After our mountainous toils to Duitama, Alonso, Arnaud and I decided to kick back and take it easy to the next port of call, Villa de Leyva. We were ready for a day off the saddle and were looking forward to reaching a town that’s considered to be amongst the most beautiful in Colombia – so much so that it was declared a national monument back in 1954 to embalm its colonial architecture.
Or so we planned.
Of course, the temptations of further adventure got the better of us, and after learning of a short that cut that followed the Rio Iguaque, we embarked on what was to become one of the finest dirt road and singletrack descents I’ve ridden for some time. And one of the most punishing hike and bikes out the other side…
The beautiful, quiet village of Sotaquira, perched on top of a hill, felt a world away from the busy dual carriageway between Duitama and Tunja.
The main square, with obligatory, picture-perfect whitewash church.
Sunshine at last! Morning view from our campspot just beyond the village, perched on a lip of grassland and graced with a soundtrack of deafening cumbia from a nearby, makeshift cowboy bar.
Some well used milk churns awaiting collection. We spotted these all along the backroads in Boyaca; they doubled up as seats for locals awaiting their collection.
This part of Colombia is riddled with blissfully quiet backroads. And, for once, our chosen route was relatively flat.
These are the kind of journeys I love. Traffic was scarce enough for sublimely mellow riding, broken only by the odd motorbike or jeep that we flagged down to check directions.
More fresh milk awaiting collection. Two women presided over this this neat, Russian Doll-style set of canteens. As they sat and chatted in the sun, it seemed a far cry from the massive dairy farms in Europe.
Locals sporting the latest in poncho fashion.
Ribbons of dirt draped over the hills, set to dramatic mountains.
The boys: Arnaud and Alonso.
Poncho power. A crowd had gathered to cheer these men on, and with them came a real feeling of community.
Then, it was time to say good by to our Colombian amigo. From here, Alonso was following the main road back to San Gil, to make it home for work the next day. I'll miss his company.
The quickest option would have been to ride down the main highway to Arcabuco, before following a backroad straight to Villa de Leyva. But it was hard to turn down the distant dirt track that wended over the hills to the other side of the valley...
Indeed, the views were worth the extra climb, set off magnificently by clouds that swirled above us and deep shadows that blotched the land.
We stopped to chat to this group waiting for a bus at an unmarked junction. The sun was out and everyone was smiling. It was hard to imagine how riding in Colombia could get much better.
The dirt track rolled on, skirting neatly around the mountains.
It was the second junction that was to prove to be our downfall. Common sense dictated that we should press on and enjoy a relaxed afternoon in Villa de Leyva. But two passers by seemed relatively convinced there was a rideable shortcut that would lead us right into town. 'I've walked it in two hours, right to the main square,' bragged one. Apparently a bridge had been damaged by the flooding. But was it rideable? Panniers and trailer were scrutinized and an affirmative verdict was reached. We told there would be a short climb up which we might have to push, but no more than that.
It started easy enough...
We flew down this descent. Incredible riding.
That just went on and on and on...
Prime camping potential.
It was hard not to linger...
Then the trail narrowed down to some sweet singletrack.
Before being engulfed by a swollen river.
A little swampy in places.
Ah ha. This would be the broken bridge.
A balancing act. Still, nothing we couldn't handle.
Then, crunch time. We encountered this steep and loose stone staircase. It went up...
And up... Conditions worsened, and by this time the heavens had opened, thunder was clapping loudly all around, and our path had become a raging torrent of murky water. It was so steep and slippery we had to shuttle the bikes, trailer and gear separately, rather than pushing them up in one herculean go.
Our cut through across the range. The pin shows the position of the 'bridge'.
Thankfully, we came across a mountain refuge with this shelter, a perfect spot to dry out and spend the night. It wasn't quite like the R&R we'd imagined in Villa de Leyva, but we were gratefully to have a makeshift home.
The next morning we arose early, ready to tackle the descent, It went down...
And down. Would have been fun without panniers and a trailer...
Finally, our 'bike-able' trail, which really was no more than a rough footpath, emerged out of the steep-sided gorge back onto a jeep track. Relief...
Villa de Leyva at last.
First things first. In Colombia, most restaurants will serve up a cheap and filling Comida Corriente. This compromises of the following: 1/thick and warming soup.
2/hearty platter of food - in this case eggs, rice, vegetables and plantanes.
3/jug of natural juice, such as panela - sugar cane. All this set us back 5300 pesos, or about three dollars, and left our bellies content for the rest of the day.
Incidentally, the panela comes in roughly hewn blocks like these.
While we're on the subject of food, other interesting observations and tastings included these sweet gelatine treats, made from 'pata de rez' - cow's feet, as far as I could understand.
Then it was time to explore the backstreets.
Potter around with the locals.
Check out the old Land Rover Santanas that bounced over the cobbles.
And catch the approach of a storm from Villa de Leyva's impressive square.
The town was founded in 1572 and is situated at 2100m high.
Its Plaza Mayor is apparently the biggest cobbled square in Latin America.
Villa de Leyva is also steeped in revolutionary history. Here's Antonia Ricaurte, a hero of the Colombia's War of Independence. Known as El Chispero, the Spark Lighter, he went on to blow himself up to help win the battle of San Mateo, in what is now Venezuela.
More food. I'm on a health drive at the moment, and managed to procure some organic oatmeal, nuts, raisins, almonds, maki and toasted quinoa. A great start to the day.
And finally, the trip to the local bike shop for a nose around and new inner tubes.