Minca, Colombia, nests in the Sierra Nevada mountains about 45 minutes outside of Santa Marta. During the 1990’s the pueblo experienced devastation, as it was taken over by a violent group involved in drug trafficking and other dangerous businesses; by 2000 peace was restored, although the town remained under paramilitary control until March of 2006. A few years later, some backpackers finally dared to visit the once-forbidden town. Those first few backpackers fell in love, spread the word about the beautiful oasis they had just found, and in the last few years ecotourism there has boomed.
Our hostel was close to the entrance of town, about a seven-minute walk uphill. While I don’t necessarily recommend it, it certainly lived up to its name: Mar y Monte. In front, we had a view of Santa Marta and the Caribbean Sea (Mar), and out back of the beautiful Sierra Nevadas looming (Monte). It was a fine place to stay at a rate consistent with the other places in town, but was also nothing special aside from the view.
As my friend Natalie and I walked around town, we were struck by how many extranjeros we saw. As a result, the town is definitely different from the pueblos with which we are familiar. Restaurants serve three meals a day and stay open in between. Those meals often include vegetables and are accompanied by hot sauce. Cocktails and cocktail specials can be found at various places throughout town, along with artisenal beer. The price of fritos is a little bit higher.
Yet it still retains its pueblo charm. At night, the best music (in our casi-costeña opinions) was coming from the hole-in-the-wall estadero with the plastic tables and chairs outside. Limes and bananas cultivated in the area are easy to come by at the frutera across the street. Not to mention that arepas rellenas can be found at a place called Donatello, clearly named after the Ninja Turtle.
On our first day in the area, we hiked out to Pozo Azul. About a 45 minute walk one way out of town past several restaurants and hotels, Pozo Azul is a swimming hole at the base of a small waterfall in the Minca River. There are actually supposedly more swimming holes above the one we stopped at, which may have been less occupied, but the path wasn’t clear and we felt comfortable where we were. The water was very cold – mountain river water, after all. A local vendor was there selling candy, cigarettes, and coffee. The coffee was tempting (unsweetened!), but at $1000 COP/cup, was almost double what you get them for here in the city. Luckily, a nice local man who was there with a big group offered us shots of aguardiente that warmed us right up from the inside. On the way back we stopped at one of the little stands, where I had a delicious cup of non-instant coffee and Natalie got a cup of juice.
After a shower and a nap, we headed into town and wandered a bit. We stopped by the school where one of our former colleagues worked and built a library (it wasn’t open) and enjoyed the murals around town before indulging in double dinner AND happy hour. See, we had walked by the arepas sign several times, so decided to get them as an appetizer while we waited for the 5pm happy hour to start where we going to dinner. While we certainly felt pretty guilty eating filled arepas followed by happy hour hamburgers and fries, we were very thankful for the fuel the next day.
Someone at the hostel told us it was about a 3 hour hike up to the hostel called Casa Elemento, known for its giant “hammocks.” She said if we kept walking in the same direction, we’d eventually come back down the Pozo Azul side, making for a 6-8 hour total hike. We – or more accurately I – thought that sounded great. And it did start out great! We walked alongside a creek for much of it, and got to stop at a lovely little spot where we waded and cooled off for a bit. And there are lots of different butterflies everywhere. The only problem is that it just kept going up and up and up and our butts were getting sore.
Finally we made it. We paid the $10,000 COP daily pass to enter, which got us a beverage, access to the hammocks, pool, bar, restaurant, and bathrooms with a view. For about 10 minutes as we lounged in the giant swinging “hammock,” the sun shone brightly and we were almost ready to get in the pool…then the dark clouds rolled in so we just grabbed our beverages instead. Then we got lunch – we both opted for the chicken and veggie wok – and rested up a little more. Right as we filled up our water bottles and got ready to head out, it started sprinkling.
That rain continued almost the entire rest of the trek. And I had misunderstood and thought that Casa Elemento was the top…but instead we continued upward for at least another hour (see the first two pictures above). We hurt everywhere. We kept trying to stay positive – “Look, jungle!” “Isn’t it amazing what our bodies can do?!” – but it was pretty tough. Finally we arrived at Los Pinos, the highest point on the hike…and saw absolutely nothing except the three giant pine trees and the signs marking them. It was nothing special, particularly because it was too cloudy to get any vista. It did, however, mean that we could start our descent.
The descent was actually difficult too. Very much downward, not great for either of our bad knees, and very muddy. PLUS for the last two hours we were walking down with a lot of mountain bikers and mototaxis flying by us. On the positive side, the jungle is absolutely beautiful, and Natalie was brushed by one of those big-as-your-head bright blue butterflies that always flitted by too fast for photos. Oh, and we met someone who would give us a direct ride back to Barranquilla the next day in the comfort of a leather-seated, climate-controlled personal car. High five!
8 kilometers outside of town we started seeing markers that helped us count down our final leg, so obviously we had to take a picture with the 0 sign as we finally made it back to town and to yet another happy hour burger-fry-mojito combo.