10 April 2014

Bucaramanga to San Gil... and on to Bogota by bus

We always knew that our sojourn North into Colombia was a temporary state, as the plan has always been to go South. The question for the past month or so has been, how far North will we go? We debated for a long time whether to go to the Caribbean coast or not, the pluses and minuses of which could fill an entire blog post. In Bucaramanga we reached the point of no return, and ultimately a combination of factors including the heat, the traffic on the road to Santa Marta, and the fact that time is ticking away on our Colombian visa, meant that it was time to turn this ship around.

It made sense to get on a bus to Bogota to save time (since we had already done what we considered to be the best route North from Bogota) but first we decided to soak up a bit more of the Department of Santander by riding to San Gil via the back road to Zapatoca.

Pineapple farm outside Bucaramanga - we were surprised about their shape and size, as we had never seen one of these before
We set off from Bucaramanga at 5:15 in the morning, bound for Zapatoca where some friends of Alberto (the paraglider) lived. We knew we had a tough climb ahead of us, and everyone warned us to start it early in the day. By the time we got out of the city, through the sandy dirt roads of Acapulco, and down to the start of the climb, it was 9:30am and already scorching hot. Nothing to do but buy water at the tienda, soak our shirts under the tap nearby, and start climbing.

Sandy roads after Acapulco
The road zig-zagged up the mountain for an eternity, in the baking Colombian heat. A man in a van took pity on us and immediately provided six bags of cold water, which we were grateful for. The views were, as always in Colombia, stunning, and there was a slight breeze which made climbing in the heat almost bearable.

Descending to the river valley down some fun switchbacks... too bad there were just as many switchbacks on the other side to climb.

The big bridge is under construction, and will allow the river flow to be much more high. When it opens, the old bridge in the background, which is the one we crossed, will be swallowed by the river

Looking back on the road we have climbed. In the distance you can just make out the road we descended on the other side of the valley. First proper switchback road of our trip. Plenty of these await for us in Peru.
Four hours later, we reached the top of the climb, and pushed on through the rolling hills until we reached Zapatoca, exhausted. A quick stop for some ice cream, empanadas, and a cold drink and we had regained enough strength to look for Armando and Sonia's house. What a welcoming and beautiful house it was! Anne-Sophie, a cyclist from Belgium, was already there, and we enjoyed a day off taking in the charm of Zapatoca.

Lucy and Anne-Sophie walking into town

Zapatoca main plaza

Armando and Sonia's 35-years old Renault 4 car. Still going strong on the rough roads of Colombia!

We are becoming addicted to Colombian empanadas. The ones prepared by Don Rafa in Zapatoca, with 23 years in the business, were amongst the best we have tried so far!

 We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast with Armando, Sonia, and Anne-Sophie before starting off on the dirt road towards the town of La Fuente, where another friend of Armando and Sonia has a finca where we would stay the night. It was a short day, but in the heat we were glad for it, and we had a relaxing and interesting evening talking to Pipo about life in the campo.

Saying goodbye to Armando, Sonia, and Anne-Sophie

La Fuente is a tiny colonial town in an impressive setting

Pipo has been fixing up the finca for several years now. He changed the busy life of Cali for a more quiet one in his parents' old finca, near La Fuente.

Great art at Pipo's finca
Saying goodbye again

Despite trying again to get an early start to beat the heat of the climb, we ended up climbing up from the Rio Suarez towards Barichara at about 10am and it was again already pretty darn hot. Barichara is a cute town, recommended in some well-known travel guides, but Santander has so many other charming colonial towns that, for us, Barichara was a bit inauthentic and very upscale. We had a delicious almuerzo there though, before pressing on to San Gil where some other friends of Alberto (still the paraglider) were willing to host us. Once again we were humbled by the kindness of total strangers.

More great Santander dirt roads

Riding into Barichara's fixed up cobbled roads.
Some travel guide describe Barichara as 'like a movie set' ... pretty accurate in both good and bad ways
We managed to just beat the rain into San Gil, the first rain they've had in a long time, and settled in with Sergio and his girlfriend for a day off. We hitched a ride with Sergio's company, Parapente Chicamocha, up to the Canyon del Chicamocha to soak in the views and watch the others fly – we stayed on the ground this time, but still enjoyed ourselves. 

Watching the action from tierra firme

The Canyon del Chicamocha seems like a great place to fly, with plenty of thermals and stunning views all around

Impressive... but we're glad we didn't cycle to it as the road connecting Bucaramanga with San Gil is very busy and with really tough climbs

Despite it having always been in the plans to take a bus, as the moment of truth approached, we really found ourselves dreading it. Even when we cycled to the bus station in the morning, we were still halfway thinking that we would just ride past it and keep going to Bogota. Ultimately we decided it was a better choice to take the bus, but we weren't happy about it. This ambivalence would come in handy later when, two hours into the journey, the bus driver decided to start demanding that we pay him an extra fee to carry the bikes, which apparently he had forgotten to mention when we boarded the bus in the first place (the company was Copetrans). I was halfway hoping he would kick us off the bus so we could cycle again! But he didn't, and he eventually gave up trying to get money from us too.Advice to other touring cyclists: make it clear that you are not going to pay for your bike, as we had the feeling they just take the piss with foreign cyclists.

In Bogota, we continued our backpacker-style day with a night in a hostel in La Candelaria, meeting up with Martin one last time before he and his friends headed out the following morning to the coast. Then we moved to David and his mother Magdalena's apartment, who we found through the great website warmshowers. David showed us some new parts of the city. We got stuck for a few days doing various errands and enjoying the the delicious food and great company served up by David and his mother.  But soon, with our visa expiration date in mind, it was time to keep moving South.

The auditorio at the Universidad Nacional, with our host David and Lucy in the front

Rogelio Salmona's famous Universidad Nacional Edificio de Postgrados de Ciencias Humanas. Could well be a five start hotel!
Route notes:

- Bucaramanga to Zapatoca: we followed the locals' advice and left Bucaramanga early, before the raving traffic hit the town. Once out of Bucaramanga, we rode through the centre of Floridablanca and on to Ruitoque, where we took on some scenic unpaved roads. The climb up to Zapatoca is a long one, and best done early in the morning or late in the afternoon. There's a shop just before the climb, and another one one third into the climb. After that, water sources become scarce, although there's a couple of fincas which could provide some water.

- Zapatoca to San Gil: the road is unpaved all the way to 3 km out of Barichara, but generally in good condition. There are a few villages along the way, so water and food are no problem. Again, the climb to Barichara coming from Galan is best done in the early morning, as it is very hot down at the Suarez valley. After Barichara, the road is paved and in very good condition to San Gil


  1. Qué bueno y felicitaciones! Nos alegró mucho tenerlos por acá, poder aprender algo de ustedes y sobretodo avivar las ganas de recorrer el mundo en bicicleta! Esperamos que la vida nos vuelva a juntar en el camino :)

  2. Gracias también a vosotros por la hospitalidad que nos diestéis en Bucaramanga. Esperamos poder volver pronto, y que para entonces haya miles de cicliastas urbanos por la ciudad.