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Minca: Colombia's Ecotourism Haven
It takes less than 30 minutes to travel from Santa Marta to Minca, but the quaint little village in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains feels like a world away from the city.
With just 500 inhabitants – many of them indigenous peoples such as the Kággaba (Kogi), Ijka (Arhuaco), Wiwa (Arzario) and Kankuamo – this sleepy little town is an under-the-radar ecotourism gem offering attractions such as hiking, bird-watching, waterfalls and the first coffee plantation in South America.
A Spanish adventurer named Don Juan de Minca first settled the area with his family in the 19th century. He saw great potential for a coffee farm thanks to the region’s fertile soil, daily rainfall and temperate climate. He ultimately brought several Puerto Rican and Honduran families in to help him work the land, creating the first coffee plantation in the Americas. Ancestors of those families (with names like Soto and Pérez) still live in Minca today, and five rammed-earth houses from this era still stand.
Don Juan de Minca eventually sent his eldest daughter off to school at a convent in Barranquilla. When the Mother Superior came to visit Minca, she became so enamored with the tranquility and natural beauty of this pastoral paradise that she decided to built a convent there.
Due to the isolation of the location, the convent was closed in the 1960s. But the iconic, Colonial-style building, known as La Casona (the Big House), remained in use, serving as the town’s school and chapel at various times over the years. Eventually the Catholic Church sold it to a businessman, who planned to renovate the building and transform it into a hotel. The builders eventually found gold relics from the ancient Tayrona people hidden beneath the floor.
Bought by new owners in 2010, La Casona became Hotel Minca, with all 13 rooms completely renovated and remodeled. Set on over four acres of mature forest and gardens, the hotel’s fruit and hummingbird feeders attract more than 40 different bird species to the property. The hotel now serves as the home base for our Colombia tours as we enjoy discovering Minca’s beauty in-depth.
LA VICTORIA COFFEE
One of the town’s most popular tourist attractions, Finca La Victoria, is an organic coffee farm originally established in 1892. Built by a British company and named after their Queen at the time, the family-owned operation still uses a lot of the original 19th century machinery, which makes visiting the factory feel like you’ve taken a time machine back to a pre-Industrial Revolution production facility.
A guided tour of La Victoria’s 300-acre farm introduces visitors to the complicated journey involved in producing Colombia’s world-renowned coffee beans, from planting and harvesting to washing and roasting, all of which is powered using hydroelectric energy. Their best beans are often sold directly to Europe, but guests are treated to samples before and after the tour, and many agree it’s some of the most flavorful coffee on the planet.
Of course, incredible coffee is hardly the only reason that guests travel to Colombia and Minca…
Operated by the ProAves Foundation (a conservation organization devoted to protecting Colombia’s wild birds and their native habitat), Minca’s El Dorado Reserve is located in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria, the highest coastal mountain range in the world. This tropical rainforest, which was named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in 1979, boasts a stunning array of biological diversity.
Named after the legendary city of gold, El Dorado is part of Colombia’s birding route, and is considered a Holy Grail for birding in the Americas. This 1,600-acre reserve is the only subtropical-to-mountain forest in the region that’s accessible to visitors, offering stunning opportunities to view myriad rarely-seen bird and mammal species.
More than 300 types of birds can be found in the area, including the endemic Santa Marta Parakeet (pictured right), Santa Marta Sabre-wing, and Santa Marta Foliage-gleaner; regional specialties such as the Black-backed Ant-shrike and Golden-winged Sparrow; and a variety of colorful Motmots and Toucans. Nighttime hikes occasionally reveals nocturnal species such as owls and ocelots.
For bird-watchers, wildlife lovers and other travelers who simply love getting away from it all, Minca remains a precious gem just waiting to be discovered.
Want to learn more about ecotravel in Colombia? Watch a webinar on IE's trip led by Colombia Expedition Leader Greg Homel.
All photos ©Greg R. Homel/Natural Elements Productions
Bret Love is the co-founder and Editor-In-Chief of Green Global Travel and Green Travel Reviews, and is a passionate advocate for ecotourism, environmental conservation and sustainable living. He’s also a veteran freelance writer whose work has appeared in American Way, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and Rolling Stone.