01 April 2014

El Cocuy to Bucaramanga: from mucho frío to mucho calor

El Cocuy had been the place where we've spent the most time since starting cycling and it was a little hard to leave it, but after an extra day when Lucy wasn't feeling well, and another day because we went to bed late, we eventually had to get moving again. We said goodbye to Martin who was going by bus to meet some friends for a few weeks of backpacker life in Colombia, and hoped we would meet again, if not in Colombia then in Europe.

Interesting mural  on a school in Panqueba, on the way down from El Cocuy. "Do not study as an obligation, but as opportunity to enter the world of knowing"
We were looking forward to a 55km descent to Capitanejo, but it wasn't as easy as we hoped it would be. The road turned quite rough, and there were a good number of rolling hills to keep us from gaining too much speed, but more importantly, it was HOT. The vegetation resembled that of a desert (not that we've ever been to one, but...!) We had to stop frequently to rest in the shade and were thankful for the slight headwind we had picked up. Along the way, I discovered that one of the screws had come out of the mounting mechanism of his pannier. We improvised a solution for the rest of the day, but as we don't carry any spares of those screws we would have to figure out a better plan before we could continue.

Just chillin´out in the shade
The road followed the Rio Nevados much of the way

The valley opens as you head towards Capitanejo
Desert landscape at 1400 m
Cycle touring does not get much better than this, if it were a bit cooler, that is
Capitanejo was in sight by the late afternoon and we just really wanted a cold shower, so we checked in to a budget hospedaje for the night. In the morning we had to visit the ferreteria (hardware store) to get the pannier sorted out, which meant for a later than ideal start, given the heat and the fact that we had a long climb ahead of us.

Ouch! Ortlieb panniers are meant to be tough, but this mounting screw did not resit the vibrations of the trocha. Luckily, Ortlieb are quick to respond to issues like this, and news screws are on the way to us, for free. In the meantime, I replaced the missing mounting screw with another, less important one, and used gaffer tape to keep the pannier (hopefully) waterproof.
The climb was tough, although the saving grace was that the road 55 was so beautiful. Eventually, after multiple stops, we made it to the cooler air of Malaga. While trying to find our whereabouts in that town, a couple of guys from a bike workshop attracted our attention. Soon we were having a refreshing Pony Malta with them, and then Guillermo invited us to stay the night with his family.

Cooling off - Colombian way

That´s what I would call hot (47 degrees Celsius, or 117 degrees Farenheit!)

José and Héctor Guillermo gave us a warm welcome in Málaga, with some much needed cold drinks! Here at José´s workshop at the entrance of Málaga as you come from San José de Miranda
We then spent some time with Héctor Guillermo´s friends, who treated us to some nice (and sweet) Colombian wine

After a quick visit to Malaga regional airport the following morning, and a bit of cycling in the active runway itself, we made progress North towards Cerrito. The road, of course, kept on climbing, eventually reaching almost 4000 m, once again, the following day after having a pleasant night in another “high” school.

After the small Cesna aircraft bound for Bucaramanga took off, we had Malaga´s airport runway to ourselves
Héctor Guillermo rode with us to Cerrito the next day and even carried my heavy loaded bike for a few kms.
High (3000 m) Schools prove very useful campsites
Route 55 turned into an unpaved road, which despite being relatively flat, was rainy, windy, and quite cold at nearly 4000 m of elevation. We were looking forward to warming up in a restaurant that Guillermo had mentioned, but it turned out to be shut so we continued on until Presidente, already on the descent, where we had a yummy almuerzo and made conversation with some of the other clients about our trip. After that, the once-again paved road made for a quick descent to Chitaga, and a bit further on, where we were finally warm again.

At 3800 m, in the Páramo, it was very cold again

And then, we started another climb (are you noticing a pattern here?) and carried on, looking for a place to camp. It wasn't easy, as the road wound along the mountainside and there was almost no flat ground to be found. Thankfully, a local pointed out basically the only flat area for miles, which also helpfully had great cover from the road.

We only had 26 km to go the following day to Pamplona, where we were looking forward to a hotel (and more than anything, some wifi). It was a relaxed ride, and we enjoyed the final part of the climb in pleasant temperatures. We reached Lejias and stopped at a roadside cafe for agua panela, and enjoyed talking to the cafe owner about our trip and broader aspects of life in Colombia.

The friendly owner of this cafetería in Lejías, near Pamplona, treated us to some traditional chicharrón. Pork scratchings (or torreznos, in Spain) with yummy papas criollas
 Then it was on to Pamplona, where we quickly found a place to stay, and got started with our ever-growing list of errands. The hotel's checkout time was not until 3pm the following day, so we stayed until lunch time taking advantage of the wifi before heading out of Pamplona.

Pamplona is in a valley and the only way out is up, so we knew we were not going to accomplish many kilometers when we left at 2pm. Still, it was good to get some climbing out of the way. We ended up stopping at the Alto de Pamplona, 800m above the town, where we could get a tiny room for 15,000 COP, deciding that it would be easier to get an early start in the morning if we didn't have to pack up camp. After such a short day, we weren't exactly hungry, so some strawberries from the stand across the road and some other snacks from our panniers made the perfect evening snack.

Stylish cafetería, lychee-strawberry farm, and car workshop at the Alto de Pamplona. All owned and manned by the same friendly guy
Santander and Norte de Santander are agriculturally rich areas
An early start is exactly what we got the following morning, on the road by 7:45 am which is the earliest it's been in a long time. We wanted to make it to Bucaramanga, 115 kilometers away, where we had made arrangements to stay with Andrea, a member of the women's cyclist collective Mujeres Bici-bles. There was plenty more climbing to be done, before a 50km descent to lose 2,500m of altitude into Bucaramanga. 

The section Berlín to the start of the descent to Bucaramanga is another altiplano, at 3400m
The descent was so long it was almost surreal, starting out quite cold and with sometimes extemely thick fog, and ending in the heat of Bucaramanga. There are some experiences  that photographs can´t capture, and the feeling of that descent is one of them.

Into the clouds. Bucaramanga is somewhere down there, 2500 m below.

After 50 km of constant descent, we reached Bucaramanga

Reaching Bucaramanga, we found Andrea´s apartment. She kindly offered to put us up for a few days getting to know the city and its diverse cycling culture. 

We joined Ciclaramanga for their night ride through the city. Enjoying the support of the local government, it was incredibly well-organised and well-attended.  Lucy and Andrea wore the pink handkerchiefs of Mujeres Bici-bles.

We were interviewed on the local university radio station La U 107.7 about our trip. Unfortunately the recording isn´t available online after the fact- Lucy says it´s better that way, she´s still embarrassed about her Spanish.
We visited the restaurant and panaderia where Diego and Carmen work at, who are part of Ciclaramanga, and sampled some artesanal bread.
Cycling is big in Colombia, only shadowed by football. The Bucaramanga velodrome was busy on a Saturday morning. 
On Sunday, Lucy joined the Mujeres Bicibles-run class for women learning how to ride a bike for the first time. Lucy says she saw Bucaramanga´s cycling community grow before her eyes!
I also went out on a local mtb ride with another Alberto (see below) and his friends Pablo, Rafael and Toño. Bucaramanga is such a great place for mtb-ing!

While descending to Bucaramanga a man got out of his car and flagged us down to find out our story. He (also named Alberto) was an avid mountain biker but also an avid paraglider and former instructor. He very kindly took us up on tandem flights from the Ruitoque mesa. It was great to be flying after so many years on the ground.

I managed to convince Lucy to try paragliding for the first time. Lucy, Alberto (the pilot), and Bucaramanga in the background

Lucy and Alberto preparing to land. Note the folded paraglider tips, or "orejas", which help the paraglider descent a bit quicker
Route notes:

- El Cocuy to Capitanejo: despite the road no longer showing on most paper and online maps, there´s an unpaved road all the way from near Panqueba to Capitanejo. It seems very few traffic, mostly because of its rough state, and the fact that, very recently, was close to all traffic following a massive landslide. It is, however, one of our favourite roads so far, with incredible scenery through the valley, different climates (very hot towards Capitanejo). There´s only one small village called Chapetón, where one can refill the water. Despite being all downhill, it took us almost the whole day to do 50 km on loaded bikes.

- Capitanejo to Pamplona: the road is mostly paved, except about 20 km before the town of Presidente, which runs at an altitude of 3400 to 3900 meters. There´s plenty of resupplying in all the towns, as well as a good number of wild camp (and not so wild - see the high school above) spots en route.

- Pamplona to Bucaramanga: a big climb to yet another altiplano, all paved, to continue on a 50 km all the way to Bucaramanga. Plenty of resupplying along the way, and also lots of wild camp options in the forests on the way down to town.


  1. Lucy paraglided?!!??!?! I can't imagine how amazing the views must have been.

  2. So much adventure in this single post! 50km descent!!!
    Best wishes

  3. Yes, Lucy paraglided! And the most dangerous thing I did that day was get in a car without working seatbelts :-)

  4. Toda nuestra admiración por esa tenacidad para enfrentar el camino, agradecerles por la mirada bondadosa hacia nuestro país, espero que sigan descubriendo esa Colombia que ni nosotros mismos conocemos!

  5. Hey Dan. Yes, it was crazy, took 1.5 hours to descent what we had spent almost two day climbing! but was incredible fun. More of this come in Perú, where 80 km descent seem the norm. Gracias chic@s de Ciclaramanga, fue un placer estar por allí y compartir buenos momentos. Animaos a conocer Colombia a pedales, sin duda la mejor manera de viajar por el pais. Saludos y buena suerte con todos los proyectos.