It started with a whisper. A soft voice calling across the plains of Backpackistan. “Casa Elemento, you should go”.
I first heard it in Guatemala, from a plumber by the name of Josh. “I spent five months there man, in the jungle, sleeping in a hammock; building, working, creating something”. I made a note of it and continued upon my adventures.
Slowly, sleepily, I wound my way down Central America, I surfed, I met new people. Nicaragua, the name came up again “Casa Elemento, it’s worth the road”. I had yet to understand.
I sailed, explored Caribbean islands, I arrived in Cartagena. There, faded and peeling, stuck to the wall of a hostel, I saw a poster; Casa Elemento. I took it as a sign, this was a place I needed to be. I caught a bus to Santa Marta and, from there, a jeep along a dusty track to the small town of Minca, nestled at the foot of a series of jungle-clad peaks.
He approached me with a self-assured swagger, “Casa Elemento”, it was a statement, not a question. I followed him, he pointed upwards, a muddy path snaking up into the jungle and out of sight. “Donde está Casa Elemento?”, my rudimentary Spanish.
Again, he gestured to the path and then to a battered motorbike. I adjusted my pack and followed him to the bike. It had taken a beating, panels were cracked and bent, it had been much repaired, it was almost completely covered in mud. I slipped on behind him, grasped the pillion handles and we set off up the track.
Twenty minutes later and I was seriously questioning the sanity of this venture. The route was ludicrous, one of the worst roads I had ever encountered. Deep troughs, filled with sucking, oozing mud. Sheer drops on one side and the pressing, claustrophobic jungle on the other.
Overhanging branches whipped at our faces as we bumped up insane slopes, potholes either side, no room for error. We made many an error. We hit a deep pothole head on and the bike made a loud crunch. The driver swore in Spanish, gunned the engine and slowly, with maximum revs, we crept out of the mud. We picked up speed, coasting along a single piece of concrete, perhaps a foot wide, which some enterprising soul had laid for five hundred meters or so before giving up.
Turning a corner, we braked harshly, my head whipped forwards and I slammed into the back of my driver. Ahead of us, a jeep, half on the path and half off, precariously balanced over a drop of several hundred meters. We stopped, dismounted and rushed to help. As a team, four of us rocked and pushed the jeep back onto the road, there was more than one delicate moment.
Fifteen minutes later and I arrived, battered and sore, at a driveway. I paid the motorbike driver and he disappeared swiftly, leaving me alone, surrounded by the sounds of the jungle. I shouldered my pack and headed towards a building. Soaring views opened up to my left, the lush valleys of Minca streaming away from my vantage point.
A man arrived, clad in green, right down to a battered army cap atop his head. “Drop your pack, man, right now!” Somewhat confused, I did as he asked. Was this guy in the army? Had I accidentally stumbled across some kind of gringo guerrilla group hiding in the mountains? Had I unknowingly been recruited to fight for a cause I had yet to learn of? He broke into a smile, “Aaaaaand relax! Well done man, you braved the roads! Let me show you around”.
He introduced himself as Andrew, one of the four founders of the hostel, commune, family, whatever you want to call it. He pointed towards a giant hammock and rushed off on an errand, there was firewood to be collected, dinners to be prepared, he was the most chilled busy person I had met for a while.
The cool mountain air provided a welcome respite from the heat of mainland Colombia. For the first time in a while, I was not sweating. I headed towards the hammock, a huge, six meter by six meter, construction fit for a giant. Half a dozen backpackers lay spreadeagled across it, suspended above nothingness, swirling mists fingerprinting in the jungles below.
Some were reading, others were chatting. None were on a laptop, there was no sign of an iPhone, I did not have to listen to somebody Skype home. This could work, I thought to myself. I joined them upon the hammock and we talked, as a group, it was a different vibe to the one I had become used to in many of the hostels of Central America.
The day faded as the sky came alive with pinks and purples, oranges and reds. In the distance, a thunderstorm raged as lightning slashed across the horizon. I watched from a treehouse, the kind of thing a few kids may knock up in a weekend, perched in a nearby tree.
Dinner was nearly ready, I joined a long table, similar in size to what you would expect at a wedding and sat upon a rustic wooden bench. As a group we chatted, played cards, there was perhaps twenty of us. It was much like being at a dinner party, nobody was on their phones, everybody interested in the stories of those around them.
Later, I spoke to Andrew, “When we first came here man, there was nothing. Our very first night, we had our first ever guest, we didn’t have another for two weeks, it’s all been word of mouth”. The road, jokingly referred to as the ‘douchebag filter’, had become a unique selling point for a hostel above the clouds. Up here, little was perfect, there was no hot water, no internet, not enough chairs or even enough beds. In short, if you couldn’t handle the road, you wouldn’t be able to handle the hostel. This was an adventure experience; a backpacker secret for those capable of roughing it, sticking it out, in the hope of finding something unexpected; a unique vibe in the middle of the jungle.
The next day, I threw some supplies in a dry-bag, shrugged on some wellies and set off into the jungle, machete in hand. There was a group of us, half a dozen in all. We followed James, a volunteer at the hostel, “Today, we are going to go somewhere I have never been before” he stated happily. We walked through coffee plantations, sucking upon the sweet centre of the beans, slowly, we descend muddy slopes into the jungle.
A river, gurgling patiently in the distance, we edged closer, cutting a path through the undergrowth with our machetes. The next two hours was a true adventure. We scrambled up waterfalls, edged along muddy banks, splashed through rivers and blazed a trail through the jungle, eventually hacking a path up and out of the valley and returning to Casa Elemento for a well-deserved shower. That evening, I gathered firewood, I lit a fire, I earned my ‘Jungle Level 1 Award’.
Dinner came round again, I sat back, watching rather than talking. Something truly special was happening. Quiet, shy and solo backpackers were here in droves, all were talking to each other. There were no distractions here, no facades to hide behind, interactions were easy, natural. If you wanted time out, hammocks hung from almost every tree, the perfect place to retreat with a book. When you felt ready to socialise, you would wander to the table and within minutes be chatting, playing cards or quietly arguing over the Spanish rules of Monopoly.
“Casa Elemento, you should go” it had started as a whisper, as I had gotten closer, the volume had increased, a slow chanting from the devout, those who had braved the road before me. “It’s above Minca, in the heart of the jungle, you should go”. I had gone, I was already experienced in the jungle but this was something else. It was raw, it was adventure at its best. Not necessarily completely safe, definitely not completely clean but ultimately, completely different to every other hostel I have ever been to.
“Casa Elemento, you should go…”