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Places to ride: Alto de Letras in the Colombian Andes

One more experience to the bucket, another favorite route in our section Places to ride. For those recently arrived or those who do not know this section, what we intend is for you to get immersed in a route and zone that an invited cyclist is describing, a special and unknown place. On this occasion, unlike previous editions, we are recommending a single route among all the possibilities, a virtual journey to the Colombian Andes in the south American continent, more concretely a long ascent to the ‘Alto de Letras’ pass. Sebastian Gil gives a glimpse of the region and how it feels to face this beautiful route alongside his partners of A-Burrá and his ride, a Colnago Master Arabesque.

Since I was 10 I have been riding bikes and at age 17 I first ascended Letras. Both my identity and character from a personal and sports point of view have been forged by this mountain, which I charmingly call the magic mountain, like in Thomas Mann’s novel.

Letras is a titan in the central range of the Colombian Andes. It connects the towns Honda and Mariquita with the gorgeous city of Manizales. The cycling history of this pass starts in 1951 with the first Vuelta a Colombia, where the escarabajo Efraín Forero the first arriving in Manizales around 6 pm, after climbing the mountain throughout its 80 kilometers of hardly-ridable roads.

The whole climb is composed of 4 main sections connected by some resting segments and some downhill parts, which will take us to the summit at 3,700 meters above sea level, with a total elevation gain of 3,880 meters.

The first section connects Mariquita and the town of Fresno, around 22 kilometers in a rather hot and humid environment. The start should not be later than 8 am since the temperature can easily rise above 30 degrees Celcius. The first 5 kilometers are probably the hardest ones, with an average gradient of 7% and slopes above 12%. In this first section, which represents a first category climb itself, the vegetation is that of a rainforest. You can see some fruit stands and hear some vallenatos (typical music from the Caribean Colombia region) coming out of the houses, a tropical atmosphere. If the idea is not to climb without stops, Fresno is an ideal place to recharge batteries.

In the second section, we will ride from Fresno to the town of Padua. A total of 18 kilometers in which we will be able to observe a change in the landscape. If we are lucky, among the clouds, we will be able to see the famous Nevado del Ruiz, known for the Armero tragedy in 1985. In this section, we will rest in some downhill bits among the uphill sections with a positive gradient between 4 and 5%. We will be surrounded by green colors and a misty mystique halo.

The third section of 20 kilometers and probably the most beautiful one connects Padua with the town of Herveo. Through forests of pines, eucalyptus, and fog we will keep ascending through sustained slopes of 6% and some downhill sections. A technical terrain with some tight corners and a rather bad tarmac. This segment will feel very isolated, with only a few shops we will find good food in the artisanal sector of Colombia, which is placed around the 50th kilometer of the climb. This section has a final downhill of almost 2 kilometers that will lead us to the beginning of one of the hardest climbs in the world.

The last section of 20 kilometers, the dreadful Delgaditas, ends at the summit of Letras and it is divided into two parts. First, 14 kilometers at 7.1% starting at 3,000 meters above sea level. The second part will be 6 kilometers, 2 of them less steep and a downhill bit, and the last 4 with smooth slopes and an opening landscape in which we will see espeletias, local plant of the paramo.

With a total of 80.1 kilometers, the average slope of 3.9% does not represent the difficulty of ascending this titan, which in my opinion can be categorized as a Hors Categorie. I simply call this climbs Colossus. A Colossus can be climbed but above all, it changes you as a person, it provides you with a space of reflection and introspection. The Letras paramo more than a climb is a trip to your inner self for everyone who wants to challenge himself.

Translation: Pol Sopeña