Brass tacks, the climb to Letras is a grind. Starting in Mariquita at 1,588’ and climbing to Letras at 12,085’ in a mere 50-ish miles means all you do is climb. And that’s what we did. One pedal stroke after another. Were our bikes loaded down with gear? You bet. Was it hot and humid? It was like riding in a Roman Bath. Was the road frequented by B-movie Mad Max semi-trucks hauling scrap metal? Indeed, at times it seemed like this was the road’s only purpose. Was it wonderful? Yes, yes it was.
In the moment, as in during the period of two days in which we scaled Letras, I was not happy about it for all of the above reasons, plus the scuba gnome feeling in my stomach and a diesel fume exhaust party in my lungs. Suffice it to say I complained. “This road sucks,” “I would never tell anyone to ride it,” “UGH… UGH UGH UGH UGH UUUUUUUUGH.” And I really thought I was going to stick to my guns on this one, I was going to warn you off of Letras, tell you to ride elsewhere.
“But I can’t. I can’t because now that I’ve had time to process my experience, now that I am going back over these photos, and thinking about the ride, I realize that it was all so very worth it.”
Let’s start with the road. The 50 is a main thoroughfare that connects Bogotá to Manizales. We’re talking commercial traffic here, trucks loaded with Horses, Televisions, Cars, and yes Scrap Metal make the commute up and over the mountain between these two cities. But it’s not just semi-trucks as I may have lead you to believe. The road sees its fair share of fully-loaded, bumper-scraping economy cars, motorcycles with three passengers plus a dog, some pretty rad off-road rigs and from time to time companero on horseback. With all this back and forth and mixing of personalities the road has evolved into its own ecosystem. There is a hierarchy of goods and services: agriculture takes up the lower altitudes, restaurants and hotels populate the middle ground and near the top you find the wrecking yards and repair shops. Supply and demand in action—what a wonder to observe.
If you’re from the States you might be thinking, “All that traffic? All those trucks? Sounds like a total bummer!” And you’d be right to think that, because in the States people are dicks. Even on a quiet country road, some dipshit in a lifted truck will feel the need to roll coal on you as he/she/zee passes by or some jerk off in a Subaru will buzz you because he/she/zee is too busy turning up the volume on the new Lumineers track, lost in the music. In large part it’s because of this type of interaction that we’ve become highway reactionaries. We seek out gravel roads, two tracks, and our beloved single track. This isn’t an argument for riding on highways per se, rather it’s a notice that highways and the drivers that use them in Colombia do not behave in the same way as our countrymen. Not once were we coal rolled, not once were we buzzed. Instead of animosity we got support. Nearly everyone that passed by us honked their horns, shouted encouragement, or thrust a hearty thumbs-up into the air. We were given room to ride and if it wasn’t safe to pass the drivers didn’t seem to mind waiting. Yes this was a highway, yes there was traffic, but it didn’t matter, at least it wasn’t another challenge to be dealt with. Can you imagine? Do you dare to dream? What if your ride was filled with encouragement and respect from everyone you encountered, would it change how your picked your routes?
Then there are the humans, the animals, the buildings, and the landscapes that swallow you up in their unrelenting magnitude. The visual experience of riding up Letras might as well be from Terrence Malick’s B-roll archive. It is stunning, sweeping, rich and surprising. Purebred beagles, banana convenience stores, swarms of kids on BMX bikes; one moment you’re watching your friend skitch off the side of a scrapyard on wheels the next you’re cooling off in the overspray of a cascading waterfall that plummets right into the side of the road before disappearing underneath you. There are horses with their companeros, the tawdry glitter of the roadside bars, walls of coffee plants below walls of pine trees, then nothing at all as the road drops off; then your eyes adjust and you can see skeins of deep green ridges dropping from the top of the cordillera into the valley below, stretching into the distance beyond your sight.
It is precisely because you are moving at four to five miles an hour that you get to take this all in. You get to see the man scold his dog or the woman hide behind her magazine as you ride by. You have time to watch the horse whinny and kick or to converse with the school kids as they cackle, “Americanos? De donde son? Pinches!!!”. So I say yes, yes to all of it. My only advice if you’re going to climb Letras: go slow.