Cycling on Rough Tracks up to 3616m in Santander and Boyaca, Colombia – Charala to Duitama

It was absolute bliss to leave the busy main roads we had been cycling on up to now in Colombia and head to the peace and quiet of rough track cycling for 6 days from Zapatoca in Santander to Duitama in Boyaca.


Leaving Zapatoca we headed steeply down on a variety of lumpy rock and mud tracks that were also used by the occasional bus, farm truck and of course the ubiquitous motorcycles, so it was well churned up and pot holed.p1010918It took me a while to get used to riding my Fat Bike over large rocks, as unlike mountain bikes with suspension, Fat Bikes with their large tyres tend to bounce, along with the panniers and rider. So it was slow going to start with until I fully believed that the bike really would go over anything I pointed it at, however impossible it seemed.

The lumpy terrain also tested all the nuts and bolts on the bikes and found a problem on mine. I had a terrifying, slow motion moment as I watched my two front panniers turn upside down and the front wheel cycle over my front rack. Luckily I had nothing on the top of the rack so the bike took this in its stride and just rolled over it. I had been expecting an instant stop and a trip over the handlebars!p1010691Although lovely Zapatoca had been very busy with its festivals and fair so it was great to cycle into the tiny pueblo of La Fuente with its old colonial buildings and just a few local people pottering about.p1010692As usual we soon drew a crowd, this time I think it was the whole village as we stopped next to a handwritten restaurant sign outside an old building with an timeless inner courtyard. The little boys wanted to push any button they could find and be filmed on the GoPro.p1020686After our second breakfast of the day a mountain biker also arrived, he was staying in the village, and as usual had to have a go on my bike. Luckily he made it around the plaza without incident amid the cheers from the villagers. As always we were really welcomed by the friendly Colombians and I think it was the nicest village we have yet been to.p1020699He cycled with us for a while, but he stopped by the river for a swim as he had been out since dawn (as had we). The next section down to Galan was steeper and rougher as it had more traffic, although still only occasional, and was very dusty. We soon discovered the reason for the traffic and why we had passed so many horses being washed in the river; there was a major fair underway in the town. Around the plaza were the usual sweet stalls and stalls cooking a variety of meat from the unappetising looking smoked meat,p1020728 the large variety of sausages and of course, as always, hugh vats of soup in cauldrons over open fires.p1020729 And it would not be a Colombian festival if there was not a large stage belting out loud music.

We left our bikes being photographed by a member of the Colombian army with a machine gun and went for lunch. Who was going to argue with him! p1020731While we were eating two more came along, one with a snipers rifle, so our bikes were quite safe.

Amid a great fanfare about 60 horsemen and womenp1020756-1 appeared on small but highly bred and well trained horses.p1020771-1 Many of them had been trained to do a very fast trot with tiny steps which you can see a bit of on the video.p1020767-1  We decided to stay in the town for the night to watch all the other antics and booked into a small hotel that forgot to tell us they had no water until after we had paid (we were covered in red dust!). When you watch the video you need to know that the first section was happening at 4:30 in the morning after a massive volley of fireworks at 4:00 a.m.

We had a short section of tarmac the following day as we had planned to go to San Gil, the centre of adventure sports in the area, but probably unfairly, we took one look at the busy, fume filled, dirty town and decided to keep cycling.p1020858 It was all a bit much after the lovely quiet countryside we had just come from. We were picked up by a passing  road biker and shown how to get out of town.

The road quickly deterioratedp1020879 back to a mixture of mud and tarmacp1020869 when we reached the incredible small town of Charala. We were a bit tired having done two days cycle in one go, but as soon as we arrived, almost with no time to get off the bike, we were welcomed to the town by quite a group of people, all of whom, amazingly,spoke English, the first English we had heard for about 4 weeks. p1020889They seemed amazed and pleased that we knew of their town and that we had bothered to come there. In fact it is a beautiful town and I would definitely recommend a visit.

Generally they were all a bit worried about our planned route on the rough track, up over the mountains at 3600m. We were told it would be very difficult and steep, in fact it was hard even in a 4 wheel drive vehicle. We would also have to carry all our food for 3 days. In the end they rang a wonderful lady called Adrianna, who lived in the first tiny village that we would go through on the track. She would cook for us and find us a bed for the night. We just hoped we would find somewhere to camp the following night.

One of the people we met was Eduardo, p1020892who has been a mining engineer all his life, and he was indeed mine of information about the town. It may be small but it had played a vital role in the battle for independence from the Spanish. There was going to be a decisive battle in Boyaca, at the end of the road that we were heading out on. The Spanish army was about to march through Charala on the way to the battle. A local hero, called Jose Blas Acevedo y Gomez rallied the local villagers and farmers to stand against the Spanish army.p1020899 They did and 300 of them were killed, but they delayed the Spaniards long enough for the battle in Boyaca to be won by the Colombians and independence achieved. We visited a very prolific artist’s studio, Jaime Guevara, p1020912who has painted the suffering of the Colombian people, both historically as above or in his experience of the recent past, particularly the exploitation of children by all the paramilitary groups.

It rained heavily all night and we now saw why they had such high pavements with the houses built still higher off the road. Perhaps builders in England could take a lesson from this in areas that flood! p1020937 So the track was really puddled, wet and slippery when we set off at 5:40 the following morning.p1020967 I have to admit to being very nervous after seeing the concern of the local people, and we had agreed that if we found it too hard we would turn back and go around on the road (although I think we both knew that we would never actually do this).p1010845The first day of the ride was really hard, for me anyway not being so good at off road riding and generally a bit of a coward. This section had been heavily used by farm vehicles and was badly cut up, with major sections of what mountain bikers call “rock gardens”. It was also very wet and slippery, which of course would not have mattered so much if I had been cycling quicker. Knowing that we had a further 85kms of this, some of it much steeper was much in my mind.p1010962 But as we got into the day the scenery was mind-blowing and it was just so peaceful. We just hadn’t been anywhere like this before and there was just no way that I was going to give up and go back.p1010940The road flattened off as we rolled into the hamlet of Virolin where we were going to spend the night.p1030043 Our directions had been the 4th house past the church, and there were only about 6 houses anyway. We were welcomed into Adrianna’s house where her extended family were staying for the holiday, then shown to the village community hall that some volunteers were doing up with a few bedrooms where we would spend that night. p1010862Adrianna’s nephew took us down to the river, that was a deep red from the red soil and iron, for a lovely refreshing swimp1020995 before a most delicious lunch alongside grandad, her two sisters and brother and their families.  p1030036Local recipes and produce of thick meat soup with a variety of beans, a sort of paella, yucca and green bananas fried in butter made on the farm, followed by home bottled peaches and coffee. Later that night after another delicious meal including Adrianna’s home made cheese, we played some complicated board games with the family and managed to win one round despite all the rules being in Spanish.20170110_192033Again it rained heavily overnight, so after a quiet 5:30 breakfast, so as not to wake the rest of the family, we headed down to the only way across the deep, fast flowing river; a very old, wooden slatted rope bridge, that was very slippery. Luckily as Oscar had wanted to try out my bike he was up and about, so after he had ridden it for a bitp1010884 he kindly offered to take it across the bridge, I don’t think I could have done it.p1010866This is one of the reasons that the village is so quiet, and why only 20 people now live there.

p1030051 There was a road bridge that linked them to the outside world, and there had been a bus from Duitama to Charala that went through the village.  But in 2014 the old bridge collapsed, and a contractor was chosen to replace it with a bigger bridge and improve the road, but he hired a subcontractor who did not have the right experience and continuous delays have meant it never got built. It is now supposed to be done by 2017, but it is unlikely. We found the same type of story at the end of 85kms of dirt road, in Boyaca, suddenly the dirt road turned into smart, new, wide highway with expensive viaducts. But it didn’t go anywhere, and we ended up back on dirt road after 5kms about 10 kms before we got to the town. Naturally there were no cars on it as it didn’t go anywhere. Apparently they got some money for tourist focused roads, but most of the money went elsewhere so instead of 12 kms only 5kms got built, and the cuttings were dug at too steep an angle and not supported in anyway so are collapsing already everytime it rains as we found out later.p1010850So what was to us an idyllic, quiet and tranquil backwater was a bit of a nightmare for local people trying to earn a living. p1030065As a result of no traffic the next section was lovely to cycle and mostly a qentle gradient. p1030076We could watch the early clouds rising from the trees that were covered in a massive variety of bromliads.p1030055 I think I will do a separate blog on the flowers as there were just too many. It was simply an unbelievable experience being here. p1030092Occasionally we came across a small holding farm, and if they were about they would chat to us.p1030104 The land looked very fertile, but also seemed to hold a lot of water, so as well as brahman cattlep1030111 and what looked very like Jersey cows there were water buffelo, p1010923goats, sheep and lots ofchickens everywhere.p1020975 Each time we passed a farm all their dogs would come out and sound very agressive, but none of them ever actually attacked us.

We were feeling good when we came across what can only be described as a blot on the beautiful landscape. It was a Tao Commune and seemed like a throw-back to the 1960’s.  There are about 300 people living in this remote spot at any one time and as well as tents they had built very elaborate expensive looking wooden houses that could have graced any well heeled Swiss chocolate box village, as they said that concrete and bricks interfered with their karma. I always try to keep an open mind so we listened to what they had to say and accepted an invitation to have breakfast with them. We were led through their massive entrance gates, like an iron age village, into what seemed like a small town. They kindly fed us a cold soup made from the Tomato Tree fruit, Tamarillo (Solanum betaceum)p1030137 which they say has special properties and helps to cleanse you (they were right about that in a manner of speaking!) and a rather grim sweet pasty.  p1030119We were just making our excuses to escape when the head person of the Commune arrived and wanted to give us a blessing first. Well, in for a penny … . This involved walking across the freezing river and standing in cold water while he mumbled things that were supposed to give us more energy. Unfortunately as I needed more energy later I can say that it did not work. I had always thought that in Communes all people were equal but watching what was going on here I could not help but think the Orwellian thought that “some are more equal than others”.

p1030108All the cars of the Tao Commune had really ripped up the road for the rest of the trip, and I hate to think what 300 people over several years all relieving themselves in the forest was doing the the environment. All the local people we met after that were very suspicious of us until we assured them we had nothing to do with the temple. They were upset about the damage to their road and the affect of so many people coming to their tiny remote community.

Our route was starting to get steeper and we could see no sign of a village with a basketball court that Adrianna had said we would be able to camp on.  I was just at the stage where I could go no further when it miraculously appeared.p1030151 The village hall could have housed everyone in the village 10 times over and the basketball court and playground had fallen into disrepair and no one needed it. It was a beautiful place to camp and we awoke to a stunning sunrise.p1030154I was by now really  feeling the altitude. We had slept at 2500m and were going up to 3615m today. We should probably have spent a few days at our overnight height but we did not have enough food and hoped that by climbing high but getting over the top so we could sleep low all would be OK. That day was probably the hardest day of my life. I felt I had no energy and was only abe to cycle for 10 minutes at a time. I even struggled to push the bike, but had to ride through the areas of deep red gloopy mud.p1030160 Luckily I did have enough energy to look around as the views were unbelievable. All the vegetation was also changing and it became weirdly like England except with brighter light, even down to the roadside foxgloves and crocosmia. It was a bit strange seeing all the eucalyptus trees though. As we got higher the soil must have got a lot more acid, as the vegetation reduced in height and looked much more ericaceous.  p1030216Somehow, I don’t know how, we got near the top and the landscape changed again to the alien looking Paramo. p1030219This is an area above 3600m that is unique to south America were there is very young soil that holds a lot of water and has very little nutrients. There are no trees, mainly grass and weird looking spiky plants.

We hardly had time to appreciate this when a massive thunderstorm started directly overhead, with no gap between the lighting and thunder. Followed swiftly by hail then torrential rain. This was when we luckily found the road to nowherep1030222 which we shot down as fast as we could go, as the top of a mountain is no place to be in a thunderstorm. Although we were wearing waterproof coats we hadn’t  wanted to stop in the thunderstorm to rummage in our panniers for the rest of our waterproofs. I was just hoping our big rubber tyres would be enough in a lightening strike. So within minutes we were soaked through and numb with cold. Added to that the heavy rain was bringing down red mud and rocks from the steep unsupported cuttings. That was the moment the road chose to up steeply again. The only thing that got me up there was fear of staying where I was. Luckily, as we hit the end of the tarmac the road  was dropping again and we could see sunshine and warmth in the valley below us.p1030209We eventually rolled into the bright, sunny town of Duitama soaked to the skin, frozen and covered in mud. We must of looked like an alien species. We booked into the most comfortable hotel we could see, checked they actually had hot water (a rarity here),  and after a hot shower colasped into bed at 4 in the afternoon.

Despite all this effort I would not have missed it for the world, it was an incredible experience.

I would like to thank Diego from Bucaramanga who put up the route we are following on his website . He also has other routes that take you off the beaten track if anyone else is cycling this area.