• Sergio Cuéllar-Serrano

Barichara, A Gem Deep Within Colonial Colombia.


Anything you do on a bike is more enjoyable.

Suppose I told you we spent 10 hours looking for a spare tire for a BMW that blew its run-flat sidewall. Hundreds of kilometers away from any big city where we would surely find it. Under pouring rain & searing heat. You’d assume it would have been a boring and stressful affair.

But it wasn’t, though, because we were cycling.

Deep within the mountains of Santander, one of Colombia´s 20 regions, lies a small colonial town called Barichara. It carefully treads the line between authentic rural life and fancy, gentrification-inducing tourism. It still balances somewhat towards the former, thankfully, unlike other similar pueblitos in the country. Its cobblestone streets, 30% gradient hills, and grade-A gravel roads make it a prime cycling destination as well. A friend’s mom lives there, so we decided to go and get a taste of that tasty gravel ourselves.

The plan was never to go full gas from the beginning. We were 6 cyclists with varying skill and fitness levels, so from the beginning, this was meant to be done at a leisurely party-pace (I know you are reading this, Russ). Still, the original plan of smooth gravel and gorgeous vistas was thrown out the window after that BMW tire sidewall curve ball.

Pictured here, grade A cobblestones.

We started our ride by cycling to the next town over. After calling or going to every single tire place in town, we were surprised by yet another curve ball. “Virgen del Carmen”, someone said. This is a common yet quirky way to show surprise in my neck of the woods, so I didn’t think much of it. “Virgen del Carmen,” they said again. “They aren’t working today at all because today is Virgen del Carmen day.” That’s when we knew we were done for. It just so happens that this version of Virgin Mary (I’m unsure of how these things work in this devout country) is the protector of truckers, taxi drivers, and anyone in the transportation business in general. For sure, we wouldn’t be able to find the tire or have someone ship it from the nearest city.

Admitting defeat, we looked for lunch.

Not the start to the trip we had in mind.

Several thousand calories later, our carbohydrate-rich meal gave us the clarity of simple thought. Let’s just ride. We’ll cross that tire-bridge when we get there. Nobody said epiphanies were all responsible thoughts. We quickly found a GPS map for a gravel ride back to Barichara and got back on our bikes. This country has no seasons and all days are pretty much 12 hours long, with very little variation throughout the year, so despite the apparent summerly solar generosity, we didn’t really have much more daylight left.

We started climbing the steep streets of San Gil to get to the mountains that separate it from Barichara, but soon we noticed some of us wouldn’t make it in time. Thankfully my wife was driving our Voiture Balai that day, so one of us got in the car. Further on, 2 more in the group decided to cut the ride short and take the road back instead of the harder, slower gravel route we had planned.

That meant three of us were now racing against the clock to finish this ride. Time to up the pace to Threshold. This was unfortunate since it was probably the prettiest landscape of the entire trip, and we didn’t have the time nor the gear to stop and take decent pictures of it.

A sugary toast to mark our victory race against the sun.

We could see the sun setting behind colonial Barichara while red, iron-rich clay roads intersected before us, surrounded by a mix of cacti and tropical greenery that I hadn’t seen anywhere else. As we descended, so did the sun, and the incandescent, warm streetlights of the town started to appear, making the experience that much more sublime. A friend compared the landscape to that of Tuscany while at the same time looking a bit like the south of Spain. We made it back just before darkness fully set in and celebrated our victory against dusk with a bottle of the local soda, Cola Hipinto. We later treated ourselves to dinner in the best restaurant in town. One of the best restaurants I’ve had the pleasure of visiting, Elvia.


The next day was a lot nicer to us, in part because we could finally get more than 3 hours of sleep, a luxury we didn’t have the day before, and partly because the house we were staying at was gorgeous. This was supposed to be a shorter day, a quick ride to an even smaller

town on the finest gravel roads I have ever seen.

This time it was all laughs, all joy, the way we had originally planned. Hell, I’m even smiling in these pictures! Unfortunately, it was also a day we had to plan what to do about the tire issue. Beers by the pool is a good way to summon good ideas, so we did just that. In the end, nothing could be done, so we opted for a less-than-ideal option of towing the car away and borrowing another one for the trip back. My trusty, old, Japanese off-roader, however, was still working. Since I have the fortune of working remotely, I decided to stay for a couple more days. I waved some of my friends goodbye and made sure the last preparations were in check for the shipping of the ailing BMW.

The remaining days were a lot quieter but equally fun. We visited yet another colonial town stuck in time and had more great local food. The word “colony” and Colombia have the same etymological origin, Christopher Columbus, so it makes a lot of sense to visit the country through the eyes of those places stuck in the 16th century; in this case, where the Spanish and Guane peoples met so many years ago.

This backdrop was a fitting one for other contrasts that are unique to this area. I had never seen desertic and rainforest-like biomes so close to each other. The cactus plants and ceiba trees, the lush forest and dry, red soil, the perennial town against the cliff that surrounds it, the cobblestones and Porsche Taycans that drive on them… Even our carbon gravel bikes against the Adobe* walls of the town seemed like yet another intriguing contrast to witness. All of these were fitting juxtapositions that made this trip even more memorable.

*Adobe is a building material consisting of pressed soil and plant fibers. Very common in colonial Latin America.

Now I’m back at altitude (2600m over the sea level), where temperatures are a lot less summer-like and gray, soggy rides are the norm. I can’t help but feel nostalgic for a place I barely know. The good news is since my friend still has the car he borrowed to go home, there is still another excuse to go back sooner rather than later. I better make sure my tubeless sealant is fresh, my cargo bibs are clean, and my tank is filled up because I can’t wait to visit Barichara again. If, yet again, I have to spend 10 hours looking for a tire I won’t find in the searing heat of the desert or the humid violence of the rainforest, I’ll do it gladly because I will be on my bike.

 

Meet The Author

Hi!

I’m Sergio Cuéllar-Serrano.

I am an architect, musician, language expert, and amateur cyclist. Like many of you, cycling became a very important part of my life, initially through commuting. I live in the outskirts of the third most congested city in the world, so of course, the bicycle made sense. Now, cycling is an obsession that takes most of my time. If I’m not riding, I’m thinking about riding, gear, or places where I’d like to take my bike to. I’m equally as happy on a road bike, gravel bike, MTB bike, or track bike, although more often than not, I’m riding my custom-made-in-Colombia steel gravel bicycle.

I do most of my riding well above 2500m (~8000ft) of elevation. I’m eager to show you the landscapes, vegetation, trails, and places you find high above the Andes. You’ll also see my articles on the cycling world in other altitudes and latitudes. I hope you join me, both literally and figuratively, on these rides.

The Paperclip is small enough to fit in everyone’s pockets and also big enough to hold us together in both hemispheres.

¡Bienvenidos!