AAA Magazines

Along for the ride in Bogotá’s extraordinary Ciclovía

Miles of roadway are closed to cars every Sunday in Bogotá to give cyclists and others a place to congregrate and cruise. Photo by Hugh Mitton/Alamy Stock Photo

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.

Listen: Traveling With AAA podcast: Colombia – The Enchanting Country Behind Encanto

Any given Sunday

Three men riding bicycles.

The author (center) rides with his Bogotá guide Carlos Candela (left) and Ciclovía guardián Felipe Camelo. Photo by Diego Alejandro

Eager to experience the event, I set out by bike on a cool Sunday morning late last year with Candela and Felipe Camelo, one of Ciclovía’s many uniformed guardianes, safety officers who patrol the route and assist participants who need help.

We rode through light traffic to El Dorado Avenue, where a barrier blocked automobiles and a bright yellow ciclovía sign indicated we were entering a car-free zone. Then we joined hundreds of cyclists streaming down the wide-open street. (While the avenue was car-free, the city’s TransMilenio buses operated in protected bus-only lanes.)

A group of people, including police officers, dancing.

Police officers and civilians dance along the Ciclovía route. Photo by Jim Benning

We soon spotted a group of dancers—incredibly, members of the national police force. As thumping music played, about a dozen officers in green uniforms and baseball caps waved their arms and spun in unison. “That’s a typical dance from the Caribbean,” Candela said with a smile. “It’s an activity to get closer to the community.”

Passing cyclists nodded approvingly, and several onlookers couldn’t resist dancing, too. Nearby, a sculpture of a plump horseman looked on, the work of famed Colombian artist Fernando Botero. I couldn’t help but smile.

We pedaled on toward the city center, passing office buildings and bright murals, until we reached Parque del Centenario, home to sports fields, a planetarium, and even a former bullring. We stopped here for a break.

“Can I get you a coffee?” Candela asked.

I wasn’t about to refuse a cup of Colombia’s rich arabica.

As we sipped our drinks, I chatted with a couple of young cyclists who were relaxing on a bench. “We ride all the time,” said Edier Lopez, who’d pedaled here from his home miles away. “We love the open streets and seeing all of the people out with kids and dogs.”

Indeed, around us, cyclists cruised past, parents pushed strollers, and as if on cue, a couple walked a puppy. The sun broke through the clouds.

Los Leones cycling club.

Members of the Los Leones cycling club take a break during the Ciclovía. Photo by Diego Alejandro

We resumed our ride, turning down Seventh Street, which was also closed to cars. Heading toward the upscale neighborhood of Chapinero, we weaved past runners and then stopped to chat with a dozen cyclists in matching lion jerseys. Members of the Los Leones club, they’d just finished climbing Alto de Patios, a 4-mile hill beloved by serious riders. I could have imagined the Lions feeling exhausted, but they were exuberant, seemingly fueled by the festive vibes.

We rode on and paused at one of the many stands selling salipicón de frutas, a cool, refreshing Colombian fruit cocktail. Nearby, an aerobics class was underway, one of more than a dozen activities along the route. We’d been out for hours by now and had seen thousands of people from all walks of life enjoying the open streets. I was beginning to grasp the expansive scope of this Ciclovía. Honestly, I was blown away.

You may also like: Into the soul of Peru's Sacred Valley of the Incas

Peaceful protest

Road closure sign.

A sign redirects cars along the cycling route. Photo by Jim Benning

“Do you realize up to 2 million people are out on the streets, in a country like this that’s famous for violence?” my lunch companion said with a wry grin a few days later. “It’s amazing.”

I’d sat down with Jaime Ortiz Mariño, the urban planner, architect, and Bogotá native credited with creating the city’s first Ciclovía in December 1974. Although he’d long since turned over the event’s operations to others, Ortiz Mariño remained in awe of its enduring success.

I asked how the idea had come to him, and he recalled studying at Cleveland, Ohio’s Case Western Reserve University in the late 1960s, as Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement roiled the United States. “I had two types of education,” Ortiz Mariño said. “One in school, and the other in the streets.”

He returned to Bogotá as many Colombians were leaving the countryside for fast-growing urban centers. He didn’t like everything he saw. “We were developing our cities in the image of American cities,” he said, “with the car at the center.”

Ortiz Mariño wasn’t opposed to automobiles, but he wanted to promote other modes of transit, especially widely available bicycles. Inspired by his experience of the counterculture in the U.S., he and a few others organized the First Mass Bike Ride, a peaceful demonstration of sorts, on streets temporarily closed to cars. To minimize opposition, they planned it for a Sunday, when fewer automobiles would be on Bogotá’s roads.

At the time, it was a radical idea. Ortiz Mariño was teaching at a couple of Bogotá universities, and he recalled contemporaries thinking he was nuts. “They were saying, ‘This ridiculous guy that we sent to the United States to study comes back talking about bicycles? When the world belongs to the car?’ ”

Yet roughly 6,000 people turned out. The event was a smashing success.

Looking back, perhaps no one should have been surprised.

Ricardo Montezuma at his shop Moovil.

Moovil owner Ricardo Montezuma stands in the doorway of his multifaceted cycling shop. Photo by Jim Benning 

At least that was my thought as I strolled into Moovil, a 3-story temple to Colombia’s love affair with cycling. Set among the posh hotels and restaurants of Chapinero, the elegant store operates as a combination bike shop, café, bookstore, art gallery, and museum. Archival photos, framed articles, and colorful cycling jerseys decorate its walls. The shop also stocks dozens of hard-to-find books on cycling, and one floor is lined with iconic bicycles.

“I wanted to create a place that would value the cultural aspects of cycling in Colombia,” explained owner Ricardo Montezuma, an author, cycling expert, and professor of urbanism and planning at the National University of Colombia. Among the many books he has written is Citizens, Streets & Cities, a history and celebration of Ciclovía in Colombia and beyond.

Montezuma led me through the store, pointing out historic artifacts, including a framed 1980s-era Café de Colombia jersey from the country’s first national cycling team. “Those were marvelous times when the team really represented in Europe,” he said.

Over coffee, he traced cycling’s rise in Colombia to the 1950s, when competitive cycling took off. The first major race—the 1951 Vuelta a Colombia, or Tour of Colombia—linked once-isolated areas in the mountainous nation, drawing crowds and sparking the public’s imagination.

Cycling remains one of Colombia’s most popular sports, and fans still obsessively follow the country’s elite riders in the Tour de France and other top races. And in a country beset by poverty, cycling remains accessible to nearly everyone. Bicycles outnumber cars. 

Perhaps that’s why Ciclovía is beloved by so many in Bogotá, not least Montezuma. “For me,” he said, lowering his voice as though sharing a secret, “Ciclovía is something very beautiful. It’s the only place where all of Bogotá society crosses paths. Poor people, the middle class, the wealthy. It’s very democratic.”

That, I realized, helped explain the joy I felt when I rode in Bogotá’s Ciclovía. Everyone, it seemed, was outside, sharing the roads and enjoying this unlikely cycling haven up in the Andes. 

Jim Benning is the travel editor of Westways magazine.

You may also like: 7 incredible experiences you can have on a Panama Canal cruise

If you go

Anyone can participate in Bogotá’s Ciclovía. It takes place from 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sundays and holidays. The route runs through the city center but also includes many outlying communities. Bike rentals are easy to find. You can also simply walk or run along the route.

Open-streets events in Southern California

Los Angeles CicLAvia riders.

Cyclists participating in Los Angeles' CicLAvia ride over the Sixth Street Viaduct. Photo by Jim Benning

While Southern California doesn’t have a Ciclovía that rivals Bogotá’s in size and scope, a number of communities host periodic open-streets events, which temporarily turn roadways over to cyclists, skaters, pedestrians, and others. Among them are San Diego, Encinitas, the San Gabriel Valley, and Los Angeles. In fact, with 9 events planned annually, Los Angeles’ CicLAvia (a play on Ciclovía) bills itself as the country’s largest open-streets program.

CicLAvia organizers took their inspiration from Bogotá. SoCal native and urban anthropologist Adonia Lugo traveled there in 2008 and met with Jaime Ortiz Mariño, who shared his belief that these family-friendly events change participants’ attitudes toward their city.

The following year, Lugo and other activists got a little help from Copenhagen, Denmark, where then–Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa found himself for the United Nations Climate Change Conference. As he and Deputy Mayor Romel Pascual drove through town, they spotted cyclists riding in the snow. Villaraigosa was quite moved, Pascual recalls: “He turned to me and said, ‘Where’s my Ciclovía?’ At that moment, it was full speed ahead.”

The first CicLAvia took place in downtown L.A. in 2010 and drew tens of thousands of participants. Organizers were thrilled. “It reinforced this belief I had in L.A. that anything is possible,” says Pascual, who’s now executive director of the nonprofit CicLAvia. “There was one common denominator. Where you live, how much money you make, and the color of your skin—none of that mattered. It was that sense of belonging, of experiencing the same thing the same way.”

I can attest to that. Unlike Bogotá’s Ciclovía, which has a fixed route, each CicLAvia event is held in a different neighborhood. Among my favorite memories: joining others making their way between Boyle Heights and the Arts District on the new Sixth Street Viaduct late last year. It felt like a giant street party—L.A. at its best.

The next CicLAvia event will take place in Leimert Park and Historic South Central on December 3. Pascual is looking forward to it—and to growing CicLAvia in the coming years.

Taking it to the streets 

Learn more about open-streets events in these SoCal communities:

Follow us on Instagram

Follow @AAAAutoClubEnterprises for the latest on what to see and do.

Read more articles

You'll find more of the articles you love to read at AAA Insider.

Travel offers & deals

" "

Hot travel deals

Get the latest offers from AAA Travel’s preferred partners.

" "

Travel with AAA

See how we can help you plan, book, and save on your next vacation.

" "

Entertainment savings

Save big with AAA discounts on tickets to your next adventure.

" "

Travel with confidence

Purchase travel insurance with Allianz Global Assistance.

back to top icon