Traveling to a new place, I strive to unearth the ultimate oxymoron of “off-the-beaten-path” or “best-kept secret” locales. Of course, for a foreign tourist like myself to discoverany of these places through word of mouthmeans it can’t be that much of a secret. Nevertheless, I’m constantly searching for these little gems, whatever they may be called, with my trip to Colombia as my most recent exploit.
I have no qualms with guidebooks or going to places that are considered to have high tourist traffic, because there is often a reason so many people want to go to these places. If you go to Paris, how could you miss the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, and the Arc de Triomphe simply because they’re tourist hot-spots?
However, there’s something to be said for the little hole in the wall places—those places that get overlooked by the general public, tourists and locals alike. These places exude the true spirit of a culture; these raw, unadulterated towns are where I find the most genuine, heartwarmingly generous people.
While in Taganga, Colombia on the Caribbean coast, we stumbled upon theElementotourist agency run by an enthusiastic Scot named Tom and some local Colombians, including his girlfriend Claudia. As with every trek out of a tourist agency, I was skeptical. A mountain biking trip I’d done in Laos turned out to be a ride down a flat dirt road. Tom’s philosophy was different, though. He didn’t design his tours for the average out-of-shape tourist, but rather he catered to the specific abilities of each group, meaning our small group was able to be challenged and go places that the average Joe with his fanny pack and Colombia t-shirt wouldn’t dare to venture.
I felt Tom’s passion from Elemento’s office and I saw a twinkle in his eye that was not about the business he was getting—he wanted badly to get out of the office and go on this trip. I immediately signed up for a relatively new trek they were promoting: El Dorado.
We took Jeeps to Minca, a small town in the Sierra Nevada Mountains where we began our hike. The jeep trip was an adventure in itself, akin to a rollercoaster that felt as though it could be derailed at any moment. But our driver, being a seasoned pro, didn’t bat an eye as he passed drivers on rocky corners and fishtailed around muddy turns.
After leaving Minca, we walked by small houses and farms along the way, some of which sold their goods out of little tiendas on the streets. We took advantage of the opportunity to get some mora wine—a berry grown in the Sierra Nevada similar to a blackberry—for that evening. We sat outside the store to enjoy fresh squeezed juice from these berries that were picked that day. Word to the wise: ask for juice “sin azúcar” because Colombians tend to go overboard with sugar in all their drinks, cocktails included.
During our hike, Tom led us through little paths in lush jungle in conjunction with little stretches of walking along the road since most of these wooded paths maintained a steep grade straight up the mountain and wouldn’t have been easy to continue on for the entirety of the ascent.
We got to the top of a ridge and dropped into what seemed like a whole different world on the other side. From the thick jungle we hiked through on the way up, we emerged into this wonderfully pastoral field that looked like the shire from Lord of the Rings save for the smattering of palm trees amongst the lush green fields. As we neared the farmhouse we were to stay at that evening, Tom lamented the fact that the fog and clouds were obscuring our view of the Caribbean to one side and the snowcapped peaks of the Sierra Nevadas to our other side. I was content to be enclosed by this bed of clouds below and fog all around, because it made me feel like we were in our own little world and nothing existed beyond the fog.
The next morning, a brilliant sunrise showed us the elusive views we had missed the evening prior when we hiked down through the fog, and I understood why Tom had been disheartened at the prospect of us missing the vista; it was as stunning and awe-inspiring as seeing the Grand Canyon for the first time.
While at Sophia’s farm in the middle of the mountains, she cooked us wonderful meals that consisted of meats, eggs, and cheese from her farm with other ingredients from the surrounding local farms. She’s completely off the grid with no electricity and no road to approach their house or their property—only a worn mule path led them to town to take their stock to market and pick up necessities for the farm. This simple living was enchanting and incredibly refreshing after coming from the hustle and bustle of the city below.
Despite my limited Spanish and Sophia’s non-existent English, I felt a powerful connection when we locked eyes. There was mutual respect and I could see the wisdom and compassion in her eyes. Without speaking, we acknowledged our respect for one another with a smile. It was a powerful experience to be welcomed into the home of such a gracious host who truly cared about us as her guests.
The next day we left Sophia’s farm and hiked down a mule trail to a spot where our Jeep met us with mountain bikes—a much more appealing way to descent the remaining 5,000 vertical feet back to sea level. Our mountain bike ride began down rocky roads that led to the Victoria coffee farm where we stopped for a cup of joe and a tour of the facilities. We learned about the complexities of each and every step that went into the harvesting and production of coffee beans along with all the political and financial trepidations the owner constantly faced. At the end, we purchased coffee beans roasted on site that looked nothing like the uniformity I’m familiar with when buying mass-produced coffee. This stuff was rough around the edges and had a rugged look to it; not to mention, the taste was out of this world.
From the Victoria coffee farm, we hiked up the edges of a mossy riverbed looking at hidden waterfalls deep in the forest. At times we were walking waist deep up the river itself because there wasn’t a path leading up to a swimming hole we yearned to reach in the mid-day heat. When we reached the waterfall and the pool beneath it that we were looking for, Tom brought me up to a perch where we could jump into the foam below. Since there weren’t any trails leading up to this swimming hole, I got the feeling that Tom was one of very few people to venture this far upstream, adding to the mystique of this adventure.
As the day neared its conclusion, we sat at a coffee shop in Minca reminiscing about the events of the past 36 hours. Tom had told me earlier in the day about this awesome single-track mountain bike trail called the Krackenthat led from Minca to the bottom of the mountains, but he didn’t think we would have enough time to fit it in before sunset. I asked again about the trail when we reached Minca, and he perked up and looked at his watch, “if we go right now, we’ll get to the bottom as the sun is going down.” That was all I needed to hear to throw on my helmet and hop on my bike.
The Kracken was a wild rock garden the entire way down that kept us both on our toes as we raced to the bottom. It was hard to keep my eyes on the trail as I was constantly confronted with breathtaking view of the Caribbean below me. This exhilarating final leg was the perfect ending to an amazing two-day trek.
During the entire trek, Tom had a relaxed air about him that often made me forget him as our guide and talk as if we were old friends. He had a wealth of knowledge of the ecology of the area that he was more than willing to share with us, but we never felt overwhelmed with him pointing out every last plant species in the area.
Tom shared his ambitions to expand their treks to new areas of the Sierras previously closed to the public, so that the treks will constantly be fresh, never feeling like your typical guided tour.