BOGOTA — Every Sunday, thousands of people take over the streets of Bogota. But it's not the familiar scene of protest, which in Colombia can often end in brick-tossing and tear gas. Instead, Bogota's young and old get on bicycles or roller blades and hit the road. It's the Ciclovia - or cycle way - Bogota's day of rest and recreation.
"It's a beautiful thing. The world usually only sees the bad things about Bogota," says John Alexander Rodriguez, a university student.
Every Sunday morning, about 50 miles of Bogota's normally chaotic avenues are closed to motor traffic. From 7 a.m. to 2 p.m., the streets are filled with people of all ages, social classes, and physiques. At several designated parks along the route, huge stages are erected for free aerobics classes, led to a Latin dance beat by Bogota's bounciest instructors.
"In a country of so much violence and chaos, it's a moment of civility," says Guillermo Penalosa, director of Bogota's Institute of Sports and Recreation. Introduced as a one-day event in the 1970s, the Ciclovia was an instant success with residents. It was made a regular Sunday program in 1982.
"But it used to be very disorderly. Cars would enter - the crossings were very dangerous," Mr. Penalosa says.
The Ciclovia really took off in 1996 with the support of Bogota's mayor, Antanas Mockus. Mayor Mockus turned control of the Ciclovia over to Penalosa, tripled the number of streets used, and expanded into the poor, southern part of Bogota.
"In the poorer neighborhoods in the south of the city there are less alternatives for recreation, less parks, less clubs. There was obviously more need in the south," Penalosa says.
Elizabeth Sanchez has jogged up from just such a neighborhood in the south, alongside her cycling eight-year-old niece, Joanna.
"It's very safe. Of course the kids fall off their bikes, but what can you do?" says Ms. Sanchez. She chuckles that this stretch of road would usually be jammed with cars and choked with exhaust.
On the other side of the curb Monica Arrieta and Jamie Rodriguez, a couple in their late teens, stand arm in arm over two stylish mountain bikes. They are both well dressed, as if prepared to hop off their bikes and step into one of Bogot's fancy restaurants. They've rolled almost 100 blocks down from their homes in Bogot's affluent north to exercise and visit with friends.
The Ciclovia may be the only time when such disparate groups mix in Bogota. Penalosa explains that Colombia is a very segregated society, where citizens sit separated by social class and wealth even at public events like bullfights and soccer games.
"It's like the beach - it doesn't matter how much money you have. Whether you're riding a $2,000 bike or a $20 bike you can have just as much fun," says Penalosa, whose mountain bike rests in the corner of his office. "Bogota has no beach, but we've got the Ciclovia."
Penalosa met some difficulty at first in finding enough volunteers to wake up at 4 a.m. to set up the Ciclovia. But then he hit on a marketing strategy.
"We stole the idea from the TV show 'Baywatch' and advertised for 'Ciclovia-watch.' We got a mountain of applicants," he says.
Another recent innovation is the Ciclomisa - a church service performed in Bolivar Park. As many as 2,000 people ride, roll, or jog into an open air cathedral.