The internet has lent certain cycling routes in South America an iconic quality. Websites such as Cass Gilbert’s joyful While Out Riding, Anna Korschak’s faintly elegaic A Thousand Turns and Neil & Harriet Pike’s encyclopaedic Andes by Bike serve as renegade guidebooks for cyclists in search of the continent’s most breathtaking rides, marrying beautiful photography with their authors’ often infectious enthusiasm for the roads they travel.

These roads tend to be dirt, and often for good reason. Riders in search of unspoiled wilderness most often find it away from the asphalt, with the not incidental benefit that unpaved highways deliver much less traffic than their paved counterparts. Our attitude towards dirt-road touring has changed since we started this journey; we’ll never be true dirt dogs like those riders mentioned above (or others we’ve met en route, such as fellow Britons Nathan Haley and Cherry Fitzsimmons), but we’re much happier off the beaten track than we were a year ago.

However, old habits die hard; as road riders by background and habit, we’re always on the prowl for glorious paved routes. One such road is the Alto de Letras, something of a cult climb among Colombian road cyclists. Part of the reason is the spectacular variety of scenery it offers: the road rises from sticky Honda, at an altitude of 200m, up to the windy high plains of Letras, peaking just short of 3,700m. The main reason for its fame, though, is that all aspiring roadies like a challenge. With a total climb of nearly 4,200m over its 102km extent from Honda to the summit, a ridiculous elevation profile that may explain why hardly any cycle tourists take it on, the Alto de Letras is said to be the longest road climb in the world. I was powerless to resist.

On a good day, serious road racers on 20lb carbon-framed speed machines take six hours to power the 82km up to Letras from Mariquita (altitude 490m), which most road riders consider to be the real start of the climb. Riding a steel touring workhorse weighing at least twice as much, unable to start until mid-morning and keen to begin 20km further east in Honda, thus taking the total climb over the 4,000m mark, I chose to split the ascent into two days. Being a comparatively well-adjusted individual, Ruth sat this one out…



Day one began with another act of Colombian kindness. We’d spent Friday afternoon getting some running repairs in the Manizales workshop of fabulous expert mechanic Bisoño Gutiérrez (pictured above), to whom Ruth mentioned that I was considering the climb. The following day, Bisoño called to say that the next morning, Jaime, his brother, was driving the 130km over to the start of the route, and would I like a lift? And so at 5.15am on Sunday morning (yes, really), Jaime pulled up outside our hostel in downtown Manizales, where I left most of my luggage, and away we went.



After numerous stops en route, we reached Honda shortly after 10am. Truck traffic between Bogotá and Medellín is funnelled straight through this frantic little town, built on the banks of the Río Magdalena and once the country’s most important river port. The Magdalena is Colombia’s Mississippi, more or less; a national icon of sorts, and the reason I wanted to start my ride in Honda. That’s Jaime on the right, as the Magdalena roars on below us.



The road from Honda up to Mariquita could hardly be more gentle: around 350m of ascent over an easygoing 20km, which may be why it’s not generally considered part of the climb. The steamy, low-altitude heat is perfect fruit-growing territory, and many small-scale farmers sell their produce at the roadside. Some fruits are easily recognised, but others require an instruction manual.



It’s not just serious riders-in-training who ply this route; as in much of Colombia, cycling here is a way of life. This chap looked to be labouring slightly as I overtook him. However, if I’m riding as happily as he does as and when I make it to his age – 77, he proudly announced when he came over to say hello at a drinks stand down the road – I’ll be delighted.



One of the few disappointing aspects to Colombia has been the standard of ice cream; few heladerías make their own. However, one notable exception is Mariquita’s La Fuente, which also offers a bewildering array of juices. Yes, these were both mine. And yes, I had another one immediately afterwards.



It’s here that the hard work, and the ascent to Alto de Letras, really begins. Down here at low altitude, roadside trees – many of them palms – provide welcome shelter on the road out of Mariquita. By now, it was nearing 1pm, and absolutely sweltering under clear-blue skies.



The road is dotted with graphics promoting the recent presidential candidature of Óscar Iván Zuluaga, who was born and raised in the nearby town of Pensilvania. (He lost.)



A few dozen Mariquiteños had headed north to cool down at this secluded balneario. I was briefly tempted to join them but carried on riding…



… Past countless acres of hillside farmland…



… And on to Fresno, which I’d been told is home to the only hotels between Mariquita and Manizales. C$37,000 (£12) buys you a capacious room with a view at the relatively luxurious Hotel La Cascada.



The next morning dawned perfectly. Obscured the previous day by mist and fog, this is one of seven volcanoes in Los Nevados National Park. I’m not sure which, but I’m fairly certain it’s not the Nevado del Ruiz, which killed more than 23,000 people when it erupted in 1985.



Riding extremely expensive lightweight road bikes and clad in matching team kit, this pair overtook me about 10km outside Fresno…



… Followed immediately by their butler support vehicle. I kept pace for about a kilometre before they kicked on ahead.



The site of a communications mast usually signals the top of a climb. Not in this case, however – I still had 2,000m of elevation gain to go.



The views soon begin to open up across vast valleys that my camera can’t hope to capture. Fincas and haciendas break up the endless green expanses.



The shape of the landscape necessitates the occasional short descent, allowing my legs a breather. (Can legs breathe? Never mind.) The road here winds down a gentle slope towards a truckstop settlement.



Then, soon after, gently rises again.



Around 27km into the day, a second breakfast. Much like the first, and not too far off a full English. I suspect the two roadies up the road may not have approved.



By now, edging closer to an altitude of 3,000m, the palm trees, coffee plants and fruit stands have disappeared, replaced by a more rugged landscape.



And still the climb goes on.



Around a few more corners, some rather unexpected street art on a roadside crash barrier. Then a gradual haul up past a string of scruffy shops…



… And, at last, we’re there. As is so often the case, a spectacular climb – and this has been one of my favourite rides of the trip – ends with an anticlimax, with the top heralded by half a dozen gigantic agricultural hangars and the inevitable gale-force winds.



So I layer up for the descent…



… And down we go, straight into another volcano.



And down.



And down…



Route notes: starting from the Río Magdalena in Honda (altitude 200m), it’s 102km to the top at Letras (altitude 3,670m). The elevation increase is 3,470m, but the various short descents along the way mean that the total climb clocks in just short of 4,200m. Start at Mariquita instead, as most roadies do, and you’ll be faced with 3,850m of climb over 82km.

From Letras, there’s a glorious 28km descent down to a roundabout on the outskirts of Manizales (altitude 2,050m). If you’re staying in Manizales, you’ll then have a rather spiteful little 150m climb up to the west of the city, where the road flattens out. It’s 4.5km from the roundabout up to the Zona Rosa district, where there are a fair few hostels, and about the same again to downtown.

I’d been told that the only hotels between Mariquita and Manizales were in Fresno, which meant that day one (Honda to Fresno, 45km, 1,480m of climb) was easier than day two (Fresno to downtown Manizales, 93km, a ridiculous 2,890m of climb). However, it turns out that there’s a small hotel – El Trébol – in the scruffy little town of Pádua, 16km past Fresno. This would be a much more sensible place to break the journey – Honda to Pádua is 61km with 2,180m of climb, leaving 77km and a near-identical 2,190m of climb to reach downtown Manizales the next day.

Keen to save weight and enjoy the ride, I’d left our tent back in Manizales, but cyclists carrying camping gear won’t be short of places to pitch camp en route. There are also numerous roadside restaurants and shops offering sustenance, though there’s nothing much for the last 20km or so of the climb up to Letras.



from Manizales, Caldas, Colombia