Riding in Colombia: Taking the plunge

 All photos in this post by Joolze Dymond

I can almost set my watch to it, I'm talking about the email that arrives in my inbox every week from someone in the United States or Europe, asking for details about riding a bike in Colombia. Their questions are completely understandable. After all, while endless amounts of knowledge and information exists about riding a bike through places like France or Italy, there's relatively little out there about Colombia. More often than not, the people who email me are interested in riding new roads, learning about a new culture, and in some cases want to get away from the awful winters that plague the places where they live. Their questions range from "can I rent a bike while I'm in Bogota", to "I'm already here in Colombia, but I'm having trouble explaining that I need a new hub to the people in the bike shop. What's the best word for 'hub' in Colombian Spanish?" 

While I'm able to field many of these questions, and am endlessly thrilled by the prospect of visitors wanting to enjoy Colombia's roads, I've also become aware of just how little information on the matter is out there. To that end, I've decided to share information about cycling (road cycling in particular) in Colombia whenever possible here on the blog. 

Today's post is my first offering with this purpose in mind. It's an interview with David Hall, a product manager at SaddleSkedaddle, a UK based company that offers cycling trips to Colombia. While some cyclists prefer to go it alone, many of those who email me are looking for a company or service that provides organized packages. It's for this reason that I decided to interview David, who has led trips to Colombia over the last few years. 

This post is not a paid commercial in any way. I simply reached out to David in order to gain greater insight into what they do. Additionally, I should admit that I'm simply fascinated by, and thankful to those who choose to see beyond the commonly held image of Colombia as a violent and dangerous place.

How long has Saddle Skedaddle been in business, and how did the company start?

Saddle Skedaddle has been in business for just over 15 years and was really “born” when the 2 founder members, Paul Snedker and Andrew Straw, still at the helm today and both leading tours, embarked on their very own cycling tour of South America. Upon reaching the southern tip of Chile in 1996 they couldn’t bear the thought of going back to “normal” jobs and decided there and then to create a company offering other cyclists the opportunity to enjoy what they had experienced.

The rest is history and here we are today offering tours around the globe. The company caters for cyclists of all levels and there is something in the range for everyone whether you be a road cyclist, mountain biker, cycle tourist or leisure rider.

How did you come to choose Colombia as a possible cycling destination?
I’ve always enjoyed traveling in Latin American countries, I’m a cycling enthusiast and I love mountains – what better country exists than Colombia to tick all three boxes?

I read  Matt Rendell’s book  “Kings of the Mountains: How Colombia's Cycling Heroes Changed Their Nation's History” a few years ago and had been intrigued by the idea of riding in Colombia’s mountains ever since. I was curious and wondered how I would fair at high altitude. I’d also been hearing from friends that Colombia was incredibly beautiful and that it was much safer than everyone would have you believe. I decided to give it a go so I made contact with a local cyclist via the internet, turned up in Bogotá with a bike and headed to the hills. I fell in love with everything almost immediately! It didn’t take me very long to start fantasising about sharing the experience with Skedaddle clients.

With so many possible cycling routes in Colombia, how did you choose where you'd take clients?
I did some research, bought some maps, read some books – all the usual stuff. There is only so much that you can glean from maps and books though and local knowledge is really invaluable and really important when planning a tour, especially one on which you intend to take paying clients. I mentioned previously that I had made contact with a local cyclist. Tomás Castrillon is a Bogota-based cyclist with a tremendous knowledge and deep love of his country and after spending a few days riding with him we started to discuss the possibility of putting a trip together that we could offer commercially. I returned to UK but our discussions continued. We had a basic idea what we wanted to achieve but we wanted to carry out a full reconnaissance of the route together before offering it to clients. I returned a few months later intending to ride the entire route but unfortunately the rainy season had been a little heavier and longer than we had hoped and many of the roads we were hoping to ride were in need of attention. We rode as much as we could but we didn’t manage to scout the entire route so I returned a few months later to complete the reconnaissance.

The route was fantastic but it was tough! I had always wanted it to be a challenge but I felt that it was just a little bit too much for the average recreational rider likely to join a Skedaddle tour. It took Tomás a little while to understand that not everyone has the same ability as the average Colombian rider! Anyway we made some adjustments, softened it slightly and finished with wonderful, dramatic and still very challenging but thoroughly manageable route.

Have you found much apprehension from clients about safety or the image that Colombia tends to have in the eyes of many?
There is some apprehension yes, but not actually not as much as I expected. I am able to identify with that though, I was apprehensive myself at first and was aware the country’s history. I think the Colombian authorities and the Tourism Office have worked very hard over recent years to portray the country in a realistic light. The fact that I’ve been to Colombia a number of times now and the fact that I can describe it first hand to prospective clients is really helpful.

I’ve only ever had pleasant and positive experiences in Colombia and I can enthuse about it when people enquire. Of course we all need to be sensible when we travel and there are regions in Colombia, as there are in most countries, that we might choose to avoid on a bike trip but overall Colombia is safe to visit and I think people are, at last, beginning to realize that things have changed

Typical Colombian "tienda", a convenience store/cafe/restaurant that exists in many different iterations throughout the country in both rural and metropolitan settings.

What part of the trip have your clients enjoyed the most? A particular climb? The food? The people?
The food is amazing of course, the scenery is awesome and the climbs are magnificent. But the enduring memory for most us tends to be the warmth and hospitality extended by the local people. I travel the world for a living and Colombian people are some of the most welcoming and genuinely friendly people I have encountered.

What type of accommodations, transportation or other services can people expect during a trip to Colombia with a company like yours?
The standard of accommodation available to tourists is surprisingly high in Colombia. It didn’t take me long to realise that while the rest of the world has been staying away, Colombians have been developing and enjoying their own country as tourists and the facilities are plentiful and sophisticated. With all Skedaddle tours we try to support local people and local business, and whilst we do stay in some “Tourist Class” hotels in some destinations we also make use of more typical accommodations in others. The smaller hotels and guesthouses we use in Colombia tend to be the ones that most clients enjoy the most.

Our tours are fully supported. That means we have at least two riding guides on the road with the clients at all times and we have at least one (depending on the group size) support vehicle accompanying the riders. The vehicle has capacity for tired riders, we carry spares, tools, equipment and of course all the luggage from place to place. Staff are First Aid trained and have good bike mechanic skills. Traditional breakfast is included and we provide a hearty lunch every riding day. Evening meals are included in some of the more rural areas that we visit, whereas we like to give clients the choice about what and where to eat when we are in the bigger towns and cities.

Airport pickups and transfers are included and we can arrange extras nights’ accommodation and extensions (on or off the bike) if required

From your experience, how does a trip to Colombia differ from one to more standard cycling destinations (Italy, France etc)?
Apart from the obvious differences in culture and landscape the things that stands out as different is the scale of things. Everything in Colombia just seems enormous! Obviously I’m referring to the mountains and the natural landscape but it goes beyond that, the smiles on faces of the children seem bigger, the personalities of the local people seem bigger, the music seems louder and the dancing in the discotheques (and bars, streets, front rooms!) seems sexier.

As for the cycling? Well that’s bigger too – where else can you be busy on one single climb for more than 50 miles!

Translation: "For he will command his angels to guard you in all your travels"

Your groups have taken on the legendary Alto De Letras. Any words of wisdom for readers who may choose to take this monster on themselves at some point?
Show respect but don’t be afraid. Just relax and enjoy the ride! The Alto De Letras is a fantastic experience to be savoured. Most of us don’t have the legs or the lungs to race up a climb like Letras so it makes sense to tackle it at a steady pace and take time to enjoy the views. Approached like that it is, I believe, a very achievable challenge for most reasonably fit riders.

Also be prepared for changes in the weather and particularly changes in temperature. With a guided tour such as ours that isn’t an issue because your extra layers, waterproofs, gloves etc can be stashed in the support vehicle. But if you’re going alone you’d be foolish not carry an extra layer– especially if you’re going to descend the other side. Finally listen to what your body is telling you and don’t push too hard, especially for the later stages when the altitude starts to kick in.

What advice would you give to cyclists looking to visit Colombia?
Obviously I would advise them to sign up for a Skedaddle tour – you could do a lot worse! But seriously, if that’s not an option, I would advise to do some thorough research before, and if possible seek out some local riders to share the experience with. Don’t be put off by horror stories but at the same time use common sense and listen to advice about where and where not to ride. Pay attention to weather and road conditions. Travel with a companion. Interact with local people, eat local food, stay in typical accommodation and support local communities. Treat local people with respect and smile! Smiles go a long way in most countries!

Where have you found the best riding within Colombia?
That is a really difficult question to answer – there is so much to choose from. I’m keen on mountain riding and obviously Alto De Letras stands out. I also love the sections between Medellin and Yarumal and Yarumal and Monteria. The descent from just beyond Yarumal as you head towards the coast is incredible and has to be ridden to be believed!

What do you wish people would know about Colombia, that they don't already know because of how the nation is often portrayed in the media?
Basically they should stop listening to the hype and the horror stories and speak to people who know the truth. We’ve heard so much over the years of drugs, guerrillas, paramilitaries and corruption and nobody can deny the troubled history—those things have left their mark on the Colombia but there is so much more. So many positive things to enjoy. Things have really changed and the media’s portrayal is usually unfair and biased. Without a doubt people are catching on though and I would encourage anyone contemplating a visit to take the plunge – get there before the crowds!