wrong direction.

“Bien viaje! Buena suerte! Venga venga venga!” riders yelled as they zoomed down to Choachí. We kept pushing.

Finally hours later we hit the top of the hill, panoramic views, green mountains, searing high elevation equatorial sun. Awesome, and all downhill to town.

Two more days of riding, almost entirely dirt. Hard, but killer and beautiful. Guasca to Suesca, Suasca to Guachetá. One section of nasty mine truck traffic on a steep climb, choking dust and diesel, sweaty regolith roads, if gravity wasn’t pulling so hard could barely tell where the earth stopped and the air started. 

If we were chinchillas this would be a bath, but we’re not and it’s not.

When we get to town we look like we went swimming in a pool of ash. I try to apologize to the lady at the hotel desk for being so dirty. She waves me off, this is a pretty hard looking little mine town. Everybody is a little dusty, half the town’s men and women are dressed in navy blue reflective company jumpsuits.

Bogota is the glow off in the distance

Back on top of the world, I start the descent down the ridge. Ripping fast like every downhill here, dusty, rocks, I boost my 75 pound big boy hog off a little kicker, a flying pig. Hell yeah! 

Hit the bottom, cross the paved road, short river crossing. Colleen is in the wrong gear, dunks her feet. It’s fine, it’s hot out, her shoes were dirty.

Three miles to town, another 500 feet of climbing. Hot, dusty, construction at the very end. Guys digging a road sized ditch three washing machines deep, they let us squeeze past. I’m playing music out of my little boombox. 

“Oye Manu Chao!” yells the guy with a pick axe, and starts whistling along.

One more little hill, and we roll into Villa de Leyna. Whitewashed houses, terracotta shingles, chestnut brown horses, a metallic green OG Land Rover.

Heavy old cobblestones, I’m majorly fried from the sun. Pizza and a cold beer at a little restaurant on the plaza. 

Damn it’s nice to be bike touring again.

5 thoughts on “Bikepacking Colombia

  1. YES. Your cabin looks awesome, no shortage of work left for you when you get back. Looking forward to the rest of the trip report from Columbia.

    1. Thanks! For sure the little cabin has plenty to keep me occupied, I can’t imagine the work a full size house would need, hope all’s well in your world


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