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Posted by Editor on 11/28/16
Brendan Matheson went to Colombia at the end of October on our behalf for a cycling trip hosted by the tourism board.
In October 2016 I had the opportunity to tag along on a cycling FAM Tour in Colombia. What's a FAM Tour? It's short for Familiarization Tour. If I could explain it as a metaphor it would be this - if I'm trying to sell a bike, I'm going to get that person to test ride it. They get a feel for the smooth shifting, comfortable ride. Maybe they imagine themselves riding up Alpe d'Huez, winking at some French hotties on a patio as they zoom past on this new 'whip'. Nine times out of ten they will leave the shop with that gorgeous new dream bike. My point is, the best way to sell something is have them try it! That's the point of a FAM Tour. AND IT TOTALLY WORKED! I fell in love with Colombia!
Pro Colombia, the country's tourism organization, hosted an on-road cycling trip for international bicycle touring companies. The goal was to provide them with an idea of what a potential tour would/could look like and, in the end, (hopefully) the guides will book tours to Colombia, providing an experience similar to what we received during the FAM Tour. Pro Colombia wants more tourists to experience their beautiful country by bike which, as I'm sure you could imagine, isn't at the top of most travelers' lists. TV Series like Narco's [a show about Pablo Escobar and his violent drug reign] are not exactly helping Pro Colombia's cause.
Our tour was a six-day trip through the coffee region of Quindo. Each day we would bike approximately 30 - 90 kilometers and then soak in the local culture by touring a local coffee orchard, butterfly sanctuary or even a 5 hour hike through a mountain range called the Cocora Valley (a must see attraction).
We started in Armenia (north of Bogota, Colombia's capital) and biked through small villages and towns, seeking out great views and the popular coffee shops.
We were fortunate enough to have a fantastic group of local guides and our fearless leader, Hernan, owner of a Colombian touring company called Pure Colombia, did an incredible job at tying Colombia's rich heritage in with our daily experiences.
Each day we climbed approximately 1000 metres; mostly category 3 or 4 climbs. Absolutely epic! Totally achievable for most riders, but I do recommend a couple hill intervals pre-trip to prepare. It's difficult to enjoy the views if you are cross-eyed and short on oxygen.
The roads were quite enjoyable to ride - lot's of switchbacks, wide shoulders and motorists were incredibly friendly, providing a friendly honk and the occasional cheering from a small jeep filled up like a clown car - people hanging off the sides, the back and on the roof.
Thinking about booking a trip? This is what your itinerary could look like.
Here is a brief breakdown of our itinerary, similar to something you could book through Pure Colombia:
• Day 1: Pueblo Tapao to Calarcá - 63 kms with 1,000 metres of climbing. Tour of one of Colombia's premier coffee plantation.
• Day 2: Calarcá to Boquía - 31 kms with 730 metres of climbing. Another Coffee Tour (more coffee? Bring it on!)
• Day 3: Boquía to Valle de Cocora - 30 kms and 900 metres of climbing. Tour through the beautiful town of Salento, one of Colombia's top tourism destinations, as it's the gateway to the Cocora Valley.
• Day 4: Hike up the Cocora Valley. A five hour hike with a hummingbird sanctuary at Hour 2. A MUST DO!
• Day 5: Saragoza to Cerritos - 87 kms with 800 metres of climbing. Last day taking us to the city of Pereira.
We finished the last day at an orchid farm at the top of the mountain. We ate a delicious traditional Colombian 3-course meal as a group and swapped stories as we watched the sun set behind over 3000 species of orchids. I felt like I was living in a scene from Avatar!! At one point the power went out so we ate under candle light ... come on, seriously?! How much better could it get. Honestly, if a tall blue person served my food I wouldn't have batted an eye. It was the perfect way to finish the tour.
This brings me to 10 reasons why Colombia should be your next cycling destination:
1. It's Safe!
I understand, Colombia has a not-so-distant history of crime, drugs and kidnappings. However, it's a completely different landscape now. The harsh past is fresh in people's minds. And folks want change. They want a safe and prosperous Colombia, and it shows. Small towns, like Salento, thrive on tourism, so all locals collectively work hard to welcome, host and honour tourists.
2. The People
I cannot say enough good things about the people of Colombia. So hospitable. So kind. If you needed something and they didn't have it, they would run and get it for you. Literally! We visited a small town called Filandia, an up and coming tourism hotspot. In a small hostel, Hostel Jahn, we asked the owner for a delicious baked good, Pandebono (bread infused with cheese). They didn't have it, so she literally ran down the stairs, down the street to the local bakery and got us one.
3. The Landscape
I don't want to say that there was too much incredible scenery, but likely close. The roads throughout the coffee region are safe, smooth and wind along mountain sides while you gaze across a majestic valley. Often times a motorist would give you a friendly honk or yell out "Quintana!" at the top of their lungs, as you attempted to bag another epic climb.
4. The Climbing
Did you know that Colombia has the largest climb in the world?! It's called Alto de Letras, a 79.9km ascent at approximately 4% average grade. If you are not ready for that, the country is filled with challenging 700 - 1,000 metre, Category 3 and 4 climbs with almost too much beautiful vistas and landscape too handle.
5. The Coffee
Colombia's niche when it comes to coffee is 'high end' - they don't have the machinery required for speedy harvesting so they pick the beans by hand. This allows them to ensure they pick only the finest beans. Not the young, green beans. Not the rotten beans. Only the plump, luscious and ripe red beans. They pride themselves on producing some of the best quality coffee in the world and, as a coffee snob, I would argue it's true!
Colombia has what's called the Coffee Cultural Landscape (formally called the Coffee Triangle), consisting of three regions which produce the lions share of coffee for the country - Armenia, Pereira and Manizales. The terrain is mountainous, jaw droppingly beautiful and it's quite easy to set up a coffee plantation tour mid-ride, as there are a plethora to choose from.
We stopped at Café San Alberto, which brings coffee to a chemistry level! They took us through the entire process, including the proper pouring technique (which apparently I do wrong). I felt like I was at a winery!
6. The Cost
Colombia is very affordable. You can rent a fortress if you desire every where you go, but their mid-level hotels are well priced, clean, safe and comfortable. Hostels are also available for very cheap, you can get a private room with a bathroom and a hot shower for $30 a night (Canadian).
Meals are between $4 - $8 and you eat like kings; fresh fruit, mounds of rice, beans, all the delicious cheese you can handle and meat, traditionally prepared based on the region you were in.
7. The Motorists
Canada needs to take notes from the Colombian motorists. They always gave space, time and sent a friendly honk your way as they drove past. I was shocked, as my first impression in the cab from the Bogota airport to my hotel was much different. One of the guides referred to Colombian traffic as a school of fish - they never stayed between the lines or followed the speed limit, but they all seemed to flow in sync. Predictably unpredictable. But, when it came to cyclists, totally different ball game - they were incredibly conscious, patient and encouraging.
Tejo is the national sport of Colombia ... probably the best game ever invented! Essentially, you throw a rock at a clay pit filled with little pieces of wrapped up explosive material and try to blow one up. If you do, you yell "Mecha!" as loud as you possibly can and drink your beer .... That's Colombia's national sport ... You want to move there now, right?
So. Much. Cheese. Each (traditional) meal consists of a protein, a carb and a big slab of cheese. I'm talking an inch high and 3 inches wide! Depending on where you are, the cheese may have a different flavor - some salty, others soft. Either way it's all good and incredibly delicious!
10. Did I mention the coffee?
The coffee alone is worth the trip, I cannot stress that enough. Just go and experience it for yourself!
Thank you to Hernan from Pure Colombia, Carlos of Pro Colombia and all the staff that helped out during the tour. Colombia is an incredible country to travel by bike. I strongly encourage you to make it your next cycling destination. For more information on Colombia, visit: procolombia.co/en. To book a tour, contact pure-colombia.com.
Hasta luego amigos!
This trip was made possible with the assistance of Pro Colombia, who did not review or approve this article prior to publication.
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