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Soaring peaks free of rebels

Once the province of Marxist guerrillas, the mountains outside Bogota remain a secret from tourists.

GACHETA, Colombia — The highway that cut across a cloud-shrouded Andean Mountain peak was nearly empty — except for me and my bikemates.

A few years ago, the lack of vehicles on a Colombian roadway could spell trouble. It was a warning sign that around the next bend Marxist guerrillas might be stopping cars and kidnapping drivers for ransom.

Back then, roadside abductions were so common that many Colombians refused to travel overland. The rebels even had a catchy name for their crime — “miracle fishing” — a reference to the disciples who, on Christ’s instruction, cast their nets into the Sea of Galilee and took home a colossal catch.

But a few kilometers later we ran into the first of several Colombian Army checkpoints. Though startled to encounter a posse of gringo cyclists, the soldiers shook our hands and guaranteed us a trouble-free ride.

The zone had been pacified. The lack of traffic, it turned out, was largely due to the fact that tourists had yet to discover this exotic patch of Colombia located just 30 miles from Bogota.

It was the same throughout the trip, which took us through the gorgeous mountain states of Cundinamarca and Boyaca in the middle of the country. During a week of cycling, we didn’t spot a single American and encountered only a handful of foreign or Colombian tourists. Deep down, I felt partly responsible for the lack of outsiders and Colombia’s enduring reputation as a scary place. I’ve been based in Bogota as a foreign correspondent for the past 12 years. Yet even as I talked up my adopted homeland to friends and family I rarely wrote about the many pleasures of living here.

Like most reporters, I focused on the country’s dark side — the seemingly endless guerrilla war, the abductions, the drug-fueled violence. It’s hard not to. Though nothing terrible has ever happened to me, my father-in-law, a Colombian rancher, was kidnapped twice in the late 1990s. One of the members of our peloton, journalist Ruth Morris, was abducted by rebels in 2003.

Thus, even though I had organized numerous bike adventures over the years for a group of friends — including sojourns to Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Ireland, Mexico, Nicaragua, Thailand and Venezuela — I hesitated about putting together the Tour of Colombia.

When I first moved here in 1997, the Colombian Army was getting its butt kicked and the rebels seemed poised to make a move on Bogota. However, a U.S.-funded military offensive has pushed the guerrillas back into the most remote areas of the country. And though the cocaine trade continues to thrive, kidnappings have plummeted from a high of 3,572 in 2000 to 437 last year.

Upon pulling into Bogota, some of my friends were still a little wary. But once they spotted the sag wagon, they figured I wouldn’t get them into too much trouble. Besides packing luggage, bike pumps and extra inner tubes, my wife and I were also bringing along our two sons — 4-year-old Martin and 1-year-old Lorenzo.

A half-dozen strong, we set off from my house in the mountains outside of Bogota and deliberately stayed off the beaten track. It wasn’t difficult.

Improved security has led to an uptick in tourism but most foreign visitors stick to icons like the walled city of Cartagena and, to a lesser extent, Bogota. Yet within two hours of the capital lies a small slice of Eden that hardly anyone — Colombians or outsiders — knows about. Small towns offered colonial architecture, charming people and amazing views since most are wedged into the sides of impossibly steep ridges.

Colombia is home to three Andean Mountain ranges and the saw-toothed terrain made for dramatic downhill runs that we joyously dubbed “gravity biking.”

After that first army checkpoint, for example, we began a breathtaking 2,000-meter plunge. Squeezing our brakes, we dropped down past hairy-leafed frailejon plants, waterfalls and potato crops. As the sun burned away the clouds, the temperature shot up and the stunted Andean flora gave way to a green expanse of cane fields, banana groves and mango trees.