Bogotá by bike | Inquirer Opinion
Second Opinion

Bogotá by bike

/ 05:06 AM February 18, 2022

Bogotá, Colombia—As I pedaled my way from the bike rental shop through the cobblestone roads of Candelaria—Bogotá’s historic center—the battered bike’s squeaks and screeches reminded of aging Star Wars hardware (“What a piece of junk,” as Princess Leia might say), making me miss my gravel bike back home (“I’ve made a lot of special modifications myself,” as Han Solo might add).

But as the gears fell into place, as I got the hang of braking down the inclines of a mountain city 2,600 meters above sea level, and as I joined the throng of cyclists in La Séptima—Bogotá’s iconic avenue—I was soon caught up in the joy of the Ciclovía—the city’s famous and beloved weekly bike ride.

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In a way, I was trying to follow the routine I had established in Mexico City, where I also regularly joined the “Muévete en Bici” (see “Mexico City, cycling capital,” 12/31/21). Bogotá’s Ciclovía, however, is longer—with over 150 kilometers of cycling paths; larger—with a phenomenal 1.5 million participants every Sunday; and much older, with its beginnings as early in 1976 making it a true pioneer of the global urban cycling movement.

“The best way to explore Bogotá is by bike,” Daniel, a cycling guide and a university student, had told me, as we negotiated the uphill route to the 3,360-meter Cerro Guadalupe, a mountain southeast of the city. From the mountains in the east, Bogotá seemed like a vast metropolis perched in the Andes; beautiful gateway to unique paramó landscapes as well as the diversity of all of Colombia, from the coffee highlands of Salento to the colonial, coastal charms of Cartagena.

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But cycling also reveals a city that is as dramatic in altitude differences as in the social distance between the rich and the poor. The graffiti that adorns the city, for instance, may be a “tourist attraction” in itself, but many of them illustrate the violence all over the country and Bogotá itself, as illustrated by the grim themes of many of the street art, as well as the death of the 16-year-old grafitero Diego Felipe Becerra back in 2011 while spray-painting the walls of an underpass.

Beyond such reminders of the violence of the past, cyclists are painfully aware of the violencia of the present, some bearing scars as evidence of previous encounters with thieves; the foremost advice I get is which places to avoid, and how to avoid unwanted attention; tactics that find expression in the colorful phrase “No dar papaya.”

“It’s because of the Venezuelans,” Irma, an Uber driver who’s waiting to migrate to Florida, told me, and her response is quite common among the Colombians I talk to, reflecting the resentment over the more than 1.7 million migrants from the country’s eastern neighbor, even as the historical context is far complicated, and there is evidence that the migrants are more often victims themselves, rather than perpetrators, of crime.

In any case, the pandemic has exacerbated the extreme inequity between Bogotá’s districts, falling under a north-south, rich-poor divide that makes ritzy places like Usaquen, Chapinero’s Zona T, and Parque Virrey look like a planet apart from Santa Fe or the slums of Ciudad Bolívar.

In that sense, the Ciclovía is itself one bubble amid such inequity, given that skirts away from those localidades peligrosas and creates an illusion of safety and sustainability amid the social fractures of the city. But, like the TransMilenio system that’s being held up as an exemplar of bus rapid transit, it also helps challenge the inequity, given how cycling allows rich and poor alike to participate in one activity; where bikes worth thousands of dollars ride alongside those barely worth thousands of Colombian pesos. And of course, beyond the Ciclovía itself, the broader bike culture is enabling an inclusive economy from those who bike to work to those who bike for work—i.e., those Rappi delivery riders. Taken together, they leave me with the nagging thought that you do not need to be a First World country to have a bike- and people-friendly city. As for me, on a more personal level, the bike allows me to feel free, the way I felt free when, amid the horror of ECQ as I was locked down with my parents in Los Baños, I managed to escape by bike to the foothills of Makiling. Here in Bogotá, I sometimes feel like I am parsecs away from home. But amid the freedom of the Ciclovía, I feel as though I am riding, as in that Shakira and Carlos Vives song, “una bici que te lleve a todos lados”: a bike that will take you everywhere.

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TAGS: Bogota, Colombia, Gideon Lasco
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