SANTA MARTA, COLOMBIA – July 25TH 2017. I was traveling alone on my birthday two years pas, looking forward to arriving in Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast, a city highly recommended by most guidebooks and travel websites as a must-see when visiting Northern Colombia. Paying just US$41 for the short flight from Bogotá, I was buoyant with the vision of kicking my feet up on the beach, mojito in hand. What I found instead was trash, noise, immense heat, and general unease. There I sat in the city square – empty but for some beggars and ice cream vendors — staring dejectedly at the grimy, noisy city. I knew I needed an immediate a change of scenery if I were to save the memory of the day marking my 24th year on the planet.
Sitting about 15 km south of the city of Santa Marta in what was up until a decade or so ago a dangerous area full of paramilitary groups, the town of Minca is a steadily growing hub of ecotourism and adventure travel. Eager to escape from the city, I took a leaf out of a fellow traveler’s itinerary and boarded a commuter bus to Minca, unsure of what to expect, but hoping if nothing else to get out into nature to recover from the disappointment I suffered that morning in Santa Marta.
As my van steamed its way up the winding mountain roads towards the town, I raced against the failing cell reception to nail down a booking via Hostelworld in one of the many charming hostels and hotels that populate the area. I arrived 45 minutes later, and after stepping off the bus my mood improved by the second – the memories of an unpleasant morning in the city fading away like sunset on the equator.
COLOMBIA’S SLEEPY LITTLE HIDDEN GEM
Whether you plan on enjoying the splendor of the jungle from a 4 star hotel veranda sipping an organic Colombian coffee, or getting down and dirty in one of the more adventure-focused hostels, there is accommodation to suit you. I stayed at Casa Relax, closer to town than the aforementioned hotels but for a quarter of the price. The truth is that all of the choices offer something unique and lovely, whether it’s a giant hammock swinging out over the edge of a mountain, a treehouse, or access to free flowing jungle rivers to splash around in.
Minca has an attitude all its own – an attitude of relaxation, of shedding layers and standing naked under the waterfall of Colombia’s natural splendor. The town is populated by friendly people from all over Colombia – all over the world, who get caught in the web of charm spun by the beautiful mountain range they inhabit. Take Mr. Duncan, a Londoner who arrived in the country to visit four years prior to my own arrival and never left; choosing instead to set up a hostel of his own – La Fuenta, where the more adventure-prone traveler can sleep out in traditional thatched huts, or take Mr. Duncan’s jungle survival classes in the great green classroom which surrounds his abode.
That night the owner of Casa Relax, Santiago, and all the other guests surprised me with a birthday cake and a bottle of Aquardiente, an absinthe-like spirit Colombians traditionally drink to finish a meal. I was over the moon as three Frenchmen, an Austrian bloke, two Colombians and I celebrated the complete 180 turn my special day had taken.
THE JUNGLE LIFE IS THE GOOD LIFE
I began the next morning by washing the drunken cobwebs from my head in the hostel’s pool fed by the evening’s rain water. The Austrian fellow, Bertie, was the hearty mountaineering sort. He and I resolved to take the trek up the main mountain road to Los Pinos – a hostel centered in a clump of spindly pines on the summit of a low-lying peak.
Under our steady feet the miles fell away with ease and after a few steep hours we broke the level of the clouds which clung to the richly forested mountain tops. On the way, we stopped to enjoy some of the local attractions like Cascada Marinka and Pozo Azul – a pair of majestic waterfalls which served perfectly to lift my spirits even higher, and wash the sweat from my clothes.
From the hostel at the top of the mountain, gazing down into the swirling mists of water vapor rising on morning updrafts from the evaporation down in the lowland jungles, we were served some dirty coffee as we sat and discussed the tumults of the traveler’s life. I was made to feel, if ever so briefly, like Anthony Bourdain, Ernest Hemingway, or Colin Thubron, wisely ruminating over the meat of their next book. That night, after the climb down, I relaxed in the pool with the other guests, my belly full of Lomo de Carne and Tomal from a local restaurant.
It never occurred to me in all the time I spent in Minca that I was entirely without internet access, I was too busy having fun out in the rain forest, or relaxing on the couch with a book whilst the mountain breeze came in through the windows to kiss the sweat at my brow and neck. I was living like so many people talk about doing in today’s globally-connected society, ‘off the grid,’ and I hadn’t even noticed.
“Since time never stops, the only markers of too much or too little are based entirely on circumstance,” Mr. Duncan said to me the following night over curry at La Fuenta, and having already experienced two days of the care-killing power which Minca possessed, I couldn’t have agreed with him more.
TURNING IT UP TO ELEVEN
The following morning I departed with my backpack on the 12 mile hike from Minca town center to Cerro Kennedy, one of the highest peaks in the range. At just over ten-thousand feet above sea level, it’s as high as one can climb without entering the National Park of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – which requires government permission to access.
The trek required every minute of daylight and was like hiking up a 7 layer cake – each layer resulting in a change of ecosystem of no small degree. On my way to the summit, I passed clear-cut tropical groves of banana and coffee, steamy jungles, and cloud forest, before reaching a mist-shrouded world of stunted, wind-blown shrubs, high altitude palms, and pine trees. 2017 was a big year in bird-watching for me, but I did not see much in the way of wildlife on the long trek up even though Cerro Kennedy sits within the El Dorado National Bird Sanctuary. Almost sensing my discontent, Minca and the jungle provided again. Walking back to my camp site just after sunset, the dark avian shadow of a massive bird – a black and chestnut eagle, passed over me at a height I could have reached with a jump had I been able to break the spell of disbelief which rooted me to the ground.
Two days later I would be back on a plane to Bogotá to continue my trip across the remarkable country. But nothing I saw or did for the remainder of my stay could hold a candle to that glorious little town, the wonderful people I met, or the kingdom of natural grandeur that is the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.
I learned a lot in Colombia, but more than anything else Minca taught me that despite the world’s reliance on travel publications and guides to aid in the meandering across foreign lands, travel is intensely personal, and that one should be careful about relying on the narratives of others when it’s often the unexpected, the unplanned, and the unlooked-for which write the best stories across our journeys.