One of the things we love most about riding in Colombia is there’s barely a road in the country – be it a major highway or a hidden back road – that isn’t either insanely fun to ride, incredibly scenic, or both.
While many adventure riders come to Colombia for the challenge of pitting man and machine against miles of untamed dirt, for riders who want nothing more than to glide over smooth, sweeping, sealed tarmac for hours on end, this post is for you.
For Mike Thomsen, el jefe at Motolombia, naming his 10 favourite paved roads in Colombia took a lot of deliberation. So many of Colombia’s best long-distance rides are on well-maintained, sealed roads, meaning you can easily extend your twisty fix for days without ever running out of pavement.
To pick out the best paved routes for world class, knee-scraping motorcycle riding in Colombia, we’ve narrowed our selections down to routes between roughly 100 and 200 km. Depending on how you travel, they might make up just a part of your day’s touring, but they’re certain to stand out as high points in your memory.
1. MARIQUITA TO CHINCHINA VIA ALTO DE LETRAS
Starting in the town of Mariquita in the State of Tolima, this ridiculously steep route takes you through a mountain pass known as Alto de Letras. Alto de Letras is notorious among cyclists as reputedly the longest climb in the cycling world, boasting a punishing elevation gain of 3,800m in 80km!
For those tackling the endless ups-and-downs of the route with the benefit of an engine between their legs, the almost sheer vertical climbs and dizzying descents will produce nothing but pure elation. Mariquita sits at 492m altitude, and the first part of the ride is through lush, tropical vegetation. Alto de Letras itself crosses the northern slopes of Colombia’s fifth highest peak, the permanently snow-capped Nevado del Ruiz (5,311m). There’s a sense of otherworldly beauty to the landscape here as you ride through and above the clouds, and with luck you’ll be treated to glimpses of the mighty summit.
Most of the cyclists you’ll see on the way up to the pass will eventually peel off to recharge in Manizales for the night, but the good stuff continues on to Chinchina, with another 60km of tight hairpins and swooping round-the-mountain curves on a highway in near-pristine condition.
2. CAMBAO TO FACATATIVA
Cambao to Facatativa forms part of a popular route among riders between Manizales and Bogota, avoiding the busier Highway 50 via Honda to the north. Starting from Cambao on the banks of Colombia’s longest river, the Magdalena, this 100km stretch takes you from the fertile river valleys up to the altiplano (high plain), with about 50 km of constant, winding, back-and-forth uphill and some truly gorgeous viewpoints of the rural surroundings. Right before you hit the altiplano, things get very twisty indeed, but the beautifully paved road is an action-packed joy to ride all the way until it rejoins Highway 50 50 for the final, relatively flat spurt to Facativa.
3. AGUACHITA TO SARDINATA VIA LOS ESTORAQUES
This rarely visited route makes a great detour if you’re heading north out of Bucamaranga. It skirts past the Los Estoraques Unique National Area, known for its semi-desert landscape that includes a long, rugged spine of brownstone columns and pedestals, jutting dramatically out of a dry, dusty valley in the Catumbo River basin. After Los Estoraques, the road gets all kinds of loopy, and with little traffic to contend with, there’s plenty of opportunity for expert level, footpeg-scraping entertainment. Including a visit in the national park, this route is likely to take you all day. The charming little village of Sardinata is a good place for a night’s stopover.
4. SAN GIL TO BUCARAMANGA VIA CHICAMOCHA CANYON
San Gil has a reputation as Colombia’s adventure sports capital, but perhaps the best adventure it has to offer is the 100km Route 45A to Bucaramanga. The route starts with a 30 km uphill climb on its way to the township of Aratoca (1,702m) before beginning its stunning descent into the Chicamocha Canyon. The road weaves and dips its way down to the bottom, and from almost any vantage point, the views are extraordinary, with steep canyon walls rising to meet you at each turn and the Chicacomocha River appearing and disappearing beneath you. To ascend from the canyon requires looping your way around a series of switchbacks, then a bridge crossing over the rapids of the Umpala River. After that there’s a mix of relatively relaxing straights and fast corners – watch out for traffic on the approach to Bucaramanga.
5. PASTO TO LA UNION TO MOJARRAS
The 30,000km route that makes up the Pan-American Highway is made up of too many epic rides to count, but within Colombia’s borders, we nominate the 135km stretch between Pasto and Mojarras, which takes Highway 25 east out of Pasto and passes through La Union. The Pan-American has some of the most impeccably maintained surfaces in Colombia (with remarkably little traffic to boot) allowing for fast, sweeping turns through a seemingly endless series of delicious curves, interspersed with exhilarating blasts through tunnels carved into steep mountainside as the road drops towards the bottom of an arid canyon. The stark contrast in scenery between the volcano-encircled Pasto (altitude 2,527m) and the dry, desert landscape around Mojarras is an extraordinary testament to the diversity of Colombia’s environment.
6. BOGOTA TO VILLAVICENCIO
Once you escape the grinding traffic of Bogota, there are awesome mountain roads sprouting from every direction. We particularly love the all-sealed route to Villavicencio, which makes a super high gradient climb through the mountains south of Bogota before transforming into a slithery canyon road with lots of dizzying downhill drops on its way to Villavicencio. Villavicencio sits at the foot of a mountain as is known ‘La Puerta la Lano’ or ‘Gateway to the Plains’. Pass Villavo and there’s nothing but flatlands for days straight, as you cross the spectacular Llanos Plains to the Venezuelan border.
7. LA VIRGINIA TO SUPIA
This ride through lush mountain scenery makes a great day’s exploration if you’re staying in coffee country, as La Virginia is reasonably short spurt from Pereira or Salento. This fun, curvy but not too crazy route takes you through some of the Zona Cafetera’s finest beauty spots, riding next to hillsides verdant with coffee plantations and lush subtropical forest. The end point, Supia, is a cute coffee town in the foothills and the perfect place to recharge with a cup of the local brew.
8. MARINILLA TO DORADAL
This ride starts 50 km east of Medellin just past the International Airport. At Marinilla, the traffic peters out and a serpentine highway spreads out before you, delivering over 100km of twisty tarmac, with the occasional bunched-up hairpin section, all set against an incredibly lush, steamy mountain backdrop, dotted with tiny villages that truly reflect life in rural Antioquia. Finally, there’s a relatively straight dash into Doradal, who’s main claim to fame is its proximity to Hacienda Napoles, Pablo Escobar’s former ranch.
9. VALDIVIA TO EL HATILLO
Heading south towards Medellin on Route 25, you’ll meet this beautiful stretch of sealed rural road, high up in the Antioquian mountains. Although the road is narrow, with lots of dark, tree-lined passageways, its countless curves are mostly expansive and sweeping, providing plenty of opportunities to get low down and dirty. Pretty much all above 2,000m altitude, the route takes you through some picturesque, rarely visited towns, where any adventure rider is sure to be a curiosity
10. CALDAS TO FREDONIA TO JERICO
Our final pick is the delightfully convoluted route between Caldas, a lovely rural township 21 km from Medellin, to Jerico in southern Antioquia. From Caldas, the highway is relatively fast and straight – the fun begins when the route starts to zig-zag up and down the mountains, with a super-tight, wrigley section to navigate right before Fredonia. From there, the road worms its way south to a bridge crossing over a majestic stretch of the Cauca River. This route encompasses some of the most wild and spectacular backcountry in all of Antioquia.
Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)