Travel veteran Ninan Chacko has logged an impressive career running some of the industry's most powerful players, recently taking the reins as head honcho at Travel Leaders Group. During his recent sabbatical, though, he chose to hone a different skill set: mountain biking. Kids, this ain't no Soul Cycle. Check out what happens when a CEO joins a Colombian bike brigade and takes boardroom tough to a new level. Ninan shared his transformative experience, and some pretty amazing photos, with Passported. Read on for some travel inspiration.
My desert island sabbatical took place in the Colombian resort town of Paipa, Boyaca. As an executive transitioning into my next career role, I had the opportunity to plan a 6-week sojourn, the bulk of which was to be spent in a vacation cabin by Lago Sochagota. Paipa figures prominently as the resolutely non-electronic family “camp” that my wife brings our children to every summer for a number of weeks, in a reprise of her childhood vacations.
In addition to carting along a Weber grill, my desert island discs, assorted sambals, a few cases of Bordeaux, Malbec and some port, I also brought along my biking helmet and gear in anticipation of getting some exercise. Through a friend of my wife’s, I was introduced to Alex Rodriguez, who biked with a MTB Club called the Bufalos (Grupo de Ciclomontañismo de Paipa Bufalos) in Paipa. This informal group of mountain bikers got together on Tuesdays, Thursday and Saturdays for 2-3 hour group rides and on most other days a smaller subset of Bufalos met to ride.
The Bufalos held court in their den (in reality, a small cafeteria across from the sole traffic light in Paipa) at 7am daily, over numerous cups of tinto. Impeccably attired in professional looking MTB gear, smartly Bufalo-logoed, the riders spanned the spectrum of youth to retirees and varying professions from restaurateur to professional athlete to limo driver. Warmly welcomed by the defacto leader Miguel Ochoa, and Daniel “casco loco” Cepeda, Cesar, Elber, Esperanza, Herman, Dr. Edgar, Popeye, Malagon, Nemecio, Tonio, Los Gatitos and the others as a friend of Alex’s, thus began my 3+ weeks of physical, linguistic and cultural education with the Bufalos.
My first ride with Alex and his cousin Robinson was a relatively easy 26km jaunt on a moderate somewhat paved ascent to Duitama via the quaint pueblito of La Trinidad and a return on the shoulder of the autopista.
By Day 2, I had “qualified” for a full-fledged assault on La Isla, beginning with ascending over pasto, traversing across many different fincas, hauling our bikes under alambradas (some electrified just to keep one on one’s toes), up part of the 9km ascent to Palermo (which I am confidently told is some of the steepest paved road in Colombia and is used for training by Nairo Quintana, the acclaimed Colombian professional champion cyclist) and then into the woods and more narrow trails up to the top and beyond the Páramo, about 2,000’ above Paipa.
Suffice to say, I was gaining deep experience in pushing my bike on foot, across a variety of terrain, thoroughly sodden by seemingly inexhaustible amounts of perspiration pouring out, although enjoying the very crisp and clean mountain air and incomparable vistas. The hair-raising descent was enough to cause me to dismount a few times and allow self-preservation to win over valor and prevent any serious injury. What an awesome experience...I was hooked.
Fortunately the daily post-biking activities centered on an afternoon excursion with the family to the local Estelar resort, where a very reasonable “bono familiar” membership gave us access to the heated pool and the thermal spring-fed jacuzzis. BBQ’ng daily on the terrace of our vacation cabin overlooking the lake with a glass of wine was topped off by an hour massage with our favorite local masseuse.
To level set, my entire MTB experience up to this point consisted of several rides on dirt trails in Dallas, TX in my early 30’s and plenty of moderate street riding on paved roads in New York city on my hybrid. Equally, my proficiency in Spanish was frozen in time (and fluency) at the equivalent of a 3-year-old, which is when my bilingual twins firmly declined to let me read to/converse with them any further in Spanish.
Miguel assumed the dual roles of el torturador and coach, announcing both what punishing route to undertake that day while providing sage advice on how to tackle the seemingly impossible and never-ending ascents. Across the three and a half weeks, we never repeated a single route, inevitably arriving at some stunning mirador thousands of feet above Paipa or its surroundings before embarking on a spine-tingling descent right on the edge of being out of control. Some senderos were so dense with vegetation that we had to physically hoist our bikes over our heads and trudge through, while others had rocks the size of grapefruits. Most of our ascents crested 10,000’ and thus afforded views of alpine meadows, lakes and forests that thinned out to the unique fauna and flora of the Páramo. Miguel also functioned as the resident botanist, identifying and sometimes collecting samples of local plants.
I was vaguely aware that Paipa with its 8,455’ altitude, surrounded by las lomas, with warm, sunny days and cool nights, was known as high altitude training for professional athletes. However nothing prepared me for the all-consuming, gluttonous desire for oxygen as soon as one embarked on any strenuous physical activity. Miguel’s gnomic utterances of “toma aire”, “despacio”, “pasito”, “equilibrio”, frequently echoed by Alex and Daniel, were comforting but really did not resonate until near the end of the 3+ weeks.
With equanimity, grace, infinite patience and good humor, Alex, Daniel, Miguel and numerous other Bufalos shepherded me through innumerable ascents (and some descents), selections of gears, a flat tire, composure and a great improvement in my Colombian slang: flojo, flojeras, su mercé. From necessity, my pidgin Spanish improved and eventually we got to the inevitable discussions on Catholicism, Donald Trump, job security, families, the FARC etc.
I also learned that the secret elixir of Colombian bikers is agua de panela, which hence found its way into my bike water bottle. However, the strongest source of inspiration was seeing the rest of the Bufalos, from the 73 year oldest member, the several women, the less regular riders, all metronomically tackle ascents without stopping or walking, human machines indeed.
By the tail end of my time, the proportion of walking my bike versus mounted ascents had thankfully inverted and I had only four falls to my name, with no injuries and just the usual assortment of battle scars, minor cuts and scrapes. Aside from hearing Herman’s hilarious accounts of falling onto an electrified alambrada and bouncing up and down involuntarily, I had no actual encounters with the latter.
I have been enormously fortunate in life to have had the opportunity to travel widely for work and pleasure all over the world. However, one seldom has the time or the perspective to fully immerse oneself into the essence of a place. To discover its pulse and to truly appreciate a place, sometimes you have to adapt to its rhythms rather than having it adapt to you (which is really what I had vainly attempted in my previous visits to Paipa). My sabbatical afforded me that different opportunity to try a little humility, check out, chill out and change.