18 March 2014

Villa de Leyva to El Cocuy: small towns and big climbs

We lingered at the hostel the morning of our departure of Villa de Leyva. Before we knew it it was 11am and we were just getting on the road. We were heading for Duitama, but having enjoyed the back roads so much on our ride from Bogota we decided to take the long way there. We also hoped it would give Martin a chance to catch up with us so that we could head to El Cocuy together.

Winding roads on the way from Villa de Leyva

Classic Colombian imagery
We left Villa de Leyva on a gently climbing road, which turned unpaved and got steeper after crossing the main highway at Arcabuco. At first, we enjoyed a beautiful ride along the mountainside, but then the road deteriorated into one of the worst we have ever ridden! There were massive rocks, dried mud, and cobbles, meaning that even on the completely flat sections we could not reach 10 km per hour.

A great ride along the mountainside

Cyclist vs. mountains

Beautiful scenery but rough roads

10km per hour on the flat
We pulled into the tiny town of La Palma at 5pm. It was so small that there weren't even houses on all four sides of the plaza, and were assured it would be perfectly fine to camp there. As we set up our tent we had conversations with a couple of locals, including a younger guy who offered us water from his house and talked to us about the days when the village was ruled by guerillas, and also about what parts of Colombia have the best fruits and vegetables. The most interested were the kids, who asked lots of questions about our tent and cooking equipment, and visited us several times in the evening and also the following morning. Despite it being a Monday, the nightlife was in full swing with a bar full of drunk campesinos playing really loud music! Fortunately we seem to have learned to sleep through any noise and we had a comfortable night's sleep, only woken briefly when it started to rain.

The kids stopped by on their way to school at 7 am. Note the home-made horses some of them carried!

On our way out of town in the morning, we mentioned to some locals about the route we were planning on taking from Gambita to Paipa and were told that the road was closed due to obras (roadworks). They kindly called someone they knew who was working on the road, to confirm that bicycles could still pass. Now confident of our route choice, (although the locals also assured us that the road surface was going to remain in bad condition for a while) we headed on towards the stiff climb we knew was coming after Gambita. We decided to get as much of the climb out of the way that day as we could, which meant cycling until close to dark and then finding a place to wild camp.

The rough road continued after La Palma, apparently a dairy area

Stylish butcher shopfront in Palermo, before we camped

We ended up choosing a little clearing next to the road which was used for pedestrian access to the finca behind. As we were putting up the tent a woman came out of the finca's gate. She worked on the finca and told us there would be no problem at all with us camping there. Then she offered us a couple of tamales that she was carrying home—they were delicious!

Our camp spot for the night on the climb to Paipa

Morning fog before we continued the climb

The rain came very strong and sudden as we were setting up camp—I happened to be inside the tent when it started, so was privileged to have an excuse to stay under cover and dry while Alberto had to finish cooking dinner in the pouring rain. The owner of the finca then came over, in the pouring rain, and had a long and interesting chat with Alberto.

The rest of the climb was about as good as could be expected for a long, unpaved climb and we made good progress. Then it was jackets on for the descent, first unpaved and then beautiful pavement, which always feels welcome after a few days on dirt roads. We reached Paipa at about noon and immediately found a hospedaje, a bit pricey but really nice, with a large sun-filled courtyard which we set to work taking over to dry everything out. We bought some yummy queso paipa, the only aged cheese available in Colombia.

Paipa cheese - as close to a European cheese as it gets

The next day, we found that the dirt roads of the past few days had sapped a bit of our energy, so we invented the concept of a moving rest day. We would leave as late as we want, eat lots of yummy treats, and just view any kilometers we accomplished as a bonus. We took the longer way from Paipa to Duitama via Pantano de Vargas and a cafe stop for the local specialty of almojabanas with agua panela. Then a delicious almuerzo in Duitama and we set off again up route 55, which was busy at first with truck traffic, but then got quieter.

Duitama is big on cycling

We climbed to Santa Rosa as the clouds got increasingly dark, but we didn't really like the look of the town so we decided to see if we could make it to Belen before the rain started. There was a bit more climbing to be done, but then it was descent all the way. We made fast progress and we had every hope of outracing the storm, but about 2km from Belen, we got caught, bad. The streets were turning to rivers and the rain was forcing my eyes closed so that I could barely see. As soon as we hit the outskirts of Belen, we took cover under an awning to see if the rain would lighten up. Then we noticed the gas station across the way had rooms, and we decided to cut our losses and head there for the night.

Pouring rain in Belen, although it does not quite capture how soaked we got

We had the luxury of a second relaxed morning in a row as we waited for Martin to arrive in Belen. After our joyful reunion we started out on the gently climbing route 55, which was now very quiet. We stopped in El Paramo (Tutaza) for a quick snack, and the road levelled out for a while through beautiful landscapes, then descended fast to Susacon, where we stopped for the night. We had three passes ahead of us to reach the town of El Cocuy and the gateway to the Sierra Nevada there.

Reunion with Martin, who we met two months ago in Ecuador

Great to be three on the road (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

The children of El Paramo were surprised by the arrival of three cycling gringos (photo courtesy of Martin Andexer)

The 55 becomes quiet and scenic past El Paramo

It rained the next morning so we waited around until 10:30am before the rain stopped. We descended to  the river valley at 1300m, to start climbing again—it was hot down there! The climbing was tough in the heat, but beautiful. We saw rain clouds in the distance and wished they would come find us and cool us down, but alas, the rain would wait until we were in the middle of cooking an alfresco dinner before hitting.

We dealt with all sorts of road traffic...

Then we saw the town of Soata getting hit by hard rain as we climbed to Boavita

Just before Boavita we passed a restaurante campestre and asked if we could camp there. David, the owner, didn't even hesitate, just said 'of course,' and then, because the restaurant wasn't open for dinner, offered to sell us trout, meat, and vegetables so we could cook. It was a cycle tourists´ dream come true, and although we got soaked when the rain came down, we were then able to shelter under the open-air dining area which made a world of difference.

El Eden restaurant, where we camped, had great views of Boavita and La Uvita

Cyclists feasting on fresh trout after getting soaked

The next day was election day in Colombia, which meant quieter roads but busier towns than usual. We continued our climbing to La Uvita, then descended again to another valley before starting the next climb at about 2:00 in the afternoon—why do we always do that? Nearing the top of the climb we stopped to check out camping opportunities, and fell into conversation with an older man who gave us his opinion on elections (not worth voting), the environment (energy companies are ruining it), and many other topics. He was one of the only farmers living in the area and said we could camp in his fields. It was a lucky break, because as we headed over to the field I found I had a puncture (my first of the trip)—much more convenient to fix it while we were stopped for the night.

The buses were incredibly busy on election day

There's always religious motifs on top of the mountains

Night cooking at 7 pm

It rained overnight and we waited to dry the tents out before getting started with a tiny bit left of our second pass, then the descent to Guacamayas, and our final climb to El Cocuy. At the top of the pass we caught our first glimpse of the Sierra Nevada and stopped to chat to the man running the mirador there about the mountains and the road ahead. 

The last big climb before El Cocuy, at 3000 m, where we saw the Sierra Nevada for the first time

Great Police signage to prevent accidents

Quick descent to the valley before El Cocuy

Then it was the long descent to Guacamayas. The plan was to get some bread for a snack later up the road, but the men drinking in the panaderia (at 10:30am) had other plans. One of them had just lost the election for local government, and they were drinking to commiserate/celebrate. They were totally taken aback by the appearance of three gringos on bicycles into their little village, and especially with Martin. They insisted on buying the boys beers (I got a Coke) and chatting to us about any number of things. We ended up in the panaderia for an hour and a half before prying ourselves free to tackle the final climb and reach El Cocuy.

Martin, a racing cyclist back in Austria, broke the speed limit

Free beers and friendly locals at noon in Guacamayas generated a lot of laughs

The climb was tough in the afternoon heat, but  laughing about the Guacamayas beer experience made it pass more quickly. Soon we were in El Cocuy getting ready for a few days in the National Park of the Sierra Nevada de El Cocuy.

And finally, our destination of El Cocuy

El Cocuy is Alberto's most favourite town with its green and white houses


  1. You two (and the three of you with Martin) are truly inspiring people. I read in awe of your experiences in Colombia......I hope one day we are able to meet up, over a mid-ride coffee perhaps, and share tales of the road.

  2. Many thanks for the comments Frank, and glad you are enjoying the blog. Perhaps this will inspire you on your next cycle tour? Colombia, and the bit we've seen of Northern Ecuador, are real cycling paradise. We´ll take you up on that offer, when we get back to the UK, maybe at the end of our trip...

  3. Yup... that stretch of dirt through La Palma is a bouncy one! Glad to see you're enjoying the route and managing to keep Martin under control.

  4. Free tamales and beer/coke all in one blog post! You guys are taking advantage of your gringo-stardom.

  5. Hey Nathan, indeed, very bouncy but truly enjoyable. Glad to see you guys made it through to Perú. Martin was a good asset up in the mountains :). Hannah, yep, we seek the free stuff and friendly locals. Believe it or not, people do think I am colombian a lot of the times. Lucy cannot say the same, but still...