Joni Mitchell’s“Both Sides Now” played in my head as I watched the sunset from the Cerro Kennedy peak in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada range. From one side of the mountaintop, I could see the coastal cities of Santa Marta and Barranquilla some 10,000 feet below, their orange lights blinking along the Caribbean Sea. From the other, I saw clouds spiraling through the snow-capped ridges like a pinched candle’s smoke.
The view was well-earned: My friend and I spent seven hours hiking up to the peak from Minca, a small mountain town that serves as a gateway to the Sierra Nevada. We could have hired motorcycles (with drivers) to chauffeur us up and back down, but that would have meant speeding past the dozen or so waterfalls pouring down through the jungle and the orange-blossomed trees vibrating with thousands of butterflies. Besides, the gentle ascent and lack of cell service made the long walk meditative. That night we bunked down at the bare-bones guesthouse at the peak and woke to a sunrise just as captivating.
Eleven years ago, we wouldn’t have been able to get up there at all. From the mid-1990s to 2006, Minca and its surrounds were a base and battleground for the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) during the country’s long-running civil conflict. Over the last decade, a Colombian military offensive led to peace talks with FARC, and an accord in 2016 has cultivated a new calm in this corner of Colombia. Yet Minca seems to have slipped onto the tourist map only within the last two years.
Venturing into the Sierra Nevada has long been difficult. Some parts are still dangerous (armed groups continue to occupy some areas), while others require permission from indigenous groups that often deny it to anyone except accredited researchers. But Minca, set in the foothills of the range, makes an increasingly comfortable base for forays into the mountains. In town, a growing number of gardened bungalows and artsy guesthouses line the dirt roads. In between the stalls predictably selling fried empanadas and packaged ice cream cones, new shops and cafes stock fresh baguettes, cannabis-infused massage oils and homemade passion fruit liqueur.
The town can be traversed in about 10 minutes, but the network of trails threading its edges buzz from dawn until dusk with hikers who come here to explore the jungle’s waterfalls and lookout points and stop at fincas (farms) for exceptional coffee and tamales along the way. Those who’d rather not go by foot can sign up for vehicle tours: motorcycles and boxy Land Cruisers totter down muddy mountain roads, taking travelers into the El Dorado Bird Reserve, home to 300 aviary species and one of Colombia’s most diverse ecosystems.
At this rate, some say that Minca is shaping up to be the next Ubud in Bali or Tulum on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula—a modern bohemia for travelers who like to caption their sunrise photos with yoga mantras and cap their sunsets with moderate partying. Last year, the Colombian government funded the paving of the road up to Minca from Santa Marta—a historic coastal city—slashing the drive from a few hours to 45 minutes. Yet, at the ribbon-cutting, President Juan Manuel Santos named Minca the “ecological capital” of the Magdalena region. Local officials tout a long list of sustainability requirements for hotels and guesthouses and government funding for local conservations efforts. Both residents and authorities repeatedly cite the importance of slow and careful growth rather than rapid expansion. Even so, after just a few days in Minca, I sensed that the town might already be stretching at its sides.
On a sunny morning, I took a run down a small road, sharing it with home builders on horseback carrying wood to their projects, then went to buy some fruit. As I rifled through a crate of banana bunches, a young man doing the same asked me about my plans for the day, later revealing he was a guide. “And you’re not going to offer to guide me?” I joked. “Not today—I’m going that way,” he answered, pointing to a part of the jungle to which no roads led. “I heard about some new waterfalls, and I’m going to go try to find them. The ones around here are already too crowded.”
‘Minca is shaping up as a modern bohemia for travelers who cap their sunsets with moderate partying.’
Among the locals who welcome the tourist boom is Lucas Echeverri, a former telecommunications executive from Bogotá. Mr. Echeverri moved to Minca in 2014 to found the craft brewery Nevada Cerveceria, which occupies an old Catholic church on the 125-year-old organic coffee finca La Victoria. Inside the brewery, a statue of the Virgin Mary still stands behind the metal casks holding Mr. Echeverri’s three types of beers. Each one is named after a local species, such as the Happy Coca pale ale brewed with (nonnarcotic) coca leaves, a tradition carried on from the finca’s original owners who used coca for bitterness in lieu of hops. It’s a small operation, producing around 120,000 bottles a year, but known as some of Colombia’s best beer.
Following the stream upward through the finca leads to Casa Viejas, a surprisingly chic lodge that makes a persuasive argument for green living. Less than a year old, it feels much older and blends in deliberately with the mountain scenery. The concrete floors are made from riverbed sand, the walls fashioned out of repurposed wood and cane and the gardens kept lush and wild. The shared rooms offer white hammocks comfortable enough for sleeping or twin beds draped in mosquito nets, while private quarters come with natural-stone bathrooms and, most unexpectedly, toile comforters—a reminder, along with the decent wine list, that the three owners are French.
Charline Prioult, one of the owners and a former engineer from Brittany, walked me around the property one morning, brainstorming about building a sauna and massage hut. “We came to Colombia two years ago and stayed in Minca for three months looking for a spot with water, electricity and a view,” she said. “We heard a lot of stories from when the FARC were here. Now people are really happy to help with tourism. But it needs to be controlled. Minca is a sacred place. We need to preserve it.”
That evening, I made my way to the sunset lookout point a short climb up from Casa Viejas. As I meandered up a winding dirt road, a dark fog set in. Fireflies appeared by the hundreds, stringing the air with flickering lights. It was even better than the sunset—and no seven-hour hike required.
THE LOWDOWN // Peace, Quiet and Coffee in Colombia’s Sierra Nevada
Getting There Santa Marta’s Simon Bolívar International Airport offers flights to and from Bogotá and Medellín. Or, from Cartagena, head east to Santa Marta via any one of the four-hour buses from the Cartagena Bus Terminal (approximately $15). With its handful of cultural attractions, Santa Marta is worth a day or two of exploration. From there, hire a taxi for the 45-minute drive up to Minca.
Staying There On the upper edge of the coffee finca La Victoria just outside Minca, the new Casa Viejas offers the nicest rooms around, along with views of the mountains down to the ocean, hiking trails and bird watching tours. It is, however, a half-hour hike uphill from Minca’s center, so if you’d rather not walk, you’ll need to hitch a ride on the back of one of the motorcycle-taxis. From $45 a night, https://casaviejasminca.com. Sweet Harmony is set back on a dirt road much closer to town, and offers polished-concrete minimalism and private trails leading to waterfalls. From $55, mincasweetharmony.com.
Eating There For warm chocolate breakfast bread and hearty sandwiches to take on hikes, head to La Miga Panaderia bakery and cafe. Carrera 66; 57-322-5008993. Follow a tour of one of Colombia’s oldest running coffee factories at Finca La Victoria, with a meal at El Bistro de la Victoria and a beer at Nevada Cerveceria. 57-321-8150662.
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