Alto de Letras:
The Longest Road Climb in the World
Alto de Letras: One of the longest road climbs in the world. Not one to turn down a challenge, I decided to take on this epic climb during a recent holiday to Colombia. Tough? Sure. Beautiful? Absolutely. This was definitely the most memorable ride I did in this amazing country.
When I decided on Colombia as my next cycling and holiday destination, a friend mentioned watching Thereabouts 3 (watch it, it's great!). In this documentary, professional cyclist Lachlan Morton and his brother Gus head to Colombia and take on the Old Letras Pass, even longer, and with long off-road sections. As much as I like a gravel ride, add in the 80km of climbing, and I decided that the classic tarmac Letras pass was the one to tackle.
My first two weeks in Colombia took me into the mountainous area of Santa Elena, outside Medellin, and to the Caribbean coast around Cartagena. I had hired a Specialized Tarmac with compact gearing and an 11-28 cassette from Equipo Cycling in Medellin.
Originally planning to ride the climb with a friend plus support, an unexpected turn of events meant I also booked a guide and driver through Equipo to join me for the three days. It's wise not to assume you can just turn up and ride 80km uphill on your own, especially when your Spanish is, erm, limited.
After Cartagena, I had four days off the bike to relax in Minca and Medellin. Perfectly timed, food poisoning struck, so my relaxation became recovery, and there was some panic over potentially ruined plans. But with everything in place, and feeling like I was over the worst, it was time to head to Mariquita, the town closest to the start of the climb. Met at my hotel by Sebastian and Wilson, a nice easy 47km spin took us to an absolutely stunning breakfast spot where sickness was forgotten and we re-fuelled and jumped in the car for the 4 hour drive.
San Sebastian de Mariquita is a pretty pueblo and the perfect place to relax, take a stroll and spend the afternoon in a hammock. It's the starting point for the climb and sits at 468 metres above sea level.
Normally no big deal, the decision about dinner became important. After being ill so recently, I was pretty paranoid and we spent a lot of time driving around looking for somewhere suitable (all the good options were closed). Restaurant found, food was plain and carby - rice, plantains, chips and chicken. But I did not get sick...
Temperatures can be scorching in Mariquita - easily into the 30's - so it was an early start. After a 5am Colombian breakfast of arepas (corn cakes), cheese, eggs and café con leche, spare kit and food were packed into the support car. Rolling out at 6:15am, I felt well rested and knew it was going to be a great day. I had a detailed breakdown of the profile stuck to my top tube to remind me of the gradient in various sections.
Heading 4km out of town in the opposite direction to the climb was a last minute decision to get a short warm up. There are no signs indicating the base of this climb, but the road tells you - Letras starts with a bang - straight into 8.4%, which may not sound all that bad but knowing what’s to come makes it a bit of a reality check.
The climb is often broken down into three main parts, and, although your legs are still relatively fresh, the first 20km are tough, mainly due to the heat and humidity. The gradient is an average of 4%, however there are many sections of 6% - 9%, and it maxes out at around 11% or 12% in a few places. I didn't have a specific time in mind, I just wanted to complete it, so I got into a rhythm and just kept my legs ticking over.
The middle 40km was probably the easiest - the temperature started to drop and the gradient was steady, but I wasn't yet negatively affected by the rising altitude, probably in part thanks to the previous two weeks riding, walking and sleeping in the mountains. In return for my effort, I was rewarded with stunning scenery that noticeably changed as I climbed. I passed through a number of small villages and areas that felt remote and untouched, and although cars and trucks passed frequently, just like everywhere in Colombia, the drivers were incredibly respectful.
There are a few downhill sections interspersed between the ups and although they give you a bit of a breather, they also mean you end up climbing far more than you think you will! Two rogue dogs were the only other challenges I encountered. Coming from out of nowhere, both made chase during downhill sections thankfully. With dogs everywhere, I think two chases was pretty good going, and I'm just glad we weren't climbing at the time.
I couldn't have asked for better support. Sebas rode with me the entire time, and Wilson and the car were there whenever I needed to top up my water bottles or grab some food or an extra layer. It was great to have someone to chat to and distract me all the way up. Being a fellow animal lover, every cow, dog and goat got a greeting too.
The last 20km to the finish was, not surprisingly, the hardest; you have 60km of climbing in your legs, there are some steep sections, and although the conditions were now cool, foggy and potentially wet, the air had also thinned out significantly.
We were lucky with the weather. Yes, it rained twice, but it didn’t last and I’d brought plenty of layers and waterproofs along, knowing how cold it could be at the summit. You’re almost climbing through the seasons, starting on a hot and humid summer day and finishing on a damp and chilly early winter morning. Being equatorial, the temperature in Colombia is determined by altitude and not seasons, and the environment changes as you rise. The contrast is dramatic; lush and green when you start, but by the time you get near the top, vegetation is sparse.
Stopping with 10km to go was probably the point at which I realised the suffering was starting to kick in. My fuelling strategy isn’t great at the best of times, so I was mainly filled with bocadillo de guayaba (guava paste), coke and biscuits and the last 2km were hard. Luckily I’d acclimatised in the past few weeks and only started to feel the effects of thin air at around 2km to go. Some riders do suffer far earlier and far worse. The road opens up near the end, so you can see almost to the top, but it’s deceptive as to how far you have left.
For those interested in the stats, according to Strava it took me just under 6:30 hours to ride the 80km, including half an hour of stopping. The temperature went from 28°C down to 8°C. I climbed from 479m above sea level to just under 3700m, with a total elevation of 4322m. You can check out my three rides below.
I fell in love with Colombia and without a doubt I’ll be returning, including, of course, to Alto de Letras to best my time. But that night I sat in a thermal pool, resting my legs and thinking about the 2000m of climbing I had to do the next day to get me to Salento, my next destination…
Massive thanks to Fader Ardila for the photos, and Sebastian and Wilson at Equipo Cycling for the photos and support.