Since getting to Colombia, we had received numerous recommendations to get ourselves to Minca in the Sierra Nevada mountains, just 45 minutes outside of Santa Marta.
The most memorable came from Sarah – a girl who can only be described as a hippy, despite of an apparent dislike of the term – who valued Minca for its eco-friendly tourism, beautiful countryside, and most of all, its mystical qualities. The rocks up there are full of quartz which, she said, shamans in the indigenous tribes once used for rituals and healing.
As a result, the whole area is just so… magical. In spite of the numerous sceptical looks Sam and I exchanged, Sarah repeatedly assured us that Minca is simply filled with magic. The experience, the walks, the rivers, the woods… everything. So, in search of a profound experience – and hopefully a little magic – we hopped into a colectivo and headed for the hills.
Casa Loma Minca Colombia
The colectivo – an ancient and rickety old green car impersonating a shared taxi – carried us past the dusty outskirts of Santa Marta and up winding mountain roads surrounded by lush greenery, alternatively bouncing over and swerving around the many potholes. Within thirty minutes we were in another world – and in another fifteen we had reached Minca, a tiny village perched on the edge of a valley and surrounded by towering, dark green mountains. We had recommendations from a fellow traveller we’d met in Bogota – “you have to stay at Casa Loma” – so ignoring the flock of teenage motorbike drivers offering their services as ‘taxis’ (no roads go up to the hostel on the hill, anyway) we shouldered our backpacks and followed the signs for Case Loma hostel. This is at the top of a hill behind the church; a gorgeous wooden treehouse facing one of the most stunning views I have ever seen. A foreground of vivid green jungle leaves and brightly coloured flowers speckled with floating butterflies, a background of deep emerald mountains studded with forest. And poking out of the haze in the distance, the city of Santa Marta and a glimpse of blue sea.
The hill up to Casa Loma is steep and deceivingly long, with so many curves you can’t tell how close to the top you are. Eventually, panting and drenched in sweat, we staggered up the last few steps and onto the front porch of Casa Loma, where the staff immediately produced glasses of cold water for us and let us sit for a few minutes to recover before checking us in. The hostel is beautiful, with a downstairs lounge open to the elements and dotted with hammocks, and has some of the friendliest staff I’ve ever met. We checked in, dumped our bags and rested from the uphill climb, and read the hostel’s guidebook for suggestions on what to do with our afternoon.
Las Cascades Marinkas
It wasn’t hard to decide. Las Cascades Marinkas – a set of waterfalls where you can swim in the water – sounded like the perfect afternoon trip. We stocked up on water and bread for lunch at a shop in the village, and set out on a pretty easy – though uphill – hike.
The walk was about an hour, all uphill, along a dirt road with occasional shallow river crossings. The road was lined by thick forest, a shallow, rushing river, and huge thickets of towering bamboo, and we were grateful for the shade and cool mountain breeze as we hiked our way to the waterfalls.
Once there, we paid 3,000 COP (about £1) each to enter – there’s a small wooden observation deck with a sign claiming that it serves as a restaurant – and clambered over the rocks to the higher of the two waterfalls.
It was completely secluded in a small rocky enclave, and we were the only ones there, so after a quick change into our swimming stuff we were in the falls, splashing in the icy water. The upper waterfall is the much more beautiful, but has only a shallow pool beneath it where you can paddle; the lower pool is for swimming.
From the upper waterfall, the view across the forested valley of rolling mountains and spiralling black eagles is stunning, backed by the sheer rocky cliffs over which white sprays of water come tumbling erratically, glistening in the sunlight. Besides the sounds of rushing water and calling birds, there was total silence – no cars or motorbikes or other people – and although I couldn’t really sense any magic, there was a profound feeling of total peace hanging over the place, which sunk into both of us totally.
We climbed down to the second waterfall, where a wide, deep pool sat invitingly amongst the rocks, and slipped in. The water was overwhelmingly cold, but once we were in it was gorgeous; crystal clear and so clean. The rocks really are full of quartz around here, which makes the water sparkle with a glittery appearance; maybe not magical but certainly very beautiful. Again, the only ones there, we swam for ages enjoying the cool water and the tranquillity. The afternoon sun was beginning to slip down in the sky, catching the white spray of the waterfalls with a golden light and filling the valley below us with warmth, when we finally decided it was time to head back to Casa Loma.
Without our bags, and reinvigorated by the falls, the climb up the hill to the hostel wasn’t as bad – but it was still pretty painful (it never got any easier); and we arrived just in time to watch the sun set over the valley, a glowing red ball in a peach sky. Every night, Casa Loma serves dinner – everyone eats the same thing and at the same time, giving the place a lovely family atmosphere – and by the end of our day of walking and swimming, Sam and I were ready to eat our own hands; so we were both a little disappointed to hear that dinner that night was vegetarian. But, the meal of rice with sauce, potato and pumpkin in a spicy vegetable sauce, and spicy beetroot salad, was one of the best I’ve had in Colombia; we both cleared our plates like starving animals and shared a fat, moist slice of chocolate banana cake for desert, which we ate on the porch looking out at the glittering lights of Santa Marta swimming in the heat haze like jewels in the inky night sky. Not quite magic, but almost.
The cheapest way to get to Minca is by Colectivo (shared taxi) which costs around 7,000 COP per person.
There are a number of hostel options but I highly recommend either Casa Loma (review to come) or Casa Elemento as these have the best views. We didn’t stay at the latter but we met the owner a few times, and stopped by there on route to Los Pinos. The staff were all amazing, the hostel is way out in the middle of nowhere halfway up a mountain, and the evenings seem on the whole more lively (aka drunken) than at sleepy Casa Loma. But it’s all about preference. Book Casa Elemento in advance and they will arrange to pick you up in their jeep from Minca; otherwise the walk is around two hours up a pretty steep mountain path.
A dorm bed in Casa Loma costs 22,000 a night, or there are private rooms, hammocks or tents – plus a campsite if you’re bringing your own tent with you.
If you’re heading to Las Cascades Marinkas, try to go midweek as it will be quieter. Get there early if you can – the pool will be more in sunlight in the morning and early afternoon. In the dry season, it’s possible to do the walk in flip flops, although trainers will be more comfortable. Entrance is 3,000 COP.