Into the Heartland: A ride through Antioquia, Santander and Boyaca provinces

Fully rested and in rude health after our month in Medellin, our journey took us through three of Colombia’s most historic and picturesque provinces, Antioquia, Santander and Boyaca. This region – which would represent our final stretch of highlands before the Andes abruptly give way to the northern flatlands and ultimately the Caribbean – was the first in Colombia to be colonised by the Spanish, and the array of beautifully preserved colonial towns set amidst patchwork fields, winding rivers and deep valleys drew more than a passing resemblance to the old motherland.

And it was here that we truly discovered why Colombia is the favourite country of almost every tourist, cyclist or otherwise, we’ve met on this trip. The warmth of the welcomes and the generosity and hospitality we experienced during these two weeks were beyond what we would ever have envisaged, to the extent that we would become minor celebrities in small towns and villages with dozens of locals crowding around us, welcoming us, asking about our trip, practicing their English, and often offering us food and route advice. Thank goodness for all those Spanish lessons in Medellin!

This was cycle touring at its best, and a wonderful way to say goodbye to the Andean highlands that have been our home for most of the last year. And so despite the loss of my cycling jersey, my phone’s death-by-swallow-dive-into-lake, and Charlie’s near-death-by-runaway-pickup-truck-wheel, it will go down as one of my favourite stretches of our whole trip.

Some route notes for those who care: in order to see as much as possible of the region we took a long and meandering route, first climbing high into the hills above Medellin to the beautiful weekend Paisa getaway of Guatape before dropping way down to the Magdalena river at the historic port of Puerto Berrio. From here we turned South East and began one of the largest climbs of the trip back up to the highlands near the heritage town of Villa de Leyva, before turning north to San Gil, Colombia’s outdoors capital. Finally we continued north through yet more unspoiled colonial villages and the awesome Chicamocha canyon towards the unassuming town of Sabana de Torres, at the beginning of the highway to the Caribbean Sea.

You can view a map and elevation profile of our route in this region at http://map.longwayup.org/colombia/7_antioquia and http://map.longwayup.org/colombia/8_into_the_heartland

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Waving goodbye to Medellin near the top of the long, steep climb out of the city

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Over the top of the climb, we joined some quieter dirt roads heading towards Guatape, favoured weekend destination of Medellin-ites

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Near the end of the day, the obligatory thunderstorm hit

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But luckily we stumbled on this innocuous-looking building that had a small cafe at the side. When we asked how much a coffee cost, the ‘boss’, Walter, told us it was whatever we wanted to contribute. Turns out this was a sort of commune where a dozen or so Colombian folk (and one German girl) live. Fast forward twelve hours and they’d given us a mattress for the night, two tasty meals and taught us how to Salsa dance!

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And all I had to do was play a few requests!

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The ride into Guatape the next morning was predictably very pretty

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As was the town itself, filled with colourful houses adorned with frescoes

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The main attraction here is the surreal Piedra de Penol, a huge rock standing high above the town, with over 700 steps carved into its side

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We climbed to the top for spectacular views. The water is all part of one huge artificial reservoir, built in the 1960s. The view would probably have been a little different back then!

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Cheese!

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We naturally had to get a ‘nautical bicycle’ (aka pedalo) out

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Along with a couple of cans of our Colombian beer of choice, Club Roja

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And following our night in the commune, a nice room was in order. This was the view from our semi-private balcony!

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After Guatape we headed North and away from the motorway traffic, onto some incredibly quiet roads

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Which wound their way through the hilly landscape

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Giving some breathtaking views over to the North East, where we were slowly heading

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We dropped down to a beautiful river at the bottom of a valley

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And had a dip in the late afternoon sun. (Dogs are always photobombing in Colombia, no matter where you are!)

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We found this delightful little campsite truly in the middle of nowhere to pitch our tent for the night. It even had some natural thermal pools!

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We next climbed high up past the colonial towns of Santo Domingo…

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…and San Roque, where we received very warm welcomes and had slightly less warm cups of watery tinto in the town plazas…

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Before re-joining the tarmac and beginning a huge descent which would take us all the way to the Rio Magdalena, around 100 meters above sea-level (we were above 2,000 meters back in Guatape)

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The ride was mostly on the (mercifully quiet) highway. We stopped for the night in the small and slightly sketchy town of San Jose del Nus, where we were offered to spend the night in the garden of Nelson and his nine-strong family, all living in two rooms of a building a little out-of-town. We spent the evening with them eating arepas, talking about our trip and helping the kids with their English homework!

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The ride down to the Magdalena river was very hot and quite dull. On the other side, now in Santander Province, we began another of our epic climbs back up to around 2,500 meters above sea level, done in just over one day. It was misty up there!

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And the dogs were on the prowl…

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On the way up we stopped in the towns of Cimitarra (for lunch) and Landazuri (for the night). In both places we were inundated by locals asking about our trip and offering us food and advice. Unfortunately the only photo I took was of the amazing Raspao I bought for 30 pence on Landazuri’s plaza! It’s shaved ice soaked with fruity syrups and covered in condensed milk, and tastes incredible

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The next morning, the top of the latest greatest climb was rather innocuous

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We put our bags down in Barbosa and jumped on a bus to the nearby ‘patrimonial’ town of Villa de Leyva, one of Colombia’s most famous colonial towns

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The spectacular town plaza is the largest in Colombia, and is thought to be the largest cobble-stoned plaza in South America. It would be a nightmare to cycle across!

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Back on the bikes following that briefest of day trips we passed through more colonial towns, this one the much less-well-known gem of Oiba

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And here the practically unheard-of Confines

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This might be the laziest and most quaint plaza in the whole of South America

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Stuck record alert as we joined another amazing dirt road / path over the hills to the town of Charala

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The weather by now had taken a distinct turn for the better, and it was bloody hot going, but the views more than made up for that

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This is what cycle touring heaven looks like (well, without the barbed wire fence)

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Unfortunately the main reason we took that dirt road was to visit the Juan Curi waterfalls, which were closed for their pre-Easter maintenance. So we went on, to another awesome time-warped colonial town, Barichara

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This one was simply spectacular, and also eerily quiet

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We could have been in Andalucia

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I’m running out of captions…

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Oh and the views out over the surrounding valleys weren’t half bad either

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We took the ‘camino real’ trek on an ancient path to the hamlet of Guane

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Which was also rather attractive

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Next up it was rather different, as we visited the kitsch Chicamocha National Park. The park is most notable for its sublime location above the Chicamocha valley, but there wasn’t so much to do. This amazing piece is a purpose-built monument to the ‘revolutionary spirit of the people of Santander’

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I didn’t realise the Grim Reaper was from Santander

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This fellow looked pretty ominous too. Behind him is part of the incredible Chicamocha canyon

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This is the view from the mirador

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But this one was the best view of all – over the new multi-million dollar water park, set on a ridge overlooking the canyon. Amazing!

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The water park was FUN

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Lazy river selfie. This is the life!

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There were even waterslides!

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Finally we took the surreal, 30-minute-long cable car over the canyon

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For the best view of all

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After the fun and games of Chicamocha, we visited the Pescaderito natural swimming pools complex near the town of San Gil

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It was amazing, though there was a bit of a dampener on the day when I knocked my phone into the water. Unfortunately my amazing five-meter-deep dive to successfully retrieve it was too little, too late

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Sans-phone, we carried on, back towards the Chicamocha canyon (this time on bikes)

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And we descended the dizzying, switchback-ing road to the valley floor

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After a day or so on the motorway we turned onto more quiet back-roads. With Charlie now in full charge of navigation (after the death of my phone), some interesting decisions were made…

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Back on a proper road, and navigation wasn’t the issue here – in the background is the wheel of a pickup truck that literally flew towards Charlie as she cycled about 50 meters behind me, hitting her bike and clipping off her front wheel for four. Very scary stuff!

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We were glad to get off the highways one final time, as this was now our last dirt road of the continent!

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And it was a bit of a stunner

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I’ll miss getting stuck in the mud!

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One thought on “Into the Heartland: A ride through Antioquia, Santander and Boyaca provinces

  1. Pingback: Colombia | Long Way Up

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