With a bracing topography, a robust bike culture and a nearly limitless supply of dirt-riding, Colombia should be a bucket-list bikepacking destination.
Encompassing three branches of the Colombian Andes, the El Camino de Café (The Coffee Road) bikepacking route takes riders on a roller coaster of a journey through some of the country’s most varied terrain dominated by looming mountains, rushing rivers, verdant jungle and sleepy pueblos. Riders will take a deep dive into the belly of Colombia’s coffee growing region, most of which takes place on Colombia’s seemingly endless supply of trocha (dirt roads). Safer than ever, now is a fascinating and rewarding time to visit on two-wheels and embrace the contagious alegria (happiness) of the people.
Click here for a photo essay of this trip on the Ride with GPS Ride Reports. And here is an article I wrote for Bicycling that highlights my favorite recipes for Colombian culinary delights.
Climbing efforts that are rewarded with one post-card worthy mirador after another and screaming descents from soaring Andean summits. Hold on tight!
Colonial towns including Jardin, Filandia and Villa de Leyva that are oozing with old-world charm. Experience cowboy culture where the horse is still valued for its ability to handle the mountainous terrain.
Stuff your belly and stay hydrated with culinary delights including arepas, jugo naturales, tinto (cinnamon and sugar spiked coffee), fried plantain patacones and the ultra-refreshing fruit salad drink known locally as Salpicón de Frutas.
Clocking in at nearly 2000 species, Colombia is a nation for the birds. On any given ride you’ll get a bird’s-eye view of saffron finches, iridescent hummingbirds, fetching Andean motmots and flame-rumped tanagers.
Make your way to Guatape and get ready to gawk at the other-worldly anomaly that is the La Piedra stone.
When to go: There are two windows of opportunity for drier riding weather which generally occur between December and February as well as between June and August. But be prepared to deal with rain at any time, especially the section of the route between Salento and Jerico.
Climate: Prepare for a range of temperatures (read: bring layers). Low laying areas around the Rio Magdalena will be very steamy. In temperate regions, like Guatape and Jardine, day time temperatures are generally very pleasant with the potential to want to reach for pants and a sweater come evening. Places at higher altitudes including Bogota and Guatavita can get nippy in the evening and you might need to ride in a base layer during early morning hours. You should not experience any frigid temperatures on this route.
Trip Length: This loop can be tackled in 3 to 6 weeks depending on the distance you wish to cover each day. Three weeks will require some big days in terms distance and elevation, whereas 5 to 6 weeks allows for a more casual pace with more rest days and the opportunity to take advantage of other activities like day hikes and day rides.
Direction: We recommend riding the loop in direction plotted (clockwise). The route was designed to have a net elevation loss in the first couple days of riding, which is helpful for those arriving from sea level. In addition, there are a handful of downhills that would be absolute killers as ascents. It appeared that the climbs were more manageable in the direction plotted.
Road Conditions: Between 80 to 85% of this route takes place on non-paved riding surfaces, mostly a mix of gravel and two-track dirt. Overall, the quality of the unpaved roads is good, but there are exceptions. In general, the roughest, most rocky roads occur between Jerico and Puerto Boyaca. You’ll experience drier, dustier roads once you reach the high plain (altiplano) region around Villa de Leyva. Many grades are gradual, but others will sucker punch you with a steepness that may require some bike-pushing.
Bike: A smorgasbord of different bike styles will get the job done. There is a good argument to be made that a hardtail mountain bike set-up is ideal by providing the most comfort for a trip of this length. No need for overly fat tires – anything in the 2.1 to 2.3-inch range will do the trick. A drop-bar gravel bike will work as well if you don’t mind being underbiked in a few of the rougher stretches. Ideally, if going with this bike choice it should be outfitted with 650B or 29-inch wheels. If riding with 700 wheels make sure it’s outfitted with the fattest rubber possible for the added support on long descents. And consider your gearing carefully as the elevation gain on this route is legit – roughly 115,000 feet (35,000 meters). So you need to set up your bike with generous gearing. You’ll most certainly burn through a set or two of brake pads so be sure to pack spares.
Bogota Riding: If possible, plan to start riding this route on a Sunday. This way you can take advantage of Bogota’s forward-thinking Ciclovia. On Sundays, many miles of streets usually packed with vehicles are taken over by cyclists and pedestrians. It’s much safer (and fun!) to ride out of the city with the masses on roads that are closed to vehicular traffic. At other times, try to take advantage of the large network of separated bike lanes that populate the city. (Looks like there is an initiative for Bogota to keep on adding to their bike lane infrastructure.) For safety reasons, this is not a city where you should be exploring alleyways on two-wheels.
Safety: Years of internal strife has saddled Colombia with a sketchy safety record. But I can say we felt very at ease while cycling this route and did not have a single incidence where we believed our personal safety was in jeopardy, save for a handful of angry dogs. Problems remain of course, but for the most part we were only confronted with kindness from the Colombians.
Altitude: Much of this route takes place over 2,000 metres, with the high point being 3,400 meters (Bogota is at 2,640 m). High enough to make you feel winded if arriving from lower elevations, but not high enough were you’ll experience serious altitude sickness. Best plan of attack is to simply take it slow and easy on the pedals when needed.
Language: Overall, very little English is spoken so it’s a good idea to arm yourself with at least a basic Spanish vocabulary. Be warned that Colombians tend to habla rápido. Download Google Translate to help you out.
Bike Services: Since Colombia is crazy for cycling it should come as no surprise that there are several bicycle shops scattered along the route. Larger towns are more likely to have shops that are well-stocked with parts, while smaller villages often have shops with basic supplies and a mechanic who is fairly handy. Money: The Colombian peso (COP) is the preferred currency and can be attained at ATMs which are found in every town of reasonable size. Some hotels accept debit/credit card payment.
Accommodation: The mountainous terrain combined with fenced-off fincas (farms/ranches) means that it can be a challenge to find suitable places to pitch a tent for the night. But on most stretches of the route there are locations that will work for discreet camping. A good option is to ask finca owners if you can camp on their property which offers added security. Inquiring about tenting space at tiendas (small food shops) in non-urbanized areas may also prove fruitful. Established campgrounds are few and far between. A handful of locations including Villa de Leyva and Salento do have paid campground options. iOverlander can be a great resource for tenting options in Colombia that are vetted by users.
You can also travel lighter without camping gear and go the hotel route without blowing your budget. As a general rule, accommodation in Colombia is inexpensive. In non-touristy towns we were often able to grab a room in a hotel or hospedaje for less than $20. Most towns of reasonable size have one or more options for accommodation that are often well kept. You can expect to pay a bit of a premium for a room in highly trafficked locations like Guatape. Hostels are also available in many of the more tourist-oriented locations. Booking.com and Airbnb can be a good source for securing accommodation along the route if you’re planning ahead. The route file below lists locations where you can expect to find a roof to sleep under.
Food and Drink: Food and liquids are abundant and inexpensive along this route. For the most part, you’ll come across restaurants, supermercados, fruit shops and small tiendas at fairly regular intervals negating the need to weigh your ride down with food and water. Panadarias (bakeries) are ubiquitous and are an easy way to cheaply carb-load. Food options are marked on the detailed map you’ll find below, but by no means is this an exhaustive list.
For the most calories for your buck sit down at a local family-run restaurant. A breakfast that includes eggs, cheese, arepa and coffee or hot chocolate often costs no more than $3. For lunch and dinner, belly-up to an overflowing plate of meat, rice, beans, salad and patacones (fried plantain), which can cost as little as $5. Hearty soups (ajiaco) made with potato, corn and meat are also widely available. In most locations we were advised against drinking tap water. Relying solely on bottled water for a trip of this length is not eco-friendly so we suggest packing a lightweight water filtration system that you can use for your hydration needs.
Extra Miles: If you have more time and some energy to spare you can also tack on the Oh! Boyaca bikepacking route onto this one. This route begins in Villa de Leyva where it would be possible to ride to the end of the route in reverse and then take a bus back to Villa de Leyva to resume the ride to Bogota.
Route Development We would like to thank Hidden Journeys (a Bogota-based company specializing in tailored cycling and other adventure travel throughout Colombia) for helping develop this route. Their input on where are the safest regions in the country to cycle was a tremendous help. They can also arrange secure transport for you and your bicycle from the Bogota airport.
In the near future, it will be ideal to link this route with the Ruta Chingaza loop from bikepacking.com. Watch the film of the route creation here.
This route map provides a collection of Points of Interest including accommodation and food options which you may find helpful with trip planning. There are a few Checkpoint POI’s plotted on the route map which offers suggestions for possible route detours and day rides. For example, there are a couple great loops from Villa de Leyva and a more adventurous route option between Salento and Filandia. Also make note of a possible side-trip to Combeima Canyon from the city of Ibaque where you’ll pedal your way into a land dominated by sheer cliffs and misty greenery. This route file with the POIs can be downloaded using the Ride with GPS mobile app for easy access. Follow this link for the downloadable file.
If using a Garmin device for navigation purposes here is a useful article on how to make sure the device has the most detailed map for Colombia.