Thunder, louder than it should be, boosted by the echoes on the green steep rocky walls of the valley, pounding rain. Booming cumbia reggaeton mixes, yelling dudes, and fighting barking dogs compete with the storm to be the loudest thing on Friday night. I kinda wish I was at the town party, but I’m so beat I’m more glad to be inside, three floors up in this little hotel with the window cracked just listening.
Somebody switches the playlist to vallenatos, country ballads, like Colombian Marty Robbins or sometimes Hank Williams (Hank I or II not so much III). A bottle smashes on the street. An argument more broken glass, then two horses gallop away in different directions hooves on concrete clopping into the night. I fall back asleep.
After five days of riding we took a day off in Villa de Leyva, Colombia’s “most intact colonial town” (I’ve read that phrase in about a dozen different places). It’s really cool, terracotta roofs, whitewashed buildings, giant rough cobblestone streets so chunky they’re hard to ride on 2.6 tires. The biggest plaza I’ve ever seen, probably 150 washing machines/ 20 buses/ four football fields big (in American standard units).
We were cooked when we rolled into town. The riding here is awesome– high elevation, bright sun, huge climbs, and beautiful rough dirt roads. No pavement after that first day leaving Bogota, hardly any traffic. It’s tiring in the best way.
No flat ground, every day is 35 miles with 5500 feet of climbing, 36 with 4100 and so on. That’s a lot, it’s a similar amount of elevation to mountain bike races in Colorado that are trying to be climby, and sometimes more per mile. But here it’s just the way to get from town to town.
Pushing a 70 pound bike up that wears me out good.
Colleen booked us a room in a nice hostel, which turned out to be the suite and was almost bigger than our cabin at home. Killer.
“What do you want to do today?” Colleen asked.
“Nada, not shit, hide from the sun,” I said. We were both pretty sun burnt, we flew down extra super pasty white from the dark winter at home, where I’d been spending most of my days in the cave garage at work.
Stayed inside until noon, walked around did our grocery shopping, looked for new stove fuel.
Back in Bogota we bought a bottle of Varsol “100 percent puro”, which I thought would work in our supercat alcohol stove. It burned and cooked, but the smell and fumes and smoke were terrible. It’s a petroleum distalate, not alcohol. After a little poking around we found “Alcohol antiseptico” in the drogeria (drug store). I tested it out on the hostel balcony. Clean flame, much better.
The next day we left town to head to Gambita, starting the Oh, Boyoca! route from Bikepacking.com, but in reverse. A 2000 foot, 18 mile climb to start, not that much in comparison to stuff we rode earlier in the week, but my legs were still dead.
Rocky up and down descent to little Gambita. Speeding down the hill I passed two dudes on horses riding in striped ponchos and cowboy hats. Around a corner, a guy was trailing six mules up the mountain. I ended up right in the middle of the pack of pack animals before I could slow down. Shit.
“Lo siento! Con permiso,” I yelled and squeezed through. He shook his head at me.
Gambita is five by five blocks, built into a steep hillside. We rolled up to little store, papas, guavas, platanos, pitaya on the floor in cardboard boxes. I got a beer and some chips, Colleen got a fizzy water and an avocado.
“Quieres que se abra?” Do you want it opened? the woman at the counter asked.
“Si, por favor,” I said, figuring she had a bottle opener back there.
She lined up the cap on the edge of the register, slammed it off with the palm of her hand. I like this place.
We went to sit on the dusty curb and have our snack, and a handsome yellow street dog immediately came and sat next to us. The next two days of riding look like they’re going to be the toughest of the trip, climbing all the way up to the thin air at 12600, then back down and back up again.
“I think I need another rest day,” I said.
“That’s probably a good idea,” Colleen agreed.
Another day of chilling, walking around town. Our dog friend followed us around all day. Then the storm, the party, horses galloping into the night.
We pack up the next morning and start the climb. Or really the climb to the climb. Steep out of town. Our dog who is not our dog notices us leaving and chases after us.
“Dude, go home, you are not our dog!”
He’s undeterred, follows for five miles just trotting along happily. Colleen yells at him a couple more times, he won’t leave. Cute guy, would be a great trail dog, but it’s just not going to work out in this situation. He’s Colombian, we’re Pennsylvanian, I’m pretty sure getting a dog visa is impossible and we’ve only known each other for half a day anyway.
“Maybe we’ll drop him on the descent and he’ll head back to town”, I say. We do, he does. Bye dog.
10 more miles to the little town of Palarmo, where the climbing really starts. I get a beer and a bag of chips, Colleen gets a bubbly water and we make new dog friend. Fortunately this dude is a chunky little hound and doesn’t seem to have any interest in trotting up a mountain.
The climb is 14 miles long, 5500 vertical all in one shot. It’s gonna take at least four hours. We start pushing.
The first couple thousand feet are the worst, steep, rough, early afternoon sun, humid sweaty. At 10,200 (Leadville height), I stop for a snack and to wait for Colleen.
We push on, the grade mellows out, clouds move in and the humidity drops. Now it’s pretty nice. Keep pushing.
11,200 feet I notice some bike tracks in the dust. 11,500 feet a little roadside shak, 10 nice mountain bikes parked out front, 10 ciclestestas surrounded by empty bottles of Club Colombia yelling and cheering. This is awesome, I stop to say hi. One of the dudes pushes a beer into my hand, fist bump. Another guy checks out my bike
“Es solo un piso!” (Checking out my single speed, I think that’s what he said, “it’s only one floor”. Anybody know how to say single speed in Spanish? Sports lingo is extra hard, it doesn’t translate in a basic translate app. For example on the Latin American Trek website, maximum chainring size is tamaño máximo del plato, or literally size maximum of the plate).
“Si, solo piso, es dificil,” I say. Colleen rolls up, rounds of cheering again. We chat a little longer, a couple of the guys speak good English, we still try our best in our terrible Spanish, I thank them for the beer and we shove off.
12,000 feet the scrubby shrubs are starting to thin out. Keep pushing. 12,200 we’re in the páramo. Land of the frailejones, strange little upside down palm tree trunks topped with a sage green bloomin’ onion head.
The páramos cover 1.7 percent of Colombia, but produce 85 percent of the drinkable water in the country. They’re big vegetable sponges that soak up all the rain and mist and slowly release it into rivers down the mountains.
12,400 last push up to the top, it’s cold and windy now. Walk, ride, off again to walk. Almost.
12,689, the top, goddamn and Jesus Christ finally. Wind, cold, incredible view mountains on mountains.
I pull my sweatshirt on. “You want to camp up here?” I say to Colleen.
“Are you kidding? Absolutely not, it’s freezing up here,” she says.
I shrug. “I thought it’d look good on Instagram.”
We descend. Ripper, so fast, so fun. The elevation ticks away in a second. 12,000 shrubs, 11,500 barbwire and cows, 11,000 a little warmer, 10,500 a school some houses, 10,000 a little river plow on the brakes.
“I think we might be able to camp down there,” I say. I hop over the two-strand wire fence and go poke around by the stream. It’s out of view of the road, there’s a little flat spot. There’s a bunch of cow plops but they’re old and dried out. I flick them away with a stick. That’ll do.
The tent spot is less flat than I thought, but we’re so tired we still pass out, sliding down into the lower left corner of the tent.
Start climbing again in the morning. Today’s climb is yesterday’s twin.
7200- 10,000 hot steep and sweaty.
10,000- 11,500 misty and I’m very tired.
11,500- 12,000 rain jackets on it’s cold and drizzling.
12,000- 12,600 almost there, fuck yeah frailejones, then the top, amazing view, cold fast whoosh down down down the mountain. Past a guy on a motorcycle, guy on a horse in big hat wool poncho rubber boots, steamroller, road grader, yelling potato truck, swerving pickup on the wrong side of the corner with a teenage dumbass at the wheel (not mad, been that guy).
Then town. Bélen. I buy a bag of Doritos and a beer and a block of cheese. We’re so tired. In a good way.
3 thoughts on “Colombia: Villa de Leyva to Belén”
This is magnificent. Thanks for taking the time.
Thanks man, appreciate it. We’re hoping to get back down to your side of the world sometime, cheers
What a trip !!