With wide eyes and an ear-to-ear grin, I stared out the window of our private transfer van as we left the city of Pereira, Colombia in the foothills of the mountains and headed to the countryside. I was tired but pleased all had gone smoothly to get me to Colombia without any hiccups. I was equally terrified about the mountain biking tour I had signed up for as a non-mountain-biker. But, the adrenaline of experiencing a new place, a new adventure was pulsing through my body. It was the first time since December 2019 that I had been outside of Canada.
We passed through the working city of Pereira. People on the streets were going about their regular lives. From the business-folk in suits heading to meetings, to the street cleaners, construction workers and vendors hustling between the cars to sell drinks, candies and local pastries … all were wearing masks, except an occasional few. It seemed reassuringly normal.
As we headed out of the city, the cement and pavement turned to lush, green hillsides and mountains. The roads went from multi-lane, city traffic to narrow, but well-kept twisty, two to four-lane roads winding up, down and around the mountains from Pereira toward Manizales.
About an hour after leaving the airport our driver slowed to make a sharp right turn off the mountain highway onto a narrow dirt road. There were rough, hand-carved signs every few hundred meters pointing to an off-shoot driveway even narrower than the one we were on for various family farms and haciendas (estates).
As we bumped slowly along the pot-holed dirt road, the adventure had begun. The temperature turned from warm mountain air to hot and humid. As we arrived at our home for the next three nights, we were greeted at the reception house and then walked through a large gate along a narrow road for a few hundred meters taking in the beautiful flowers to the left and the coffee plantations to the right. There were birds singing, butterflies dancing through the air and the most welcoming people waiting to greet us at the coffee house.
We settled in for our first Colombian coffee, sweetened with panela, a raw form of sugar cane used instead of the white, refined sugar we’re used to in North America. We had time to check out our rooms before a delightful home-cooked lunch. That afternoon we had time to unwind and enjoy the traditional hacienda. Some went for a walk along the dirt roads, some for a dip in the pool. I headed for a nap, but it didn’t happen. Somewhere between the adrenaline and strong Colombian coffee, a nap was not in the cards that day.
That evening we met for an entertaining and interactive cacao presentation, making our own chocolate to devour before our group dinner and information session to prepare us for our next five days of biking and sightseeing.
An Uphill Battle
With an early morning start, we were prepared for a hot and sticky day. Our cycling guides took care of all the details. From name stickers to distinguish our bikes and helmets, to protein snacks and water bottles to keep us hydrated, nothing was missed. We were fitted with our bikes and helmets, given instructions on the hand-operated brakes and gears and then made our start.
With a small group of only six passengers plus a few staff, we were a varied group of age, experience and risk tolerance. We were a group in age from 20s to 60+, mountain biking fanatics, to relaxed leisure riders, to not having been on a bike for 20+ years.
For those of us inexperienced with mountain biking, we slowly rolled back out to the main reception area tentatively testing our brakes and gears. We rode slightly downhill on the main dirt road until we crossed a bridge and then shortly after we took a turn to the left and it was uphill as far as you could see.
A little bit of panic set in. I laughed it off, but man, I hate hills. Even the tiniest of hills in Nova Scotia makes me cringe. What did I think I was doing in the mountains of Colombia, at altitude, on a Mountain Biking Trip … in my 40’s, not in great shape, carrying some extra weight …
No more time to wallow … up the hill we go!
We spent the next 1.5 hours cycling uphill for a total of nearly four kilometres with a few rest stops along the way. The secondary dirt roads were bumpy but dry and only an occasional vehicle came by from one of the local Haciendas. The views over the coffee plantations were spectacular and I took my time drinking them in while bringing my heart rate down from ‘I’m going to explode’ to ‘still faster than normal’.
To be honest, at home I never would have attempted an uphill like this, I would have quit before ever starting. In fact, at home, I wouldn’t have even gotten to the bottom of the hill because I would have made up my mind long before, that hills weren’t for me.
It was on this first day I learned moving forward, no matter how slowly up a mountain was still getting closer to the top.
From a technical perspective, I learned to use first gear. Like so many beginners, lowering my gear to that level felt uncomfortable. The lack of resistance felt like I wasn’t making any progress, not to mention wobbling all over the place like I was drunk! One of the more experienced riders was biking along beside me, encouraging me to lower my gear and go slower. It seemed counterintuitive because I just wanted the hill to be done! He told me once I find my pace, it would be easier, but that I needed to slow down.
Imagine! I was chugging along at an already slow pace and he was telling me to slow down!
If your gear is too high you tire more quickly. If you go at low gear, you use less effort and you can continue longer, something that is very important for uphill climbs!
After fighting with my balance, I found my pace … the sweet spot he was talking about. I was still breathing heavy, but I didn’t feel like each time I pushed the peddle it might be my last before I would have to hop off and give up. Instead, I settled into moving one wobbly inch at a time until we reached our first official rest stop.
We had gone up a steep incline for about a kilometre. It felt like 10 k to me, but the view was amazing! Despite my breathlessness and stickiness, my spirits were high. We rested for 10 minutes or so and then started out again.
We had a flat few hundred meters and then multiple short, steep ascents until we rolled downhill to a river. We took a break to walk along the river to a small waterfall and enjoy nature. Then we returned to where the staff had the most beautiful picnic laid out for us to enjoy local fruits.
Making it up the hill, all the way without giving up on our very first day was very emotional for me. From the moment I signed up for the trip, I was worried about altitude and about the hills. I knew it wouldn’t be flat and I’m a self-proclaimed ‘hill-hater’.
I didn’t know who my fellow passengers would be.
Would I be the oldest? (no)
Would I be the least experienced? (no)
Would I be the least fit? (no)
Would I hold up the group? (no)
Would I spend most of my time in the support vehicle? (no, none actually)
Would I be able to do it? (turns out, this one was a yes!)
It took a little while for it to sink in, but when I realized I had just mountain biked in Colombia, uphill, nearly four kilometres on my first trip outside of Canada in two years, I was overcome with emotion. The freedom of being in another country. The love of travel and adventure that had been stifled for the past two years. The challenge of biking at altitude, up a mountain. The sun, the fresh air, the camaraderie of being with other people after two years of working at home and so much isolation.
Most of all, the realization that I had done it. I had made it to the top of that mountain! Well, at least as high as we were going and four kilometres uphill was enough of a challenge for me!
That moment of hopping off my bike at the picnic spot was symbolic for me. It wasn’t just about achieving something physically challenging. It was also about business and about life. Making it to the top of that mountain was the culmination of two years of pandemic-pain. It was a reminder that I can do hard things even if it is slowly, on the lowest gear, one pedal-push at a time.
I made it.