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Learning from the saddle: A one month bikepacking journey for first timers!

Updated: Feb 19, 2020

Keeping up with our quest for stories from people that ride through the Colombian mountains, we met with Felipe, who told us about his insane amateur one-month journey with two friends from Bogota to the beaches of Esmeraldas in Ecuador.

Total distance: about 808mi / 1.300km

Journey duration: 25 days

Hidden Journeys: First, tell me about yourself and about your cycling experience: what do you do, how long you have been cycling, how often you go training…

Felipe: I studied Political Science and started cycling 5 years ago. I think I always had a dream of travelling on a bike, but I had never really approached cycling until one of my buddies bought a bicycle and I decided to buy one as well. It was a really shitty bike, it only had rear brakes and a fixed gear crankset, but I got hooked up right away. Just one month later, a couple of friends and I decided to ride from Bogota to Ecuador. It was crazy, because we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. We barely knew how to change a tire.

Now I have more experience, I went from Bogota to the Caribbean coast and then I rode in Guatemala. It’s been two years since my last trip but now I train a lot more than before. I ride three or four times a week or I do simulator rides at home. I also use the bicycle to go everywhere in the city, but I don’t consider that as training because you don’t ride fast, that’s just to improve my life quality in general.

HJ: Where do you ride to when you go training?

F: From Bogota I usually do La Cima, which is nearly 40km (25mi), you must do Patios, then go downhill and finally climb a mountain pass that is like 1,5km (9,3mi) at 10% or something like that. You come back via Teusaca. I also do La Vega, or go North to Margaritas, Sisga, Macheta and so forth. I don’t do Cuchillas very often. I ride a lot near Anapoima [a town 85km / 53 mi away from Bogota], usually taking La Mesa – Mesitas – El Triunfo – Anapoima or backwards, or I go down to Calichana. I love taking routes with a lot of ups and downs, and I ride on my own very often. I just plug my earphones and start pedaling.

HJ: What has been your favorite cycling trip in Colombia?

F: I would say it was the first one, to Ecuador, because it was the first time I had that feeling of being so close to everything that surrounded me. When you are riding a bike, you don’t even have windows to isolate yourself, so your perception of the space-time relationship definitely changes. When you go from one place to another by car you think distance is different, your perception of the world is different. It makes sense since the fourth dimension is the space-time relationship so if you change your relationship with time, you also change your relationship with space. I feel that was the beginning of a new way of observing the world, of being more aware of the regions of my country, instead of just having the city perspective.

In a way, that trip changed my life because it was the first time I felt part of the territory I was in. Cities are just like 2% of the entire land surface, and Bogota is just a tiny portion of that, and that little fragment becomes your entire world, whereas Colombia is extremely diverse. So, for instance, in that trip we passed through Neiva [mid-size city] and suddenly arrived to a huge dessert, then we went to Cauca and found ourselves climbing and descending these massive mountains, crossing paramos, meeting with farmers, passing through indigenous reservations. After all of that you have to cross from El Bordo to Pasto, which is extremely hot, and the climb to Pasto is insane. Definitely that has been my favorite cycling trip so far.

HJ: How did you do all of that if you had ridden for just one month?

F: I have no idea, I was too stubborn to give up. In fact when we planned that trip (and this is the same thing I was talking about before about your space-time relationship) I thought well, it would be great to go to San Agustin [archeological site about 530km / 329mi away from Bogota], but then I really wanted to pedal to another country and Ecuador looked so close!

Actually at first I wanted to ride to Venezuela, but everyone told me it would be too dangerous considering I would have to cross the Colombian llanos which still have security issues. So I kept looking for a new destination and when I saw San Agustin was “just” 500km (310mi) away, I thought that would be easy. My reasoning was like, if La Vega is 70km (44mi) away and I’ve done that, I can definitely do San Agustin in 10 days. Then, just by looking at a map, I saw Cauca was so close to San Agustin, and then Pasto so close to Cauca (besides, Pasto has this amazing festival in January called Carnaval de Negros y Blancos and the dates would be perfect for us to arrive for the party)… And then I thought, how can I go all the way to Pasto, be so close to the border with Ecuador and not cross it???

I kept looking at the map and saw the Pacific coast so close to the border with Ecuador that I decided to go all the way to the sea, I left with two friends. It was a completely random choice, we had cero preparation for such trip. We were so unprepared that on the way from Aipe to Neiva we slept by the road and one of my friends got a flat tire. He had no spare tire. How the hell do you expect to do a 1.300km (808mi) trip without a spare tire? Besides, the valve was damaged so we couldn’t fix the tire, we had to walk for 5 hours under the sun, we didn’t find the tire, and he ended up carpooling to Neiva while we rode to meet him there. It was stupid. You might want to do you first cycling trip no matter what, but now I think it can be dangerous when you have no idea what you are doing.

HJ: But in the end you made it…

F: Yes, in the end we made it, we suffered, but we made it after pedaling every day for almost one month.

HJ: Did you plan to ride for that long?

F: No, of course we had no plan. We had to be back in January for classes, but we weren’t even prepared for the way back. We had to take 6 buses, one of my friends was completely sick, he was vomiting all the way from Cali to Bogota, so much that we hang a plastic bag from his ears. It was nasty.

HJ: What was your favorite part?

F: I don’t know… it’s a hard choice. Looking back I think of a moment when I was suffering as hell on my bike, asking what the hell was I doing there, why did I left home if I had no idea how it was going to be, how did I got myself so far from home, to Cauca, a dangerous place, what should I do… And then I realized I was in this incredible mountains near Ipiales, so amazingly beautiful that I just forgot all my complaints and just thought it was so f*cking cool to be there.

HJ: In retrospective, did you find more surprises or more fulfilled expectations?

F: Let’s say I expected a life changing experience, but I had no idea of the magnitude of what we were going to do. I had camped a lot because I do rock climbing, but that’s totally different than stopping on the road in the middle of nowhere to look for a spot to make your tent, without taking a shower, having no idea of where you are, or where the next store is. That happened to us in Ecuador, I traced the route in Strava, the only app I knew about at the time, and it marked a straight downhill to the coast after the border. It was because it had no segments loaded, and it was a f*cking climb for a really long time. My friend started saying that we were climbing to the sea. I had no idea what was really suffering until that day. Not in that sense. When you are rock climbing sometimes it hurts, or you fall and it hurts, but it is nothing like what we found in that trip. Constant suffering and hours of introspection, just asking yourself what the hell you are doing.

But it was indeed a life changing experience. I was studying Physics and after that trip I decided to switch for Political Science. I think it was both fulfilled expectations of having an incredible experience, but also a bunch of surprises, a lot of small moments I didn’t expect. Simple things like eating a cake, you can eat cake any day but I remember vividly that piece of cake I ate while looking at a Canyon wondering why we were there.

HJ: Now you have more cycling experience, what would you recommend to other people that want to do the same trip?

F: Look for good advice! By someone who knows the route. I feel we were really lucky but I wouldn’t recommend sleeping in places like El Bordo for safety issues. I wouldn’t do it again, but that’s the kind of things that can happen when you have no idea. So, look for advice. I didn’t even looked up in the internet, all I did was looking at a map. We thought all we needed was rear saddlebags and we were good to go, we didn’t use cleats but pedals with straps. Too many rookie mistakes.

HJ: What would you recommend to pack for a long trip?

F: It depends on your budget, if you are going on a shoe-string as we were, you’ll need to carry everything. A tent you can make fast and easy, one with just one skeleton and the rain cover, that doesn’t need to be tighten up. Make sure you know how to make it before you depart. Pack a camping gas stove with two or three bottles of gas, and make sure your stove can use generic bottles you can find anywhere. One or two pans, a good first aid kit and a fishing kit, a knife. Everything you need to be prepared. One time during the trip it was dark and we were in the middle of nowhere, we had no gas, no food… so we lit a fire and fished some small fish to put on the fire. It was also a nice experience, but if we had no fishing kit, we wouldn’t have eaten that night.

HJ: Weren’t you too heavy carrying all of that? Is it necessary?

F: Well, as I said, it depends on your budget, and the route you choose. If I go to Medellin for instance, and I know where I am going to stop I can plan better to buy things in the towns. Or if you are travelling with a support car, which is totally different and a lot nicer because you can focus on just enjoying the mountains, not on what are you going to eat or how much water you have left. I’ve learned about people who do the Atacama Desert that they need to follow a survival rule called 2+1. So if you need one bottle of water per day, you need to carry twice plus one for each day. And the journey takes 3 days, so it is 7 litters of water in your bike, plus everything else, when you look at their pictures their bikes look like cars with everything they are carrying.

I tried to ask for permission to stay in churches or backyards when we were in towns. Not everyone likes to do that, you can travel on a bike and have comfort as well, it is not like if you are cycling you must make it a suffering path all the time. I mean, you always suffer a bit when you travel on your bike, but if you can afford it you can have breaks from it. My trips have been though because they have been long and low budget.

HJ: Okay, one last question, if you had only two days for the last bike trip of your life in Colombia, where would you go?

F: I have no idea. I’ve heard really nice things about Putumayo, but it is still risky on a safety perspective. Or I’ve heard there are great mountain routes in Antioquia, around Medellin, and that sounds like something I would love. I would do something like that, somewhere with lonely roads and a lot of mountains. Something new, I would definitely not repeat a route I’ve already done.

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