Minca, a small village in the hills above Santa Marta, is a favourite of the Lonely Planet and other guide books. It is also a place with a much too intimate relationship with ‘the violence’. It was first a thriving coffee town (in the mid 1800s) then when coffee was replaced with marujarana, it became a town with a strong community spirit. Then the guerrillas came, twice taking over the town (1988 and 1998), removing the police (in 1998, after a significant gun battle) and killing local businessmen. The last attack caused the majority of the inhabitants to flee to Santa Marta. Then the Paramilitaries came to ‘protect’ the population, and by protect, they meant rape, kill, extort etc. When the violence ended, the remoteness of Minca meant that peace came late and it has only really been safe for about 7 years.
The Paramilitaries were replaced by tourists and sharp business people who saw the tourist opportunity. It is close to a big tourist centre (Santa Marta), to a national park and is high enough to give people the chance to experience a cooler hill town, with coffee plantations, waterfalls, challenging hikes and natural swimming pools without venturing too far.
The town still seems to be coming to terms with this invasion and all those we spoke to talk of a divided town. There are the ‘real locals”, who through desperation, sold off great land to ‘outsiders’ who they now see making lots of money from tourists on “ their” land. The ‘outsiders’ feel that they have made the town viable again (cleaned up the streets and river, invested in new buildings, brought in the tourist dollar) with no support from the locals (some newcomers told us they have been taken advantage of and in some cases had their businesses sabotaged (water supplies cut etc). The truth is probably in the middle.
For whatever reason, the town is both popular and underwhelming. The countryside is beautiful, the town is scruffy and ugly and it is full of foreign backpackers and tourists. We saw more foreign tourists here than anywhere else in country and it felt very far removed from the Colombia that we have fallen in love with.
If you are only visiting the north coast of Colombia and want to experience life in the hills, a visit is worthwhile, but if you have been anywhere in the Coffee Zone, or in the beautiful small towns around Medellin, you will have had much, much better experiences already.
If you are there, do two things; go to the Mona bakery and have really good bread, and visit and Manuale at the very basic town museum. At the latter, you will learn a little about the recent history and it is a great way to understand the dynamic of the place. I would also recommend staying in Finca Bolivar. It is a great little Guesthouse in a wonderfully quiet oasis, has access to a great spot to watch the sun go down and is beautifully done.
When we drove down the hill back to Santa Marta Airport for our flight to Bogota (three of us and 6 bags in a very overloaded tiny taxi), I had to admit I was looking forward to leaving the Caribbean coast. It is not awful, but the tourists, the heat and the scruffiness of the area make it ok, rather than special.