02 March 2014

Libano to Bogota, via Chia: Up from the valley and into the city

On the day of our departure from Libano we had one goal: make it down into the valley of the Rio Magdalena and start the climb up the other side before it got too hot. We would be descending to 250m above sea level, lower than we'd ever been before in South America, before climbing again to the Colombian altiplano where Bogota is located, at 2600m.

We set the alarm for 4am and managed to get on the road by 5am, despite there being a power outage in the village. We set off in pitch darkness into a light rain, surprised by the number of other people out at this hour, including cyclists without any lights! But as we descended the sun came up, and before we knew it we were at 250m crossing the Rio Magdalena (Colombia's largest), waiting out a heavy patch of rain in a roadside cafe in the town of Armero.

The bridge over the river Magdalena. Surprisingly, there was no military guarding it!
When we got started again it was still pleasantly cool from the rain (having dripping wet clothes, shoes, and hair also helped with that) and we were able to cover the flat kilometers to Cambao without any problems with the heat. It was warm, but we managed to climb out of the valley without being exposed to the potentially brutal heat.

Climbing climbing climbing
Not knowing the exact profile of the climb ahead, we just kept turning the pedals and going up and up until about 3pm, where after nine hours on the road, and five hours straight of climbing, we were totally shattered and decided to divert to San Juan de Rioseco for a well earned hospedaje. The owner tried to give us two separate rooms as apparently she thought we were brother and sister...

In the moring, the climb started again in earnest, another day of basically climbing all day. We were lucky it was still cloudy out, but even so it was pretty hot. We managed to reach the gas station at the entrance to Alban just before the rain started coming down, so it was a pretty easy decision to spend the night in the hospedaje there.

We had been warned by several locals that the worst of the climb was yet to come. Facatativa (or Faca as the Colombians call it), and the top of the climb, was 12km away.

We got lost in the fog and somehow ended  up only 20km from Madrid!
Whether it was because we had the traffic to distract us or just that the main road has to be easier in order for big trucks to be able to make it, the section from Alban to Faca was actually the easiest part of the whole climb from Cambao. Which was disappointing, because I didn't get to use my “mother Faca” joke that I had been saving up.

We were pleased to see some pro-cyclist propaganda on the roads after Faca - "Protect him, he could be your son".

 We turned off of the highway onto small country lanes through El Rosal, Subachoque, and Tabio. The section from Alban to Faca had been a strawberry-growing region, and we had remarked how British it felt with the cloudy weather. But now, on the Colombian altiplano, things began to seem even more like our adopted home of the UK. We were surrounded by farmland with rolling hills in the distance. Even the potholed back roads with fast moving traffic was evocative of many of our rides over the past five years. Later, we even passed blackberries growing on the side of the road – how much more British can you get?

Strawberries for sale on the side of the road

Riding through farmland and rolling hills

Looking down on the Colombian altiplano
 A quick destapada (unpaved) diversion from Tabio saw us in Chia in the early afternoon, where we met our warmshowers host, Alejandro and his friend Vivian (and later his partner Mariana). Chia surprised us with its European feel, a pedestrianized city center and plenty of old stone buildings. We managed to make it into a cafe just before the afternoon's shower hit, and fortunately the rain stopped again in time for us to head over to a cosy bar (it being Friday night) where a local band were playing a gig of some modern Andean music, which we both really enjoyed.

This was also the first time in the entire trip we have been in a bar in the evening!
We settled in for two days off in Chia, the first day being a day of near total relaxation, where we crossed various tasks off our list and only left the house to buy food. The second day, Sunday, we joined in the BiciChia ride that Alejandro and a few of his friends lead every Sunday. It was a relaxed ride, perfect for a day off, and we really enjoyed seeing this slice of local life.

The long line of cyclists taking part in the BiciChia Sunday ride

This week's ride had a theme of getting to know Chia's river, the Rio Frio, which is unfortunately dangerously polluted by the time it leaves the municipality. Here we are taking a peak at the Rio Frio on the other side of the levee.
On Sunday we were also reunited, however briefly, with Martin, who had left Salento a few days after us via a different route. We had planned to cycle together from Chia to the mountains of Cocuy, but Martin lost his passpost and had to wait in Bogota for a while, so we'll have to figure how to meet up again further down the road.

Lucy, Vivian, Alejandro, Martin, and Alberto (and Lulo the dog!)
The following afternoon Alejandro accompanied us on the 40km ride into Bogota. We had asked plenty of Chia cyclists how the road in was, and they all said it was ok, although there was a section without a shoulder which wasn't ideal. I don't know if it was the time of day that we went, or just that we have different tolerances for that kind of thing, but we found the ride into Bogota pretty scary. Fortunately we managed to make it unscathed to the edge of Bogota, where Alejandro led us on Bogota's famous ciclovias all the way from Calle 180 to Calle 26. Although it took forever (and the ciclovias are more UK-style than dutch-style, with plenty of dodgy road crossings and no priority for cyclists), we were relieved not to have to fight with the traffic. We arrived at our Bogota Warmshowers hosts' apartment feeling totally exhausted, despite having ridden for only a few hours.

One of Bogota's better ciclovias - in this case the street is pedestrianized also!
Rafa (from Spain) and Eneida (from Colombia) cooked us a nice dinner and listened to us blabber on about the traffic for a while before moving on to other, more interesting conversations.  The following day was a day off in Bogota, spent mainly eating, wandering around La Candelaria and plotting a quieter way out of the city and back into the Colombian countryside that we love so much.

There are plenty of big highways to be avoided. This one with a view of the tallest building in Colombia.

Nice colonial streets in La Candelaria
The famed cycling culture of Colombia is alive and well in Bogota and we enjoyed being immersed in it.

Bici bici bici
Has to be a very smooth ride...
Electioneering on two wheel

Saying goodbye to Rafa and Eneida, our wonderful hosts in Bogota
Route notes:

- Líbano to Armero and Cambao: not downhill all the way, surprisingly, but the road is pretty fast, with lots of dodgy potholes. Paved all the way, flat and fast after Armero. We opted to ride this section in the early morning, due to the potential heat of 250 m of elevation. Armero has plenty of options for food and resuplying, as well as Cambao. I was surprised to see many exotic seafood options (presumably from the nearby Magdalena river) at any of the Cambao almuerzos.

- Cambao to Facatativá: a quiet and popular route up to the altiplano, which avoids the busier roads via Honda, in the North. It is really well paved, all the way, and goes pretty much constantly uphill for over 50 km. There´s a notorious downhill past San Juan de Ríoseco. Again, lots of options for stocking up on calories. If you do decided to split it in two days, the town of Vianí, only 15 flat km away appeared more convenient than San Juan de Ríoseco, as it would save you 300 m of downhill (and uphill) to the town. Albán also had a service area with budget accommodation. The Albán to Facatativá section was a gentle uphill with lots of heavy traffic. 

- Facatativá to Chía: from Faca we went to El Rosal, which was fairly busy, and then onto Subachoque (a very wealthy commuting town) and Tabío. This section was great, good road condition, little traffic, and scenery reminiscent of the South of the UK. Only a 400 m climb before Tabío, then downhill and flat to Chía on a trail that goes East from Tabío.

- Chía to central Bogotá: on Chía locals advise, we took the autopista from Chía straight into Bogotá, at what appeared to be rush hour (2 pm). Although initially with a wide shoulder, the road narrowed down to about 5 km out of Bogotá. Being the main way into town from the North, we would not recommend this route to anyone. A taxi or a bus to the edge of town would be much more sensible. Carrera 7 or a series of trails directly South of Chía may also be a better alternative, although we have no experience with either. Once in Bogotá (Calle 180 or thereabouts) there´s a ciclovía, but it has so many hurdles that perhaps it would be safer to go on the road. Also, there´s, literally, 180 road crossings with all the Carreras, making it a very slow drag into town. We had no concerns with safety on this route from the North, other than the traffic.

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