Describing a place that is indescribable, by definition, is pretty difficult. When people ask you to talk about Santorini, lets say, during sunset, or maybe Ha Long Bay in Vietnam, oftentimes its very hard to put those feelings and thoughts into words. Trying to sum up the sights, smells, emotions, all of the senses into a sentence or two, it seems like “it was incredible” or “so amazing” is the best you can do. The people listening are then usually quite disappointed by your answer and will either change the subject back to the weather and Game of Thrones, or walk away from you with a frown on their faces and mutterings under their breath. Sometimes describing the surreal and magical is just plain tough.
That said, I’m going to try my best to describe Minca and Casa Elemento, an area and a hostel that approach the closest thing to perfection that I’ve experienced. I’ve had my fair share of heavenly locales, from the jungle retreat of Pai in Northern Thailand and the temple town of Bagan in Myanmar, to the windswept Moroccan Sahara and the plains of the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa. These are all places that I’ve struggled to leave when it was my time to go. They are places that, through a mixture of natural beauty, beautiful locals, and local homespun fun, have become cemented in my heart as my favorite places.
However, at this point in the story, back in Colombia, I was still recovering slightly from my encounter with a deadly seafood pasta in Taganga. After a full night’s rest, I was feeling marginally better and managed to inhale a large breakfast before taking a taxi with the Germans Nina and Alexandra back into Santa Marta. I wished them good luck and promised to try and meet up in Medellin. They shrugged on their backpacks and headed off towards Tayrona National Park while I searched for my colectivo to Minca. A colectivo is like a van, but instead of seats the back is made of benches that would be comfortable to an average sized ten-year-old, but for anyone over five feet proved to be a strenuous journey. I was crammed into the back with a few westerns and a few Colombians, ten of us stuffed into the van like we were ingredients in a particular overfilled empanada.
After a few minutes of lashing our backpacks to the top of the van (and praying his knots held up so I wouldn’t have to see most of my possessions fly off the roof of a car and plunge into the jungle), we took off down the road towards Minca.
And were almost immediately stopped by the police.
A group of six or seven officers, standing around with their hands in their pockets attempting to look busy, had our driver exit the van and endure a long line of questioning. We didn’t hear what was being said, but once the driver came back, pulled out an envelope and took out several bills and returned to the police, we figured a bribe was most likely going down. We had no idea what he had done wrong, but alas, that’s working with the police in Colombia. Once the money was exchanged, however, our driver took off down the road, turned the corner, and was gone. Everyone in the van, Colombians and westerners alike, were wondering where he went, and was gone so long the German man next to me was beginning to seriously consider hopping into the front and driving the damn thing himself. Luckily, moments later, the driver returned, bringing with him six or seven glasses and a few liters of Coca Cola. We stared open mouthed as he left the soda with the police, sprinted back to the car and drove off, the cops clinking their glasses in the background. The Colombians began chuckling at this, and the driver grunted his disapproval. I’ve seen bribery done before, but getting someone to go get you a cold Cola was a power play like I’d never seen.
Nevertheless, we found our way to Minca and left the driver to stew in his own disappointment and frustration. After driving an hour south from Santa Marta through the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, Minca appeared quite suddenly, a small oasis of huts and stone buildings in the middle of the jungle. Built around two roads that intersect near a roaring river, Minca is home to a number of hostels, quirky restaurants, hole-in-the-wall bars, and a large population of hippie-esque backpackers. During my one hour in town I saw at least a dozen folks with dreadlocked hair, ukulele’s strung across their chests and walking barefoot down the crumbing dirt streets. I don’t like to judge, but if I had to guess any of their names I would have said Rain or Oak or Cauliflower, something like that.
I was staying in Casa Elemento, a hostel not actually located in Minca. It lies high above town in the hills, either a thirty-minute motorbike ride or a two hour hike up through the jungle. After my sardine like colectivo ride I was more than happy to walk. The town begins to spread out thinly as you head north, and within minutes is lost into the jungle, the stone buildings being replaces by huge trees and thick underbrush. It was a hot day, and almost immediately I was soaked in sweat, looking like I had just jumped into a foul smelling pool and then decided to go for a lovely jungle stroll.
As I attempted to cross a river that streamed over the road I found myself chatting with a family also hiking up the hill, however they were doing it just for fun rather than for necessity. The Ochoa family, from Barranquilla, a coastal town a few hours from Santa Marta, was on vacation in Minca and were fantastic to talk to. Jose, the father, regaled with me stories from the area while his kids behind him chuckled at his tour guide like qualities. Jose was a mountain biker and often rode down the hill we were climbing. Imagining it now, that must have been absolutely terrifying, it was less of a road and more of a large dirt channel punctuated by stone outcroppings and the random river. It made the roads in Taganga look like the Autobahn.
During our two hour hike he told me an incredible amount of facts about the area. We talked about the Arabica coffee that was grown in this part of the country and how proud Colombians were of their strain. He told me a story of an Italian hiker who attempted to cross the 15,000 + foot mountains of the Sierra Nevada and was stricken with illness near the top. A native tribe took him in and a helicopter was called to rescue him from the mountain. However, technical problems arose and the chopper wasn’t able to lift again, and was left there permanently. The native tribe began taking apart the helicopter to use its parts, eventually outfitting the tail as a bridge to cross a particularly aggressive river. I assume the Italian man found another way down.
For a while I talked with Jose’s son, who coincidentally was also named Jose. Travel was brought up, and both he and I shared a similar interest in seeing the world and exploring, and attempting to find that proper balance between living a “normal” life and being a nomad. He brought up a quote he attributed to Jose Mujica, the former President of Uruguay, who said something to the effect of “when people buy a thing, they forget they aren’t buying that thing with money, but rather with the time it took to make that money.” It was a lovely sentiment, so much so that I felt the need to write it down.
Along with the Jose’s were Valentina and Camilla, who I didn’t talk to very much but both seemed like lovely ladies. The whole crew often went to Miami, and were perfectly pleasant hiking companions. They seemed impressed that I was able to keep up with them while shouldering my travel backpack, and I’m glad I was able to distill the stereotype that all Americans are overweight and food obsessed. However, when talking about a delicious brown rice snack, kind of like a Quaker Rice Cake but Colombian, they offered me one of their packs to try. After watching me wolf down the entire pack in a few seconds, I’m sure the stereotype of American eating habits came roaring back.
Near the end of the hike, past fields of coffee and waterfalls, towering trees and chirping birds and just a little bit of rain, I arrived at the hostel and bid the Ochoa’s goodbye. The family wanted to make sure they were down by sunset, and they promised to drive up the next day to check out the hostel. Even the local Colombians had heard of this place. I walked down the small driveway and checked into my room, descended the stairs, and was nearly blown off my weary feet by what unfolded in front of me.
Casa Elemento, as I said, is situated high above the towns of Minca and Santa Marta, nestled into the edge of a cliff with rolling mountains on all sides. A pool and bar are set up next to the main dorm building, and a grassy lawn runs towards the edge of the ridge, passing by the bathrooms, campfire, and most importantly, two massive hammocks, each able to accommodate up to ten people. Other travelers were lounging on it already, watching the sun dip down behind the distant peaks surrounded by the evening fog. It was truly a spectacular sight, and one that photos really struggle to capture. The smell of the mountain forest, the crispness in the air, all combined made it truly breathtaking.
However, what also made it literally breathtaking was the fact I had just walked up a mountain for two and a half hours. Parched beyond belief I ran to the bar to get an ice cold Coca Cola. Next to me were two others who had just arrived, Jakob and Chris. The bartender, an Aussie named Jordan, came over to us.
“Could I just grab a Coke?”
He looked at me funny, shrugged, and poured me one. The two next to me ordered beers and eyed me from the side.
“Enjoying your brown sugar water?” Jake said.
I paused in mid gulp. “Yeah, its amazing.”
Jake and Chris laughed. “Typical American.”
They weren’t wrong I suppose, and we struck up a friendship.
Chris and Jake had met earlier in their trip and had become close friends, deciding to travel together for a spell, brought together by dry European humor and a fondness for beer. Jake was from Germany and Chris was from Holland, so once again I was being inundated with Dutch people. Jake was from Hanover specifically, and after saying I’ve heard of it, he encouraged me to tell him where in fact Hanover is. I believe it was my seventh guess (near Hamburg?) that I finally got close. Later in our room we met Isla the Brit (pronounced Eye-La, she just didn’t have time for the S) and later at dinner we met Ayanna (also from Netherlands, was there anyone under thirty left in the country?), and Kandice (from Philly, no explanation needed). Soon all of us were hanging together on the massive hammocks underneath the twinkling stars, letting the cool mountain air waft over our city wearied bodies. Far below us Minca sparkled, an oasis of light in the dark jungle. Staring out into the dusky mist, letting the soft sway of the hammock soothe my tired bones, I felt incredibly at peace.
There is one more thing about Casa Elemento. The place is jam packed with dogs, some being pets of the owners and some just being random guests. They all had names of their own, but Jake and Chris and I decided to rename all of them, much to the consternation of Jake’s high school friend (who happened to be at the hostel at the same time without either knowing, talk about small world). Therefore, at the hostel is a small tan dog named Freddie, a shaggy dog named Louis, a cat (we included her be nice) named Beatrice, and a black one named Nelson.
For most of the evening, Chris, Jake, Ayanna and I decided to remember and recall Nelson’s entire history on this Earth. I believe it started with him running off after dinner and someone saying he was on his way to a date. It only went on from there, eventually leading us to recall his history as an Israeli secret agent who once fought his wife, former lover, and ex KGB agent on the roof of the Kremlin, his mission to kill Osama bin Laden, his knowledge of who shot JFK, his chance to buy Amazon but eventually declining, and the fact that he has died twice. But don’t worry, he’s fine. For hours, and by that I literally mean hours, we fondly recalled his entire past, and because I am a man of my word, a post in the future will be solely devoted to remembering Nelson’s life, legacy, and legend (coincidently the titles of his future trilogy of biographies).
Minca and Casa Elemento, for me, epitomize why traveling alone can be an amazing experience. In one day, I trudged up a mountain but met a great family along the way who regaled me with tales of the area. Then I met an amazing group of travelers, and despite the fact none of us knew we existed mere hours ago, were soon becoming incredibly close and having a wonderful time together. We are all just a bunch of twenty something’s out exploring the world and seeing what adventures it had to offer. Did we know what our futures or careers were going to be? No way in hell. Jakob just got his masters in Law and now is thinking he wants to become a foreign diplomat. We have no idea what we want, and we’ve decided our way to discover what we want is to strap on a backpack and discover it on the road. We’re Millennials, dammit, that’s just what we do.
On The Next Episode of The Wandering Minnesotan: Gecko Walls and Waterfalls