[:en]After 2 weeks of hiding from the sun during the day, and barely emerging at night, we needed a break from the heat. We caught a bus from Taganga heading inland to Minca, whose higher altitudes promised a relief from the Colombian oven we had been baking in.
The ride took only an hour and a half, short by Colombian standards, the little car bumping around as it climbed the foothills surrounding Minca. We didn’t have a place to stay, but it just so happened the guy sitting next to me was one of Hostel managers at a place called Casa Loma. Not knowing what to expect, we followed him back to the hostel. As we clambered up the hill, I glanced at a restaurant on my right and caught a glimpse our friend Michael at the exact moment he registered us. He rushed over with a big grin on his face, “welcome guys, fancy meeting you here!” He invited us to join him and Lolani, a seasoned traveler we met in Tagana, for dinner and a few drinks. First we know no one, then boom out of no where one of those fateful travel moments I have grown to love, the kind that rely on split second encounters & make the world seem a little smaller and friendlier.
After dinner Michael and Lolani helped us with our bags as we struggled up the zigzagging steps to Casa Loma, fatefully the same place they slept. Situated on a steep hill, the hostel abuts the edge of the precipice, affording it an exalted view over the whole Valley. At night, glittering lights like a thousand fireflies marked the city of Santa Marta, an hour and a half drive away.
Casa Loma was a friendly place, with worn wood buildings and low ceilings that mate the setting feel more intimate. We pitched our tent in a wooded plateau just above the main complex. At night the trees were backlit with colored lights to light the way, creating a magical eerie atmosphere at night. The first 2 days were unfortunately almost as hot as the city, but on the third day a thick fog rolled in and bless fully brought the relief we searched for. I felt nostalgic looking at the fog, the familiar shadows it cast and the way the lights played off the saturated blanket. It felt like home, bringing a rush of memories of Karl the Fog blanketing San Francisco with a comforting swath.
We built a bonfire, and as the rules of fires go, soon it was surrounded by people who started singing and playing the drums. We sat by the fire, warming our hands and listening to the enchanting chorus of our comically inebriated musicians. Our friend from Venezuela, Cesar, entertained us with his fire dancing skills, making the fire dance and trace shapes through the air, soliciting bouts of applause and bringing the night to an epic close.
[insert]DSCF4079[/insert]
Aside from our evening campfires and movie nights with Michael and Lolani, we enjoyed the beautiful wooded hills of Minca. It’s a quiet place, touristy but off the main path so you get a mix of locals and other South Americans. The main attraction is Minca’s natural beauty and its many hiking trails that zigzag though the hills. I felt pretty awful during most of our time there so we didn’t exploit the treks like we normally would, but we did walk to the river. It was beautiful, shaded by big moss covered trees; the water was crystal clear and beautifully cold. We spent an afternoon there lounging in the water. Oscar had a spa day, letting the little fish pick away at the dead skin at his back and arms, and laughing as their tiny mouths tickled him.
He wasn’t the only one that got pampered; I splurged (hardly) and got my bracelet fixed. Back in Mexico, I bought a beautiful, simple silver bracelet with a turquoise stone. Unfortunately it kept breaking and all I had left was the stone, stored away for safe keeping in my pack. Cesar, who had been travelling for 6 years, funded his journey through another talent of his: metal work. He took my
stone and hand worked it into a beautiful pendant that I hopefully will lose less than the bracelet.
Overall it was a beautiful, rejuvenating spot with great people. On the day we decided to leave, it started pouring, making the steps slippery and causing us to lose a couple of hours waiting to pass. Even that turned out to be a happy delay; we got to meet a beautiful Colombian couple that convinced us we HAD to go to Venezuela. And just like that, the plan has changed again, next week we will cross the border and see what the notoriously “dangerous” country of South America has to offer.

The 3 short days in Minca only wetted our appetite for nature, so we went directly to Tayrona National Park. We left the majority of our possession’s at a small family run B&B outside of the park, and took only our day-packs, stuffed with camping supplies, food, and a change of clothes.

After a quick breakfast we rushed to the park entrance, eager to arrive early in order to have plenty of time to hike to the campsite. Greeted with a long line of impatient tourists, we looked at each other in surprise. It looked more like Disneyland than the entrance to a national park. Apparently, it was a bank holiday (I have to admit we didn’t even know it was the weekend, pitfall of travelling for extended lengths of time). The crowd was thronged with Colombians, mainly from the capital, escaping the hot overcrowded cities. We couldn’t do anything except wait.

An hour later we finally purchased our tickets and we ushered to the security checkpoint where they searched out bags. Food is expensive in the park so people try to sneak in as much as they can, but alcohol and flammable cooking gas are forbidden. We got off scot-free and paid 3k for a bus to take us further into the park.

After the bus, you either have to hire a horse for 30k or use your own 2 legs. Since the trek was only an hour and we could use the exercise after all the arepas we’d eaten in the last week, we hiked to Arricifes. By the time we crested the last hill, we were drenched in sweat, our clothes sticking to us as we approached the San Andres camping grounds. After finding some blessed shade, we pitched our tent underneath a grove of palm trees only 50 meters from the beach.

We stayed two nights, and the day and a half was filled with magical forest walks and breathtaking snorkeling with thousands of colorful fish. The water was crystalline clear. As I dove underneath the water, the visibility was so far and so crisp I could barely tell I had submerged. The world underneath the surface was bright and colorful, home to countless tropical fish that flitted from rock to rock. The sand glittered like gold, catching the sunlight and reflecting a dancing magical light that caressed my skin.

For the most part, we had the water all to ourselves. There are bays at Cabo and La Piscina, and a few smaller unnamed inlets that are perfectly safe, where we spent hours chasing fish and playing in the turquoise water. However, the current along the unprotected coast is very strong, the waves crashing thunderously. Apparently 100 people have drowned, so most of the coast is marked as a no-swim danger zone. As a result, most people were overly cautious, preferring to stay out of the water all together, leaving the tranquil bays for us to explore.

Next to Cabo bay, we discovered a covered path that hugged the coastline, leading all the way to the last beach. It was less crowded than the others, but had far more skin showing. We enjoyed our first nudist beach of the trip, spending the rest of the afternoon napping in the sand and playing in the calm waves of the sheltered cove.

We only bought one lunch in the park, otherwise we ate canned chili and bought a few cokes to wash it down. Even in the middle of nowhere, Coca Cola has managed to make a steal. We also hauled in the majority of the water we drank, finishing our last drop as we hiked back.

On the way out of the park we took a risk and chose the horse path. Used to transport goods and wealthier campers, it is only ½ an hour, is much shadier, and has only a mild incline. We walked cautiously, staying out of the way of trotting horses and bottleneck hazards. A few close calls later, we made it out the other end, passing the “no people allowed,” sign. Laughing at the surprised look in the horsemen’s faces, we quickly moved away from the incriminating entrance. Nature Check. Camping check. Close calls, check. Always an adventure.

Lodging: Casa Loma
Cost: 13,000 COP (about $5) per person for our own tent, 18,000 COP ($6) for a hammock. Dorms and privates available.
Kitchen: No but they have a restaurant with a very affordable breakfast (4,000-8,000 COP–most dishes we could share), and decently priced lunch and family-style dinner (12,000-15,000 COP).
rating: 5/5

[:]