16-21 January 2017
The route from Sopó to Bogotá put us back on the nicely paved road with wide shoulders, and it was predominantly flat the whole way there. We didn’t have very far to go that day (only 50 kilometers), so we were able to leave Sopó late in the afternoon. I think it was actually after 5pm when we left, so most of our ride was in the dark. After only 20 kilometers we crossed into Bogotá, but it was still another 30 kilometers to get to la Candelaria, where we were staying with Lenin’s former coworker. The traffic in Bogotá was horrible, and we were weaving around the gridlocked cars and buses. Bogotá is full of ciclorutas, and we rode a few blocks out of our way to get to one of these, but it ended up being faster to ride on the road with the traffic so we went back. We made it to our destination quickly, with no snack breaks and no problems.
In Bogotá, Lenin and I rested, met up with the French girl who we had met in Villa de Leyva, visited thermals in Choachi, enjoyed the higher quality bakeries in the city (including my friend’s donut shop), and biked to parque Simon Bolívar. We also spent a day walking around, visiting bike shops and talking with the owners.
The first and smallest shop we visited was owned by a man who raced bikes in Europe in the 80’s. He gave us coffee and talked for a long time, telling us about the much larger shop he owned a few years ago before robbers stole almost everything he had. Another shop owner and his son told us about how they started the bike polo scene in Bogotá, where everyone began on whatever bike they had. Over time, its popularity grew and people started buying fixed gear bikes more specific to the sport. The guys at this shop build their own bicycles, and they were very interested when we told them about cyclocross. In general, almost none of the bike shop employees knew what cyclocross was. They all though we were talking about BMX at first, which is called bicicross in Colombia. By the end of the day I was so tired of talking to bike shop people and felt so worn out from exercising my brain in Spanish. All I wanted to do was go home and lie down. Churro was clearly exhausted as well, immediately falling asleep on the floor of every bike shop and begrudgingly waking up to move on to the next. None of the bike shops we visited thus far had any cyclocross bikes, and only one of the employees in one shop knew anything about the sport. But then we passed a shop that was actually called Ciclocross, so we had to go in and ask.
We walked in, and the first employee we spoke to did what everyone else had done, taking us to the BMX bikes. “No, that’s bicicross! Cyclocross is different!”, Lenin proclaimed, like he had in every other shop. This attracted the attention of another employee, who came over and invited us to follow him into a back room, where he showed us a brand new LaPierre cyclocross bike, still in the box. He said they had already sold over 100 of them. It was expensive, and we weren’t planning to buy a bike, but it was interesting to see what the market was like here. The employee told us that there were a handful of people who were into cyclocross in Bogotá, but most people have no clue what it is.
Lenin and I had been thinking to bring the sport to Colombia, envisioning all the places where we could have races, and how it could be a year-round sport here. We received positive feedback from almost everyone we spoke with, and I think Bogotá would be the place to initiate a cyclocross club if it were to succeed here.
“If we’re going to talk about transport, I would say that the great city is not the one that has highways, but one where a child on a tricycle or bicycle can go safely everywhere.” – Enrique Peñalosa, mayor of Bogotá from 1998-2001 who was just reelected for 2016
We wanted to take a bike tour, so we woke up early on Friday, but it was still raining as we finished up breakfast so we decided to postpone it a day. Instead, we visited the gold museum and then tried to hike up Monserrate for the third time.
The climate in Bogotá is cool. The city lies at around 8,000 feet and is surrounded by mountains, but you warm up substantially while walking up all the hills. It makes it hard to pick what to wear, and we were constantly either shedding or adding layers. It was just after 3pm, and the hike to the top is about 5 kilometers. The sun doesn’t set until 6, and we wanted to check out the sunset from the top. We had more than enough time to make it before it got dark, but when we arrived at the gate at the bottom of the walking path, the police informed us that it closed at 2pm.
We still wanted to take a bike tour, but the tour starts every day at 10:30 and ends at 2:30, so we would have to try once more to hike Monserrate on Sunday if we did the bike tour on Saturday. Sunday is when Ciclovia happens every week, so it would be a pretty active day if we were to bike around the city in the morning and get to the mountain before 2pm to hike, but it was our last day in Bogotá, so we had to try to squeeze it all in.
Our bike tour on Saturday was what we really should have done on Tuesday, our first day in Bogotá, to learn about the city and get a good idea of where we wanted to check out in more depth (and learn what we probably should avoid). Our tour guide led us along with another expat couple living in Peru and a German man through the streets of Bogotá for four hours, stopping at various points to explain the history of what we were seeing. We stopped at a local market to try some popular Colombian fruits and at a coffee roaster to try some of the coffee that gets exported from Colombia. Most Colombians drink cheap instant coffee, while all the good beans get exported to other countries.
The story of the graffiti was most interesting to me. All around the city you can see beautiful, colorful murals. Graffiti used to be illegal, but some of the artists got together and formed collectives to demonstrate that their art actually adds beauty to the city and can communicate social or political messages. Eventually, the government, tired of wasting resources to lock these people up and paint over their work instead of focusing on more dangerous criminals, had a change of heart and actually started supporting the graffiti artists. Now there are paintings all over the city that are financially backed by the government, all with a political or social message to share with the public. A similar story was told to us during our bike tour in Medellin, where we also saw many colorful graffiti murals. I think this model should be adopted everywhere, along with Ciclovia.
Ciclovia was started in the late 1990’s by mayor Enrique Peñalosa, who was actually born in the US. Over 100 kilometers of roads are shut off to cars every Sunday from 7am to 2pm in an effort to entice people to be more active. With a feeling of safety in the streets, Ciclovia now attracts around 2 million people every week. They come out on their bikes, inline skates, on foot, with their dogs, with their running clubs, and with every level of intensity from recreational stroller to athletic guys in spandex on carbon race bikes. People sell food, offer bike repair services, give dance lessons and perform in the street – there’s something for everyone on every block, and you could spend all day riding and still not see it all.
The real downside to Bogotá (and Cartagena and Medellin) is the air pollution. From the moment we stepped out of the airport we could smell diesel fumes from all the traffic. It’s sometimes so bad that I physically couldn’t breathe in. It’s not a good environment for intense physical activity, but outside of the city I imagine the mountain air is relatively fresh and clean.
We returned our rental bikes to our hostel by 1pm so we could get to Monserrate before they closed the walking path. Upon arrival, the gate was closed, and a sign informed us that the mountain was closed for landscaping or something like that. We tried four times with no success, and we were flying out the next morning for Cartagena so we just gave in and bought tickets for the cable car. The line was long, and the car was packed, and of course we were in the middle so we couldn’t really see out the windows at all, but the view from the top was pretty good. The entire city of Bogotá is visible from Monserrate, but we couldn’t help but think of how much more rewarding it would have been to hike up there ourselves instead of standing in a crowded cable car. C’est la vie…
We spent a week in Bogota before flying to Cartagena. Since it didn’t take long for us to get robbed, we were very wary of the place for the rest of the week. We spent pretty much all of Wednesday with the police, and we barely left our hostel on Thursday.
We finally wandered out for a walk Thursday evening where we discovered Carrera Siete, a road where a long section had been closed to cars a few years ago and was now exclusively for pedestrians and cyclists. This was just a few blocks from our hostel, and stretched on for about 1.5 kilometers. The whole street was all decked out in Christmas lights and decorations, and in Simon Bolivar Plaza stood an enormous Christmas “tree”. Chinese drummers were performing on a stage that had been set up opposite the tree, and their performance could be heard from inside the cathedral across the plaza where a mass was taking place at the same time. The whole street was alive with crowds of people – street performers, artists, vendors, people walking around in Christmas hats and people playing with these light-up propeller toys that launch high into the sky and then slowly fall straight back down. Those light-up toys could be seen all over the street and plaza.
Dallas and I were mostly interested in the street food and the guinea pig games. The food was cheap, and most of it was tasty. We shared a corn on the cob and an arepa con queso, and then watched some guinea pigs run into houses. The game is really silly, but really fun to watch (and even more fun to play). A group of 5 or 6 guinnea pigs huddle next to one another on the street by the feet of the man with the microphone who is encouraging everyone around to bet on which house the animal will choose. The houses are all lined up in an array about 20 feet away from the guinea pigs – the far row with doors facing the guinea pigs and the nearer houses have the doors turned away. The man with the microphone keeps talking to work up a crowd, and people line up around the guinea pigs and houses, forming a runway for them to run towards the houses. People place coins on top of the house that they think the guinea pig will go into, and when enough people have placed their bets, the man with the microphone picks up one of the guinea pigs and places him down a few feet away from the others, so he runs towards all the houses. There are several of these exact same set-ups along Carrera Siete, and as far as I know, this goes on every night. It’s the perfect gateway game to get kids hooked on gambling.
After betting and losing 200 pesos (~6 cents) a few times, we buy some plantains with cheese and guayaba, a popular fruit that always seems to come in a paste form and is eaten with cheese. We also try the aromatica, a hot drink that tastes like sugar cane and limes with herbs. The next day, we came back here and Dallas actually won 1000 pesos on the guinea pig game!
Fast forward to the next day, when we leave our hostel to walk towards Monserrate, we notice smoke and fire on the mountainside. We arrived at the gate to find that the walking path is closed because of the fire, and there are 4 or 5 fire trucks waiting on the street across from the entrance. We stood for several minutes to decide what to do next, and eventually agreed that we should walk up Cerro de Guadelupe, the mountain next to Monserrate, instead. At the top of this mountain is a statue of the Virgin Mary, and it looks to be about the same elevation as Monserrate. We find walking directions to the peak of Guadelupe on the map app that I downloaded to my phone, and we spend another minute or so trying to decide whether to walk it or take a bus or cab. It was just over 6 miles from our current location, but we decided to walk until it looked unsafe (like, if the sidewalk disappeared and there was no space for walking).
As we ascended the steep streets towards the mountain, the neighborhood became quieter. The view of the city was impressive, and we hadn’t even reached the start of the mountains yet. We turned back down one of the roads the map led us up because it just didn’t feel right, and we figured we could get to the main road a better way by staying on Calle 9 until the end, where there appeared to be a university.
We ended up on a very steep cobblestone road that was beginning to be overgrown by grass. As we got about halfway up the road, two men approached us from above. Their intentions weren’t immediately clear to us until they attacked, each man wielding a screwdriver as their weapon of choice. I never knew how frightening a situation like this could be until it happened to us. With adrenaline at full blast, it was hard to think about anything except to give these men what they wanted so they would leave us alone. Dallas, who was carrying our backpack, was more reluctant to hand everything over. Having read an article my dad sent me about couples who were killed trying to resist robberies, I was begging Dallas to just give it to them or else they would hurt him. He stalled for what seemed like forever, but eventually gave them the backpack and emptied his pockets for them. As they ran back from where they came up the hill, one of them threw Dallas’s wallet back to him. A moment later, after realizing his passport was in the bag, Dallas was chasing them up the hill, and I was following.
They were about to make their escape on a motorcycle when, fortuitously, a police vehicle came driving toward us down the hill. We waved them down, frantically pointing at the motorcycle, and the police cut them off. The man on the back of the motorcycle dropped our backpack and ran off to the left, disappearing into the neighborhood below, while the other man dropped to the ground and was apprehended by the police. One of the policemen chased the man who ran away, but to no avail. He still had my waist pouch with my phone in it and Dallas’s phone and cash.
We sat shaking in the grass for a while as more police officers arrived on the scene. Stray dogs came over with tails wagging and licked my hand, as filthy as they were, making me feel a little better. Traffic was starting to back up on the road, and people in nearby houses were gathering around to see what the commotion was. The cops moved the one robber from the first vehicle to a second patrol car that arrived, and then moved him again to a third car that came even later. At one point I counted 14 police officers standing around on the road, using their radios and cell phones. Communication was not easy, and most of it fell upon Dallas since he was far more proficient in Spanish. He did practically all of the explaining as different cops continued to question us throughout the day.
This all began around 1:30pm, and by 2:30 we had been driven down the hill to a police station where we ended up sitting for a few hours while police tried to get us to positively identify the man who they thought got away. So many factors make it extremely difficult to identify anyone in a situation like this. First, everything happened so quickly and neither of us were studying faces to see what these guys looked like. Dallas said that they were wearing hoods to cover their faces, but I don’t even recall that. If I couldn’t even remember if they were wearing hoods, how could I be expected to remember what their faces looked like? Second, what are the details you are most likely to notice during such a quick and stressful interaction? Height, complexion, hair color, clothes… They were both about our height or shorter and had a darker complexion, which doesn’t exactly narrow down the field. The photos that the cops were showing us didn’t really help. Sure, it could have been him, but they could have shown us a photo of any Colombian man and we would have thought the same thing. We had no idea. Third, the language barrier made it so that even if we did have a good idea in our heads of what the man looked like, it was nearly impossible to communicate a detailed description.
While waiting for the cops to complete their paperwork, and using google translator to communicate back and forth, a boy came up to the station with my pouch. Inside were both of our phones. He told the police that he found it on the street, and then he left. I watched as he ran away down the street, and the cop changed what he was writing in the report to reflect what just happened. He confirmed with us everything using google translator. Meanwhile, the man that they did capture had been led from the police car to the station where we were waiting. This station is tiny. There’s a small room with a computer and a laptop and a few boxes of papers, and in the back is a room with some lockers and a small bathroom. The whole station is probably less than 150 square feet. The man in handcuffs is placed in the locker room, which doesn’t appear to have a door. We feel like he could run out at any moment, while the cops are casually walking in and out of the main room.
Overall, we were really impressed with the thoroughness and seriousness that the police in Bogota take their jobs. We felt like they went to great lengths to make us safer and recover our belongings, and they made a commendable effort to communicate with us every step of the way. However, we had no idea when we would be able to leave, and we eventually were escorted to the back of the same cop car that our robber had been put in to go to the main office of criminal justice. We had to squeeze into the back of the car and sit next to the man in handcuffs for a ride of unknown length. Did I mention how small all the vehicles are in Colombia? With a hard slippery surface to sit on, no seat belts and just a bar to grab in front of us, I felt like we were on a roller coaster, speeding even further down steeply sloped hills. The smell of diesel fuel and heavy air pollution drifted into the caged windows, making the ride even more uncomfortable.
When we finally arrived, we were all led up several flights of stairs, and Dallas and I waited in a separated room with chairs for almost 2 hours before we were led to the interrogation room so Dallas could try to tell our story again to different investigators. The man in handcuffs was sitting on the floor across from this room with glass walls. It was all very confusing to me. They had Dallas sit with a woman at a computer who transcribed his story into yet another report.
While he was doing this, one of the policemen brought me back out to the hallway where he had me sit next to another young woman. He wanted us to talk to one another, but I wasn’t sure why. She didn’t know what to say at first, and neither did I, but we managed to have some kind of conversation with her trying to speak English and me trying to speak Spanish. It was actually very helpful, and I learned that she was in school to be a flight attendant. She was 20 years old, visiting Bogota from Medellin, and wanted to learn English. I didn’t realize until another cop took her away to question her that she was in handcuffs. She came back and we talked some more before a different cop took me away and brought me back to the first room where Dallas and I had been waiting initially.
Eventually, I was brought back to the room where Dallas was still working out our story with the woman. When he finished up with her, we spoke with another investigator who gave us advice about walking around Bogota and told us stories about other cases that didn’t end so well. He also gave us some money for a cab ride back to our hostel.
By the time we arrived at our hostel it was 9pm, and aside from some cheese and candy that the police had shared with us, we hadn’t eaten anything in over 8 hours. We felt hungry, dirty, and exhausted.
All of the police and investigators were incredibly helpful and nice to us, and we are very grateful for everything they did. We feel very lucky to have encountered the police when we did, and we are especially lucky to have gotten away unscathed. While we can’t help but feel guilty and think about what we could have done to have prevented this from happening in the first place, we realize it could have been much worse.
Please try not to worry about us! We are taking this as a learning experience and will be extra cautious when walking around from now on.