Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Cycling in Colombia: My 5-Month Adventure & Alto de Letras

In October 2011, I flew to Medellin to spend two months cycling in Colombia. My primary goal was to climb Alto de Letras, Colombia's biggest mountain pass. But I found much more in Colombia and ended up staying for five months. This post is a short story about my adventure.

Date: 7.30am, February 16, 2012
Location: Mariquita, Colombia
Altitude: 492 meters

I was standing at the outskirts of a small town named Mariquita, located at the eastern foot of Colombia’s Andes Mountains. A 10% wall loomed in front of me, and that was just the beginning of an 80km climb that rises 3,800 vertical meters to a mountain pass named Alto de Letras.

I felt both excited and nervous about what lay ahead. All cyclists know the feeling – we all get it in the hours before an epic ride. Its part of the experience. Today would be the biggest climb of my life and it would complete my 8-month quest to cross the world’s greatest mountain passes.

But lets back up. How did I get to Colombia?

I am originally from New Zealand. In 1998, I moved to Boston, Massachusetts for work. And in early 2011, I decided to return to NZ, but not before spending the summer cycling in Europe.

Many of you have been to Europe so I won’t dwell on it. I rented an apartment in Barcelona and it became my base of operations. I followed Le Tour for three days in the Pyrenees, spent two weeks in Nice and the southern Alps with friends, went back to the Pyrenees and Basque Country for nine days with another friend, climbed the Dolomites for eight days, spent another two weeks in the Alps, and completed numerous rides around Barcelona and Catalonia.

Europe’s mountain passes are addictive. I found myself wanting more and more elevation gain on each ride, each week, and each trip. Col de la Bonette is Europe’s highest paved mountain pass. I conquered the 2,802 meter summit within two weeks of my arrival. Standing on top of Europe felt awesome, but I knew there was more.

I rode La Marmotte two weeks later. La Marmotte is a 184km ride with total elevation gain of 5,200 meters. It crosses Col du Glandon (Hors Categorie), Col de Telegraph (Cat-1), Col du Galibier (HC), and then finishes at Alpe D’Huez (HC). I crossed many of the great passes that summer, including Tourmalet, Pailheres, Stelvio and Gavia. A four thousand meter ride became the norm.

Europe was superb. The mountains were stunningly beautiful, I fulfilled my lifelong dream of riding grand-tour mountain stages, and I met hundreds of cycling addicts from all around the world. But I wasn’t quite satisfied. I knew I could find bigger climbs on another continent.

By mid-September, I was back in Boston and supposedly returning to New Zealand, one-way, four weeks later.

I started researching Colombia. I had found a Colombian cycling blog a year earlier, and I spent a week in Cartagena (without my bike) in 2009. Colombia had always remained in the back of my mind. This trip would be with my bike.

After a few hours of web research, I found a climb called Alto de Letras. But what I read could not be right. The blog said the climb was 80km in length with 3,800 meters of vertical gain! Why hadn’t I ever heard of Letras before? This is way too good to be true. Europe’s biggest giants pale in comparison: Stelvio - 24km and 1,800 meters; Bonette - 26km and 1,650 meters; Galibier - 35km and 1,900 meters. I studied Letras on a topographical map to double-check. It was true.

I landed in Medellin two weeks later.

By day three in Colombia, I was watching the Clasico RCN stage-race, Colombia’s second most famous stage-race (after the Vuelta a Colombia). Four of us rode out of Medellin early in the morning to watch the pros cross Alto de Minas, Colombia’s “third most mythical climb.” Watching a professional stage race in Colombia is just the same as watching a professional stage race in Europe. There is plenty of bike-bling, brightly painted team cars narrowly missing their own cyclists and adoring spectators, fans waiting for hours to catch a fleeting glimpse of their favorite athletes, and the retired ex-pros either hanging around or commentating for TV and radio (I met Oliverio Rincon, an ex-ONCE rider, with stage wins in the Giro, Tour, and Vuelta).

Just as Venezuela excels at baseball and Argentina is uniquely passionate about polo, Colombia is obsessed with cycling. Few people realize that Colombians hold numerous palmares in world professional cycling, including: 19% of all Grand-Tour ‘King of the Mountains’ classifications since 1983, the one-hour record (Martin Cochise Rodriguez in 1970), a Grand-Tour GC winner (Lucho Hererra in the 1987 Vuelta a Espana), 2nd overall GC Vuelta a Espana (Fabio Parra in 1989), 3rd overall GC in Tour de France (Fabio Parra in 1988), a world time-trial champion (Santiago Botero in 2002), and dozens of Grand-Tour stage wins. The Vuelta a Colombia is the longest running stage race in all of the Americas (every year since 1951). And finally, Colombia sent 32 journalists to cover the 1983 Tour de France; more than all the other foreign journalists combined.

Colombia’s obsession with cycling is unique in Latin America. The sport of bicycle racing was ‘imported’ in the early 1950s at a time when an horrific civil war was ripping Colombia apart. The nation’s leaders believed that a national sporting event, such as a Tour of Colombia, could unite the country. The Vuelta a Colombia was born a year later, threading a route through all corners of the country. The organizers found themselves with several very charismatic, likeable personalities in the peloton, and the country’s major newspaper, El Tiempo, covered (and sponsored) the race in dramatic detail. Colombians from all over the country tuned their radios each day to listen to the race live. And so the seeds were sown.

Again in the 1980s, cycling helped lift Colombia out of dark days. As Medellin was becoming the murder capital of the world, the next generation of cyclists, Lucho Herrera and Fabio Parra (known locally as the Escarabajos or ‘Beetles’) were racing for Team Café de Colombia in Europe’s Grand Tours. The Escarabajos’ success, as well as the excitement of the numerous domestic races, helped distract Colombians from the drug-related violence plaguing their country. (This was despite the fact that Pablo Escobar’s brother, Roberto, sponsored Team Ositto, a professional domestic team of the 1980s).

Today, cycling’s importance in Colombia sits somewhere between soccer and Jesus with Rigoberto Uran, Mauricio Soler, and Darwin Atapuma making sports headlines in Europe and the US. 

The majority of Colombia’s greatest cyclists grew up in one of two cycling epicenters: Antioquia and Boyaca. The Andes run through both regions creating the perfect training environment, complete with massive climbs and high altitude living. Many cyclists in the Andean regions pride themselves as pure climbers. They are more at home on a 1,500 meter climb than anywhere else. I even met one cyclist who detests riding on flat roads. Just to cycle out of Medellin towards the east, west, or south involves a 1,000 meter climb. Consider that the warm-up.

I found that many Colombians don’t even realize the enormity of cycling in their own country; the reason being that they don’t have a benchmark for comparison. They see cyclists everywhere but assume its normal. Only foreigners, like me, have a basis for comparison. Growing up in Auckland and seeing sailboats littered all over the harbor is probably a good analogy.

Two different categories of cyclists exist in Colombia. The first are those who ride brand new Pinarellos, Colnagos, and Treks. They have the latest equipment and wear sharp, clean kits. In the second category are the cyclists from the barrios. They ride bicycles handed-down from their fathers, brothers, and cousins, and wear older kits. Its the retro look, but not in the Rapha sense.

I met a cyclist from the San Cristobal barrio one day, named Diego Ortiz Delgado. I was climbing out of Medellin towards the west, about 30km into a 180km ride, when I heard a cyclist approaching from behind. I turned to see a twenty-something year-old riding a bicycle that was at least as old. It had a steel frame with shifters on the down-tube. With my Spanglish, it didn’t take Diego more than three words to figure out that I was a gringo. We chatted and ended up riding together to Santa Fe de Antioquia. As the day went on, Diego told me of his championship trophies. Like most Colombians, he is a climber.

As I stopped for lunch, I realized Diego didn’t bring any money. Instead he carried just a few blocks of bocadillo in his jersey pocket (bocadillo is guava paste that was carried by the Café de Colombia pros in the 1980s. Many Colombians who cannot afford expensive energy gels still eat bocadillo). Diego works six days per week in a factory to support his mother, father, and three siblings. But he makes the time to train and wins amateur races. And Diego likes to discuss the same topics as every other cyclist: European Grand-Tours, his base-build-peak periodization, the joy of suffering, and post-ride nutrition.

I visited Diego and his family several times at their apartment. They are a friendly family and intrigued by the fact a Kiwi would travel to Colombia to ride a bicycle.

Another memorable encounter is a Colombian I met named Alex Restrepo. I carry one spare tube and one Co2 cartridge with me, since I tend to puncture once or twice per year. On this day, I planned a 180km loop that would take me south of Medellin to Bolombolo, and then return by crossing Alto de Minas (Colombia’s ‘third most mythical climb’ as Colombians describe it). A piece of glass pierced my rear tire 50km into the ride. No problem. I replaced the tube and was back in the saddle within a few minutes.

Forty kilometers later, I punctured again. Shit. I was at the farthest point from Medellin on my loop. The road had very little traffic; normally something I prefer, but not at this moment.

I didn’t know what to do. This was a remote part of the countryside. Colombia was still very new to me, my Spanish was terrible, my cell phone didn’t have any service, and I hadn’t seen any cyclists for a long time who might be able to lend a spare tube.

Within a couple of minutes, a guy on a motorbike stopped beside me. We could barely communicate, but he realized I needed a bike shop. He kindly offered me a ride on the back of his motorbike. I looked at him, and pointed to my bike as if to say “and what about my bike? I can’t leave it here.” He then motioned to swing the bike over my shoulder.

This was a crazy idea, but I didn’t have any other options. I got on the back of the motorbike and put my life in his hands. I just hoped that he really was taking me to the nearest bike shop (15km away in La Pintada). I used my right hand to keep my bike on my shoulder, and my left hand to hold on around his waist. We drove at high speed, only slowing slightly for road sections in desperate need of repair. I held on tight.

I wouldn’t say that I was scared of where we might be going or what might happen, but I was on high alert. I had no reason to be concerned, except that I was a foreigner alone in a remote part of Colombia.

I assumed Alex wanted money, so once he dropped me off at a bike-shop in La Pintada I offered him 10,000 pesos (approximately $5). He refused and replied: ”No, tranquilo, esto es lo que hacemos los Colombianos” (“No, don’t worry, that’s how Colombians are”). Alex asked for my email address and Facebook info, and then he was off.

I finished my ride with a 1,900 meter climb up the 40km slope of Alto de Minas. It was 2+ hours of hard work, especially in the first 10km where the temperature was in the mid-30s. At one point, a car slowed and pulled up beside me. The passenger rolled down the window and extended her hand. I gladly took the bottle of water and said ‘gracias’. That evening, I emailed Alex Restrepo to thank him again.

Over October and November of 2011, I did a lot of cycling. I covered all the big climbs around Medellin several times and made of lot of good friends. La Nina arrived in December dumping torrential rain 6 days per week. I had to put my cycling on hold. Its just not safe to ride the Andes in wet conditions.

January brought good weather. I was back on my Trek and training for Letras.

My girlfriend, Camila, and I planned our Letras trip for mid-February. My form wasn’t great, but it was good enough. On Wednesday, February 15th, we drove six hours from Medellin to Mariquita, at the foot of Letras. We checked-into a hotel and then headed to the supermarket to buy supplies for the next day: 5 liters of Gatorade, sandwiches, bananas, and bocadillo.

I was feeling confident, although I was facing two massive unknowns. The first was the length. Who has ever climbed for 80km? Who has even heard of an 80km climb? Eighty kilometers is a decent workout on a flat road! And second, friends in Medellin had warned me about the high-altitude. Letras reaches 3,704 meters. Most people feel altitude at around 2,500-2,800 meters. I had been at 2,802 meters on Col de la Bonette in France and I felt fine, but Letras is 900 meters higher. The best thing I could do, they suggested, was to climb at a moderate pace, and finish a bidon of Gatorade every 45 minutes.

I was happy to tackle Letras at a moderate pace. My goal was simple: enjoy the day. The last thing I wanted was to attack an Andean monster at a record pace and miss everything because I was staring at my own front wheel.

Camila and I got up early the next day and hit the road at 7.30am. Her car was packed with the supermarket supplies, as well as extra layers in case of bad weather. I warmed-up for a few minutes in downtown Mariquita and then set my Garmin.

Letras starts at an altitude of 492 meters where the vegetation is tropical and lush. The birds are bright colors and the early morning sun quickly heats the heavy air. The sky above is a beautiful blue. The first few kilometers are relatively steep (~10%) but I barely noticed. I was too excited.

Letras crosses the northern slopes of Colombia’s highest peak, Nevado del Ruiz, a snow-capped volcano that reaches 5,321 meters into the atmosphere. Nevado Del Ruiz erupted in 1985 killing 23,000 people, making it the fourth deadliest volcanic eruption in recorded history. The deaths were a result of mud and ash lahars flowing down the eastern slopes and burying the village of Armero.

(Nevado del Ruiz had been quiet since 1985 until the week after my Letras crossing. An increase in seismic activity and sudden ash plumes led the government to raise the threat level to ‘orange’ signaling an eruption could occur within ‘days or weeks. In April, a 2km ash plume occurred, at which time the threat level was raised to red. There has not been an eruption as of the time of this writing).

The road up to Letras takes two steps forward and one step back. Its very frustrating. Every few kilometers is another descent. Sometimes, the descent is only 10-20 meters, but other times its 50-100 meters. I have to admit that my legs sighed a breath of relief every time they got a break from the constant work, but by the end of the day, an extra 600 meters of climbing just adds to the pain.

I saw a dozen or so cyclists in the first few kilometers. All were descending from their early morning training rides on Letras’ lower slopes. I was hoping to see others making the pilgrimage to the summit – some camaraderie would’ve been nice – but Camila and I were alone after the first 30 minutes. I guess Letras is not an every-day affair for cyclists, even for Colombians.

There was only one other mention of a “ciclista” over the next 7 hours. I passed through the outskirts of a small village about 40km into the climb. The silence was broken by a small boy, maybe 5 years old, shouting “Ciclista! Ciclista!” He was alerting his younger brother that I was approaching. Moments later, the two of them stood outside their house and watched with curiosity as I pedaled by.

I spent much of the morning trying to pick Letras from the mountains above. I was eager to point up towards the sky and say “That’s Letras! That’s where we’re going!” But I never could. Even in perfect weather conditions, Letras is so far away that its shielded by the surrounding mountains and ridgelines. Instead, its more like a never-ending staircase; you’d prefer to see the last stair so you know your goal. In this case, you can only see the immediate step ahead, and you don’t know how many more steps you have until the top – maybe there are 10 steps, or maybe there are 200.

The road to Letras is very quiet. For long stretches, we didn’t see any people or vehicles. The solitude makes Letras even more special. I had Letras all to myself. We didn’t have to share the mountain with cars, motorbikes, trucks or even any other cyclists. We had a perfect road surface, very little traffic, and peace and quiet. When I got tired of Gatorade and sandwiches, Camila rolled down the car windows and blasted a little salsa or reggaeton.

A thick layer of dark cloud hovered at around 3,200 meters. I could see the cloud smothering the slopes well before I entered. I was worried that the cloud was rain, but luckily, we remained dry. However, the cloud blocked much of the sunlight. Rather than the time being noon or so, it felt like dusk. My photos from 3,200 meters until around 3,500 meters needed a flash. Visibility was so limited by the cloud that I couldn’t see more than 200-300 meters of road in front of me – just enough to see the road disappearing even higher into the cloud.

I’d never been this high before in my life. I felt like we were way, way up in the Andes now. There was an eerie silence and the temperature had dropped significantly. My core and head were still dripping sweat, but my exposed arms could feel the chilly air.

The altitude was starting to make its effects known. I knew to expect any combination of dizziness, headache, shortness of breath, vomiting and/or lightheadedness. I was relieved to find myself with only a moderate headache at the back of my head.

At around 3,500 meters, I suddenly emerged from the thick cloud. The sun beat down again. Now we could see all around us – the terrain was hilly but several ridges converged towards the south. We were traversing in an east-west direction, but it was quite apparent that we were on the northern slopes of the giant Nevado del Ruiz. The vegetation had turned to a light-brown windswept tussock and very few trees survived up here.

The final few kilometers were amazing. I knew I was close to the pass, even though it was still out of sight. My energy suddenly returned. I accelerated and attacked Letras out of the saddle – I couldn’t hold back. It took me 5 hours and 40 minutes to conquer the world’s biggest pass. I crossed Letras feeling victorious. Half of my victory was conquering the world’s biggest pass. The other half was finding this hidden gem, tucked away, high in the Andes, and unknown to the rest of the world.

The pass is not a dramatic crest like Tourmalet or Stelvio. The gradient in the final kilometer is only 1-2%. The road is straight, wide, and in perfect condition. Just think of an American boulevard. There is even a warehouse and a construction project in a large flat field next to the pass. They could build a nice soccer stadium up there. It wasn’t exactly what I was expecting.

We celebrated for a few minutes, snapped some photos and ate a little food. But its not the kind of place you want to hang around wearing only your kit. I hadn’t decided whether I would continue and descend to Manizales on my bike, or jump in Camila’s car and drive down. I expected the weather to make the decision for me.
But, of course, the endorphins were flowing. I pulled-on a wind-proof jacket for protection. The pass is followed by slight left hand turn in the road, signaling the beginning of a 30km descent down to Manizales, at 2,200 meters. The temperature at the Alto was 9 degrees Celsius but it warmed quickly. Ten minutes later, I stopped and put the jacket back in Camila’s car. 

I was glad the descent was only 30km. Long descents are painful on the shoulder blades because all the weight is forward. I got caught behind (and in) a convoy of trucks. Passing trucks on windy, narrow roads is difficult, especially when large sections of road have been washed away by mudslides. (The term ‘technical descent’ has a unique meaning in Colombia).

The Colombian government’s tourism agency produced a TV commercial that ran in several foreign markets (including the US) last year. The tag-line was “Colombia: the only risk is wanting to stay.” A friend told me about the commercial as I was planning my two month trip to Colombia. For me, it turned out to be true. I ended up spending five months in cycling heaven.
Anyone who likes cycling and the adventure of Latin America will love Colombia. Many cyclists have been to the Alps, Pyrenees or Dolomites, but I can promise that Colombia offers a unique terrain, passion, and history that doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world. 

Finally, as far as I know, Letras is the world’s biggest paved mountain pass by elevation gain. Higher passes exist in Asia and South America, but they either don’t have the same altitude gain and/or are unpaved and require a mountain bike.


Click here to view the blog post and photos I published on the day of my Letras ride.

For more information about cycling in Colombia, please visit my blog posts between October 2011 and February 2012 at SwitchbackPublications.blogspot.com


  1. That's a good read and an awesome adventure you had! It sure beats toiling away the winter on an indoor trainer (like I'm doing now).

  2. Duncan - I did Letras yesterday with two other friends. I'm currently trying to load my file so that I can be QOM on Strava ; )

    Your post about the ride helped us a lot. Thanks!

  3. Hi Duncan. Great story, congrats for your success climbing to letras. Am at 5 -days to go and really very excited for this challenge. I will start my journey riding from Bogota until Mariquita. 1-day resting and then will climb to Letras in my way to Manizales. Hope to feel the greatness you felt once you saw Alto de Letras at the top of the mountain. All best!

  4. Hi Duncan, I'm from Washington,DC, I have been living n Manizales almost 5 years. Alto de Letras was pure hell my first 2 attempts 4 years ago I failed!Have completed it 4 times now with friends from the states! The cyclists in Colombia are the friendliest in the World! I'm 6'3" 230 pounds, I get plenty of funny comments from the Colombians as you might imagine. Thanks for your GREAT read and an awesome adventure I just found! Best regards...