San Juan de la Montana – from San Gil to Duitana

The ride between San Gil to Duitama crosses from the department of Santander into Bocaya, via the range of San Juan de la Montana. Said to be one of the most beautiful regions in Colombia, Boyaca is particularly lush, mountainous and rugged – no wonder it’s the breeding ground for some of the strongest Colombian cyclists, like road rider Feliz Cardenas and mountain biker Leonardo Paez.

It was a tough but beautiful journey, and I was lucky enough to share it with both Belgian bike traveller Arnaud (who I’d ridden with in Panama) and Alonso, a young Colombian cyclist we’d met in San Gil through the biking hospitality network warmshower.org

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The venerable Ford F series trucks with which I've have shared the backroads across the Americas have petered out in Colombia, to be replaced by these character old Toyota, Suzuki, Nissan and Daitatsu jeeps. Loaded with people and goods, they bounce, rattle, slip and slide their way up the rutted, muddy mountain roads.

Available in a palette of appealing colours...

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Nissan Patrol. Circa late 20th century.

Complete with triple action windscreen wipers.

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Old timers chilling out in the square in Charala.

'Water is Life. It's the future of our children.' I've seen signs like this throughout my travels in Latin America; the advent of water privatisation is evident all around.

We were headed into colder country, and accordingly, the supermarket seemed to have stocked up with packets of chunky hot chocolate.

Amigos del Mundo.

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Arnaud and Alonso, my biking companions over the next few days.

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Alonso had offered to show us a backway to Duitama, his hometown. I'd impressed upon him the importance of riding dirt trails, and sure enough, after a short stint on pavement, it was back to the good stuff.

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Ah... Backcountry roads. No traffic. This is the kind of riding I love.

Landslides, appearing like giant molehills, are regular occurrences in this part of the world. Bulldozers prowl the mountains to flatten them down.

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Senor Alonso fuelling up in a hole-in-the-wall store, with its broad selection of potato chips and Coca Cola.

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Arnaud, his spacepod-style trailer, and a gang of kids with their makeshift go-cart. Pretty precarious on these helter skelter mountain roads...

The guardian of our local lunchspot, where a hearty bowl of soup, some fresh sugar cane juice and a plate of chicken and rice set us back less than $4.

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It was tyre changing time in Encino. The number of tyres I've gone through is seems to be a source of real intrigue to Latin Americans. Arnaud had been hoping to eek out 20 000kms of life from his Schwalbe Marathon XRs, all the way from Alaska. But to his chagrin, it was not to be. With close to 17 000km on the clock, it was time to fit a new pair. A crowd of onlookers gathered to observe this momentous process.

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Including these giggling schoolgirls, and a random passer by who wanted to be in the photo.

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More quirky mini-jeeps, this one in need of a handbrake it seemed.

Me, Senor Alonso and a muddy Troll.

Talking of mud... (photo by Arnaud De Laveleye)

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The afternoon downpour sweeps in... This year Colombia's rainy season has been particularly harsh, thanks to the El Nino effect.

Into the undergrowth we delved...

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And up and up we pedalled... From Encino, it was thirty eight hard kilometres to the top of the pass.

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Only horses for company round here.

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Every turn revealed an increasingly rugged mountainscape. We almost had the place to ourselves.

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This rickety bridge lead us to a pasture where we camped for the night, readying ourselves for the final push.

A curious neighbour.

A curious neighbour's curious sheep.

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The next morning, it was straight back into the climb. Unremitting.

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Steep, tight switchbacks, of the kind of hadn't ridden since the Guatemalan Highlands.

Road texture.

When the clouds lifted, valley views materialised.

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We paused for breath in a roadside store selling little more than beer and biscuits. The track we were following wasn't even on the Colombian Cartographic Institute's road atlas, let alone this local wall map.

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Arnaud overtaking a turquoise Dodge milk truck, collecting produce from the outlying villages.

In fact, we only passed through a few communities, and these were small and sparsely populated.

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Damp and drizzly, this was real poncho country - or ruansas, as they call them here.

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Always smiling. Nuestro amigo Colombiano. Alonso works all day to fund his evening university classes. He hopes to ride down to Argentina one day.

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The veil lifts... More mountains...

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To our delight, this poncho wearing motorbike rider assured us we were a mere ten minutes from the top. But it proved to be yet another Latin American broken promise... I'm not sure why we ask really, as numbers seem to take on a different reality here. The Colombian Ten Minutes, as we called it, roughly equates to an hour or so GMT.

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Finally we were within eyesight of the crest of the pass and stopped at this small roadside shrine. Its weather-tattered flags, snapping away in the wind, reminded me of the Himalayas.

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Instead here, it was marked by a dozen painted tyres and decorated with car headlamps.

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As we neared the top at 3600m, these intriguing, high altitude, cacti-like plants appeared all around...

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... like an army of invading aliens.

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I crept closer to try and establish contact...

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After all our toils, a muddy dirt road fed us 12 kilometres back down the mountain to Belen. Here's Arnaud after taking a tumble.

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Battle wounds.

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The pod survived.

Duitama at last... Night had long fallen by the time we made it to into town. For the final, precarious 17km road descent (mined with cavernous potholes and a landslide), we were joined by two of Alonso's friends, Reinaldo and Martin. The next morning we were fed vast quantities of replenishing food, before headed off once more towards Villa de Leyva in the afternoon.

21 thoughts on “San Juan de la Montana – from San Gil to Duitana

  1. Susan Moberly

    Inspiring story as always and wonderful photos… I keep wondering if you have a Water proof housing for your camera? I’ve been looking for one here but very expensive. I’m back on Samui for a couple of weeks… taking in the fresh air after CM which is sadly very polluted. I love it there but my asthmatic chest doesn’t… what a dilemma! Stay well and fit. LOVE your life style X

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      Thanks Susie. No waterproof housing, I just keep the camera in a waterproof bag that goes on the handlebars of my bike, and try to keep it dry when I take pics.

      Reply
  2. Big Dummy Daddy

    Thanks for the terrific photos and story, as usual, allowing me to travel vicariously. I also enjoy seeing utilitarian four-wheel-drives. Several years ago in Central Asia, I often saw Soviet-era Niva and Gaz jeeps crawling along the ruts.

    It looks like the Troll is meeting the challenge of the road. What’s your opinion in how it is holding up?

    Reply
  3. Steve Tober

    Love the “rugged mtnscape” foto….that one really gives a feel for Colombian mtns. I’m Jealous yet again…..Colombia is full of gems…enjoy!

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      Thanks Stephanie. The pace and immersion of travelling on a bike suits the way I like to see the world.
      Looks like Buenos Aires is treating you very well (-:

      Reply
  4. Christina

    Nice photos, felt like I was right there along with you guys. Do you ask the locals first if you can take their photos and have them pose? Or do they see you taking their picture and just smile along? Sometimes when I take pictures of local I want to catch them with what they are doing and I feel bad taking “stolen shots.”

    Reply
    1. otbiking Post author

      It’s a tricky one.
      Personally, I prefer to chat a bit first; I don’t like the idea of just like stopping, taking a photo and burning off. It does mean that sometimes people end up posing, but sometimes that looks quite cool too.
      I always ask. Like those old guys in the park, or the kid who came to watch us pitch the tent, or the schoolgirls. I also show the picture on the LCD screen too afterwards, which often really breaks the ice. I think a lot of it is about creating a rapport; and the bonus of doing this is that my memory of taking the picture is much better too.
      I think with the advent of cameras on even cheaper cellphones, a lot of people are actually a lot cooler about having their photos taken – it’s not unusual that I’ll get my photo taken in return. Still, if someone says no, then I just smile and say thanks anyway, and don’t push it.
      However, if someone is really involved in doing something, or if it’s a distance shot, then I just take the picture.

      Reply
      1. Christina

        Yes, it’s an “either-or” situation. Both works. I do like it when they smile and pose for me. However I’m embarrassed to admit that sometimes I just take the picture quickly because I’m afraid they will say no if I ask for permission! (i know, shame on me)

        Reply
  5. steve w

    Often headlamps are placed as memorials to people who died in accidents. Most tight bends and repeated landslide zones are festooned with the things. Occasionally people will park (on a blind bend) to top them them up – result: headlamp cairns.

    Reply
  6. Sebastian manrique

    Wow, I’m from Duitama, I’m glad if you liked my city. You took a really good pictures of all the trip. I hope more foreign people could enjoy of the beauties of my country. Cheers, bro.

    Reply

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