Colombia's Bikers Reclaim Mountain Trails Once Ruled by Rebels
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
These routes once epitomized violence. Now they symbolize the power of sport.
By Wesley Tomaselli
- Rustic trails outside Bogotá, Medellin and Cali that were off-limits during the war are now drawing mountain bikers from around the world.
- Colombia, say experts, could emerge as Latin America’s next big ecotourism destination.
Not long ago, it was a bribe or a bullet for cattle ranchers who farm high up in the Andes Mountains around the tiny town of Cáqueza, just an hour outside Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.
Residents lived in fear of militants as they roamed the rustic trails that thread down Colombia’s verdant slopes. Today, another band of rebels are retaking these dirt paths, fixing them up and putting them to use for a two-wheeled, high-adrenaline sport.
Across Colombia, people are reclaiming vast tracts once considered no-go zones — through mountain biking. The sport is taking the country by storm after a decade and a half of aggressive, U.S.-backed offensives against armed rebels and a peace treaty in 2016 that led to the demobilization of left-wing fighters, significantly reducing violence.
These places used to be crawling with guerrillas.
Nicolas Mejia, veteran mountain biker
Take a 28-mile ride from La Ceja to Abejorral in the Antioquia region that Nicolas Mejia — a mountain bike guru from Medellin who had left for Canada in the 1990s to escape the violence — describes as one of his more advanced rides. Since 2016, he has had dozens of serious mountain bikers tour with him. In addition to the Bogotá-Choachí-El Filo loop, where cyclists pass through Cáqueza, the Alejandría-San Rafael trail to the north of Medellín and the Sierra Nevada Climb were also once off-limits because of armed conflict there. “These places used to be crawling with guerrillas,” says Mejia.
Mountain biking races are growing here. La Leyenda Del Dorado, a grueling 280-mile, six-day ride that’s among Colombia’s top races, will this year start offering single-day bike marathons in Cali and La Vega, with plans to expand to other areas in 2021. The number of participants is growing, says La Leyenda communications manager Dave Proctor, up to 240 riders from 25 countries in 2019, compared to 60 riders from 14 countries in 2016. Trail-making is picking up too. At a mountain bike park outside Cali, there are 19 single-track trails compared to just four trails three years ago.
The emergence of a national hero, just as the conflict was winding down, has helped draw a new generation of Colombian mountain bikers. Road cyclist Nairo Quintana won the 2014 Giro d’Italia and the 2016 Vuelta España, both prestigious races. And for the government of President Ivan Duque, Colombia’s emerging mountain biking routes could join the list of attractions as it tries to increase tourism revenue and reduce its dependence on dollar-denominated oil earnings.
“Colombia is betting on tourism to be a ‘new petroleum’ to pick up some of the slack created by the fall in oil prices,” says Richard McColl, a hotelier and Colombia analyst, calling the country the “sleeping giant of ecotourism in Latin America.”
Early evidence bears out the potential McColl refers to. In 2017, just a year after Colombia’s government signed a peace treaty with FARC rebels, the number of foreign visitors to the country reached 4 million, up 250 percent from 1.6 million in 2012. And the country has a storied legacy of cycling.
In the 1980s, the Vuelta a Colombia — considered the South American Tour de France — flourished. Colombian riders from the high elevation Andes were known for their ability to withstand gnarly climbs. But armed conflict between left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitaries, fueled by drug trafficking, set that tradition back. The conflict displaced 7 million people, many of whom found new starts in ramshackle homes in cities. Colombia’s countryside was abandoned.
Between 1995 and 2003, most of the area around Medellín was off-limits, says Mejia. “We used to be trapped in our cities,” he says. “You couldn’t go anywhere. It was like we were held hostage inside.”
Yet the natural allure of Colombia’s Andes — hair-raising climbs and descents, intense changes of temperature and humidity, and terrible roads — survived the conflict.
Those used to be perfect conditions for fighters who would extort cattle ranchers, kidnap local mayors and, in the most brutal of cases, massacre entire villages. From the tops of these ranges, FARC and paramilitary forces would launch attacks and dodge Colombian security forces.
Now riders are ambushing the countryside. “Colombia is going through a transition from an agriculture-based economy — like coffee, cacao, etc. — to tourism. Similar to what happened in Costa Rica,” says Juan Gómez, a mountain bike rider and tour guide who used to live in Spain and observed how tourism drove development there. “We’re just beginning. It’s all very new and raw.”
On the La Ceja to Abejorral cycling route, an off-road pass turns to a steep single track, before a zip line carries you and your cycle over a jaw-dropping ravine to the track on the other side. “This is still the Wild West. No one regulates anything,” says Mejia, a reverence for Colombia’s unforgiving geography evident in his gaze. He says he has had serious mountain bikers staying with him acknowledge that “this is the real deal.”
For these routes to grow further as magnets for riders and tourists, Colombia’s peace deal needs to hold. McColl reminds OZY that Duque’s government, now keen on tourism, was deeply critical of the peace agreement during the elections that brought it to power. “That’s hardly the ideal platform to enable stability and tourism growth,” he argues.
And even though the FARC and paramilitary fighters have largely demobilized, the landmines they placed in some areas remain a threat. Mejia recommends hiring a guide even for advanced riders. Colombia still has organized crime, armed dissidents and a guerrilla group called the ELN that did not demobilize.
Mountain bike riders like Mejia and Gomez know this. But they are still keen on exploring the beautiful geographies and rad trails that were shut off for years. And they want to introduce these trails to the rest of the world. Like Colombia’s history, they’re bumpy — but worth it.