On the Road Biking Back Home in Bogotá
Bogotá has the largest network of cycling infrastructure in Latin America. It is a city that begs to be biked.
I look up over my handlebars to face the Cerros Orientales, the Andean mountains that make up Bogotá’s parameter to the east. I’m subiendo, biking west to east and therefore biking upward, toward the mountains and the city’s edge. Though I’m going up, the numbers are going down—Carrera 19, Carrera 13—and finally, inevitably, Carrera 7, la Carrera Séptima: the avenue through which the city’s lifeblood flows, connecting South to North to everything in between.
I turn onto la Séptima and reach the edge of el Parque Nacional. I am coasting the freshly paved bike path that now bisects the busy boulevard’s two-way traffic. It took a global crisis and its ensuing standstill for city hall to prioritize cycling on the city’s most important thoroughfare. The city began working on the protected path extension in the midst of a national lockdown in June of 2020. Today, the path is teaming with cyclists.
As I ride, it’s June 2021. It’s my first time visiting Bogotá since I left in March of 2020. “I’ll be gone for a month,” I naively told my roommates as I prepared to join my parents in Florida. Fifteen months passed. Border closures and the threat of contagion kept me away until, eventually, I realized that my life in Colombia had been transient—that I could not just go back and pick up where I had left off. As writers are wont to do, I moved to New York City instead.
Though I was born in Bogotá, my family moved to South Florida when I was just seven years old. Growing up, my main tie to Colombia faded into a family visit every two or three years. I grew up pining for my unlived, alternate life in Bogotá. I wanted to be permanently surrounded by the sound of rolling r ’s, the sight of rolling mountains, the intoxicating smell of agua panela con limón.
Eventually, nostalgia was not enough. I moved to Bogotá in 2019 and became reacquainted with its streets from the comfort of my bike saddle. I navigated my way through 572 kilometers of bicycle paths. I made Bogotá my home again.
One of the city’s many universities, La Pontificia Universidad Javeriana, towers over me as I continue my journey northward, my body pulsing through the gradual incline. The year 2020 brought one of the sharpest decreases in higher education enrollment in Colombia and in the entire Latin American region. This was a huge defeat in the fight to decrease inequality through greater access to education.
As I bike, Bogotá is riding a third wave of contagion and is far behind in vaccine administration. The government is struggling to get its hands on enough vaccines to speed up the process. Despite rising infection rates, the mayor does not seem to be backing down on reopening plans. The fragile economy may not withstand more lockdowns, but can the people withstand more death?
After six months of lockdown from late March to September of 2020, over 26,000 deaths, and, more recently, week after week of protest and police violence, Bogotá is a stunted version of its former self. El rebusque, the desperation of most of its people living off informal work, is even more prescient. The only visible change that cuts through that, for me, is in the city’s bike path expansion. Cyclists are using new routes to take up more space, staking a greater claim over the city and over their lives.
The city’s density becomes increasingly apparent as I reach further into the heart of the Chapinero locality. I am flanked by a local chain supermarket, banks, language schools, the imposing structure of a hospital to my left. My thighs are starting to feel strained from the climb. As my body tires, so does my mind. It starts to float in a sea of hypotheticals, wondering what might have happened if I had never left the city when Covid first struck.
I feel guilt for having had the choice to leave, for making that choice, and for the privileges that choice brought. Biking across Brooklyn this spring en route to my first shot of Moderna, I couldn’t take my mind off my grandmother in Colombia: eighty-five, diabetic, and fully confined to her home since the start of the pandemic. The epitome of global inequality and injustice, as manifested in my life, was that I got vaccinated before her. The jolt of the jab brought simultaneous relief and shame. My gratitude for inoculation was superseded by guilt, my undeserved privilege over my dear abuelita. How could my American nationality give me such a stark advantage over my elderly grandmother?
The sight of a mural pulls me away from my guilt and pushes me forward, back into my body. A woman, painted in black and white like an old-timey comic strip, is perched high on the seat of her road bike, her elbows leaning against her handlebars, her gaze straight ahead, determined. She has a utility belt strapped around her waist and what looks like a shark-shaped missile tied onto her back. She’s powering through the city and she’s not backing down. I try to model her stance to embody her strength. My body, too, has the capacity to propel itself past the traffic, the relentless male gaze, the pollution, the chaos. It can become one with the city as it traverses it.
I first discovered this—the bicycle as conduit between corporality and urban mobility—in another city and another time. Boston, 2016: My then girlfriend, who was a bike commuter already, convinced me that biking would get me to work much faster than continuing to take the infamously slow Green Line train. Like clockwork, on my first morning bike commute to work, I easily caught up to the train heading east on Beacon Street. I no longer needed to rely on inefficient, crowded systems to get myself from point A to point B.
Better still, the journey between these points was fueled by my body. I learned that I can experience a place—everything that happens in the spaces between points A and B—while reveling in my corporal autonomy and strength.
Traces of revolution come into view on my left as I reach the blocks-wide concrete plaza known as el Parque de los Hippies, the emblematic rainbow “Bogotá” sign covered in tags. Groups of young people are clustered around the park, their bikes surrounding them in circles on the ground like rays of sun. They are huddled together, beers in hand, music blaring, ready to mobilize at any minute. It’s been about six weeks since protests first broke out across the country. Public outcry over tax increases that would hurt the middle class catalyzed a mass protest movement.
Photograph courtesy of the author
In some ways, this brote, this outbreak of mass protest, was an extension of the national strike movement that began in November of 2019. The reasons for dissent were wide-ranging and seemingly infinite: the looming threat of pension cuts; the systematic killing of social leaders, often indigenous activists; slashes to the public higher education budget; worsening economic inequality; the crawling pace at which elements of the 2016 peace accords were being implemented.
One bright Sunday afternoon in late 2019, my roommate and I biked up to el Parque de los Hippies. Our two-wheeled vehicles enabled us to traverse the city despite the then-inoperative public transportation system. We carried backpacks filled with tools to manifest our discontent: pots, pans, and wooden spoons for the Latin American protest tradition of the cacerolazo . We banged our kitchenware to the beat of classic protest calls: “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido.” The people united will never be divided. By early December, after several weeks of protest, my pan and spoon had become completely unrecognizable, misshapen and splintered by my dissident banging.
The pandemic forced Colombia’s protest movement to an indefinite standstill, much as it did in nearby Chile and far-flung Hong Kong. No doubt, governments found a kind of twisted silver lining in the public health crisis: It kept political discontent at bay. But, by late April 2021, the people of Colombia decided that they could not wait for the pandemic to “end” in order to make their grievances known. They took to the streets, day after day, only to be met with violent human rights violations .
I dismount my bike and join the crowd at Hippies for a short break, my legs wobbly as they struggle to reacquaint themselves with solid ground. I watch other cyclists zoom by in both directions, each pedal forward echoing their resilience in the face of injustice. The laughter from the park crowd seems to carry past the avenue and up to the peaks of the Cerros Orientales. The mountains envelop the scene as if in a tender, conciliatory embrace.
How can such violence coexist with such beauty?
I enjoy a cheesy arepa snack and continue northward, so pleased with the ease of my movement that I can’t believe I ever hesitated to bike here in the first place. The traffic, the pollution, and the very real risk of violent bike theft , naturally, made me question it. But Bogotá is a city that sprawls majestically 8,660 feet above sea level; it has nearly eight million inhabitants; it doesn’t have a subway system; it has the largest network of cycling infrastructure in Latin America. It is a city that begs to be biked.
More Bogotános who are moving around the city during the pandemic are choosing to do so by bike. Before the pandemic, only 7 percent of all trips were made by bicycle. By October of 2020, that figure had nearly doubled . Though avoiding contagion on crowded buses and TransMilenios may be the main reason for this significant shift, the expansion of bike infrastructure, like the bike path on la Séptima, is also motivating citizens to hop on their bicis . It is a city that begs to be biked.
Amalia Andrade, a queer Colombian writer and illustrator based in Bogotá, declared her pandemic-era rediscovery of the bicycle on social media. In August 2020, she posted an illustration of a bicycle with the simple motto “Keep Going.”
The final sentences of the post’s caption stuck with me: “Maybe I feel like a kid again when I’m on a bike. Maybe I feel that it’s in this where I can change, and that fills me with purpose and freedom. Maybe riding feels like my life right now: It hurts a lot but I just need to keep going. I just need to keep going and everything is going to be okay. Everything is going to get better.”
Everything is going to get better.
The Rosales and Chicó neighborhoods, the most exclusive zip codes in the city, recall the vaccine haves and have-nots. Riding past these posh barrios, I am keenly aware that most of their residents are already vaccinated—though, as I bike, only those fifty and up are eligible. The elite have used their active tourist visas and economic advantages to take whirlwind vaccination vacations to Miami, New York, Los Angeles.
My first instinct is to judge them, to implicate them for their privilege. But can I really blame them? Hadn’t I done something similar when I left Bogotá at the beginning of the pandemic? Wasn’t I, in a way, currently engaging in a particular type of post-vaccine tourism?
I feel the wind coming through the vents of my clunky borrowed helmet, tossing my hair into disheveled ringlets. I am passing my favorite childhood park on my left, el Parque del Chicó, the whale-shaped seesaw prompting five-year-old me to dub it “el Parque de las Ballenitas.” I let the guilt—of passports, immunization, my undeserved privilege—scatter away with the breeze for now as I focus on what I can control: the sweetness of childhood memories, my body moving forward, the bicycle as my sacred vehicle through time and space.
I am nearing the end of la Séptima’s bike path, the military complex of the Centro de Educación Militar violently imposing itself upon the natural beauty of the mountains. I can also see the city’s monument to Amerigo Vespucci, the Italian cartographer and explorer and the continent’s namesake. Vespucci’s figure is mounted on a large rectangular platform flanked by more concrete, upon which the American continent—North, South, and Central—is cut in black stone. Three heavily armed policemen stand imposingly in front of the structure, as if guarding it from an invading army. A protest slogan, barely legible between the men’s barricading bodies, is spray-painted across the monument’s base in blood red.
Despite my better judgement, I pull over to take a picture. I marvel at the paradoxes before me. Three young policemen are protecting a colonial monument from their own people, a people fighting the contemporary colonialism of capitalist exploitation and injustice. They jeer and smile at me crudely as I photograph them. Though they have caught me capturing them, my bike helps me escape, taking me beyond them and beyond myself. As I turn to head back south, I ponder a definition of urban biking: bodily autonomy and liberation; decolonization of the body and of the self; a radical act of reclamation, fearlessness, self-love, joy.
Other cyclists zoom past me on the narrow path, signaling with bells and whistles while keeping their eyes focused on the road. I wonder where they’re going, where they’re coming from. I want to know how they have experienced the pandemic, the protests, the unique crisis cocktail that is life in Colombia at this moment. I want to know how and when they each discovered the emancipating power of their bodies aboard a bicycle. I want to believe: Everything is going to get better.