What I learned on our trip from Taganga to Santa Marta to Minca is that there are ATMs that do not take foreign cards. Actually, there are many of them. Almost all of them, in fact. The blind luck has to stop somewhere.
After a cross-town bus from Taganga to Santa Marta we found a shared cab up the mountain and rode into the jungle to Minca ($2.60). The winding mountain road gave us alternating views of lush forest and vistas of the ever-distancing Santa Marta with an ocean backdrop. Smashed in the back with two Colombian men, I hoped I would get a chance to better enjoy that view of Santa Marta.
We arrived in Minca and after repeating our hostel's name, Casa Loma, a few times we got some similar hand-pointing and headed on our way. Then we saw hand-painted signs. When the paved road stopped, the climb up dirt and poorly-poured concrete steps began. And it continued. And we kept going up. Then we took a breather and looked out into the trees. Then we kept climbing up. When we reached the top for the first time we were greeted by a man I realized later was the owner and he was certainly laughing at us on the inside as I'm sure he's done many times when a new person first finishes that ascent. But the climb was worth it. We had stumbled upon a treehouse paradise in the clouds for vegetarians and world travelers. I turned around to take stock of what we just endured and was taken aback by the magnificent view that I had hoped for: a jungle landscape framing distant Santa Marta with her Caribbean backdrop. In typical American fashion, it wasn't enough, and I couldn't wait to see it at sunset or sunrise.
Casa Loma has one giant main building that is the dining room and reception office with a kitchen below and a dorm-style sleeping hall above. Next door is a smaller building where our treehouse double room with porch ($13 a night each) was located. Above and below is an area where 8-10 hammocks hang. There are a few bathroom/shower buildings spread about and another big dorm building up the hill a bit more. It was absolutely the coolest place we've stayed so far and I have to give a big shout out to Bethany Lickfield for all her suggestions.
That first day in Minca I took a long nap after we got there. With the timing and length of nap I took, it can be described as a Splicho. (Splē-cho) What is a splicho, you ask? Well, when Ryan and I were attempting a kamikaze seasonal takeover of St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands we spent our mornings applying for jobs, exploring the island, and looking for a
place to live. We spent our nights making new contacts and learning how the locals unwind. There seemed to be a dearth of activity in the middle that turned into frequent short naps between day and night. It became such a ritual that we decided a name was absolutely necessary for these kind of naps. In the spirit of 'siesta' we knew it had to be a latin sounding word. After we both searched and wracked our brains for days and possibly weeks, I finally gave up and put it out of my mind. Little did I know, Ryan was still brewing the perfect nomenclature. One day after work, we met up and he exclaimed that he had found it. The word Splicho was born. It sounded perfect to me.
"What does it mean?" I asked, eyes bright, ready to hear an intricate translation of some exotic language.
"It splicho day up." Ryan countered through a sly grin.
The crowd (of one) went wild. We had our word and henceforth a nap that splits a day's light from darkness was known as a splicho.
So I took a splicho on our first day in Minca. I woke up rested and took a walk outside just in time to see the sunset over Santa Marta in the distance. Dinner at Casa Loma was a big to-do and we got a prime seat at the fun table. We had a firefighter from Vancouver Island along with his friend who works in the oil fields farther north in Canada, we had two guys and a girl from Colorado who did seasonal work in northern California, and we had a Canadian who was a seasonal fruit picker in BC. Dinner was a particularly delicious vegetarian dish and the conversation with our quick-friends mostly consisted of a Colorado guy telling us all about traveling through India and some of the more hilarious adventures he and his girlfriend had gone through. We also discussed their group's (everyone but the two Canadians and me/Angelica) plan to travel to the Lost City the next day.
Angelica and I stayed up for a bit longer and talked to the other two Canadians, Ryan and Chris. Ryan was more knowledgeable than probably most Americans in American politics and sports. His first question, which is always foreigners' first question, was 'what the hell was up with Donald Trump?' There followed a lot of head-shaking and lamenting over the contemporary American psyche. We went on to talk at length about the work of past Presidents, he particularly had quite a bit of respect for Jimmy Carter but he knew more than I did about all our former Presidents' international work, post-office. He was excited about the prospect of Obama's future work for the world without the hindrance of a Congress seemingly out to just put speed bumps and road blocks in front of him. Then our discussion fell into the NBA and NFL and whether or not Stephen Curry is the second coming. (He's not) After discussing our plans for the next day, I think both pairs of us were jockeying for a combined excursion and we headed to bed.
The next morning I woke up in our treehouse penthouse and sat up to look out the window. There before me while still in bed was another amazing view of Santa Marta through the jungle valley lens. A breakfast of vegan arepas, fruit salad, and coffee got us started and we caught Ryan and Chris before they headed down the trail. We all agreed to increase the size of our wolfpack from two to four and our shared itinerary included a guided tour through a coffee farm and then a jaunt to Pozo Azul, a nearby waterfall.
We walked down, down, down into town and negotiated motorcycle rides for all four of us to the coffee farm. ($2.60) The moderate speed chase was on and we winded through the dusty roads up the mountain passing all manner of jungle mountain flora and vista. I asked my driver, "Esta serpientes aqui?" Which is, are there snakes here? He responded positively and unnecessarily went on to say they were "serpientes grande!" Everybody's a comedian. My skin tone slid a few shades even paler and I exhaled slowly.
We arrived at the farm and looked for a tour in English. The best we came up with is joining with an older Dutch man and his younger Colombian wife and having her translate for us. I don't really drink coffee and the tour was yawn-inducing for me but some highlights were seeing the three different qualities of coffee and learning that the worst quality is what gets sold in Colombia, also seeing the farm's compost situation in which worms imported from California cut the composting time in half. Hearing the Dutch guy's comments and quips at every stop was my least favorite part but his wife was funny and did a great (and much appreciated) job translating for us.
We each had a round of their local brew, which was very good, and then looked for motorcycle taxis to Pozo Azul. There were four of us and three motorcycles. One of the drivers jumped up and explained that his bike was much bigger than the others and could easily carry a third rider. All other options stayed hidden and we decided to give the man a chance to prove himself. After a quick stare down between the four of us doing the math to see who would share the bike, the obvious tandem of Angelica and I climbed aboard.
Another fun sprint through the forest came and went and we ended up at the opening of Pozo Azul. We crossed the rickety wooden bridge to the first pool and found it full of locals and their kids. Ryan and Chris had been here before and we followed them up to the second pool filled with foreign travelers and progressively small bathing suits (Male and female).
We found a spot between the two with some good rocks to sit on and a deep enough pool and they waded in. Just then, a trio of Colombians came body surfing down the falls, into our pool, and set up right before the waterfall into the first pool, looking at each other anxiously. The four of us looked around at each other, wide-eyed. It was a steep drop and there were rocks everywhere. Without any more thought, the younger of the three, probably in his mid-thirties, slid down the falls and landed safely in the pool below. Now the other two, a younger woman and a much older man, had everyone's attention in pool one. Would they do it? Would they die? Where were we going to bury these would-be daredevils?
After a much longer deliberation, the woman slid down as well and landed safely. The older man decided sliding wasn't enough to save face from being the third and he stood up and inched closer and closer to the edge. Chris spoke for us all when he said this couldn't end well and pointed out the rock directly below the man that he would surely jump directly into. Seconds turned to minutes and our excitement turned to hope for the man's demise for making us wait so long. Finally, after the woman below had gotten her camera just right, the old guy jumped into the water in one of the most anti-climactic moments of the day. What a waste. But it was enough to get Chris to slide off the falls himself. The rest of us headed back down and we walked the 45 minutes back into Minca for lunch. Chris and I brought up the rear and had a long, in-depth discussion of adult cartoons ranging from Archer to Squidbillies and beyond. Earlier, at the coffee farm, I hesitated to make a Scrooge McDuck reference because I wasn't sure he'd get it and sure enough, he said exactly what I was thinking during the hesitation. Back in Minca we tried out the heavily suggested Lazy Cat Cafe. The food was great ($4 each) and I bought a bottle of GatoNegro Cabernet Sauvignon ($10) for the table.
The small town of Minca was a great side mission and the activities combined with Casa Loma make for a great 2-3 day trip. If you want to stay at Casa Loma for free for two weeks, they offer a workstay program or a cookstay program for a talented vegetarian chef. The next morning we woke up super early to catch Ryan and Chris and exchange contact information. Our plan for the day was to get a bus from La Bomba to Parque
Tayrona, hike into the park and stay in their beachside hammocks for three nights.
We enjoyed our last vegetarian breakfast, grabbed another shared taxi into La Bomba ($2.60) and found our bus. For $6 each we sat in an air-conditioned bus and watch the first 3/4ths of a Colombian version of Jean-Claude Van Damme's Bloodsport. The good guy was French, his boisterous friend-of-necessity was an African-American, and the big bad guy was Colombian. It was very strange but I didn't lose sleep that night over not knowing how it ended. The forty-five minute bus trip ended and we were dropped off at the Tayrona gates. An information video and speaker, all in Spanish, followed by paying $14 each were the combined price of admission into the park. We took a short bus ride ($1 to save about one hour of hiking) to the end of the road and started our trek. I spent most of this hike staring at the ground because I'm comically petrified of snakes but everything I did see was beautiful and became a visual highlight of the trip. The jungle gave way to a seaside paradise which became an overgrown horse farm and turned to a picturesque palm tree meadow and back to a seaside paradise. This last bit was Playa El Cabo San Juan, a hammock/tent/backpacker oasis right in the middle of the park. We arranged for our hammocks, ($6.60 a night) staked our claim, and headed over to the beach.
While we've been in Colombia and its a similar theme all over, we've noticed that the gringo train only has so many directions and we'll see the same people over and over on our journey. There were two girls in Cartagena that we had seen in Bogota, a group we saw in Cartagena in Minca and a girl we had nicknamed Brittany 1 (because she looked so similar to my friend Brittany Dufresne) helped us on a bus in Cartagena and then we passed her in the palm tree oasis of Tayrona. The list goes on and on but those are the three most memorable.
We settled into our backpacker beach utopia, caught an hour of the pickup sand soccer match, and got a surprisingly good dinner in the makeshift mess-hall. Before we went to sleep we talked for awhile to our hammock neighbors, an older Canadian woman who was just starting a year-long solo trip around South America and her very funny lady friend who was accompanying her for the first two weeks.
It was a sleepless night but also the calm before the storm. Little did we know that the next few days were going to be disastrous...until next time.