The alto de Letras is the mythical mountain pass par excellence in Colombia and known as the longest climb in the world. Its layout begins at Mariquita at 495 meters above sea level and ends after more than 80 kilometers at the border between the departments of Tolima and Caldas, at 3679 meters above sea level. This ascent is a decisive test for amateur cyclists, who are always in search of new and more demanding challenges. But also the pro’s have ridden this climb in races before, in 2017 it was again part of the Vuelta a Colombia. Miguel Reyes won the 131.6 kilometer long stage with the finish on top of the alto de Letras.
When we look on strava, the cycling app that times climbs and sections, the fastest time on alto de Letras is 3 hours and 5 minutes. That is with an average speed of 26.2 km/h!
I can say that the ascent by bicycle to the Alto de Letras is an essay against renunciation. The strenuous 80 kilometers of serpentine road is the most difficult test for every amateur cyclist who likes to show off his prowess on the bicycle. Passing the test, is nothing more than mastering the growing desires of resignation that usually attack the spirits of beetles.
Getting my cycling diploma
I received the amateur cyclist ‘diploma’ on the afternoon of Sunday, April 30, 2017, the date on which a thick fog covered the mountain range, bringing with it unexpected and cold rain. I started the challenge in San Sebastián de Mariquita (495 masl), a town where even the mosquito’s are sweating. Riding out of the town towards this famous Colombian climb, the heat was already killing. I hit the first slopes of this mythical mountain, thinking by myself “will it be like this all day?”
I faced with great patience the first 25 kilometers, until the steep municipality of Fresno, a stretch to warm up the body. In that steep segment, soursop trees, avocados, and coffee crops stood out, interspersed with plantain bushes. Fresno is a small town filled with 4×4 jeeps that carry anything from coffee crops to banana’s. I made my way through the streets, and saw on my left and right even steeper streets than what I was conquering.
I passed through La Aguadita and then through Padua, another Tolima village with a Paisa accent, where the farmers made their remittances, sold ducks, drank beer and lowered the loads of traditional jeeps. Padua is the best place to take a break, because after that follows Las Degaditas, the place where the hardest part begins.
Ride with your heart, not with gps
My spirits were upset in Mesones, to hear that I still needed the hardest and at least one hour to reach the goal. I did not have any device to measure speed, nor the kilometers traveled, I went purely on heart, as it is said in the cycling world.
Those last kilometers of winding curves, were a connection with nature, silence and water, because there were many waterfalls on either side of the road. Also, they were a connection to the deepest part of me, since some uncomfortable questions surfaced, such as: Am I a real cyclist? Who sent me to suffer? Why did I prefer cycling instead of swimming?
According to the records, the first time someone went by bicycle in this way, it was at the end of 1950, times in which the routes for the First Tour of Colombia were explored. “I heard nothing but the sound of toads and crickets,” remembers Efrán Forero, the Indomitable Zipa, the first cyclist to pass the moor.
The last section I went through in the rain and accompanied by a wind as cold as a freezer. After six hours and 27 minutes of fighting, the páramo appeared and I seemed to be concluding the day. A true ecstasy of joy and pain.
Push after push, had made way through the fog. Curve after curve, I had tamed my demons. There, at 3679 meters above sea level, at one o’clock in the afternoon, after seven hours of pedaling, a woman from the restaurant Sopa de Letras asked me unsuspectingly: “why do you do that?” There was a short silence. “For pleasure,” I replied, as I trembled like a leaf.