Traveling is an absurd amount of fun. One day, you are at your parent’s house in Southwest Florida, sitting on the couch watching YouTube videos and snacking on stale tortilla chips while attempting to suppress sobs of boredom. The hours’ drift by like a thick fog, days merging into each other until before you know it you’ve been home for over a week and have done nothing substantial with your life. Two weeks later, however, you can suddenly find yourself on top of a mountain in the Colombian hillside, drinking beers on a hammock, under the sparkling stars and suspended over the jungle with ten new best friends. It’s a hell of a 180-degree shift, but one that takes the Fun-O-Meter from a two all the way up to an eleven.
But with that fun comes a bit of exhaustion as well. So many new friends mean so many full days of adventure, nights of partying and drinking, and hours of sleep given away to midnight jam sessions or club dance floors. For example, when I was lucky enough to be in Myanmar during my Semester at Sea, I slept a grand total of six hours. That’s six hours over five nights, an average that even Leonardo di Vinci, a notoriously light sleeper, would scoff at in Italian as he returned to his contraptions. But it didn’t matter, because instead of sleep, I went to a Burmese night club, smoked cheroots at Inle Lake, attended a 21st birthday party in Bagan, stayed up for a sunrise surrounded by temples, and managed to turn 22 myself. Will I probably die a bit earlier than most because of these shenanigans? Probably. But honestly I would trade a few years in my late eighties (knock on wood) for adventures today.
Which is how, for nearly the fifth night in a row, I drank a bit too much and stayed up a bit too late. I told Jake and Chris, my new friends in Minca, that today was the day I became responsible and went to bed early. They laughed directly into my face, clapped me on the back, and wished me luck on that endeavor.
But first, I had a full day of adventuring to attend to. The crew from the previous night crawled out of bed at a fairly reasonable nine a.m. and met up at breakfast, where for only 7,000 COP you were greeted with eggs, bacon, toast, sausage, and fresh Colombian coffee. Casa Elemento was fast becoming my favorite hostel in the world. The food was top class, the view was unbeatable, and the small army of dogs that roamed the grounds made the dogsled enthusiast in me beyond happy.
Throughout last night and into the morning, our group had begun to absorb more members, much like a hungry amoeba, until we had eight travelers ready to see what the mountains had to offer. It was myself, Jake, Chris, Ayanna, Kandice, Isla, and a Swedish couple whose names escape me and never made it into my notes, so for the story today we’ll call them Mikael and Lisbeth (Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the only Swedish book I’ve read, just to note they are not a pair of emotional complicated, crime solving sleuths that moonlight as a journalist and a world class computer hacker). Our team strapped on backpacks and began our trek to Pozo Azul, a renowned waterfall in the area.
For reference, the Sierra Nevadas, the mountain range we found ourselves in, stretches extremely high in its southern section, with some peaks cresting 15,000 feet and snow capped year round. Minca, the small collection of buildings that might be considered a town to some, lies closer to the bottom of the foothills. A circular road goes east and west, eventually meeting near the top of the hills and creating a lovely ring for travelers to use to get around the area. There were a few waterfalls, a brewery, and a view lookout points near the top. Pozo Azul, the waterfalls we all lusted after, were located on the east side of the loop, about an hour up the road from Minca. Looking at a map, we assumed that it would be much faster to travel from our hostel, located near the top of the ring, directly to Pozo Azul, rather than walk all the way to Minca and then another hour up to the falls. Our hostel offered Jeep rides there and back, but the 80,000 COP price tag scared away most of us, leading our large crew to begin trekking down the dirt roads en masse on foot.
After forty-five minutes of nearly straight uphill, we were exhausted, the sun beginning to bake us from the inside out. Another hostel, situated high above Casa Elemento, displayed a sign offering free water refills and fresh fruit. Even though our hike had just begun, we sprinted into the place and cooled off with glasses of fresh squeezed lulu juice. The workers, an extremely outdoorsy man from Kansas and a woman from somewhere in Europe, informed us that our trek to Pozo Azul would take at least three hours from their hostel, one way. We started at each other in horror. There wasn’t a single person that seemed keen on it.
So instead, we retreated. Like any good general will tell you, retreats are sometimes the most efficient way to a victory. We took that to heart and turned around, instead destined for Marinka Falls, located only an hour from our hostel. Marinka Falls, while not as widely admired, still checked all of our boxes for us, mainly cold water rushing very quickly off a rock face into a pool. We voted, and descended to Marinka.
The falls were very lovely, a fairly large pool underneath filled with local Colombians. As we arrived we happened to see Jordan the Bartender and Jakob’s high school mate as well, who had cheated somewhat and taken motorbikes down the mountain. The water in the pool was amazingly refreshing after our hike, and standing underneath the roaring stream felt like a shoulder massage from mother nature herself. The local kids, seeing a large group of pale Westerners, decided to make us their playthings, and we spent quite a while fending off underwater attacks and requests to be thrown into the air. I relented to one extremely persistent kid, and I let him jump off my shoulders into the pool. Of course, he decided to dive head first, eliciting screams of “oh shit” from Ayanna and Jakob and myself. The kid surfaced smiling and laughing, but play time came to a necessary end.
After a quick lunch of chicken and beer at the restaurant located next door (there wasn’t a name, so we’ll call it Marinka Chicken Falls Diner, Deli and Pub), we started our ascent back up to Casa Elemento. It was a bit harder than coming down, but we passed the time regaling ourselves with stories of Nelson and our lives back home. Mikael and Lisbeth, I learned, were from Stockholm, but lived in London and taught the history of swing music from the first half of the 20th century. Mikael was actually a swing D.J, a position I should have assumed but never thought about. I can imagine him with huge headphones on scratching the vinyl while Count Basie plays in the background. Mikael had bleached blonde hair, numerous tattoos, and perfectly round spectacles. He and Lisbeth were quite the pair.
Eventually, we arrived back at the hostel and started our night, full of two for one mojitos and cans of Aguila cerveza. The hostel had a set of Rules Jenga, where each block you pull comes with a requirement such as “boys drink,” or “last one to touch the hammock drinks” or “body shots.” I wound up taking a body shot out of Ayanna’s belly button, where most of the rum managed to wind up on her back rather than in my mouth. Clearly it had been a while since I had done one those. One rule, the “gecko wall,” meant that whoever pulled that piece could get out of their seat and make the pose a gecko would make, with the last person to get into the pose drinking. Needless to say, the whole hostel thought we were a bunch of insane lunatics, running around the hostel screaming about geckos and stripping off our tops at one point, but it was still one of the funniest nights I had on the trip.
As the sun set over the mountains and the sky was cast into dark blues and purples, we found ourselves once again on the hammock, listening to music from each others homes and talking about life, love, and Game of Thrones. Life in Minca was incredibly calm, a way to excuse yourself from reality for a moment and calmly return to a sense of ease. Of course, with that comes a bit of drinking, and before the bar closed at eleven we bought a whopping 32 beers from the hostel to keep us occupied until bedtime. The bartender stared open mouthed at me when I placed the order, assuming there was some sort of translation issue. There was not.
Minca and the surrounding foothills gives you a break from the city life, which if you’re not careful can totally consume your travels. Moving from Bogotá to Medellin to Cali and Cartagena, travelers can forget that most of the country is small towns and nature, a small oasis in the sea of jungle and mountains. After a full week of big cities and the sickness of Taganga, Minca was pure paradise. I didn’t really ever want to leave.
Which is what made the next morning so difficult. There was a flight early the next day from Cartagena waiting to take me to Medellin, so that meant leaving my jungle paradise and returning to civilization. I had to say goodbye to my new friends with promises of seeing each other in Medellin or in Europe. I had to pay my tab, which after two nights of partying at the only bar in town (their bar), was a number so high I dropped to my knees in terror at reception. I had to say goodbye to Nelson, who I promise will get a piece of his own. And I had to say goodbye to the wilderness.
I decided to walk back down to Minca so I could get a few more hours of green landscapes and fresh air. I had my music blasting the whole descent, grape vining to Marvin Gaye and belting out songs at full volume despite the confused looks of the passerby’s. I saw a red and black coral snake, which I’m pretty sure could kill me if it cared enough to do so. It was a lovely parting gift.
And then it was back to Minca, back to Santa Marta, and back to Cartagena to prepare for my flight the next day. The bus driver wouldn’t let me on the bus at first, saying I smelled too bad and needed to change my shirt before entering his vehicle. Nothing like a bus driver insulting your body odor to check your ego and make you think about a life a bit more.
I got back to Cartagena and returned to Mamallena, the hostel I was at before, and settle in for a quick night. Scores of travelers meeting for the first time were playing drinking games and chatting at the wooden tables in the patio, laughing and enjoying the hot night’s air. It reminded me of myself just a few days before, but this time I was the one watching from afar, writing on my computer and eating delicious street stall chicken. Sometimes while traveling, its important to take a night off from the revelry and do something by yourself. It can be hard; you feel like you need to join the party and make new friends or else you’re not “doing it right.” But there is not right or wrong when traveling, as long as you do what you want to do, the fun and adventure will follow. And that night, after the week I’d had, I needed to be alone. For a while my only company was a pair of kittens who anxiously watched me eat and occasionally pawed at my hand when it was full of chicken. They didn’t talk much, so they were the excellent dinner companions.
Of course, moments later, a strange European man named Goose, but actually named Gustav, sat next to me and wiped his nose.
“Oy mate, I am not feeling well.”
I stopped typing for a moment. “Oh yeah?”
“Cocaine nose,” he said simply, “it’s been three days and I’m still struggling. A mate told me it took him three weeks once. I can’t fucking believe it.”
“Huh, well, yeah that’s something alright, not what you want.”
He shook his head. “No way, and its so hot here in Cartagena, and so humid, I can’t believe it. Fuck. Anyway, Goose.” And he extended his hand.
Goose went on about his various ailments and annoyances for some time as I tried to politely turn back to my computer and chicken, but the onslaught of concerns kept coming. He might have been one of the unhappiest people I’d ever met while traveling. Nothing seemed to go right for him, and according to him his future looked bleak. But despite all of that he went to the clubs that night on his own and had me wish him luck with the ladies as he left. I hope he had a good time. Meanwhile, I laid in bed and watched Netflix, and I’m not at all ashamed to admit it. That night, well, that one was just for me.
Next Time, on The Wandering Minnesotan: Hernando the Homosexual Pub Crawler