Walking the Abandoned Railway of Colombia. Villeta – Alban

The Abandoned Railway of Colombia has been the source of unrelenting curiosity since my arrival in Colombia. Even during previous visits spanning over a decade, I have always wondered where the train tracks that I had been seeing dotted all across this Andean landscape led to.

Leaving Villeta for the long track ahead.

It turns out that this story and the scenery it passed were even more mysterious than I had first thought. The tracks and it some parts have diapered. Telltale signs of the path once forged can in some cases be spotted by the monumental affliction inflicted upon the natural landscape. How did this network of a romantic path come to be intertwined within the Andes mountains? How could this feat of beautiful and seemingly delicate engineering withstand the monumental upheaval that this country would see in the fight for Independence and the subsequent fight to keep the country and it’s people free? Only a few of these answers could be enlightened by actually walking the abandoned railway of Colombia. But what it will help me do is, to forge a real connection with the past and make it relevant in my present. I want to traverse it, see and experience some of the senses that the people working on and living it in the past experienced themselves. To see the structures that would have put the craft and desires of many into it when constructing the monument. To see the breathtakingly spectacular views with my own eyes that passengers might have grown tired off back in their day. I still have many factual questions boggling in my mind now. But what this track walk has afforded me and in a way, laid to rest, is the intrigue as to what lay within the Andes.

The feeling of moving along the Andes through plantations, remote hills, on cliff edges and through tunnels. Working my way up to the heart of Colombia, the Bogotá Sabana.

What I Know

To be honest I really don’t know all that much about the historic or technical aspects of this railway in Colombia. I found it hard to research this and did not find a comprehensive referenceable source of information. I do know that it was completed on the 28th of July 1928. Built by a German company called Philipp Holzmann founded in 1849 and only just ceased operating in 2002. My views and thoughts on the line are very much romanticised. I kind of prefer my perception to stay this way. Below is a single photo that I found on a train transferring goods between a truck. The image is from Villeta and interestingly shows a passenger carriage with people aboard. It gave me an important insight into the route was to travel and what and who travelled it before me. There is also another photo of my target destination, Alban train station. The photo is fairly recent and depicts the station before its recent refurbishment. For those of you in Bogotá, it would be worth reading this post from Richard McColl on your beautiful Bogotá Sabana station. That was the effective sum of my knowledge. For the trip, I had a mobile, backup battery and an offline map to aid me.

This effectively was the sum of my knowledge. For the trip, I had a mobile, backup battery and an offline map to aid me.

This Andean Adventure

It was an early and rather unusually cool morning in this normally hot town of Villeta. I had a backpack with provisions and my trusty pair of £25 Karrimor walking shoes from Sports Direct back in London. Kissing goodbye to Villeta station with a small cafe campesino in hand, I passed the local stadium and headed out over a grand iron railway bridge (pictured at the top of this post) that spans the wild Villeta river.

View down to Villeta river.

Pushing on through the valley past the boundaries to popular resorts I wind through some claustrophobic growth that straddles the train line. The line here is derelict but is actually in very good condition compared to some segments. It is used heavily during tourist seasons when hoards of Bogotanos visit the area to lap up the sun. Locals have made makeshift train karts with motorcycle engines attached that ferry thrillseekers to a local waterfall called Bocatoma. Today, however, was low season and I only saw empty Poker beer bottles being transported onwards. I don’t know how Colombians can drink so much of this low-quality beer.

Train kart used to ferry crates of empty beer bottles.

Passing the waterfall that forms a nice break in the walk and is an obvious natural swimming pool I see the attraction for day trippers to cool down in these waters. Crossing a number of other bridges in close proximity to another, I enter the village of Bagazal and immediately spot the ruins of an obviously once great train station. Estacion Bagazal features a water tower, fairly large cargo area and an obviously once grand passenger area. Entering the station (against my safety concerns), I see that the building has and is still is disintegrating. Missing its roof and floors, walls are suspended aloft just waiting to fall. The station’s platform tiles are still visible. Taking it all in. I try to imagine the scene here of a time of grandeur travel in what seems to have been an age ago.

Bagazal Sation – What is left of it.

The track I had intended to follow vigorously became from this point totally impassable. There were wild undergrowth and trees and bushes higher than me standing in the way. I was forced to continue on along the village’s dirt road in the hope of finding another navigable stretch of this train line.

Reaching a Jesus statue enclosed in within a protective shrine, I realise that I have encountered a railway crossing. Suspecting that the shrine was indeed a rail watchman’s box, I pause to take in a nice cold Coca-Cola and review the journey thus far. Relieved to have found the line again. I back the rest of my cola and set off again. Pushing on past a local school and their sports pitch to climb over mounds of dirt that had been dumped on the line, I reach the track where it morphs into the local dirt road.

I push on, not really encountering any other people for a good few miles. Climbing higher and starting to view the valley below and behind me from where I started out. Continuing onwards, I savour the moments becoming more and more regular at which I can peer towards the mountain ridges ahead of me. On one occasion I spot on the valley, edge higher than me, a bridge that spans a ledge along the mountain side. Emboldened to see my first railway structure for miles, I step up a gear reaching the very bridge within an hour. Stopping to take in the views back to Villeta knowing the view would be the last on this trek. I take the opportunity to look the bridge over. I see squiggles and engravings into its paintwork by people across the region and dating back to 1993 and possibly further. My memories of track walking suburban South London come to the fore. Fond memories of tagging heavily the buildings and objects commuters would have seen a trillion times on their journeys to and from London Bridge station. Not missing the nostalgic relatively, I pull out my trusty graffiti pen, not to simply tag, but to reach out to those that might follow me by tagging my twitter handle onto the bridge.

After polishing off a few bananas. I pick myself up and my bag to continue on. Winding round the edge of the mountain there’s a welcome cooling in the climate with the mountain side offering me its shade. The trail and some of its tracks, partly buried, they steadily ascend winding truthfully along the valley and on into another. I reach what seems to have been some sort of a service terminal or might even have been a remote station. In my opinion, it seems to be some kind of a terminal. The building now functions as a rural school that is only reachable by this former rail route. Children are in their lesson as I take a photo and pass on by.

The Rural Guayacundo School – The Train Track School

Carrying onwards and upwards I contemplate what exactly I have set myself in achieving. It has been a long trek to reach this point alone. I push on seeking further justification for this mission. The path narrows considerably and I am walking closer and closer the side of the mountain. I turn a corner to be greeted by a sight that sinks my heart as I contemplate failing in ever reaching my goal for this trek. I had been met by an unmoveable rock three times my height. There had been an obvious mudslide that had brought tonnes of rocks across the path of the train track and mine too. Edging closer and stepping out towards the edge, my eyes training on seeking a path around the boulder. Conscious that there could be more rocks falling, I move closer cautiously to be relieved in seeing a way forward. Stradling the boulder I turn the corner and moving on to an apparently safe point I take another moment it sizing the situation. Judging that all seems well and the trek is back on again, I move my view outwards to realise that the track moves away from the mountain side to span a series of bridges. Tempting fate, I climb a fence to step out onto the first bridge, edging farther out with my knees trembling. I dare myself to walk this segments entire length. Reaching the middle I peer over the edge into the gorge below and then moving my view up along the mountains facing me on the other side of this epic valley. A memory and view that I will never forget. Subsequently, further on along the trail, I catch a glimpse of where I had been. I was glad in a way that it was behind me.

Perilous boulders and bridges on the mountain side behind me.

The scenery with every step becomes grander and more awe-inspiring. The sheer rock that is facing me down on the opposite side of the valley looks breathtaking. My mind boggling with thoughts of what it must have been like for passengers riding a shaky narrow-gauge rail with a deadly drop off the cliff to one side. With the intimidating view of the uninhabited rockface face opposite them. It must a been emotional, to say the least. Or perhaps they just took it in their stride back in those days.

Mountainous Beauty Beyond Belief.

The track now become narrower and more claustrophobic again. This time not by the mountain and its ledge but by a heavy growth of trees and bushes to either side. I was edging closer to an apparent obstacle before me that I hadn’t even noticed yet. Not until its opening was multiple times my size had I noticed. Startled, I stood in fright at a huge dark railway tunnel! There was no way up or down around it. The only way was to go through as going back would have been an even longer and defeated trek than o the end goal. Not wanting to talk myself into it. I checked the offline map I had to hand. It was indeed on the cliff edge, in fact winding around the cliff edge. The land had already slid down around the tunnel’s opening and over the top of it. I was concerned about its structural integrity and whether the whole tunnel would collapse and/or slide into the valley below with me inside it.  This is something I thought was too much of a risk. Looking on the ground I spotted wet tire tracks on the trail leading into the tunnel. This convinced me to just enter the tunnel and take it from there. Almost immediately, I was brought back to a memory of track walking a tunnel under on Leighham Court Road, South London between Streatham and Tulse Hill Stations. In those days there was a live track and trains passing through every 5mins or so. Egged on by my past, I stopped whinging and just entered it’s dark depths with my meagre mobile light showing me the way along its wall. The tunnel was long and seemed to continue on forever. The bend in the tunnel turned almost 90º and turning this corner opened the light into this solemn structure. In its centre, it was pitch black and cold. The walls were solid stone slabs giving it a sturdy strength. Emerging from it, I was deafened by the noise of wildlife around me. Insects and birds welcomed me with their screech and song. I was glad to be out of that and feel a buzz of triumphalism.

The tunnel behind me.

Emboldened after having overcome two unexpected huge hurdles. I was still cautious as to what else this trail could put in my way. The walk, for now, was blissful. It seemed like another world from that that I left behind on the other side of the tunnel. I was walking amongst hillside fields, the weather was warmer and fruit trees spanned the tracks. It was as if I passed through the wardrobe into Narnia, another world. Thinking back upon it now. It was probably that bend in the tunnel that brought the trail back into the sun. Never the less, it was blissful and I felt good about what lay ahead.

The landscape seemed to place me in a Burmese setting. The bamboo (Guaduas) growing and the structures that were made of bamboo along with the banana tree leaves and elevation of the track above the surrounding ground. It was reminiscent of scenes from the film, The Bridge Over the River Kwai. I could have just imagined an Asian lady carrying a traditional yoke on the same trail as me. Not since that last bridge some five miles back had I seen a person on the same trail. There were beautiful houses. The depth of the valley seemed to be moving away from me as the land was becoming more level.

The wildlife up until this point consisted of very beautiful sprightly birds. They were so quick I found it impossible to photograph them. They just would not stay still for long enough. Now, however, I caught a glimpse a bird called the Cattle Egret. A stalk bird that I had only ever seen before in Avery at London Zoo (See my previous post of Colombian Animals at London Zoo.). It was like seeing an old friend again. There were dozens of them and they were free.

The Cattle Egret Bird.

Reaching a series of elaborate twists and turns with more small bridges skirting away from the relatively small hill I was climbing, it was obvious that engineers and builders put great effort into ensuring the line could overcome this ascent. Nowadays there are a series of houses built within the boundaries of these curved tracks. They make good stepping stones to build upon up the side of the hill. At the top of the hill was the most beautiful of stations along the way. Small and quaint. It is telling that locals had some pride in this little outpost of the country’s railway. The station seemed to have a small business selling drinks from its rear cargo sheds. Stretching on from the station the area was used as a cattle herder. Made me think that perhaps cattle were transported by rail in the old days. But I rather suspect the place now is just a good open place to heard animals and transport them from there by trucks instead. The old water tower was painted with a beautiful mural depicting what I think are local features including a waterfall and a steam engine itself. It also made the loud claim of “Bienvenidos a Namay”, Welcome to Namay.

The Namay station water tower.

The best feature of this station is the bell. Now, the bell had the year 1814. If this is indeed true and taken as the age of the station’s building or at least the railway line itself. That would place this as a colonial structure and engineering feat. An amazing fact that I hadn’t even suspected upon setting off on this journey. That would put this railway as being in use in the same period as when Napoleon abdicated unconditionally to be exiled to Elba. Or the year when The Times was printed for the first time using a steam press, making it available to the masses. It’s also the year that the first Colman’s mustard was made. I still can’t quite believe it and would love to hear from anyone who can confirm this year or correct it me if it is indeed wrong.

From here it was a long sweep around the opening ridge of this valley that I was in. There was no real elevation gain at all and I followed with ease this trail still as if I were in a South East Asian landscape. Sadly things were not as pleasant as they seemed. After passing two previous barriers, I met the first impassable block to my progress along the train line. I could see the path setting off into the distance without me. But the way was made impassable by long grass, weed and bushes. If I had taken my machete, then I would have had a chance. Still, I didn’t know for how much longer the situation progressed on for. The greatest fear about attempting to stick to this leg of the trail was the real possibility of the presence snakes and other venomous creatures. I begrudgingly had to circumvent this stretch of track.

The detour took me along easy country roads that ran parallel to the train line. I stopped at a shop that was basically someone’s home and had a drink whilst contemplating how and when I could rejoin the tracks. Moving on it seems that private property consumed the rail line or at least blocked every access of me getting back to business with my line. The situation continued thankfully for not all too long until I passed an area called Tabago. At one point I turned a corner and to my surprise, I spotted another beautiful, although derelict station. Passing some cattle that were grazing over the station tracks. I soon found out that this station was the prestigious Estación Sasaima. I gave it the once over and established quickly that it was in the same abandoned state as the Bagazal station from back at the start of my journey.

Grand Sasaima Station.

After bidding my adieus to this station, I made haste towards the mighty interdepartmental highway, that stretches from Bogotá back to my starting town of Villeta and then on to Honda and the cities beyond, right the way to the Colombian Caribbean coast. I came to reach the first bridge that crosses a road and in this case, it was the aforementioned road that would carry me now up to my goal, Alban. The track skirted off over the road and carried on alongside me. Now, it wasn’t such a rural trek any longer. I was travelling a road that nowadays forms the arteries of Colombia. I was on the winning adversary to my dear train line of old. This was the beast that Colombians chose over my romantic train line. How could I do this? Asking myself. Tainting my soul by betraying my humble and unhonourable friend. Choosing the dirty road that killed all hope for railway travel. This was something I had to live with. In a way, I was paying homage to an honourable contender for the people’s traffic. A contender that freely won the purpose and enterprise of all the millions of Colombian journies. In truth, As I progressed to the goal the track never left me. It followed me like a loyal companion, snaking either side and passing the road under me.

The railway trail that would call to me at every turning taking me away from the highway.

At every opportunity, I would join the train tracks to used its easier gradient to lift me to the Ziel. My friend carried me softly upwards. Whereas the harsh road and its deafening trucks would ward me off back to the humble tracks. This jostling took me above the 2000m peak until Alban was well within grasp.

Reaching the maximum height at which I could peer back over the land I surveyed on foot, I took a seat on a think concrete traffic barrier to try to contemplate exactly what I had accomplished. By this point, however, there wasn’t much time left. Wanting to get this done and dusted before sundown. With only one hour left, I had to get a move on. Back to my tired feet, I pushed onwards and upwards.

The view back over to where I came from.

There was to be just one more station that I would pass and there it stood, on the ridge turning into the outskirts of Alban. The station’s name is Estación Chuguacal. It was a non-event. It now seems to be a private house and gated off. Dismissing it I climbed the last hill that would take me to a Brio petrol station advertising a 24hrs supermarket. By this point, I was suffering the multiple effects of the altitude, breathlessness, dizziness and pins and needles in my fingertips. I looked forward to getting some snacks. It was closed! I used their toilet and then cooled myself down with the water tap. Taking a deep breath I navigated the streets seeking to hold hands again with the train tracks. Finding them we turned the very last corner to see the glorious Alban station. A sight to behold. Shining from its triumphant refurbishment only a few years before (even though some plaster was missing from it already). It was a beautiful sight indeed. To see the station and the Bogotá Sabana behind it with no other hill or mountain between. Approaching closer and feeling humbled by the occasion, I could hear the notes of a band playing! Could it be that the town caught word of an intrepid traveller from the lowlands making the epic journey by foot up to see their town? Were they laying on a welcoming parade for me? I thought. Edging closer, paying my respects to the station’s Virgin Mary I had come face to face with the building. I realise the music playing was the local band merely practising for a nationwide celebration of classical music. An event that is to be coincidentally held in Villeta later this year. The very same town I set off from!

Mission accomplished. Alban Station.

Tired and thirsty, I sat in the grass behind the station as the sun set. Recorded my last podcast piece for the journey and gave my feet a well-deserved rest. I had no idea how significant this journey would be for me nor its significance in integrating me into Colombia. After doing this, which many locals now think I am crazy for having even attempted, I feel that I am even more impressed with Colombia. I passed scenery, dangers, communities that were separated, linking individual paths to make this grand trek to one significant goal. It was all because of the forgotten Railway of Colombia. Its greatness seems to be living on.

The Sequential Photo Reel

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The All Important Stats

It was never about racking up the stats but there is no denying that upon reviewing what actually took place was well beyond my original expectations. Punching in a google search from Villeta to the target town of Alban gives a misleading distance of a mere 17.27 miles / 27.8 kilometres. In actual fact, the purpose was the following of the now abandoned railway of Colombia’s tracks. Due to the simple fact that trains needed to climb altitudes at subdued angles of ascent the engineers had to plot a route that offers a gradual increase in elevation. This took me miles and miles off of aforementioned Google directions. In the end. With the help of my GPS log, I realised that I had in fact clocked up an astonishing 36.56 miles/58.84 kilometres!

The next shock to the system was the time it took to complete the stretch. I would just like to make clear that, I was in nowhere in a rush to complete this quickly. Despite dogs making me walk with haste from time to time, I feel that I was trekking at an easy pace that was below my average. I had also been stopping often to take photos and videos and recordings for my podcast. Google directions for a walking route roughly along the train line, put it to take 7 h 30 mins. Again having to follow the tracks, meant me taking a fair bit longer than expected here as well. Despite leaving Villeta just before 7 am, I was complete at the lofty Alban by just before sunset at 6 pm. That’s a total of 11hrs at an average speed of 3.32mph / 5.35 kmph or 1.48 meters a second!

The most spectacular statistical achievement from this for me as been the stunning climb in altitude. From 790m / ‪2591f elevation at the base of Villeta to the elevation of 2221m / ‪7286f that’s a fair difference of 1431m / ‪4694f. What adds to the sense of achievement is not only the height reach at the goal but actually, now much height was gained by foot along the entire stretch. It wasn’t merely the achievement of climbing a continues ascent of 1431m, taking into account a decrease in elevation with dips in the trail of 1087m / ‪3566f, the actual elevation climb totalled an astounding 2523m / ‪8277f! That’s a higher climb than my Germany’s highest mountain the Zugspitze. Which is also a year round glacial mountain.

Please take a look at the statistical imagery above as well as the map bellow offering visual comparisons to some of this data. The map is also available over at Google Maps. Here is a .kml file for Google Earth. For anyone else wishing to undertake this, I have uploaded my GPS log to Wikiloc as ID 18544751. You can download it, walk it and review it. Please let me know if you intend to embark on this amazing journey yourself.

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Recommendation

Would I recommend this to others? Yes, I would but there are some serious caveats and I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone. There are a number of aspects. Safety being one but not the main negative as some might have expected. While we are on safety let me just get this one out of the way. The trail is safe (in my opinion), structurally and environmentally just be careful of any possible falling stones and rocks. You won’t need to balance on a single train rail to cross a gorge. Nothing Indiana Jones style like that. For anyone knew to Colombia concerned about kidnapping I understand that this would be the perfect place to snatch a gringo hostage. There are no illegal groups that I know of in the area. Then again I didn’t really check. Needless to say, I haven’t seen or read any negative reports from this area that would concern me. Don’t even think about undertaking this if you are not fit and healthy. Also, if you do not have a passion for walking, the historic nature of this line or a love for the countryside, I would say you should just leave it as it would turn out to be a very boring arduous trek instead.

Taking into account everything I have just stated, I would like to highlight the only danger that seriously impacted my enjoyment. Beware of the dogs! It is common place in rural Colombia to have guard dogs and vicious ones at that. Throughout the whole length, I kept a strong but agile stick and a few rocks from under the tracks’ sleepers to fend off any dogs. Although I was not bitten, I came very close to being bitten twice out of a number of encounters with vicious guard dogs. One was well away from the property’s boundary in a very remote part of the trail and was fended away with a single smack to the dog’s nose. The other close one was on the near approach to Alban on the main interdepartmental road. The dog charged me and I was forced to cross the road (being careful of traffic too). Dogs do not tend to cross this type of heavy road. On top of the advised stick and stones if you are threatened by a dog, keep moving away from it slowly trying not to face them or run. They are guard dogs and perceive the land that you are on as theirs and will be content with you moving away off of it. On top of this have a trekking buddy with you. Not just for safety but more so for the company.

I would recommend this Trek for people living in Colombia and looking for something really quite different and spectacular. This is an undertaking that even locals in my town couldn’t believe that I undertook. Remember many people live in the countryside day in day out. They do not see the novelty in doing something so arduous. If you are visiting Colombia on a tight timeframe it’s less advisable. But if you are indeed interested and would like some specific advice please contact me directly or leave a comment here for all to see. I will get back to all questions promptly.

Watch Walking the Abandoned Railway of Colombia Video

To be published on the 5th of August (2017) at this link and embedded below. It is an epic-length video that documents almost each and every turn on this awe-inspiring journey up through the Colombia Andes. It also provides my changing thoughts and perceptions along the journey towards the ultimate goal. Please subscribe to my YouTube channel to be notified of this video’s publishing and for future relevant videos by myself.

Listen to the Walking the Abandoned Railway of Colombia Podcast

Below is a shorter offering from my Inverted Podcast series. It offers additional commentary and is shorter in length than the featured video above. It contains a multitude of SoundScapes taken through the journey. I hope that listeners will find this of particular interest as recording these sounds endearing at their moments for me. A little note. If you find this interesting and might like to listen again in the future, I advise that you download the audio file now as all episodes will elapse and become unavailable.