(This article was originally commissioned for Adventure Animals, a travel website which unfortunately never went live.)
As I pushed my mountain bike out of the rental shop in Minca, it occurred to me that in all of the times I had visited the mountain village I had never once seen anyone cycling there. I had walked the loop up to Casa Elemento and strolled to a few waterfalls, but after destroying my liver in Santa Marta for the best part of a weekend I decided that this Sunday, I really needed to sweat it out.
When the guy in the shop assured me that there were some very accessible trails, I wondered out loud whether he was referring to the almost vertical mud track shared by moto-taxis, 4x4s and the odd farmer on horseback. The track where I had to get off my moto-taxi and walk on my last visit.
He shook his head and pointed out a few different loops on the map, promising that I would make it back by 5.30 for the last collectivo to Santa Marta, and even threw in a free map. Feeling reassured, I handed him my 50 thousand peso note, bargaining with myself that it was really just 15£ and not my lunch budget for the entire week.
When the bike appeared I was even more encouraged by a decent suspension and shiny new looking tyres, but my doubts came back with a vengeance when he stopped me on my way out to give me a bike pump, just in case…
As I pedalled past hippies sitting down to breakfast outside the collection of cafes and hostels that line the main road through Minca, I congratulated myself on ignoring the already fading fuzziness in my head, and making the most of my weekend.
I passed the little football pitch and followed the main road as it started to wind up the hill, keeping my eyes peeled for the start of the trail. As the initial burst of adrenaline from being out in the fresh air began to wear off, the steep, winding road started to get to me. When I turned a corner and saw a man pushing his bike I felt a) relieved that I wasn’t the only person who was crazy enough to be tackling this monster on a bike and b) frustrated because my pride would now force me to ignore the searing pain in my thighs until I had left this quitter behind.
Safely a few bends ahead I gave into my feeble body and consulted the map. As I didn’t know where the illustrated loops would start I couldn’t tell how much of the hill I would have to tackle before I reached them, so I shoved the useless thing in my bag, put my headphones in and carried on.
Suddenly a turning gave me hope. It was gated but a signpost for a waterfall suggested that this is where I could finally leave the main road behind. But after struggling to get my bike through the gate I heard the little old man sitting outside the tienda shout out to me:
“Tsss! Tsss! Nena!Nena!”
Now I normally ignore this kind of approach, as regardless of cultural differences I just can’t get past men making animal noises at me, but genuinely in need of directions I swallowed my pride and decided to listen to what he had to say.
From his gesticulating I understood that he wanted me to leave the bike with him. I got the map out and his furrowed brow did not fill me with confidence. ‘La cascada esta por alli’- the waterfall is this way, he motioned in the direction I was trying to go… But you can’t take the bike.
Remembering some of the hiking trails I’d been on in the area I figured I should probably take his word for it. Pushing the bike up a muddy hill was one thing, carrying it through dense jungle was another.
He pointed a coarse, land-beaten finger towards the looming hill, ‘por alla, si puedes…’ – you can go that way. I asked him about mountain biking trails and he shrugged and shook his head. Just the main road.
In a culture which holds slightly different values when it comes to the truth, it is sometimes hard to tell who you can believe. Locals can warn you against a 45 minute walk that in reality will only take 20, or tell you to wait 15 minutes and then be perplexed at your frustration when you’re still waiting two hours later. While I should have known better after 8 months in the country, I had been trying to ignore the sneaking suspicion that the trails didn’t actually exist since about ten minutes into the ride. Now it was time to accept the harsh reality.
I sighed, and decided to buy some provisions from his shop before heading off.
An hour later I was glad I had. The road continued to wind, and by this point it had started to rain. Every moto taxi that passed me would, beep, laugh and make some kind of hilariously unfunny comment. Tourists on the back would raise their eyebrows at me as they zoomed past, already braced for the rain in plastic ponchos.
I stopped on a corner to pull out my now soggy map, and the first moto taxi that I’d seen in about 45 minutes stopped to see if I was ok. “Casa Elemento?” He pointed up the hill. Locals always assume that the gringos are heading there, a hostel at the top of the loop, with giant hammocks and breathtaking views of the coast. But I wasn’t planning on going that far today.
Dripping and gasping for breath I explained that I wasn’t really sure where I was going.
His backpacker passenger pointed out that the next point of reference on the map was in fact Casa Elemento, but if I kept right I could loop around it, up to the viewpoint at Los Pinos and drop back down into Minca.
Although this was much, much further than I had intended to go, the word ‘down’ gave me new hope. I thanked him, listened to the moto driver repeat the instructions to me twice in Spanish for good measure, and got back to pushing my bike up the treacherous track.
By this point the rain was coming down so hard that I had to put my headphones in my waterproof bag, and rely on the sound of raindrops hitting the jungle to try and soothe my manically beating heart. I started to regret wearing my Fitbit. Seeing my heartbeat surpass 170 bpm as I struggled to catch my breath was no consolation to a weathered hypochondriac.
Just as I was pondering how long it would take a hiker to stumble upon my rain bloated corpse when my ticker inevitably packed in, I heard the roar of a moto. The driver who had been so eager with his directions earlier had come back (to check on me?)
I was going the wrong way. I had somehow missed another turning and was almost at Casa Elemento. Now if I hadn’t had to work in the morning, at this point I would have gladly handed over every peso I had to my name for a night in a hammock before heading back down in the morning. After going through the directions with me again, my new saviour decided to lead the way. My frustration at going back the way I came was quickly overridden by the relief of finally going down hill.
We reached the fork that I had inexplicably blanked out and it was back to pushing again. I felt like less of a failure however when the poor man had to get off and push his motorbike through the almost knee deep mud. As he slid backwards I would pass him, feeling nimble with my comparatively waitless charge, and smug until he gained traction and got going again.
As the road finally started to even out and the sound of the moto faded into the distance I started to see signs of civilisation. A group of men loading a 4×4 outside a farm stopped what they were doing to stare incredulously at me. A few of them cheered. ‘ Ya llegaste mamita’ – I was there. Wherever there was. I didn’t really care, as long as it was flat.
Now that I could actually breathe I started to recognise landmarks, I passed what must be one of the country’s most remote schools rising eerily out of the mist. I noticed a phone box (great, really useful now that I was out of the woods) and realised that I had reached Los Pinos.
Los Pinos is the viewpoint at the top of the Minca loop, where on a clear day you can see lush jungle and mountain ranges as far as the eye can see. On this particular day, I could barely see my handlebars.
What I did see, however, raised my spirits more than any view ever has or will. ‘Sandwich 5mil’ I dropped my bike and half ran, half limped towards the little finca, praying that they were open.
After practically inhaling two sandwiches I got back on my bike, pedalling with new furore. I may have been re-energised but I still only had two hours to get back, and I was exactly halfway around the loop.
Luckily the worst was over, and with my music back on I enjoyed the wind in my hair as I sped down the mountain. The road was, well, actually a road on this side of the loop. For parts of it, at least. But the other parts were bumpy and fun rather than backbreaking like the first half.
Before I knew it I had passed La Victoria, a big coffee farm and brewery, and the groups of people walking signalled that I was approaching the waterfalls. While I probably should have considered a dip to wash off the layer of mud that I had acquired, I was enjoying the run too much. The rush of adrenaline after the struggle of the rest of the day was exhilarating, and I was disappointed when I realised I was already back in Minca.
I limped into the rental shop leaving a trail of mud behind me. The guy looked up startled and tried to hide his sheepishness. ‘It wasn’t too difficult?’ ‘Pues..Si, pero me divertio’… It was still fun. Still buzzing from the downhill ride, I couldn’t even be angry with him. He may have spun the truth slightly to give me the push I needed, but would I have gone otherwise? Probably not. Am I glad I did? Definitely.
Maybe somewhat like a mother forgetting the trauma of a birth when she’s handed her newborn spawn, all it takes is a few moments of adrenaline for me to forget whatever obstacles came before.
If I haven’t managed to put you off….
Minca is the perfect place to escape the heat of the coast and let the rain wash away your frustrations!
You can get to Minca easily from Santa Marta. Find the Collectivo office in the market, calle 12 con 12, where you will pay 8 thousand pesos for a seat in a jeep for the 45 minute drive up the mountain. I recommend leaving as early as possible, or even staying in Minca so that you can get an early start, as it often rains in the afternoons.
When you arrive in Minca, walk straight up the hill and turn right, you will pass the moto taxi driver and a range of hostels and cafes. If you have time for a snack, The Lazy Cat or La Miga are excellent options. Carry on past the Lazy Cat and you will come to Mountain Bikes Minca, a shop that also funcitons as an information point.
If you don’t fancy going quite as far, hostels such as Rio Elemento and Casa Relax offer bike rental for you to explore the nearby area. To enjoy the views without exerting yourself you can pay 20 thousand for a moto-taxi to Casa Elemento and then walk back down. Either way, make sure you factor in ample hammock time, the views are spectacular!