Bogotá transforms itself every Sunday into a haven for non-motorized traffic and, as Brendan Sainsbury discovers, you are welcome to join the festivities.
I’m in Bogotá, Colombia on a hired hybrid bike, pedalling south along the city’s main drag, La Séptima, aka Carrera 7, past a top ten of Bogotano sights. It’s Sunday morning and the streets are alive with joggers, food vendors, volunteer marshals, families with pushchairs, dogs pulling skateboarders, and an endless parade of bicycles – thousands of them.
Ciclovia: cycling festival or just a typical Sunday in Bogotá ?
To an unversed outsider, it might seem like a boisterous annual festival. But, to Bogotanos, the carnivalesque Ciclovia is a weekly occurrence that shuts 120km of the Colombian capital’s roads to motorized transport between 7am and 2pm. Slickly organized and way (way!) ahead of its time, it has been a perennial Sunday feature for over four decades, since the days when Colombian drug-lord Pablo Escobar was still a lowly car thief.
High on altitude, coffee and street treats
I turn around by the Plaza de Bolívar and head back north, trying to work out if my heavy breathing is a result of the altitude (at 2640m, Bogotá is the third-highest capital city in the world) or last night’s sojourn to Bogotá Beer Company for some essential Lonely Planet research. Somewhere in the historic quarter of Candelaria, I stop and buy a plastic cup of tinto (coffee) from a man with a cart lined with silver thermoses. It’s watery and borderline tepid, but there’s enough caffeine in it to carry me 2km to the intersection of Séptima and Calle 26. Here, larger clusters of street vendors sell more substantial breakfasts: cheese-filled arepas (ground maize dough), freshly squeezed orange juice and – my personal favorite - obleas, a sweet wafer sandwich filled with arequipe (thick, caramelized milk).
Live music, yoga, puppet shows and Zumba
For five sugar-filled minutes, I cycle around imagining I’m Egan Bernal, the Bogotá-born winner of the 2019 Tour de France. But, with its roots buried in social activism, the Ciclovia is more about community interaction than racing. Still fresh from my obleas sugar-rush, I freewheel over to the Parque Nacional, a major Ciclovia nexus, where a Zumba teacher atop a stage is encouraging a loosely coordinated crowd to strike some suggestive salsa moves. This is Recrovia, Ciclovia’s entertaining support act that offers everything from yoga classes, to live bands, to puppet shows in the city’s parks and green spaces.
The cultural leveler
Preferring cycling to Zumba, I divert west on broad Calle 26 – on workdays a six-lane traffic-choked highway – where I’m treated to a colorful snapshot of Colombian life in all its glory. Aside from promoting better health and quashing pollution, the Ciclovia is Bogotá’s great cultural leveller. For one day of the week, neighborhood boundaries are forgotten as everyone shares the road regardless of class, profession or opinions about the latest corruption scandal. In a city of stark income disparities and a well-documented history of political and gang violence, it shines a light on a less-reported side of Bogotá’s collective personality; one that is progressive, peaceful and egalitarian.
How Cyclovia was born
Part of the Ciclovia’s beauty is its improbable beginnings. Unlike Amsterdam or Copenhagen, politically volatile Bogotá wasn’t an obvious place to initiate an urban cycling revolution five decades ago. But social activism and foresighted elected officials ultimately combined to harness a population keen for a peaceful respite from violence and uncertainty.
Pioneered in 1974 by a young architecture student named Jaime Ortiz Mariño, the event got official mayoral sanction in 1976 in the same year that Pablo Escobar founded the Medellín Cartel. The fledging Ciclovia was far more niche than the current mass participation event, commandeering just 20km of the capital’s roads for a couple hours on Sunday mornings. Proactive city mayors including avid urban transport advocate, Enrique Peñalosa ultimately widened the goalposts, gaining sponsorship and civic support and forming an army of 2000 weekly volunteers called "BikeWatch" to provide crowd control and first aid. By the early 21st century, the Ciclovia had morphed into an indispensable cornerstone of Bogotá’s cultural life with up to two million people, or one quarter of the city’s population, joining the ebullient weekly procession.
For fashionists, families, big biceps and romantic couples
As I continue west on 26, I find it hard not to be dazzled by the spectacle. Traffic coordinators staff tricky road crossings, bike repair stations line busy sections of the highway, and young kids learning rudimentary bicycle skills wobble precariously around obstacles on the normally fast-flowing slip-roads. Sporadic chicanes made from traffic bollards stop speedsters from attaining Egan Bernal velocities and provide great places to people-watch. I observe dudes with bulging biceps in wheelchairs, romantic couples on tandems, fashionistas from the wealthy northern suburbs and vendors with tinto carts from the poor south. After a week in the city, I feel as if I’ve finally broken its code, that beyond its sometimes-deserved reputation for drugs and crime, there’s breathing space, something more optimistic bubbling beneath the surface.
The first, and still the most successful community city ride in the world
Various other cities worldwide have tried to take up Ciclovia’s mantle in the years since the 1970s to varying degrees of success, but nowhere has come close to matching Bogotá’s for size and frequency. As 2pm approaches, and a sizeable chunk of the city’s 1.6 million private car owners get ready to re-pollute the streets with their honking Toyotas and Fiats, I reluctantly head back to a Candelaria bike rental shop to return my trusty hybrid. I feel invigorated. With envy, I dream about my home city putting on something as game-changing and as genuinely fun as this. Bogotá in 2020 might not be the world’s prettiest city (or its safest or cleanest). but when it comes to progressive bicycle culture, it’s a true revolutionary.