On the road in the mountain town of Minca, about a half hour drive from Santa Marta.
  • On the road in the mountain town of Minca, about a half hour drive from Santa Marta.
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It’s not the kind of place that comes to mind when thinking about Colombia, but a little mountain village called Minca gets my vote for best of honors. A slow 17 kilometers up and out of dusty Santa Marta, the route climbs relentlessly through increasingly lush terrain.

Coffee farms cover the hills, which are the preamble to the mighty Sierra Nevada further up — the highest coastal range in the world at almost 4,000 meters (13,123 feet). This road has lots of semi-blind curves where it’s wise to blast the horn if you’ve got one.

After 40 minutes or so, a metal bridge over the Minca River is crossed and here sits the town. The center is a cafe/bakery, a bar across the street, and a souvenir shop/mini market, with drivers waiting, ready to take somebody someplace.

Where to stay

There are lots of places to stay overnight close by, and the only way to find is to seek. I followed one set of signs to isolated hostels that led me past the police station, through a small ghetto, up a long muddy hill and then 40 steps down to the first place, Rancho de la Luna. This was a rough jewel of sorts, triple level, and each unit took up the entire floor. Lots of open air, bed and hammock, and mandatory mosquito nets. Nothing too impressive except for the view from the patio, but that was world-class. The price per night, 74,000 pesos ($40), and breakfast not included.

I then followed the goofy signs farther on towards Oscar’s Place, another quarter-mile or so and though I could finally see it below me, I thought, forget it. To have to schlep a suitcase this far was absurd. So back down the hill I went, slick and muddy in flip-flops, and up another tributary street looking for another signed place.

I never did find it, but I met a friendly old dude walking his dogs and he recommended the El Mirador Ecoturistico, so I went back down and then up another hill. Following his directions, and I finally made it to the top of the hill and the place.

View from El Mirador Ecoturistico.

This was a nice place with a welcoming vibe, and a rich wood cafe and bar, with plenty of cush seats. It was on top of the hill and afforded that same killer view down to Santa Marta. The manager, Karin, showed me a room, double with a bunk, fan, screened windows and cable TV. 84,000 pesos ($45) with breakfast….sold. I crawled back down the hill to grab my stuff, unload, and get to the water.

What to see and do

A short while later, I was lounging in the fine flow of Río Minca, which runs right through the middle of town. Some of the finest pads in the village sit on the banks, which is probably the choicest real estate around these parts. Giant trees hang over the river, full of boulders and still flowing nicely even in the December dry season.

When it’s rainy it has to be high volume and very impressive. But, truth be told, this was below much of the town and notably the slum barrio, where public sanitation systems are but a dream.

A couple of blocks up from the rio, one of the two main roads parallels it past the church, soccer field, and various cafes. One had a chess-playing owner of a bakery/resto, a very nice guy who gave me some helpful directions. Another a block down has a friendly, efficient crew, along with a splendid deck over the rio. That's where I dined, sharing the table and tales with a pair of very tired German girls, who had spent the last 3 days in the jungle camping at Tayrona Park. I had only spent a long day in the park two days before and sympathized completely. The food was terrific, the first and only burger of the year, and a couple of Club Colombias finished the spell, high in the hills.

The next morning i was bound for Pozo Azul, a much acclaimed local spot that was supposedly 7 km up the main road. I wisely contracted with a motorcycle taxi to haul me up, and then come back in 3 hours, for all of $4000 — a little over 2 bucks. Even on the back of a bike, and the kid was an expert driver, the distance seemed farther than 7 k. Finally we popped off the road and descended a slightly sketchy side trail and reached the river.

One of the pozos azules.

A wooden bridge spans the craw where the river drops 25 feet, but the good stuff is upriver here, past a couple of supremo waterfalls and ultimate swimming holes, with a big canopy of trees providing shade. The gorge can be followed up far enough to spend one of your best days ever, and the local fellas will be waiting to take you back to town if you worked that out already.

There are several other places worth seeing, including Las Cascadas, a series of waterfalls 25 meters high that is 5 kilometers out of town, with a beautiful natural pool beneath. Further away but still close enough to day trip is La Reserva Natural de San Lorenzo, part of the Parque Nacional Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Situated at 3100 meters altitude, it provides a fantastic view of both the coastline stretching from Baranquilla to Parque Tayrona as well as the summit peaks of the Sierra Nevada, which can be snowcapped at any time of the year. The reserve is famed for its high concentration of endemic birds.

And coffee fanatics will want to visit La Victoria coffee farm, which has been producing terrific organic coffee for over a century.

If you go

Minca is worth at least a couple of leisurely days, and a very cool and relaxing break from the heat of the north coast just below. It's rapidly becoming a center of outdoor activities, with several outfitters offering hiking, mountain biking, and river rafting tours.

Shared taxis are cheap from Santa Marta and can be found at the central market. The difference between the two neighboring settlements is dramatic, in temperature, terrain, and especially, vibe. You might think you're actually in Hawaii or Colorado, but it's another amazing facet of Colombia, land that I love.

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