Biking in Colombia: Chita to San Pablo de Borbur

When I struggle up the mountains and see locals walking up the hills to their fields, or cooking dinner on a wood fire, I remind myself of what Hilde said so nicely in her blog: our “suffering” is our own choice.

Biking out of Chita after a day of involuntary rest, is supposed go downhill first. If you take the full day distance on MapOut you don’t see the short but very steep ups and downs where the road is just following the contours of the mountain and not yet curving up or down slopes in switchbacks.

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We leave in a light drizzle, just enough to put on our rain clothes. We talk a bit with an older lady who explains that there will be a festival in Chita today to celebrate the Virgin, and this is the reason why so many people walk the 2-6 km up-hill to the village. She asks for a present and we support her a bit. Mountain slopes are covered with fig trees, local delicacy is semi dried figs covered in chocolate.

Between km 10 and km 20 it is mainly curving up and down mountain sides and the last 10 km steep up-hill, Frank says when we reach the meager 3.100 m, it is worse than the one up to 4.150 m. For me it was not too bad, seems that I am recovering a bit or did it help that Frank pushed me a few times 😊 when it was more than 17%?

A very scarcely populated and poor region brings us to the highest village of Colombia, Jerico. On the way we chat with a lady, milking a cow. Do you know that the cows in these mountains only produce 3-4 liter milk a day? Only need to be milked once a day. In the Netherlands the average is 25 liter per day with cows producing 40-60 l.

The alfalfa which is dried in the sheds is pulverized and trucked to Bogota in big bags, to be used as food for cows and rabbits.

There is a lot of heavily armed police in and around the few small villages we pass through (seems to be related to the fact that until not so long ago this was FARQ region). We planned to continue the next 20 km to Soata, but as it is already 15:30 we decide to call it day, as we don’t believe we would be able to reach it before sunset, (dark at 18:00).

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It is a cold, windy town, evening rain makes it even colder, we’re so happy we are not camping and found a very basic room at the only “hotel” in town. But I don’t complain as we have a bathroom with hot shower. Sleeping on the covers with our own sleeping bag.

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Alarm at 5:00 ensures that we are on the road at 7:.00 after oatmeal breakfast. Climbing out of the city on a paved road brings us over the hill in a totally different area. With coal mining in all forms and sizes.

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Seems that this canyon is one of the area’s in Colombia with active mining. From small horizontal tunnels into the belly of the mountain to large professional organisations. Colombia has the largest coal reserves in Latin America and exports represent a very large parts of the GDP (42% in 2006). It has a lot of other minerals too, it is e.g. the leading source in emeralds in the world. We chat with miners and a crew that is checking the quality of the offered coal. Miners work in 2 daily shifts between 7:00 and 20:00. The tiny villages along the route are shelters for the workers with a different vibe than the farming villages at the other side of the mountain.

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Last part uphill to Sochá Frank’s bike refuses to shift gears. Luckily it is blocked in lowest gear which at least allows him to bike further. Arriving in the lively city of Sochá we decide to stay in the posh Florida hotel as it is more secluded and Frank likes to work on his bike without the whole village around him and asking questions. While I go grocery shopping and for the first time in a really long time see a nice vegetable shop and great butcher, Frank works on his bike. It was only a minor issue: the screw of the switch box at the rear wheel had come loose and just needed to be secured again.

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For one of the first times in those 64 weeks of biking we start the day after 10 minutes in pouring, cold rain. But after a few miles we can start to peel of layers.

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In Paz Del Rio we follow a different route than the described bike packing route. At the hotel the one and only other guest, a director of one of the local mines, explained that most of the coal trucks will go to Belen (official bike packing route). As we don’t want to bike the next 4.000 m summit which starts from Belen, we decide to take the lower route which is more than hilly enough and still gravel.

Not completely without coal trucks but very scenic and it looks like people even see less bike packers here. At one moment a young guy with small back pack passes us. Trying to have a chat but I don’t understand everything as he speaks very fast. He stays behind and then catches up with us several times and at lunch he shows up again. We share our food and finally understand what he is doing. 21 years old and selling home-made flour door to door, earning between 10,000-15,000 pesos a day (3-5 euro). First time he had bread with mayo/tuna and tomato and one with Nutella. We take a selfie but can’t send it to him, no Facebook, Whatsap or Instagram and he is one of the few that we see with an old fashion Nokia. Most of the time people don’t have a phone or a smart phone. Don’t know if he already took a lot of selfies.

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As of Tasco the road is wider and we welcome asphalt. This makes such a difference in speed, going uphill is so much easier. The black spots in the mountains from coal mining change to white holes where sand is extracted. Emilio explains that sand is dried over a wood fire and later sieved and sold in different types, varying between sand for construction, water filtering and road works eo.

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We still see a lot of old man’s beard moss and Frank has a great idea when he sees lots of it hanging from the trees next to the road.

The closer we get to Sogamosa the larger the coal, iron and cement factories. One of the main employers in Sogamosa is Cementos Argos. They have several smaller plants in Colombia but this is the largest and have started a new production line this year, with an annual production of 2.3 million tons. Great to read that the new line will feature cutting edge technology to meet the highest international environmental standards. Water and fuel consumption will be 24% and 18% lower than at standard plants.

We notice this a city dedicated to working in factories with different shifts. Definitively not a tourist town. When we have checked in in a small hotel dusk is setting in. Going out to get some food we turn the corner and I am surprised when I look into a window to see a dinner table and in a corner a made up bunk bed. Who would not close their shutters, or curtains, everybody would see their kids sleeping. Hey, but I don’t see any kids and how weird they have more than one dinner table. Yes says Frank, “they often have more than one piece of furniture in a furniture shop”. Guess what: it is the first furniture shop we see in ages. We only find fast food being potatoes with fried meat and fried corn. It is fuel, but not the best, also here we don’t find a restaurant open for dinner close to the hotel. As I am still bit tired, we opt for the easier route today, just follow the highway with a nice shoulder and no higher incline or decline than 4%. Making speed and seeing a lot of bikers!

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But winding out of town we first follow some backstreet and see how well recycling is going on. Colombia is the cleanest country we have seen after we crossed the border with the US (except for Costa Rica maybe), with even in the smallest villages education and tools for recycling, also with a well-organized garbage collection system varying from horse and wagon to European style garbage trucks.

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One tip when you are here from Marta, whom we met leaving the city: visit Nobsa instead of Sogamosa as this town is quieter and more authentic. For us it would mean biking back which would take too much time off the day.

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We do take a detour when Oliver on Canondale lefty mountain bike passes us and invites to try some cheese he makes in his factory, with his brothers. 8,000 liters milk per day resulting in 2,500 kg cheese which is mainly sold in Bogota and their own shop. 3 brothers run the factory, Oliver taking care of admin, one brother taking care of production with a real nice clean room, one brother focused on sales. Great compact double pressed cheese with guava dried fruit is a powerful energy source. Thanks again Oliver!

Just before this small factory tucked in between the two sides of the highway we see a large Bavaria factory, they produce beer, but is not related to the Dutch Bavaria. It was founded by German immigrant Leo Kopp in 1889. It is now part of Anheuser-Bush Inbev (that also owns Hoegaarden beer, my hometown beer) and the leading beer company in Colombia with brands as: Aguila, Poker, Club Colombia, Pilsen, Costena. And we thought they were all from different suppliers.

Arriving in a Tunja, where we are happy to find Posada Santa Elena which allows us to use their tiny kitchen. I go on discovery to see if I can find some different fruits and vegetables, serving the best mushroom/chicken cream pasta in a very long time to my starving husband. Nice to sleep in a good bed, this time Frank does not need to prepare breakfast.

Only 40km and as it is over asphalt and lots of downhill we already arrive before lunch. On the way we have to stop at this coffee place, show that you are entering a more wealthy region. Seems that it is a house and somebody does lives here but has converted the place to a coffee place as he is the whole day away from home. Great idea!

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We find a hostel just outside the old centre with a shared kitchen and living area, blessed that we are the only guests. Main reason for the detour is the largest square in South America, quite impressive.

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It is an interesting city with some nice, basic museums, e.g. Casa Luis Alberto Acuña (1904-1993) – Luis Alberto Acuña Tapias that gives insight in the life of this renowned artist (hope my brother also gets a museum!) and Casa Antonio Nariño – Casa Antonio Nariño teaches us about the independence from Spain.

When we are having a coffee, a member of the Raptors MTB club passes by and invites us for a photo. Seems this city is really dedicated to biking as they have +250 active members. In the evening it is again very difficult to find food but finally we do find a hotel serving steak with fries as we would have served it 30 years ago (French bistro style). Hopefully this meal will give us some extra strength for tomorrow.

Day starts with a nice climb out of the city and a lot of bikers passing us. On this Saturday a 45km round trip has been organized where this climb is included. At the top fruit and water is distributed and they share it with us. It is definitively an area worth riding. From the top it is 40, yes 40 km downhill. Most is asphalt but also some dusty parts, with almost no traffic.

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Final 10 km is uphill and in Borbur we want to check if we can sleep/camp at the swimming pool. We can camp as all cabanas are occupied and after having pushed the bikes up to the entrance we get the good news there is one cabana available. As we want to leave tomorrow at 6.30 we decide for a room so packing will be easier. And what a wise decision as in the evening a thunderstorm not only lights the sky but drenched the whole surrounding for hours. So happy to be inside! And happy we took a dip just before sunset. Beautiful place overlooking the valley.


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