04 March 2014

Bogotá to Villa de Leyva: taking the back roads through the Colombia´s colonial heartland

Despite our enjoyable stay in Bogotá, we were eager to get out of the big city and off of the main roads as soon as possible. Some route planning and consultation with Rafa and Eneida led us to choose to exit the city via La Calera, a popular weekend route for cyclists, although we would be going mid-week. A few short kilometers of manageable, if hectic, traffic, and we were waving at the morning traffic jam headed into Bogotá as we climbed away from the city.

The road to La Candelaria takes you out of Bogotá in no time from the calle 85

The Cundinamarca countryside reminded us of our beloved Scotland
It was amazing how quickly things started to feel rural again. The traffic died down even more after La Calera and we were left on our own cycling through rolling hills towards the Embalse de Tomine. We stopped for lunch in Guatavita, which had been rebuilt when the original town was flooded to form the Embalse. 

Guatavita main plaza

The artificial embalse de Tominé
After lunch, we were walking around town seeing the sights when a passerby started asking questions about our trip. Mauricio turned out to live near Sesquilé, about 15km down the road, and had a cabaña and a camping area on his property which he offered that we could use for the night. He told us how to find his house, and how to calm his guard dogs down when we got there (it kinda worked) and off we went. The campsite had a beautiful view of the embalse and our cosy tent made for a welcome change – even if we did have to fend off several dogs and cats who seemed convinced that the food we were cooking was for them!

Mauricio´s campsite had great views of the laguna
We had been planning to head down the main highway after Sesquilé, but Mauricio convinced us to take the destapada (unpaved) back roads towards Villa de Leyva instead. What a great decision. We had been on asphalt pretty much all the way since our trip up to the Nevado del Ruiz and the dirt was a welcome change, slowing us down and making us appreciate our surroundings just that little bit more.

Taking the dirt roads to Cucunubá
We got a late start in the morning, cycled past Suesca and the soon-to-be extinct laguna de Suesca, reached Cucunubá, 35km away, at about 2pm. 

The landscape always changes quickly in Colombia. This reminded us of the Spanish meseta, with its dry vegetation and trails

"I am agonizing Laguna de Suesca". A few years back they started drying the laguna, presumably to use it as agricultural land
It was a tiny, picturesque colonial town and we immediately liked the feel of the place. We had a delicious almuerzo while watching the Mundial de Ciclismo on TV, which is taking place in Cali, and fell into conversation with the owners about our trip and the road ahead. Soon it was 4pm and we couldn't bear to leave such a lovely place – so we decided to stay the night. We set up camp on the town's football field (after checking with some locals and also the police) and cooked a hearty pasta dinner before settling in to sleep before 9pm.

Cucunubá´s cobbles and colonial streets

Stocking up in Cucunubá
Our first few hours of sleep were interrupted by the howling of street dogs who were apparently disturbed by our presence, despite the fact that they hadn't paid us any attention earlier in the evening. By midnight things had calmed down and the rest of the night was uneventful, until it started raining just before our wake-up call at 6am. We tried waiting it out, but still ended up packing and cooking breakfast in the rain, although fortunately it had stopped by the time we started cycling. The delay meant that we were still cooking breakfast when the schoolchildren arrived to the sports complex to start their gym class, meaning that a large group of them came over to see what we were about before the bell rang and their class began.

The football field where we spent the night in Cucunubá
The 10km from Cucunubá to Lenguazaque were some of the hardest we have done, with a serious amount of slow climbing, but afterwards things got easier (there was even some pavement thrown in) and between Guacheta and Raquira we enjoyed a long, but totally manageable, climb up to 3000m and then a fun dirt-road descent before hitting the pavement again.

Pushing pushing pushing on the way to Lenguazaque

Great descents on dirt

When we passed through Tinjacá, it seemed that every single roadside stall was selling arepas, so we had to stop and try some. They were some of the best we have had and it seemed to be an area reknown for their arepas! The food looked equally delicious in Sutamarchan, with lots of hanging chorizos and longanizas but as we were 10km from Villa de Leyva we decided to press on. In retrospect, we wish we had stayed the night in Sutamarchán and arrived in Villa de Leyva in the morning, but oh well. 

Best arepas of the trip so far. The arepas´oven is indeed very high tech

A final destapada shortcut and we were rolling into the cobbled streets of Villa de Leyva for a few days off. Hostal Renacer, although very pricey for camping, was quiet and comfortable enough.

Picturesque main plaza in Villa de Leyva

The Saturday market in Villa de Leyva

An afternoon in the main plaza

Some bike TLC was much needed

Colombia and its great fruits

Cobbled streets. Great for pictures, not so much for riding.
Route notes:

- Bogotá to Sesquilé: the exit from Bogotá via La Calera was pretty smooth, probably helped by the fact that it was rush hour into town and very few vehicles leaving. After La Calera, the road became very quiet all the way to Sesquilé, again, probably due to being a working day. We understand it is a popular weekend route for motorists out of Bogotá. Paved all the way, with rolling hills, and plenty of opportunities to stock up.

- Sesquilé to Ráquira: all unpaved after Suesca, but generally in good condition. Very quiet and steep hills after Cucunubá on the way to Lenguazaque. There was many times where having a GPS helped a great deal, when finding the right road. If in doubt, there´s a few cars passing every now and then which can be of help. From Lenguazaque to Guachetá there´s a good paved section, but with more truck traffic. After that, it becomes a dirt road, reaching 3000 m, before the downhill to Ráquira. 

- Ráquira to Villa de Leyva: all paved, with some traffic, and rolling hills. There´s a few dirt roads that will take you directly into the Villa de Leyva about 8 km that can be used as a short cut, avoiding the busier road from Tunja. 


  1. I can only imagine what those children were thinking finding you two camping on their futbol field! I love the photos of the plaza in Villa de Leyva surrounded by those green hills.

  2. Wow! Great blog... I am going to be in Colombia with a friend in September and we hope to do a little cycling... Not touring, just day trips, but looking for a bit of this sort of backroad experience. We were already interested in the Villa de Leyva area and this makes it look amazing. Thanks!

  3. Hi Tom. Glad that you find the blog useful. I would say the Villa de Leyva area has one of the best backroads of Colombia. I would try and get either the IGAC maps once you arrive in Colombia (in Bogotá perhaps) or a detailed topo map showing trails. National Geographic maps are good also, if not as detailed. Also, to the North of that area is Santander, packed with great dirt roads. If we can do anything to assist you in planning your route, drop us a line here or via email. Everything in Colombia is great! Oh, and don´t forget to try those arepas from the town we showed in the picture! Enjoy