Soaring peaks free of rebels

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.

Here was the natural diversity of Colombia in all her glory. From a freezing plateau above the tree line we had reached the tropics, all in the space of an hour. We felt like pioneers and laid claim to the landscape by snapping hundreds of pictures.

Back when the guerrillas lorded over this region, our excursion would have been a kamikaze mission, and there were plenty of reminders of the bad old days. In Tenza, another gem of a hamlet, Mayor Fanny Coca recalled how rebels stormed into the town hall in 2001 and demanded part of the municipal budget. Officials could either comply or be kidnapped.

Coca credited the law-and-order polices of President Alvaro Uribe, who was first elected in 2002, with turning things around. The guerrillas have abandoned the area and now, she said, “people die of old age.”

Whether in Tenza or on a patch of asphalt in the middle of the countryside, we were constantly stopping to fill our tanks.

Colombia ranks nowhere near the top of overseas destinations for serious foodies and we had two in our group — David Carr, the media columnist for The New York Times, and Brett Anderson, the restaurant critic for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. Yet they discovered some enticing dishes. Neither had spent a whole lot of time on their bikes and they struggled a bit in the mountains. But at one point, after pedaling through a cloud of succulent smoke, Carr and Anderson abruptly pulled to a halt, found their second wind, then backtracked five kilometers to sample an outdoor chicken joint.

One evening, we tucked into another Colombian specialty, lomo al trapo — beef tenderloin packed with salt then wrapped in a wet rag and tossed into the ashes of a barbeque pit. We also carb-loaded at roadside stands that sold simple fare like roasted corn-on-the-cob garnished with lime and arepas — corn-flour pancakes stuffed with cheese.

Any deficiencies in the cuisine were made up for by the massive selection of fruits. We washed down our meals with juices made from blackberries, passion fruit, guavas, soursop, lulo, feijoa and tree tomatoes.

Back on the road, the few motorists we encountered gave us a wide berth. Partly due to its mountainous contours, Colombia produces more world-class cyclists than any other Latin American nation. Drivers are used to sharing the highways with thick packs of bikers, some of whom end up riding in the Tour of France, Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a Espana.

Yes, we often wussed out on the climbs but we tried to make up for it on the last full day of the trip when we began a leg-crunching hike to the top of a 3,700-meter mesa for a picnic lunch at the sacred lagoon of Iguaque Park, another largely unknown treasure just outside Villa de Leyva.

Founded in 1572, Villa de Leyva is one of the oldest and prettiest towns in Colombia. But even here, we had the whitewashed colonial buildings, the bustling market and the cobblestone streets pretty much to ourselves.

As we boarded our sag wagon for the two-and-a-half hour ride back to Bogota, we wondered how long Colombia would remain off the tourist trail. We also smiled about the only real disappointment of the trip: Colombian coffee.

Though a growing number of upscale Juan Valdez shops in the big cities serve Starbucks-strength espresso, my friends were appalled by the weak brew served in most backcountry restaurants. The taste brought to mind that old Peanuts cartoon in which Linus serves Lucy hot chocolate made from warm water with a brown crayon dipped in it. The full-blown caffeine addicts in our group took to ordering Coca-Cola for breakfast.

But that was OK. The trip was all about upsetting the conventional wisdom and my friends flew home with a new image of Colombia: a land of good security and bad coffee. Who’d have thought?