As soon as Ed whirled his way through the upstairs bar at our Santa Marta hostel, throwing out brown paper business cards every few steps and grinning disarmingly at anyone who made eye contact, I knew I was going to like him.
“Yeah man, we have an awesome place up in the mountains near Minca. It’s chilled, really cool, and we’ve got hammocks, dorm beds, a swinging bed, and an outdoor hammock that sleeps ten people. Pretty sweet, really!”
It was hard enough to not be interested in Ed’s excitable description of his hostel – particularly the idea that the area was in any way cooler than Santa Marta’s 35’C heat and 85% humidity.
We’d been in the small coastal Colombian town for four days at that point, and living in a temperature that didn’t involve being constantly coated in a sheen of sweat was high on my priority list. In the five minutes since Ed had been talking, a sweat droplet had made its merry way from the back of my kneecap all the way down to my ankle.
“So…how much would seven hammocks be?”
In no time at all, Issy and I had learnt that Casa Elemento, Ed’s small hostel in the Sierra Nevada mountains, was situated in an old house that used to belong to a Colombian colonel – before he was jailed for drug smuggling. Not surprising when the house was happily sat in the middle of three thousand hectares of marijuana fields. Now Ed pays rent to the colonel and has transformed the man’s property into a blissfully cool escape from the coastline’s overwhelming humidity.
Now it may not be that obvious when reading this site, but over the last year I’ve become obsessed with my writing here. What I want to post about next is of the highest priority, and I’m always thinking about how my experiences can be turned into a good article. Before Ed had even finished talking, my brain was making mental note of what he said about the area’s history. Of course I was going to write about a hostel positioned in the midst of a weed plantation – how could I not?!
Later that evening, we were walking along the waterfront, discussing exactly when we’d leave for Minca, when I properly noticed the gorgeous sunset unfolding in the sky above us. As per usual, I grabbed my camera and took a photo. And then the lens began to make a series of clicks and creaks as it refused to retract back into the body.
I started to panic.
Just like that, with no cause or explanation, my camera was broken.
My little Canon point and shoot may not be the best camera in the world, but it’s been a trusty companion on my travels for the last eighteen months. I picked it up just before I left for India and it’s been the lens through which I’ve shot every one of the photos you see on this site – so to suddenly be bereft of such a possession was an awful situation to be in.
But I knew I could rely on other people’s cameras while in Minca – and besides, the idea of being forced to write in more descriptive detail than normal was somewhat tempting. Once I’d found an eager Colombian in a nearby market who said he’d take my camera for a few days to fix it – nodding effusively at the certainty of his convictions – I was more than ready to get out of the heat and into the valley for a few days of respite.
But then came a challenging discovery. There was no wifi in Casa Elemento.
An impromptu “no wifi” challenge
It might sound ridiculous to many of you (and it’s actually pretty embarrassing to me too, thinking about it), but going more than a few days without internet access is a challenge for me. It’s partly a slight personal obsession with social media, but it’s also all the trappings of my travel blogger lifestyle, which involves a great deal of online interaction, emailing and general connectivity.
And while I convince myself that I can do without for a few days, the reality is somewhat different.
My friends have no qualms about teasing me for this innate need to stay connected. Over the last six months, it’s been a constant source of ridicule when I opt to stay in and work instead of going out and doing things in the real world with real people.
So this lack of connectivity plus no camera had me worried – how was I going to get any work done without internet? How would I write up the experience without any photos to go with the text?
And then I realised how ridiculous I was being. Most people would give their right arm to be staying in a place like Los Piños, and I was actually stressed about it. What’s worse, I was effectively back to my normal travelling state, before all the blogging and social media became so important, and I didn’t even seem happy about the situation.
So what else was there to do, other than what so many other travellers spend all their time doing? Simply sit back and take it all in.
Going off the grid – and loving it
For three days, I ignored my iPad, and I didn’t take photos.
Instead, I played with two kittens, both with a penchant for ‘killing’ rubbish they’d scavenged from the kitchen scraps, stroked the heads of numerous dogs who prowled around the edges of the house, and ate freshly cooked empanadas dipped in homemade salsa at a long wooden scratch-covered table.
I felt effortlessly laid back with so little obligations. I took my shoes off and forgot where I’d left them; wandered down the hill with blankets around my shoulders, sat in the grass and watched the sun set in near silence, but for the bird calls and the wind blowing gently through the trees.
I walked with my friends for hours through the mountains in the search for a lost waterfall, picking up maracuya fruit littering the ground on route.
We cracked them open with our fingers, and scooped and sucked at the insides; found wild avocados and cut into them with a penknife.
And at night, I lay cradled in a oversized hammock set high above the valley, capable of fitting twenty people but holding just two. Covered with blankets and fuelled by a strange sense of completion, I watched the full moon move slowly through the sky and talked with a stranger about everything and nothing until the sun came up.
The magic of the Minca mountains
Three days of total disconnection was undoubtedly good for me. It allowed me to ignore the many internet-based distractions and simply write, on paper, exactly what I was feeling at that moment. Free from schedules or to-do lists because there was simply no point.
Three days without a camera forced me to look at things differently. I didn’t have to worry about losing the thing, and I noticed details for their own sake rather than as a precursor to capturing them in a frame.
In a place as beautiful as this, with a crowd of wonderfully laid back people, it was easy to forget about life down on the Colombian coast and disappear for a while. Instead of obsessing over retweets and traffic stats, I watched the sunlight play on the landscape surrounding Casa Elemento, and let my mind wander.
And without knowing it beforehand, it was exactly what I needed.