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Roadside, we waited beneath shaded trees to flag down a collectivo bound for Santa Marta. From there, we’d continue to the tiny village of Minca. Eventually, we planned to arrive at Casa Elemento, a thoughtfully constructed hostel perched high enough to boast views of the village, Santa Marta, the surrounding valley and out to the Caribbean.

In Colombia, transportation timetables are approximations. Forget trying to consult Google and talk to a human instead.

“Just wait till the blue and white bus passes by, you will see it,” explained the patient receptionist as we peppered her with questions. 

It took a few attempts on a spotty phone connection to confirm our spontaneous reservation with Casa Elemento.

Skeptically equipped with directions, we checked out of our dreamy cabana at Costeño, squinted into the sun and hoped for the best.

THE BUS RIDE

Sure enough, a bus that matched the receptionist’s description barreled down the two-lane road. A tan, slender man in sagging jeans and a few missing front teeth hoisted our bags into the trunk among a cluster of coconuts.

Aboard, he placed a weathered red seat cushion between the driver and front passenger seat and gestured for us to sit. All of the proper seats were full.

Amused, we crouched next to each other to face the other passengers and watched trees and roadside shacks zip past through tattered curtains, like a rewound movie. We looked on, tranquilized by the welcome yet ephemeral breeze that circulated only while in motion.

We pulled over at random intervals to pick up locals. The engine protested as it strained to get back on the road.

Forty minutes on, we diverted from a dusty roundabout. Then, like eager Black Friday shoppers anticipating a cornucopia of discounted delights at the stroke of Midnight, a row of cab drivers flooded the entrance to the bus. Disoriented, I searched in vain for signage that illuminated the way to Minca.

THE CAB RIDE

Amid the chaos, we trusted that this must be where the receptionist at Costeño said we needed to transfer from to move on to Minca. From a point of interest called the Minca Cafe, we would then need to hire a motorcycle taxi the remainder of the way to Casa Elemento.

Inside our new cab, we marveled at plush neon-colored seats, tinted windows and that new car smell. Our driver, consistent with other Colombian cab experiences drove like a maniac. Again, we hoped for the best.

We whipped around turns, dodged piles of fallen rock and raced toward Minca as shades of green blurred and sharpened with each turn. It was a dizzying excursion, and it was far from over.

THE MOTORCYCLE RIDE

The air was fresh and subtly sweet, the mud, slick and earthy. I tried to ignore the bike’s invasive fumes and focused on the environment that teemed around me. From the back of the motorcycle, I peered out through smudged Ray Bans at scenes straight out of the Jungle Book.

On the way up, birds gossiped and trees grew freely. We crossed streams that flowed into a river flanked on our right. Occasionally, locals rolled past us, completely at ease.

Despite gripped abs and inner thighs, bumps sent my backside up before it slammed back down like a WWE maneuver. One time, my Venezuelan driver instructed me to dismount so he could get past a sticky spot, but the bike refused. Venezuela lost his momentum and I felt bike and driver roll back into me. I nearly toppled over.

This happened after I was instructed to dismount the first time and, unaware of motorcycle protocol I got off on the right hand side only to singe my calf as a million pinpricks danced across my flesh.

Shit, this fucking hurts! This shit is going to scar. Are we there yet. Look at the mud on my new Athleta trekking shorts!

The thoughts coursed through me as I scrambled back onto the bike, though my complaints, like the breeze on the bus ride earlier that morning were temporary.

As the engines cut away at the top, a cool serenity wrapped us in a welcome embrace. My leg throbbed, my muscles cramped from the effort to stay upright on the motorcycle. After hours of travel by bus, taxi and motorcycle, I couldn’t tell if I needed food, water or medical attention first.

All I knew was that I was in Colombia with a close friend, having just scaled a lush mountainside with a cool Instagram-worthy hammock at the top. Before that, we were sipping Pina Coladas at sunset under Costeño’s moody skies.

Our efforts to get to Casa Elemento were abundantly rewarded with pints of craft beer on tap, oversized hammocks to relax in, chat up fellow travelers or, when night fell admire the stars that shone brightly without light pollution. There was also a bonfire, a hot meal and a calm quiet that’s rare in the bustling areas of say, Cartagena and Barranquilla.

The view from the top was undoubtedly memorable. However, what I will remember most are the moments of discomfort, humor, confusion and boredom felt from where we started through where we ended.

If a motorcycle burn was the price to pay for a priceless lesson about the human experience, then let it be tribute to taking the long way up.

Sometimes it’s the only way.

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