Pedaling in Páramos: A Ride Along Colombia’s “Oh Boyacá!” Route

When Ryan Wilson made his first trip to Colombia in 2022, there was one region of the country that was high on his list to ride, but after getting distracted by the abundant opportunities for exploration, he somehow found his visa days dwindling. Naturally, when he was able to return for a lengthier trip the following year, heading to Boyacá—birthplace of Colombian road cycling legends like Nairo Quintana—was a top priority…

A little background on the route: I had the pleasure of meeting Dean and Dang down in the small town of Huancavelica that sits along the Peru Divide back in 2017, in the very early days of my bike travels. In a full-circle way, it was rewarding to go back and do a route, so many years later, that they founded just before that run-in. These days, the “Oh Boyaca!” is a must-do for folks riding the length of the Andes.

While most riders start from the north, I began my trip from the cobbled streets that line the picturesque town of Villa de Leyva, at the southern tip of the route, and worked my way up via the series of mountain passes that alternately cross high páramos and plunge into deep valleys on the other side.

While I often forgo the camping kit entirely in Colombia—due to the logistical challenges that the steep, densely vegetated, and populated terrain presents—I was hankering for some nights in the tent, and the páramos are one of the few areas that you can reliably wild camp, so I loaded everything up and set off for the mountains.

As all good Colombian routes should go, the road surface quickly turned to trocha (dirt), and the traffic became a mix of cattle herders on horseback and the occasional motorcycle. The hills were rolling at first, but soon I’d start my first real challenge of the route: the climb up toward Páramo De La Rusia.

After a lunch stop in the small village of Palermo, the climb immediately became more serious, with gradients hovering up around 9-10% consistently. I was definitely feeling the weeks off-the-bike I’d taken and the few extra kilos of camping kit in my bags. The sun of the day quickly morphed into more ominous clouds, which unleashed their fury just as I reached a ridge, about 500 vertical meters below my destination, where I’d hoped to camp, at the bottom edge of the páramo.

Those plans changed abruptly when the run-of-the-mill shower turned into a full-on thunderstorm and I found myself huddling under the overhanging roof of a roadside shed as lightning, wind, and hail battered the hills around me. All of my senses were being hit. Flashes of light streaked my vision and instantaneous cracks assaulted my ears as the thunder echoed off of the surrounding hillsides. I could smell the singed foliage of a lightning strike nearby that I presumed was coming from an area of trees just up the ridge from where I was. Nothing to do but cross my fingers and wait it out.

After a hairy 45 minutes or so, the storm finally passed and I was able to continue up the climb, though I’d lost some valuable daylight hours, and now I certainly wasn’t going to be making it up to the páramo for a wild camp. It was already nearly dark and I still had those 500 vertical meters to go, so I just started looking for any little un-fenced bit of land that I might be able to sneak into for the night. Sadly, with barbed wire lining just about every inch of the road, there was nothing to be found.

It was pitch dark by now, so I rolled back down the hill to a house to ask if there was a place I could camp. A man outside the house looked confused as I first approached with my headlamp, but soon pointed up the hill to an old building, and offered up the garage as a spot to set up for the night, out of the rain, which I was thrilled to accept at this late hour.

I woke up in the morning to an amazing view down into the valley below and immediately continued the climb up toward the pass. It would be another long day, with two sizable high-altitude passes to cross, which, on tired legs, would inevitably find me riding all day and late into the evening again, looking for a campsite.

Thankfully, this time I was able to find the legit wild camp up in the páramo that I was looking for, but it did take about an hour and a half of riding into total darkness to get there. Lucky for me, the rain held off until my tent was set up this time, so I was able to enjoy the moody scene of clouds rolling in at dusk, and the sounds that fill the páramo at night to accompany the sound of my tires crunching away at the dirt road beneath me.

Continuing north, the terrain would shift from lush greenery and frailejón flora to rugged canyons and cacti as I hopped from one small village to the next, on a road that sat high above the valley below. I was getting closer to one of my favorite regions of Colombia (Santander) and the scenery was really starting to look the part.

The climbing wasn’t done though, as I still had the highest (legal) pass in Colombia to cross, which offered some spectacular views of El Cocuy National Park, and made for the best—and highest—night of camping that I’ve had in the whole country at a shade over 4,100 m (13,450 ft).

The seemingly endless undulating hills of frailejones (which are only native to Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela), make these zones a super unique place to ride. The micro-climate that envelopes these high páramos provides a rapidly changing mood to the surrounding topography. Some might be turned off by the predictably unpredictable weather here, but this is what makes it so special. You never know what you’re going to get from moment to moment. Will you get the view of the mountains you came all this way and climbed all those meters for, or will you be met with a wall of clouds, keeping the mysteries of these mountains a secret?

While I’ve had my fair share of latter, I woke up that morning with as clear a view as you’ll find in the Colombian Andes, and I didn’t take it for granted, spending a couple of extra hours at camp before heading down the long descent into town.

After meeting up with Matthew and Joe for a trip around El Cocuy, I veered off the “Oh Boyaca!” route and plunged into the northern reaches of the cacti-clad Chicamocha canyon, en route to the end of my trip in the town of Capitanejo. I’d been dreaming of riding this route for a while and it certainly did not disappoint.