A girl in a neon purple helmet whizzes by, huffing as she pedals past the graffiti-covered walls of what was once one of the world’s most turbulent cities. The traffic lights of Bogota blink fruitlessly, defenceless against a sneaker-clad stream of one million bikers, pedestrians and rollerbladers.
Every Sunday morning, more than 120 kilometres of Bogota’s highways, byways and thoroughfares are shut off to traffic and opened to the people. From 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., Colombia’s capital becomes a living gym.
The crowds have grown since Bogota’s first ciclovia, Spanish for “bike pathway.” On Dec. 15, 1974, 5,000 students took over the city’s streets and bus lanes to promote the power of the pedal. It became an official city event a few years later and over the decades the concept has spread throughout South America, North America and Europe.
Chances are if you’ve stumbled upon a highway-turned-sidewalk in your travels, it was inspired by the ciclovia.
That her hometown has influenced cities such as Los Angeles and Vancouver is amusing to Laura Cahnspeyer, owner of the Bogota teahouse Taller de Te. The shop is shuttered on Sundays in part so she can enjoy the ciclovia festivities.
While visitors are mesmerized by the stampede of lycra and helmets, Cahnspeyer says the weekly people parade is simply a part of life to her fellow bogotanos. A backdrop to childhood memories, first kisses and teenage weekends spent wandering the city with friends.
“This is where I learned to ride a bicycle,” Cahnspeyer said.
Mike Ceaser, owner of Bogota Bike Tours, said the ciclovia gives residents – and travellers who want to venture beyond the Bogota tourist trail – a chance to explore the city’s up-and-coming areas.
“Some people say it’s the only time that poor and wealthy bogotanos mix on an almost-equal basis and visit each other’s neighbourhoods,” he said.
Over the decades, the athleticism of the ciclovia has spilled into Bogota’s parks and sidewalks.
One Sunday morning, a woman wearing a hands-free mic danced on a covered stage temporarily set up in a parking lot. A few dozen folks – some clad in spiffy workout clothes, others in faded denim – followed her lead through a complicated-looking series of kicks and jumps. In a nearby park, a drum circle kept the beat for a martial arts class, and a few streets up, yogis practised their downward dog near a fountain.
Then, of course, there are the entrepreneurs who see the weekly event as an opportunity to make money rather than burn calories.
Wooden carts loaded with bumpy green balls only locals and fruit connoisseurs could identify line the streets. A few blocks over a bike mechanic squats on a mat covered in wrenches and air pumps, waiting for the inevitable flat tire or slipped chain. The baskets at the feet of street musicians glitter with silver and gold pesos. Their honking saxophones and strummed arpeggios provide a soundtrack to the weekend wheeled migration.
After the ciclovia ends, travellers weighed down by the Colombian food staples of arepas, hot chocolate and cheese, and ajiaco, a soup made from potatoes, corn and shredded chicken, will still find more than 350 kilometres of bike paths criss-crossing the city.
It’s part of a continuing initiative that started with the first ciclovia. As former Bogota mayor Enrique Penalosa explained at the TEDCity2.0 2013 conference in New York, bikes promote equality.
“Protected bikeways,” he told the audience, “are a powerful symbol of democracy because they show that a citizen on a $30 bicycle is equally important to one in a $30,000 car.”
If you go
Bogota Bike Tours Rent a bike or participate in a small-group tour of the city. bogotabiketours.com
Where to stay
Hilton Bogota This hotel’s proximity to one of the ciclovia’s main drags makes it an easy home base for exploring the weekly event. You’ll find bike rentals and markets nearby. From $89 (U.S.); hilton.com
The Orchids Hotel Located in the historic La Candelaria district, amenities include a butler and personal shopper. From $550 (U.S.); theorchidshotel.com
What To Eat
La Puerta Falsa In business since 1816, this small snack shop is a perfect place to try Colombian staples like tamales and chocolate completo, hot chocolate served with bread and cheese. Calle 11, No. 6-50
Wok One of Bogota’s first fusion restaurants, this Asian-inspired chain serves some of the best sushi in Bogota. wok.com.coReport Typo/Error
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