You could hear the sounds of cyclists everywhere: The whir of tires against pavement. The clanking of gears and chains. The measured breathing of countless Colombians working their way across this sprawling capital more than 8,600 feet up in the Andes Mountains.
My breathing? Not so measured.
I’d arrived in Bogotá a day earlier and was still acclimating to the thin air as I joined hundreds of others pedaling down El Dorado Avenue. I’d timed my arrival in Colombia to ride in the city’s Ciclovía, literally Cycle Way. Held every Sunday and on holidays, the event closes a whopping 80 miles of city streets to automobiles from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. so that cyclists, pedestrians, runners, and skaters can take over the roads.
But as I was discovering, Ciclovía is more than just an opportunity for locals to get some exercise.
Many cities around the world, including Los Angeles, now host periodic “open streets” events, but Bogotá’s Ciclovía, which started in 1974, was arguably the first, and it’s unquestionably the biggest. In fact, an estimated million-plus Bogotanos take to the streets on any given Sunday, making this Ciclovía, in terms of participants, conceivably the largest regularly scheduled recreation event on the planet.
Outsiders might be more likely to associate Colombia with violence and cocaine than with cycling and civic activities. After all, for more than 6 decades, armed guerrillas, paramilitary troops, and drug cartels wreaked havoc on the country, killing hundreds of thousands of people and displacing millions more.
“Those were very sad times,” Bogotá native and avid cyclist Carlos Candela said as we rode in the Ciclovía. “We had bombings, kidnappings. Our country was going nowhere. Nobody wanted to come to Colombia. But that’s the past.”
Indeed, since the landmark 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), violence in Colombia has lessened considerably. Yet crime and insurgent activity persists, and in May, the U.S. State Department again advised Americans to reconsider traveling to the country.
Still, Colombia has given the world the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez and the hip-shaking hits of Shakira and J Balvin. The country is among the world’s most biodiverse, with more bird species than any other nation. Its coffee-growing highlands and spindly wax palms inspired Disney’s 2021 animated movie Encanto. And the food scene? Hotter than ever.
For all these reasons and more, travelers have been flocking to Colombia—to the Caribbean coast, home to fabled Cartagena; to Medellín, which draws an international crowd of remote workers; and to misty, massive Bogotá, which Time magazine named one of the World’s Greatest Places of 2022, citing the city’s culinary scene and sustainability efforts, including local bike-share programs and the 52 miles of new bike paths added during the pandemic.
Spread out across more than 600 square miles, Bogotá is South America’s fourth-most-populous city, with nearly 8 million residents. Like so many capitals, Bogotá isn’t immune to poverty, air pollution, and traffic, but the city’s commitment to cycling is undoubtedly world-class.
In fact, in 2019, Bogotá ranked 12th in the world on the Copenhagenize Index of bike-friendly cities. European municipalities dominated the list, and Bogotá was the only city in Latin America to land a spot on the index. “We’re very proud of that,” said Candela, who worked with the city’s tourism office at the time of my visit. Bogotá’s nearly 400 miles of dedicated bike paths, or ciclorutas, were a factor. So too, of course, was Ciclovía.