A great part of Europe was watching Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) last night. After my first night out in a long time on Friday and a busy, rainy day yesterday I decided to stay home, turn on the live broadcast of ESC and start a new Colombia post. Since I already gave 12 points to Trekking the Lost City – my No.1 adventure while traveling in Colombia (and of course, Conchita), I will give my 8 points to downhill biking in San Gil – my second favorite adventure.
Apparently cycling is a huge sport in Colombia – speed and mountain biking! If you’re into cruising around the cities though, be careful! Bikelanes are rare. Don’t expect car/taxi/bus drivers, motorcyclist or even pedestrians to watch out for you. A helmet is not an annoying accessoire on your head, it’s your life assurance – more than ever, more than even in Hamburg where bike traffic can be suicidal as well. Traffic in Colombia lets out the badass in every lovely and lovable local – they yell and curse and hunk like there’s no tomorrow. So once they are in their car – make sure you’ve said your prayers. If you love cycling and want to pursue some biking in Colombia – well, don’t be silly! Be precautions and then you might have mucho fun!
Ciclovía on Sundays (and holidays) is at least a good first and fun solution to provide safe cycling infrastructure, although its initial idea is to get people to exercise outside in general whether it is on foot, on skates or on a bike. It takes place on the main streets of big cities – usually from sunrise to early afternoon – although Bogota’s Carrera 7 is closed for cars all day long and as far as I witnessed not only on Sundays and holidays.
But biking means something totally different to me. I enjoy cruising around and run my daily errands on a bike at any time – not only on a Sunday. I enjoy exercising a lot, also outdoors and again: not only on a Sunday. Would I own a speed bike I might race around town as well – yes, probably not only on a Sunday. But for now, my bike is my car, my public transportation, my free ticket to anywhere I want to go at any time. Just like Freddy Mercury was singing: I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride my bike – I want to ride my bicycle, I want to ride it where I like! So exploring a city in Colombia on a bike was more or less reckless. I tried it one afternoon (I think it was a Monday or a Tuesday) in Cartagena…and it was too stressful. All the honking and wholes on the roads or sidewalks that made me push half of the time and the other half worry about my life. I didn’t see much of the city for I was constantly watching out for cars to not crash into me (or vice versa).
And then I decided to visit San Gil in the Santander region (western Colombia) towards the end of my trip. I remembered how other travelers had raved about the downhill biking there so that was something I was very eager to experience. San Gil itself is a tiny little town, very pictoresque, very quiet compared to bustling Bogota or modern Medellin. Most tourists/travelers arriving here are not here for museums or shopping they are here for some serious adventure sports – because that’s what San Gil is known for. It may look like a cozy place, but actually offers countless activities to get your adrenalin pumping – it is without a doubt the capital of adventure sports! From rafting to rappelling, canyoning or caving, paragliding or downhill biking – you’ll get wet from sweating, from all the water around you and maybe even from peeing in your pants.
Downhill biking was something I had never done before (see above my biking habits). When I signed up for the tour named Colombian Bike Junkies it was still run by Mike from Gringo Mike’s – a very delicious eatery serving non-Colombian cuisine, fine burgers, delicious salads, fruity smoothies and killer chocolate chip cookies. And of course Mike’s Gringo also provided the catering for that day – very yummy sandwiches, with fresh veggies, plenty of cookies and fruits and of course water to keep our group of eight running plus two guides and of course also Mike himself who would follow with the jeep and collect drop-outs or fix a flat tire if necessary.
Drop-outs did occur that day and were not unusual for the tour itself is more exhausting than one may expect when hearing downhill biking. Because downhill biking doesn’t mean you’ll just let the wheels spin and you don’t need to pedal or steer. Au contraire. On those rocky, dusty roads a lot of steering, breaking, pedaling and foreseeing was required – otherwise you might have found yourself in a bush with the bike next or on top of you instead of you on top of it. The constant bumping is also very strenuous on the arms and … the butt as well. Our guides told us before to do a lot of riding standing up. Wise words that some of us probably forgot in the burning sun and excitement of downhill bike fun. Luckily the roads we took weren’t too full of (regular) traffic. Some cows, chickens, chivas and dogs would cross or block our way, but luckily no cars, masses of pedestrians or whirring vespas we needed to deal with and/or worry about. What a relief!
Precaution was top-notch that day: helmets, knee and elbow protection as well as gloves were provided, and reminders to apply sunblock several times that day, as well! And of course bikes for everyone – typical and high-class downhill bikes with suspension my dutch bike at home doesn’t need and gears I forgot to count because I’m only used to three.
Just like a lot of effort is put into the perfect outfit for an ESC performance, our guides made sure, we were appropriately dressed for the tour – because when you look good, you’ll feel good! Then we got an introduction on riding our downhill bikes. This may sound a bit absurd because everyone who signs up for a bike tour should know how to ride a bike – that sounds logical. But if you can dance salsa it doesn’t mean you can dance tango – meaning cycling isn’t the same as downhill cycling/biking!
I admit, I had to take it slowly in the beginning. Man, those bikes were going fast and the roads felt terrifyingly steep, slippery and bumpy once I stood up from the hard saddle. Still bumpy when sitting down and then painful. But I like to go all in and so I even tried the extra tricky side road with extra big rocks and extra narrow lane and extra many bushes with thorns and dry gras. It was extra superb!
What was more than extra superb was the overall route of 55km starting at about 2,000 meters with downhill fun, passing the colonial town of Barichara and 25km cross country in the end along Rio Suarez. The mix of landscape and seeing regional agriculture (tobacco fields), the fresh air and full day of collecting Vitamin D really got me! The cross country part was probably most exhausting because we were all already quite tired, a thunderstorm was coming up and our group had been parted due to a few drop-outs and flat tires. So in the end I found myself riding the last part all in solitude but allowed myself a few breaks to soak up the atmosphere of the setting sun and to keep my mental strength going. I really didn’t want to wait for Mike to pick me up as well. I really wanted to make it to the finish on the bike and quench my thirst on an ice cold beer. In the end, I just about made it before the heavy rain and downed a sweet Gatorade with big fat smile on my face for surviving this bike adventure.
10 points to Downhill biking with Mike and his team!