We left the heat of Cartagena behind and headed for the refreshing altitude of the mountains. Our goal was to find a place to spend a week just relaxing and getting ready for our forthcoming adventures in Colombia. We decided to go to Minca, a small town nestled in the lush, green Sierra Nevada Mountains. We were hoping to find a secluded spot where we could fall asleep to the smell of fresh mountain air, and wake up to the sounds of birds and howler monkeys.
It turned out that Minca would not be the retreat we sought. We spent a week searching, and ultimately left still seeking the rest and relaxation we so desired. But we did have some adventures while we were there. From a search for a mysterious guest house, to hike through the mountains that brought us back well after dark, to an encounter with some freakishly large wildlife, Minca was anything but dull.
The Search for the Compound
On our first morning we headed out to look for our dream spot. We had done some online reconnaissance before arriving in Minca, and one place in particular had looked really appealing. Called El Faunal, the pictures showed a small house and a separate guest cottage, and the location was well away from nearly everything. It looked very rustic, quiet, and like just the sort of place we were hoping for. We had messaged the owner before arriving in Minca, but he hadn’t responded, so we decided to go see it in person before making the trek with all our luggage.
We hiked up the main road, muddy from the rain. Trucks and mototaxis cruised back and forth past us. The dense vegetation on either side offered patches of shade as we climbed, and the partial cloud cover made the walk very pleasant. Eventually, we turned onto the trail down toward the river. We passed by houses, farms and properties for sale, carefully navigating a road that the seasonal rains had left deeply rutted.
Finally up on our right we saw a sign for El Faunal. It was laying on the ground next to a locked chain-link gate, a rather uninviting entrance to say the least. Beyond the gate was a steep hill. To the left of the gate was a high earthen berm, and between them was a space just big enough to squeeze through. As we were debating whether we should go up or not, a boy of about 14 walked past us, climbed through the gap and started up the hill. I called after him and told him where we were looking for, and he pointed up the hill ahead of him, then continued on. We carefully climbed through and started up the hill.
The Mystery of the Missing Guest House
We made our way slowly, being careful not to slip on the moss and algae covering the concrete. Another sign directed us onto a small path and up a flight of steep stone stairs. We reached the top of the stairs only to be met with a “Closed” sign. We rang the bell a few times, calling out to see if anyone was home, but there was no answer. We were about to start back down the hill when the same boy who had directed us up reappeared and told us to just go in. Hesitantly, we walked further into the property, continuing to call out for anyone who might be around. It felt vaguely like the setup of a horror movie. In the back of my mind I kept expecting some machete wielding maniac in a mask to jump out from behind a tree.
There was no one there, so we began to explore the area. The house was the first thing we saw. There were a couple of tents set up on a terrace below the house, and on another terrace above it there was a covered area with some hammocks. Further up there were signs pointing to what appeared to be two minimally maintained hiking trails. But we could not find the guest house anywhere. The pictures had clearly showed a building that housed a double bed, a private bathroom, and a small day bed, not a small or insignificant structure. But we couldn’t find it, or even any place where it might have stood at one point. We continued to wander around the property, lingering in the hope that someone might finally appear, but no one ever did. It was puzzling to say the least.
The Minca Trail
A few days later we decided to hike the loop trail around the hills above Minca. The first part wound through jungle. Huge trees with lianas hanging from them shaded the trail most of the way. Streams from the hills cut across the path, running to join the river below. Enormous clumps of towering bamboos, their stalks four or five inches in diameter, dotted the trail, mostly on the downhill side where the road hooked sharply, almost as if they had been planted to stabilize the hillside.
We reached a turnoff to the Cascadas de Minca and decided to pass it and keep to the main trail. Up to this point the trail had been quite busy, but soon things became very quiet. We saw a couple of other hikers, but other than that we had the trail to ourselves. It would climb through dense vegetation for long stretches, then suddenly everything would break away to reveal a sweeping view of one of the valleys, green mountain peaks extending to the horizon.
Coffee, Coffee Everywhere, but not a Cup to Drink
We had been hiking for almost three hours. We had planned to stop at one of the two hostels at the top and have a cup of coffee while sitting to take in the view of the valley below and the jungle ambiance. But nearly a quarter mile before we even reached them, we could hear them. Music blared out over the valley, obliterating any sense of connection with nature. When we reached them we discovered that, not only were they not peaceful places where one could experience the surrounding nature, they both charged a fee just to walk on the property. Between the noise pollution and the cover charge, we decided that we wouldn’t be having coffee there after all.
As we continued on, the trail began to climb through a coffee farm. Much of the trail at this point was in a deep ditch, nearly a tiny valley, the coffee plants neatly spaced on the ridges on either side of the trail. I kept wondering if it was actually a public trail or if we had taken a wrong turn. As we climbed higher, we began to hike into the clouds that ringed the mountain at this elevation. I stopped to look at the surrounding area and a thick mist rolled across us, nearly blotting out everything around us. It was spooky, ethereal and really amazing.
Surrounded by coffee but with nowhere to get a cup, we began our descent toward town. The sun was slipping toward the horizon. We had about three hours until sunset which we thought would be enough time to get back. But we hadn’t counted on the condition of the roads. Most of them were muddy, but I had never seen anything like the road back to town. It was almost completely destroyed. Our progress down was slower than going up. Each foot had to be carefully placed, our path selected in advance to avoid getting stuck in the mud. Mototaxis passed us, hardly moving faster than we were, carefully navigated their way down, choosing the best worn ruts and using their feet to keep the bike balanced. In the end we made it back to town more than an hour after dark.
An Uninvited Guest
I was in the room the night before we left when I heard a flapping sound behind me. I barely noticed it at first, but then it suddenly sounded much louder. I turned just in time to see an enormous moth clumsily fly in and then down before settling on the wall just above the floor. It had a large body that was striped black and yellow and a wingspan of around eight inches. It was so large that for a second I actually thought it was a bird.
Once it landed, it just sat there. I wasn’t really sure what to do. I turned the light off and tried using our LED lamp to lure it out of the room, but it didn’t move. I attempted to capture it in a cloth bag to take it outside, but it managed to scurry out of a small gap between the bag and the wall and started flying again. I quickly shut off the light, grabbed the lamp again, and ran outside, waving the lamp around. This time it worked! The moth followed me out into the hall, flying back around and landing on the wall next to the window by which it had come into the room in the first place.
I carefully closed the window so it couldn’t get back in, and turned the hall light on. Kasia came from the patio and we both marveled at its size and appearance. It was almost as big as my hand, and the wings were brown and had small little protrusions coming off of them, as if they were supposed to mimic tree bark. The next morning I woke up early. While I was lying in bed I heard the flapping of the moth again. I figured that it had seen the day coming and was off to find a place to sleep. But when I left the room later, I saw in the corner next to the hallway door some large wing pieces and scattered moth dust. It had become the meal of some of creature of the night.
Coming Down the Mountain
Minca provided us relief from the heat and some fun adventures, but not the rest and relaxation we had hoped for. Still dreaming of an uneventful week to decompress, we set our sights next on Palomino, a fishing village turned tourist town a few hours away. We headed down the mountain, boarded our next bus and were on our way. Would the beaches of Palomino finally deliver us our much needed downtime?