“ Bike tours and rentals in Bogota, Colombia „
Apart from in Spinning class, I've not been on a bike in a good 10 years, so it was with some trepidation that I agreed to go on the Bogota Bike Tour with some friends. The shop is a bit of a landmark in La Candelaria, and stocks books for sale and for swap, local information on accommodation and attractions, and bikes to rent in addition to running twice daily tours. Since you don't need to book in advance we decided to see what the weather was like, and when it was nice and sunny at 9am, had a quick Facebook convo to confirm that we would indeed be meeting up for the 10.30am departure.
You're advised to arrive half an hour early to choose a bike, get a helmet and so on, but although I wasn't the first to arrive, a few others drifted in after me too. We are, after all, on Colombian time here. The shop is quite small but there's an extra stash of bikes in the back, and I liked the look of the one brought out for me. Tires were pumped up and seats lowered until we were all happy and, strapping on helmets from a large selection on the shelves, we set off.
We were lucky to get *the* Mike as our guide - when the afternoon tour goes as well, obviously a second guide is needed. We also had Cristian, a helper, who stayed at the back to help any of us lagging behind. Mike is from California but has lived in South America for years, with the last 5 in Bogota. Because we had a lone Mexican in the group, he did the tour in both Spanish and English, but the transition between the two was seamless and it didn't seem like we were spending loads of time waiting around for everything to be translated. Our group had 6 paying participants. Joining me were two of my friends, a Canadian couple and the Mexican, and it was a good number both for bonding and also for being able to stay together in traffic.
The website says tours last for between 3 and 5 hours depending on the ability and mood of the group, and clearly we were ready, willing and able since it was 4.30pm by the time we coasted back down the hill to the shop, utterly exhausted and a little hungry, but quite elated following the day we had had. Tours differ in terms of route as well as duration, so the following is based on our 6 (!) hours on the road, but is a good indication of what you can expect.
We set off heading up to La Plaza del Chorro which is where Bogota was originally founded. As we pulled to a stop I got my first indication of the fun (and education) that was to come, as we quickly learnt about the square's background but also some quirky facts about the green figures who haunt the roof tops of their neighbourhood, and the reason why there was a newly constructed wall hiding the original front of some buildings to one side (answer: because they were ugly). From here we headed back down into the midst of downtown, stopping briefly near the library and some museums and cultural centres for little titbits of information utterly missing from Lonely Planet (a book which, incidentally, also states incorrectly that there is no bike rental anywhere in Bogota). We headed for the Plaza Bolivar, a central square a few blocks from where I live, which is lined with government buildings, and, of course, a place with lots of quirky facts to discover beyond the standard 'this is the Palace that was the scene of the 1985 siege'.
On Sundays La Septima (= 7th Avenue) is closed to cars and turned into a cycle path (dedicated cycle lanes don't really exist here). Since it was Sunday when we did the tour, we merged in with the peddlers and headed south to looks at some churches before curving round to the Tercer Milenio park where there was an astonishing number of military types, most in uniform but some also dressed in red, blue or yellow t-shirts, and arranged to make up the Colombian flag for some unknown reason. I'd been to the park before, but until the tour did not know that it used to be a dodgy neighbourhood full of drugs and hookers, until the space was bulldozed and turned into a green oasis complete with numerous playgrounds. I'd also never seen it occupied in the quite the way it was on the day of our tour. With the Military blocking our way, we had to go a little out of our way, circling round to the other side to see an important structure, the Disarmament Statue. We learnt that this had been made from melting down firearms and moulding the metal into new shapes... but now people where stealing parts of it and selling it to buy guns which is the sort of contradiction you quickly come to expect when living in Colombia.
We headed to Plaza San Victorino which is an open space normally over-run with street sellers. Naturally that Sunday was no exception, but again there was something to learn, namely that the way they spread out their wares on large black plastic sheets is deliberate so they can pack up and run if the Police arrive, street selling here being illegal. We saw Lorenzo, a friendly Llama and got to take turns feeding him, and then set off again. This was all in the first hour...
Back on Septima we saw the scene of a famous assassination, and finally solved the mystery of why there are tram tracks but no trams, running along some streets. Then we crossed over for a nosy at the guinea pig racing! Yep, it's exactly as it sounds, but somehow something I've missed ever seeing during the last 3 and a bit months, even though I regularly walk this way at weekends.
Our next stop was a great hit, as we cycled along to a large fruit and veg market and got to sample some of Colombia's famous exotic fruits, all included in the price of the tour. Happily we weren't offered any berraquillo, a disturbing sounding concoction of special fruit, liquor and a live crab that forms an alleged aphrodisiac, aka 'natural Viagra for savage love'... Though it was hard to keep track of all the food being tasted, there's a handy guide on the BikeTour website while you can look at afterwards to relive the experience.
The tour went on and on. We saw the Bull Ring minus bulls (the season here is only Jan - Feb because that's off season elsewhere, so when they can normally attract decent foreign fighters). We saw children playing roller hockey of a sort near the Parque Nacional, and we stopped for a snack lunch, choosing corn on the cob and Obleas (gorgeous crispy wafers spread with creamy fillings) from the stands that line the park.
It was about 1.45pm and we thought we might be heading back, but we were wrong, as we curved round to the west to cycle through some previously wealthy districts (and see some fabulous signs, especially along a small river where they had the standard (and universal) prohibitive red circle with a line through containing graphic illustrations of people, ahem, relieving themselves, concerning us that people would otherwise not think twice about number one-ing or number two-ing into the water).
We headed south, back in the direction of the office but still we were not done. We visited the city cemetery and went in for a look around, discovering the two wings are interesting labelled the English cemetery and German cemetery respectively. We saw where the famous faces who grace the currency here are buried, watched local people whispering in the ears of tomb statues, asking for wishes to come true, and noted the slightly creepy Disney-embossed plaques for children who had died. We rubbed money on a tomb - legend has it that by doing so, good fortune will come our way.
On we went, into the red light district for a quick nosy round. Prostitution is legal in Colombia. So is carrying around any drug as long as the quantity is only sufficient for personal use. So is naming your fast food joints silly things, if 'Chicken Hell' is anything to go by.
As we crossed first Caracas and then Avenida 10, we ended up opposite the now closed flower market but surrounded by still open seedy looking bars. The national sport of Colombia is Tejo...did we want to play? But of course! So we dismounted and cycled our bikes through the bar to the back. Tejo is an...interesting game. You hurl a metal disk at a target field (which is muddy, to help the disks stick). In the middle of the field are small papery packets of gunpowder, and the aim is to strike one of these and make it go bang. A subsidiary aim is to get your disk closest to the centre of the target. It's insanely difficult, like bowling with a shot-put, but we were all dying to cause an explosion, though it took the assistance of one of the employees before we saw it happen. The game is free to play, so naturally everyone was happy to order a beer or two (or Coke or Sprite) to fuel the fun. It's the sort of thing I always enjoy doing, something local and traditional, but not the sort of thing you can do alone or with other ex-pat friends, so it was great to be in a group and have the atmosphere as well as the guidance. By this time it was 4pm, and we were drooping as we took the quieter backstreets back up to the shop to drop of our bikes.
I was amazed by so many things on this trip. Besides the length, I was impressed by how much fun I had, and how much I learnt. The Canadians with us had only arrived in town the night before, but I've been here months (and one of my accompanying friends over a year) so we did know a little about the city prior to the trip but were blown away by how much we didn't know, from eccentric facts to proper, solid history. It was more fun than any humanities lesson I've ever had, and Mike eagerly took questions, for clarification or just unrelated random musings. We learnt about the physical places we were seeing, but also about Colombia's culture, and the country's political and social history. For example, we learnt about how attempts to bring down the guerrillas by offering financial incentives only resulted in innocent young men being murdered and their corpses dressed in guerrilla uniforms, so the relevant reward could be claimed, and how Colombia and Afghanistan are one and the same (both full of drugs, guns, insurgents ...and American military types). And, when we were by the National Museum, we learnt how it used to be a monastery and before that a prison, which segued into a story about this odd prison in Bolivia which some people live in for fun, and others visit as tourists, alongside the actual, incarcerated prisoners.
We covered a great deal of ground on the tour, and most of the stops were quite brief with the exception of the fruit market, the bull ring and the cemetery, where we left our bikes behind and went off on foot to explore.
Considering I've not ridden for a decade, and have NEVER ridden for 6 hours at once before, I was thrilled with how easy I found keeping up with the tour, even if I did then crawl home afterwards. We crossed a variety of terrain, from parks to regular roads to the Ciclovía that Septima turned into, to a few squares and even pavements on occasion, and this made it much more pleasant (and less nerve wracking) than if we had just been road biking in traffic. The only times we really tripped up were when we crossed the path of a funeral procession, and also trying to cross Av 10 without getting run over, but that's the same whether biking or on foot, as the drivers are c-ra-zy. Having two guides with us was a huge bonus as it meant there was always someone to help, and Cristian was amazing at stopping traffic to let us pass on the smaller roads. It also meant we could leave the bikes safely with someone watching them when we were going into various places for a nosy round.
As a group, we never got separated for more than a minute or so, and since we could ride 2-a-breast on a lot of the route, it made for a sociable trip that you could easily have done alone (though it was nice to be doing it with friends). By the end of it I had discussed books and the best lookout points in Bogota with our North American visitors, the perks of Mexico with our Latino friend, and practiced lots of Spanish with Cristian, including a quick tutorial in the rolling of rrrrrrs. The time flew by, and any time I glanced at my watch I was amazed, initially by how much we'd done in the first hour or so, and then later by how we'd been peddling hard for 3, 4, 5 hours.
The tour runs at 10.30am and 1.30pm daily, and the only downside of the morning one is that it cuts into the concept of lunch for those used to British / American eating times. We had time to stop to eat a snack in the park, but were limited by what was on offer - bringing sandwiches might be a good idea if you are fussy / likely to be hungry / on a budget. I had water with me, and was glad of it, but there are lots of places along the way where you can pick some up.
The tour costs 30,000 pesos, which is currently about £10. It's not a cheap activity here (a museum entrance would be maybe 1/10th of that) but it's amazing value for money and a great way to see the city, especially if your time is limited. With the exception of a small tip to the guy opening up the bullfighting stadium for us, the tour was inclusive, so the fruit snacks for us, and corn for the Llama were included.
Throughout the tour, Mike was constantly snapping photos of us all. The office / shop walls are adorned with pics, but surely the majority of these could never make the cut, given how they run up to 14 tours every week, we thought. And, we were right, but the pics were emailed to us the same night, which was a lovely touch. It's hard to take photos while you cycle, especially of yourself, so it was a fab momento of the day, and reminded us of any places we'd already forgotten.
I cannot help but give Bogota Bike Tours a full 5 * and a hearty recommendation. It was an excellent way to spend a precious Sunday, much better than I had dared hoped it would be. Although I'd seen a fair few of the places before, I'd never seen them quite like this, and for short term visitors in town, I can't imagine a better introduction to this oft kooky and crazy city.
Carrera 3 #12-72, Bogota (this means on Carrera 3 on the block running between streets 12 and 13)