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A bikepacking solo adventure as a farewell to Colombia

Updated: May 19, 2022

Last February 2022 we were fortunate to support Sander Otten, a Dutchman with more than eight years of experience supporting processes with victims of conflict in Colombia, to make his dream bikepacking trip in Colombia as a closure of his work in our country. Sander mapped out his route and took our advisory services via video call with our cycling advisors, and rented a gravel bike (our Specialized Diverge) to have the terrain versatility his route required, and go fairly light to attack the Alto de Letras, the longest mountain pass in the world.

Sander shared with us the photos of his journey, so we took the opportunity to ask him some questions about his trip*:

Tingua Hidden Journeys: Thank you Sander for sharing your experience with us, please tell us a little about yourself: who are you, where are you from, what do you do…

Sander: I'm Sander Otten, I'm from the Netherlands, I grew up there and I studied Political Science at the University of Amsterdam. As a result of my studies I traveled to Latin America where I did an internship in Mexico, from this experience I decided that I wanted to return to Latin America after graduating, so for almost ten years after my studies I lived in Latin America, in Guatemala and Peru mainly. I returned to the Netherlands in 2014. During all that time [since I lived in] Latin America I have worked in NGOs, non-governmental organizations, mainly on human rights, indigenous peoples' rights and peace issues, also accompanying victims of the conflict And well, that's what I do.

THJ: Describe to us what kind of cyclist you are: what are you passionate about? how much do you train what experiences have you had?

SO: In the Netherlands we use the bicycle as a means of transport, so I grew up using the bicycle. In my youth I didn't really practice it, just to move from one point to another, I would run and play soccer. In 2015 I bought my first road bike and every year I have been riding more. Since 2017 we have a group of friends, we go out with them a lot, we plan a trip to the Alps every year, we love to climb mountains because in Holland we practically don't have any, it's a very flat country. As I told you, I have been increasing the number of kilometers traveled, before there were about 5,000 a year, now about 10,000 to 11,000, so I usually go out two or three times a week, especially in spring and summer when the weather is better. I feel that I am still getting stronger, every year, the more time I dedicate to the bicycle I feel that I am gaining strength and improving my times, both in the sections that Strava measures me, for example, uphill, and the recovery I also feel that I It takes much less time to recover after a big effort.

With my group of friends, we are 5, every year we go on a trip. We have been twice to the Italian Alps, once to the French Alps, we have been to Girona, and so every year we plan a trip. We have pending Pyrenees, Asturias, the Sierra Nevada of Andalusia in Spain and so on, many more places. Practically all my experience is on a road bike, I have very little experience on a mountain bike, but last year I got a touring bike, so my goal this year is to do a long trip, about three weeks in Eastern Europe traveling by my new bike, a Trek 520, with panniers on the back. In this sense, the four days in Colombia were a good preparation for my bike trip, I wanted to know what it would be like to travel from one place to another, sleeping in different places and experiencing how I felt, and well, it was incredible.

THJ: Well, tell us about your trip to Colombia, why did planning this trip by bicycle catch your attention?

SO: Well, for the last eight years I have been traveling to Colombia three or four times a year for my work. Taking a bike trip always caught my attention and I was also aware of the climb to Alto de Letras. I really wanted to achieve this great challenge. Colombian cyclists are very famous in the Netherlands and in Europe, and there are more and more cyclists from Europe training in Colombia, so the country is becoming more and more known as a destination for people who like cycling. Putting these different arguments together, I decided that I wanted to go on a trip and what caught my attention the most was bikepacking, because it gave me the opportunity to travel from one place to another without just doing loops from the same point, but starting from a new destination every day. I made my route based on places that I still did not know in the country, including Alto de Letras, which was, for me, the biggest challenge.

THJ: You created your own itinerary and we reviewed it with one of our cycling advisors. What would you recommend to other cyclists who want to chart their own route?

SO: Well, it was clear to me that I wanted to go from Bogotá to Alto de Letras and then to Manizales, so I looked at the map, obviously there are many applications like Komoot and Strava, I personally use Strava, and I designed a route that didn't go through the main roads. I wanted to walk on a secondary road, without much traffic, to go more calmly, and I realized that there were not so many options. I was looking at Google Maps, happily you can pull the little yellow man to the road and see what kind of road it is, so based on this I decided my route and after having designed it I reviewed it with Ómar. It was very helpful to talk to him because obviously seeing him on the computer is one thing, and getting feedback from someone he knows is another. It was very good to hear that, indeed, this route was going to be very beautiful, and that it definitely needed a gravel bike, which could not be done with a road bike due to the amount of trail it has, things like that. That was very important for me, to be clear that the route I had actually chosen was not going to be extremely complicated, and that it was going to be beautiful. Through the call he was also able to tell me which were going to be strategic stops when it came to climbing to the top of letters, as well as knowing where to sleep during the four days of the trip. I already had it more or less clear and he confirmed that those would be the most suitable places. They even recommended me a hotel in Mariquita, all of that was very helpful.

THJ: How was your trip? Did you have any surprises? what did you like the most?

SO: It was super good actually. Every day I left around six in the morning, when the sun was just rising, except the last day I left a little earlier, the day I climbed Alto de Letras. What I really liked was, especially, the second, third and fourth day, well, leaving early and being in nature and noticing how everyone is waking up. There is still very little traffic at six and there are lots of birds. You breathe air and hear some very, very beautiful sounds. That was very nice, the mornings being in nature, with the animals, with the beautiful views, and going through stalls where the ladies sell natural orange juice, the breakfast stalls, that was incredible. But what I liked the most was the contact with the people, each stop was not a short stop of five or ten minutes, but I stayed, I don't know, half an hour, an hour talking with people. I had many very nice encounters with people along the way, almost every day I had encounters with special people who helped me, who were very interested in the trip, they also told me a lot about their own lives. I met ladies who worked in a small restaurant, who gave me breakfast, who gave me coffee, and who told me about their lives, about sad things and also about beautiful things. In general, I felt that many people were somewhat surprised to meet a foreign boy traveling alone, it caught everyone's attention. And all very willing to help. The people on the trail were wonderful in every way, all four days, so that's what I liked the most.

I think the moral of the story is that if you approach people on the road, people are going to want to talk to you, they're going to want to share with you, and they're generally going to be interested in helping you in any way they can. That was a surprise, I mean, I was hoping it would happen and it really did, I liked that a lot.

THJ: What a nice experience, do you have any anecdote from your trip that you want to share to inspire other cyclists?

SO: I think one of the things that I liked the most was obviously having a plan, but then also being willing to go out of the plan, and that happened to me on the first day. At the end of the first day, when suddenly I saw a sign to see a waterfall near El peñon, Cundinamarca, and the road to the waterfall was four kilometers long. I took it, it was not part of the route, and the road got smaller. First of trail, then stone, then just a path where cars or anything could no longer enter, and then I arrived at a house where the lady saw me and the first thing she asked me was if she had already had lunch, because she was just frying plantains. The truth is that I had lunch an hour before, but the fried plantains smelled so good that I said yes, but I would be very happy to have a drink and eat one of their plantains. So, fifteen minutes later I was there, with the whole family who was having lunch and I was sharing with them. Later, the lady's father, an old man, took me to show me the waterfall that was just behind the house. It was an unexpected and very beautiful thing, I think that this type of meeting always happens when you have the plan established and the availability to go out of the plan, then you have enough time. I mean, not plan to do two hundred kilometers in a single day, but, I don't know, maybe eighty, ninety, a hundred, whatever you feel like and according to the strength you have, but also have the time to have meetings and get out of the plan from time to time.

THJ: How did you feel shooting alone? What would you recommend to cyclists who want to have that solo experience?

SO: It was my first time shooting only four days in a row. I recommend it in every way, precisely because I feel that when you are alone you are much more willing to have contact with the people around you. When you are with another person, a friend, a friend, a couple, well, I suppose you stay within the dynamics of two, three, four people. On the other hand, when you are alone, especially when you are in a country that is not yours, a foreign country, I think that shooting alone allows you to live it more intensely and have more chance of having encounters with the people you come across in the way.

Obviously, having a certain degree of knowledge of your bike is important, because if I got a puncture in a part where I had just climbed a hill, La Palma was eight kilometers behind me, and for Caparrapí there were fifteen kilometers to go or something like that, there was nothing so I had to fix my tire. It is not a very complicated repair, but one must know how to do it, so having a basic knowledge of how to fix small problems with the bicycle seems essential to me to make this trip alone, especially in countries where there are long stretches where there are no settlements, where there are no people, there are no shops. And the last recommendation is to bring clothes for all climates. When I left Mariquita it was quite hot, and when I got to Alto de Letras, I guess it was about five degrees, in addition to the rain, and I arrived very cold up there. So yes, the important thing for mountainous countries like Colombia is to wear adequate and sufficient clothing.

THJ: Thank you Sander for sharing your experience, to finish please tell us, what is your next cycling goal? What other bike travel plans do you have?

SO: Well, the year 2022 started well with having achieved my goal of reaching the Alto de Letras, that was also not only physical but mental training for the Mallorca 312, which is a challenge to shoot on the island of Mallorca for one day, the April 30, 212 kilometers. It's going to be the longest distance I've traveled in my life, about 5,000 elevation gain, the start is at six and the finish is at eight at night, so we have 14 hours to meet the challenge. That is something that is not so easy, but I am training for it, there are nine days left and I hope to achieve it. Apart from that I also want to do a longer bikepacking trip, I hope to do something for two, maximum three weeks, in June. And in October I'm going to do the Eroica, which is the cycling event in Italy, in Tuscany, where you have to use bicycles that are at least thirty years old and you go through the routes, the paths of L'estrade bianche, which are usually dirt roads with white dust, and that, on an old bicycle, not with gels or energy bars but with sandwiches and wine, as was done in the 50s of the last century. So those are my challenges on the bike.

(*) This interview was originally made in Spanish, this is an automatic translation.


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