Colombia has taken a bit of recalibration on my part after being turned into, admittedly, an incredibly spoiled brat by Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. In a way, large parts of Colombia are sometimes more about getting to the next place. I try to rationalize that it's part of long distance touring, and it definitely is. But once you get used to endless miles of dirt, man it sure is tough to go back to consecutive days of white line tire humming. That said, the department of Boyaca delivers the near consistent dirt road wanderings I've been craving since crossing the border. For me, it offers the best riding in Colombia.
With one of the largest, if not the largest, cobbled squares in South America, Villa Leyva definitely has it figured out urbanistically; public use fronts just about every inch of the plaza instead of lifeless government buildings and blank walls. From dawn until night, the main square is full of activity. And with cobbles throughout the entire urban core, cars and people move along at roughly the same pace.
After a few relaxing days of relatively sunny dry weather, too much coffee and gelato it's time to pick up Dean and Dang's newly minted Oh Boyaca route up towards San Gil.
Outside of Gambita it feels almost like rural Vermont with dairy farms stacked up out on either side of the valley. Sadly, I miss the bullfight in Gambita by a day as their festival winds down and the town begins to work off its hangover.
I camp halfway between Gambit and Belen as rain sheets down throughout the night. Morning brings the remains of an inversion as I finish off the last few hundred meters of the day's first roller.
Some local recon and a couple of stream crossings deposit me onto a nearly deserted jeep track, which cuts across the valley saving me 1.000m of climbing. One thing that will remain etched in my mind after this trip is over is the look of locals who turn the corner on their horse and find a sweaty gringo coming at them on a... what the hell is that thing...
I watch the sky morph towards its afternoon activity before creeping over the second pass and descend into Belen in freezing cold rain.
After a night drying out, I swing past Paz de Rio. It's oro negro country out here and this is a hardworking mining town. A chairlift like system transports cars of iron and coal overhead between the adjacent valleys into the processing plant, while pro-mining murals line the descent into town.
Trying to kick a low grade cold, I spend two nights in Socha lounging about. The following day, a brief stop in Socota to get water turns into an extended round of que es eso as my buddy gives El Gordo the once over squeeze. Once he breaks the ice, all the timid adults swarm in for the typical questions and send me off with hearty handshakes.
The roadside shrines never get old and are always quirkily different.
I roll into Jericho, the highest town in Colombia, sitting at the not so high altitude of 3.100 m. Apparently they rolled out the red carpet for Dean and Dang. The only thing getting rolled out today seems to be an "eye problem" (i.e. the gringo stare down) So, I jam some food down in the park and let the banged up 11:30 am Poker swilling crowd do their thing.
A squiggly descent outside of town brings me into some spectacular foldy stuff to head-swivel away the afternoon climb.
Around the corner, I limp up a series of steep switchbacks into Chita and shut it down for the night.
A wonderful climb the next day brings me back up into the Paramo and slightly thinner air.
There are even some flowers on my favorite frailejones.
Surveying the mornings work from the top of the pass.
Arriving In Cocuy, I've heard threads along the way that Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy is fully closed and some that it is only partially closed. It's definitely closed at the moment. The road leading into the park is open, which allows access to a few lakes, but all the good glaciated stuff is closed. And I'm not up for sneaking in out of respect for the U'wa's conflict with the Colombian government that has forced the closure. The short of the issue is that the park is in U'aw indigenous territory and they have shut it down in response to the park agencies and government's apparent disrespect of their sacred land. A more thorough right-up can be found at Amazon Watch.
From A Letter to the Colombian Minister of the Environment:
"Now is the opportune moment to leave a historic legacy for our future generations, in conservation, care for our mother earth. Because for all the money that man might have, he can't eat money if we don't have water for humanity's survival."
– U'wa letter to the white man
That the park is closed is selfishly sad because it seems like one of the best parts of Colombia. But after having seen how the Chilean government has handled Torres del Paine, I'm actually all for it's closure until they get a clear strategy and respectful infrastructure for tourism in place. This is definitely a place to come back to once the conflict is resolved as the treking seems on par with the Huayhaush.
So after a day of noodling around Cocuy's uniformly painted mint green environs, I sadly leave PN Cocuy on the table for another visit.
The small pueblo of Panqueba directly below Cocuy is home to a whole series of murals. Top pick goes to the grim reaper.
I stop to chat with local mural painter Jose and his buddy Juan Carlos just before leaving town and they point me in the direction of El Espino where I can trace my way down along the edge of Rio Nevado Canyon. Without a soul down there except the canyon dwellers, it's a spectacular section.
Morning rush hour traffic outside of Soata.
With passes running out for me in Colombia this one is particularly lovely as it winds its way down towards Onzaga on seldom used jeep track.
A fun little winder outside of San Joaquin takes me up and over to Mogotes.
Spoting some squiggly lines loosely paralleling the road from Mohotes to San Gil, I opt for some pushing and a fantastic ruta viejo. Other than a woman walking up the hill with a sack of potatoes on her back, it's deserted and a great backdoor entry into San Gil.
Dean and Dang's original route info can be found on Bikepacking.com.
I followed most of their route but my wanderings with alternates can be found on ridewithgps.
Heading towards Belen from Gambita you go over two 3.800m passes. In the Bikepacking.com gpx file, you descend down to roughly 2200 m after the first pass before beginning the climb back up to the second pass. There is a shortcut on your way down from the first pass that will bring you across the valley and link back up with the main route at around 3200 m. The only caveat to a 1.000m less climbing is there are two smallish stream crossings. The second stream crossing has a tiny swinging bridge upstream, which i didn't see until I was already across. So maybe only one legitimate crossing...
Bring your climbing legs for the alternates from Mogotes to San Gil. Both small stretches are winchers and probably a bit easier going towards San Gil, but they keep the road riding to a minimum.