Elevation profile ride from Bucaramanga to San Gil via Zapatoca

Our Andean "warm-up" ride: start at 850m, drop to 300m. Climb up to 1800m, before descending again to 500m. Then a final climb up to 1600m, followed by a final descent to 1100m. If I'd have been wearing a heart rate monitor, the print out might have looked similar...

“It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
Ernest Hemingway

I’m not sure if Hemingway ever dragged himself away from his Cuban daiquirís long enough to explore Colombia by bike – but if he had, he may have found his theory tested to its limits.

For southbound cyclists like us, Colombia is where the foothills of the Andes begin. From here down through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina, chances are we are either going to be crawling uphill very slowly, or bumping downhill slightly faster – and not much else in between. As they say around here with a mischievous wink of understatement, it’s about to get very columpio (“lumpy”).

Second only to the prospect of saddle soreness, climbing is perhaps the one aspect of cycling that sends non-cyclists’ eyebrows upwards, and their hands reaching for their car keys. It is definitely cycling at its most masochistic – an orgy of sweat, burning lactic acid and hyperventilation…all for what? Just to say that you’ve conquered a hill? And then, chances are, to freewheel all the way back down again to where you started. Surely it doesn’t get much more pointless than that.

Yet for me climbing is also cycling at its rawest and most addictive. It’s escapism in its purest, most physical form. Hit a serious climb and for that moment, it’s just you versus the hill: second by second, pedal stroke by pedal stroke, hairpin by hairpin. Add in 50kg of heavy steel touring bike, a tent, stove, fuel, food, water, clothes and assorted clutter, and the equation definitely tips in favour of the hill. The romanticism quickly evaporates – but somehow the addiction remains.

It will be interesting to see just how quickly the Andes cure my addiction and beat any remaining drops of romanticism out of me. I have a feeling that it might not be too long before I’m daydreaming about those sweaty days on the flat coastal plains of Central America…

And so, with the mountains looming ahead, we decided the only option was to get stuck straight in. After dragging ourselves away from the warmth and hospitality of Julian’s wonderful family in Bucaramanga, we headed out for a serious warm up in Colombia’s Cordillera Oriental.

I remembered reading about a back route that Cass Gilbert (as ever our  PanAm dirt road guru – thank you Cass!) had taken from Bucaramanga to San Gil on his own journey through Santander over a year ago. Having spent much of the last few days from Mompos truck-dodging on main roads, we decided to give it a try.

Add in a healthy dose of Colombian hospitality, and it turned into one of my favourite dirt road rides of the trip so far. The climbs were definitely tough, but as always the rewards of riding in the mountains made all the effort worthwhile: stunning landscapes, beautiful pueblos and generous people.



Mountain sunshine near Zapatoca

A gentle day's ride out through Giron led us past the Cañon de las Iguanas that we had visited with Julian the day before, and to the foot of the first 1500m climb up towards Zapatoca. The next morning we set off, putting into practice the seven steps to hill climbing glory we have learned over the past 15 months...

Río Suarez near Zapatoca, Colombia

1. Rest. Make sure you get a good night's sleep. Like a pair of trolls, we camped under the bridge at the base of the climb. It turned out that we were in the middle of a massive construction site for a new hydroelectric dam project - but needless to say we still slept like logs. It takes more than a few industrial drills to keep us awake these days.

2. Rhythm. Hit play on  Hot Chip’s new album – current hill climbing soundtrack of choice.

Uphill sign

3. Navigation. Make sure you're going the right way, ie up. Follow this sign and you can't go wrong. In universal cycling language it generally translates as "sweat, swearing and pain ahead".

Tyre pumping climb to Zapatoca, Colombia

4. Pressure. After five minutes climbing, convince yourself that your tyre pressure must be low - and that's why it feels like you're trying to cycle through treacle. Tyre pressures are fine. Add some more air anyway. It still feels like cycling through treacle.

Climbing to Zapatoca, Colombia

5. Breathing. We've found this definitely helps. Drop bottom jaw as much as possible and add in a thousand yard stare for good measure.

Eating bocadillo, Colombia

6. Nutrition. Ideally as much sugar as possible - in this case a brick of bocadillo courtesy of Julian's mum Edu in Bucaramanga. Think Kendal mint cake a la colombiana: a slab of arequipe (caramel) sandwiched between two layers of mermelada de guayaba (guava jam). Guaranteed sugar high for at least ten minutes.

Looking back on climb to Zapatoca, Colombia

7. Smugness. Not recommended until you reach the top - but then don't forget to look back and bask in the sweat and glory of your spaghetti-like route up the mountain.

Cargo bike in Zapatoca, Colombia

And so after a morning of climbing, we arrived in Zapatoca - a magically laid-back santandereño mountain town where groceries are delivered by cargo bike...

Doorway in Zapatoca, Colombia

...and ladies peer from colour-co-ordinated doorways. About to drag ourselves back onto the road, we met Eduardo. A reporter for the local community TV channel, he asked if he could interview us about our trip. Of course, we said - always open to distraction and thinking it would be funny. It was indeed funny (you can watch it here if you're really bored and happen to speak pigeon Spanish), and we thought that was it. However, it seems not much happens in Zapatoca, and so Eduardo had plans for us...

weighing bikes in Zapatoca, Colombia

First up, he insisted on a visit to the local ferretería (ironmongers) for a bike weigh-in. Mine tipped the scales at 46kg, and Sarah's 41kg - slightly disturbing considering we both currently only weigh about 60kg ourselves, and that we had run our water and food rations down to nothing in preparation for all the climbing.

Interview in Radio Lenguerke, Zapatoca, Colombia

Then, before we knew it we were in the studio of the local radio station Radio Lenguerke - it turned out Eduardo had his own afternoon show and we were just in time for a live interview - cue plenty more cringeworthy moments.

Bikes in Plaza Principal, Zapatoca, Colombia

By this point it was clear that we weren't going to leave Zapatoca that day. No problem, said Eduardo - I have a finca and you can sleep there. So time for a last quick snap in the town square...

Cow on finca, Zapatoca, Colombia

...before heading up to the finca to meet our by now familar cast of rural neighbours - from the curious...

Dog on finca, Zapatoca, Colombia

...to the downright soppy. Eduardo and his wife fed us hot chocolate, sweet bread and cheese - and for the first time since Guatemala we dug our sleeping bags from the bottom of our panniers, and slept in delicious mountain coolness.

Cyclists, Zapatoca, Colombia

A keen cyclist himself, Eduardo couldn't resist the opportunity to tag along for the ride the next day. And so, having found a stand-in for his radio show and recruited his friend Manuel for the ride, the next morning our new team of four set off from the finca.

Ridge riding down from Zapatoca

From Zapatoca we wound our way along the ridge...

La Fuente, Zapatoca, Colombia

...before diving down through the switchbacks to the small village of La Fuente in the valley below.

Coffee drying on the street in La Fuente, Colombia

La Fuente was another immaculate, laid back pueblo santandereño, where coffee was laid out to dry in the streets...

Church in La Fuente, Colombia

...and the school PE lesson was in full flow in the main square in front of the church.

Cycing to Galan, Colombia

From La Fuente the climbing began again, up towards the village of Galán. A quick stop for the obligatory mid-morning malta, and then it was a rocky downhill...

Cycling over el Puente Eduardo Santos, Zapatoca, Colombia

...all the way to the Puente Eduardo Santos over the Río Suarez - the very same river we had started from the morning before, just a little further along the same valley. Good to know we were making progress then...

Cycling to Guane, Zapatoca, Colombia

By now the midday heat was really starting to take its toll. We crawled slowly up the final climb of the day and into the village of Guane.

Sleeping in Guane, Colombia

After a well-earned hearty plate of comida corriente (no-one mixes their carbs like the Colombians - rice, pasta, yucca and plantain on a single plate is common), we retired to the square in a carb-induced coma...

Interview Radio Lenguerke, Guane, Colombia

...interrupted only by Eduardo calling back into Radio Lenguerke for an update on the day's progress. The boys were headed back towards Zapatoca the same day, and so we bid a sad farewell to our new friends. ¡Gracias hermanos, esperamos la próxima vuelta con mucha anticipación!

Arriving in Barichara, Colombia

The next morning, after a night camped on a nearby finca, we headed up the final leg of the climb into Barichara - touted as the most beautiful village in Colombia and the setting for many telenovelas (soap operas) and films.

Old lady in street, Barichara, Colombia

It certainly ticks all the boxes for a picture postcard colonial village: old ladies wandering down paved sidestreets with mountain backdrops...

House wall in Barichara, Colombia

...whitewashed walls and terracotta-tiled rooftops under blue skies...

Barichara shutters, Colombia

...and a tasteful colour palette of flowers and shutters. As beautiful as it was, for us it didn't quite have the magical charm of Zapatoca - somewhere that is definitely on our list of places to return sooner rather than later.

Eating buñuelos in Barichara, Colombia

Of course, there was only one way to celebrate a ride this good: tinto and buñuelos from the local panadería. After all, we must have burnt a few calories on those climbs...



3 Responses to “Into the foothills: an Andean warm-up”

  1. Sam Wyld Says:

    This is one of my fave entries so far, dudes. And woooah, cracking pics, as always. That snake of a route makes Hardknott Pass pale into insignificance. We just don’t DO mountainous in Blighty, do we eh?

    Stay safe, look forward to a catch-up. Love yous xxx


  2. Sam Wyld Says:

    PS Nice baps – great juxtaposition.


  3. Edgimundo Says:

    Cycling is for sissies…


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