Casa Elemento- A Paradise in the Sky

Casa Elemento Hostel, Minca, Colombia

Casa Elemento Hostel lives in an untouched world in the mountains of Minca, Colombia

From the world’s largest hammock to sunrise jungle hikes, Casa Elemento is worth the trek up the Sierra Nevadas.


Casa Elemento sits perched in the green, wild mountains of Minca, Colombia. Leah, Greer, Kat and I decided to head over to the famous backpacker hostel to catch up with a friend of theirs from Australia, Alec, who works there as the chef and to see what the fuss was about. Word under the bunk beds was that this hostel offers its guests magic mushrooms to take and trip on while enjoying the scenery. We learned within minutes of arriving that it does not, in fact, offer such a treat, but more on that later.

We left our hostel, the Dreamers, in Santa Marta and took a bumpy cab ride south through the Magdalena region to the small, shabby-but-charming town of Minca. Along the way, we were stopped by police on the side of a choppy, broken road under the cool shade of the cloud forests. As our driver pulled over his brown heap, we all hurriedly stashed any money or drugs in our bras and prepared our sweet Gringa smiles for the inquisitive pigs. Turns out, the cops were only looking to have a little fun, and they joked with us and commented on how beautiful our passport photos were and warned us about sand flies up at Casa Elemento before they sent us on our way.

The small corner of organized town-ness that I could see in Minca held little more than a restaurant and hostel or two, a few convenience stores, and about 20 motorcycle riders vying for the attention of any tourist whom they could charge for a ride up the mountain to the hostel. As eager faces and oil-stained hands tried to pull me in the direction of their individual bike, I was reminded of the time in Cusco when colectivo drivers competed with their peers to win more bodies in their vans to Ollantaytambo. Instantly over-stimulated and frustrated, I walked away from the group that was harassing me in a huff and found a driver standing off to the side, bothering no one, and asked if he’d be so kind as to take me up. I paid him his 15,000 pesos as I straddled the seat of the bike. I’ve learned that it’s always best to pay the agreed upon fare before the ride begins, not after you’ve arrived. Many drivers will take it upon themselves to charge you more at the end of the journey, guessing that you’d rather just pay up than have a confrontation.

The only way up the muddy mountain to Casa Elemento, Minca is on a motorcycle
The girls and I ride on the backs of motorcycles to make it up and down the mountain to Casa Elemento.

So there we were, the four of us giggling under our helmets and mounted behind some locals. The ascent was curvy and steep, but my driver was up to the task, expertly balancing on thin pavement when there was any, dodging potholes, and easing us through the sucking mud. I tried to move with the bike and lean forward as much as possible to make it easier for him, and he told me he appreciated the effort and even offered to let me drive, which I declined. It wasn’t long before my whoops of pleasure at going fast around bends and hilarious cackles resulted in my driver and me being far ahead of the group. I could tell he was happy to have a friendly, Spanish-speaker who liked to ride fast behind him.

The air on the mountain where Casa Elemento sits was thick with moisture, but still impossibly fresh. A tall barefoot American with sandy blonde hair and aviators on greeted us and pointed through a sort of sunroom to the outdoor bar where we could check in. When we called to make the booking, as there is no internet or Wifi access up there, we were told that only two of us could have beds and the other two would have to sleep in hammocks. Kat and I opted to take the hammocks- I had never slept in one and felt like I should before leaving South America, and she just didn’t mind them. While we were ordering up our first drinks of the night and inquiring, to no avail, about mushrooms, we ran into more than a handful of travelers we already knew from other hostels, which wasn’t shocking considering the popularity of this particular lodging.

Casa Elemento's bar is outside.
the outdoor bar of Casa Elemento
Casa Elemento hostel in Minca, Colombia has a great pool
Casa Elemento pool

While we didn’t find mushrooms we did find much more: a paradise in the sky. The commune-esque hostel boasts being the home to the biggest hammock in the world. The girls and I couldn’t wait to take our drinks and lounge on the giant net, to hang seemingly over the edge of the world, swatting away the millions of sand flies that apparently lived and reproduced in the ropes of the net.

Safety rules at Casa Elemento's giant hammock
World’s Largest Hammock rules
Relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Ladies chillin on the hammock, Casa Elemento
Visitors to Casa Elemento relax on the giant hammock.
Greer and Kat enjoying the hammock.
Cheers to Casa Elemento's giant hammock in the sky. Minca, Colombia
Cheers to the World’s Largest Hammock!


The night was relaxing and peaceful. We drank and smoked and laughed. We traded stories with other travelers around a campfire, crammed together on the hammock in the tree house watching people shower below us, itched our bug bites and ate whatever Alec dished out for lunch and dinner. I don’t remember what we talked about. All I remember is feeling blessed to be where I was.

Guests in a hammock in a treehouse at Casa Elemento
Greer and Kat in the treehouse.


Yoga and relaxing on the giant hammock at Casa Elemento
Clouds move over the view of the Sierra Nevadas at Casa Elemento
Misty sunset at Casa Elemento, Minca, Colombia
Beautiful, misty sunset over the World’s Largest Hammock

When the time came to go to bed, I found myself a hammock that had been strung up in the aforementioned sun room, covered myself in every bit of clothing I owned and any blanket I could find, and swayed myself to sleep. I woke up early the next morning and went to use the outdoor toilet in a room with three walls— the missing wall reveals the beautiful scenery of the Sierra Nevadas. As I walked barefoot back from the bathroom, I noticed that people were asleep literally wherever they could find a comfortable spot. One couple had dragged a mattress onto the giant hammock and were sound asleep there. Another couple was sharing the hammock in the tree house. Someone was floating in the water, all of the sunroom hammocks were taken, as well as any spare couch or cushion inside. It felt hippie-like and homey, and made me feel comforted that everyone here had made this place their home for the time being.


by Rebecca Bellan

28 Signs You’ve Been to South America

Llamas in Chile are like cows in the US

Traveling through South America has a way of staying with you.

If you still wear your alpaca sweater everyday or have acquired a hankering for pork rinds, you probably have spent some time in South America.

I find that every time you travel, you adapt a little bit, or a lot, to your new surroundings in ways that may be hard for you and your less-traveled peers to understand. Don’t feel bad. It happens to the best of us. I’ve compiled a list of character traits to help pin down the people who have spent a good amount of time in South America. Leave a comment if you can think of anything to add!

You know you’ve been to South America when…

  • You crave arepas and empanadas when you’re drunk instead of pizza and lo mein.

    Arepa con huevo, a Colombian delicacy
    Arepa con huevo, egg arepa, from Cartagena, Colombia
  • you’ve realized that they weren’t lying when they said that you can’t flush toilet paper.
  • muscle memory has you throwing away toilet paper in the bin instead of in the toilet.
  • you, or someone you know, have a cool Salar de Uyuni photo as your/their profile or cover photo on Facebook.
photo credit- Blake Matich
photo credit- Blake Matich
  • you start calling ketchup “tomato sauce” because in Spanish it translates to salsa de tomate.
  • you’ve either worn, held, fed or eaten an alpaca/llama.

    Only costs a few soles to hold a baby alpaca in Peru
    Holding a baby alpaca in Cusco, Peru.
Alpaca hair makes a warm material for clothing in Peru.
Rocking my warm alpaca sweater from Peru.
posing with a llama in Chile
Alpaca dinner
Alpaca dinner
  • you know how to score prescription pills from the pharmacy, without a prescription.
  • you’ve never been so sunburnt.

    Intense sunburn from an Ecuadorean sun.
    Nearly a year later, and I still have those tan lines.
  • you have, or know someone who has, crapped your/their pants…in public.
  • you have, or know someone who has, been robbed.
  • you recognize the value of the currency instead of having to do math to figure out the dollar amount.
Chilean money
  • you bring along chicharrones for a bus snack instead of Doritos.
  • coca tea becomes an acceptable substitution for coffee.
  • you’ve found all kinds of weird flavors of Lays potato chips.
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
they really do taste like pollo a la brasa from Peru
  • you’ve literally been eaten alive by mosquitos.
not as bad as the people who look like they’ve had a herpes outbreak on their calves, but still
  • you’ve had nightmares from malaria pills.
  • if you can’t talk about poops with someone at your hostel, you don’t want to be their friend.
  • you were seriously impressed by the street produce.

    Large avocados found in Medellin, Colombia
  • the thought of putting on shoes other than flip flops or hiking boots is daunting.
  • you’re in a public place and immediately try to struggle with Spanish when talking to strangers, before realizing that you’re home now and can speak English.
  • you don’t fear insects anymore.
  • you hide your iPhone under your pillow before leaving the room.
  • you see a sign that says “areas” and you think “arepas.”
  • someone tells you it’s 23 degrees back home and you can’t believe they’re having such nice weather in December (only applies to Americans using the Imperial system during the winter).
kill me
  • you think it’s acceptable to wear your alpaca sweater daily (after all, there is no warmer material).
  • your cabbie stops at a toll and you prepare yourself to be searched by the police.
  • ponchos are a warm and sensible fashion statement.
being a weirdo with matching ponchos
  • you’ve made friends with at least one stray/hostel dog or cat.
Found a dog to play with in Salento, Colombia
Made good friends with this good boy in Salento, Colombia
Randall, the house pup of HI Arica
Posing with Randall, whom I met in Chile.



by Rebecca Bellan



Cotopaxi: Neck of the Moon

Cotopaxi Volcano, Neck of the Moon, Ecuador

 The challenging ascent and descent of Cotopaxi Volcano in Ecuador.

The struggling 5,000 meter climb and subsequent bike ride to a lagoon was an incredibly rewarding physical experience.

Latin Adventure Tours bus to Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador
Latin Adventure Tours bus to Cotopaxi Volcano, Ecuador

Screenshot 2014-10-13 10.46.29

I stood outside the bus at the base of Cotopaxi Volcano shivering as I watched the guide put on a winter coat, a vest, a ski mask, goggles, gloves, and ski poles. I did not bring proper attire for high altitude climbing. I told myself to suck it up. I spent the last five years dealing with Boston winters. Ecuador doesn’t scare me. Even so, I donned my new Alpaca gloves and an extra shirt that a French guy in my tour offered me. In total I had on cargo pants, a tank top, two long sleeved shirts, a sweatshirt, a rain coat and my hiking boots. The wind went right through me, depriving me of the possibility of warmth from the strong sun and whipping my hair into a rat’s nest. I braided the knots and hid them in my hood.

Looking up, the mountain before me took my breath away, a slanted wall of red soot with a blinding white peak. I understood why the Incans called it “Neck of the Moon.” We started the incline, instantly far more strenuous than I thought it would be just looking at it. After about twenty paces, the others in my group and I gave up on small talk, each of us breathing the thin air far too heavily to be able to keep up conversation. My heart was soon pounding through my five layers. Wisps of hair were escaping from my hood and finding a home in the corners of my mouth, and I tried in vain to use my gloved hands to push my hair out of my eyes and the snot from trailing uncontrollably out of my nose.

Screenshot 2014-10-13 10.47.22

About half way up I wished I had listened to my pep talk about Boston winters; I was sweating hard from the exertion. There were about 15 people in my original group, but I could only see a few Germans around my own age. One graciously extended a hand to me just as I was slipping on some loose rocks. We stopped probably every fifty meters or so to catch our breath and to blink away the spots in our eyes. Our consolation for the struggle? The view. When I wasn’t looking at my feet, trying to time my breaths with my steps like Nigel Thornberry from The Wild Thornberrys taught me in that episode they went to Machu Picchu, I was looking ahead at the slowly growing glacier, and behind me at how far I had come. The higher up I went, the more I was able to see of the road we drove on winding like a snake before me, the lagoon we would visit later, Cotopaxi’s mountain siblings standing proudly in her marvelous shadow, and even the city of Quito beyond. I had to resist the urge to take a photo every time I stopped to breathe because the clouds shifted constantly, always revealing a new part of the mountain. With each step I took on the zigzagging trail, I was more and more proud of myself, a feeling that was quickly diminished as mountain children sprinted easily up the steep inclines past me.

During one of my breaks, I sat perched on a jagged rock and watched as a sweet father made the trek with his young daughter on his shoulders. He smiled at me knowingly, and seemed to respect that a gringo had come to pay homage to his queen. He reassured me that I was close to the rest lodge and continued on his way, making his child giggle and pointing out sights to her. I sat there, waiting for the wind to die and for the footsteps to stop so I could meditate in the utter silence. I closed my eyes and was at peace. But soon I heard the huffing and puffing of other hikers. I opened my eyes to see a few kids pushing a cart up the mountain, their dad pulling it in the front. All I could think was, Damn, what badass kids. You couldn’t pay an American kid to work that hard.


At last, I made it to the rest lodge. I call it a rest lodge because after about an hour and a half of inclination, we were still not at the top. My clothes were soaked with sweat, I was swallowing my snot and hair, and my head was pounding from lack of oxygen. We hadn’t yet reached that pristine white that I had been staring at like a beacon, but part of me hoped this was the end anyway. Apparently my guide had every intention of continuing upward, but the sissies were allowed to go back down and wait on the bus. A few of the older Spanish tourists and some of the Germans took the bait, but I didn’t come this far just to wuss out when I was only another twenty to thirty minute hike from the holy land. I bought some reviving $2 hot chocolate and bread from an Ecuadorean angel, and that was all the comfort I needed (it was also all that was available…Banos? No. Servilletas? No. Agua? No.) Another American and I noted how much money that woman could make if she sold water, napkins and other refreshments there as well, and how that same cup of cocoa would have been $8 in the States. But alas, that is American way, not the Ecuadorean.



We continued up into the clouds. After my half hour rest, I was shivering again and eager to keep moving. The incline got steeper and I often found myself climbing with my hands as well as my feet. The dusty red dirt was coloring my new gloves and lining the inside of my mouth. I was making my way over some solid rocks when I realized how close I was to the ice. My stomach lurched, and it was too much for me. I plopped onto the ground to catch my breath for the last time before I reached my destination. A German offered to take my picture. Then it was just a hop and a skip over a creek of melting ice and I was waiting in line to have my picture taken in the middle of the glacier. It was bright, despite the shade from the cloud we were in. (The UV rays were strong up there and my face got very sunburnt.) At some points, all I could see was the ice in front of me, the red soil beneath me, and the white of the cloud.

dirty palms
Where I fell before the glacier.

image image  image


When I had had my fill of pristine views, and when our guide declared it was time to go and started calling park security on people who were far on the ice without proper ice gear, I reluctantly made my way down. Going down the mountain is a whole other challenge. I slipped and stumbled and slid and busted my ass on some rocks before I got the hang of it, thanks to a native who taught me the swagger of descent, pointing both feet forward, leaning back on your heels and sort of slide-bouncing while swinging your arms for balance. On my way down, I passed other hikers with the same exhausted looks on their faces that I probably had on my way up. I nodded at them reassuringly. Vale la pena? Is it worth it? they’d ask. Si, I’d say with a smile. Vale la pena. Es increible. I made it down before the rest of my group, plenty of time to lighten my shoes and socks of the dirt that accompanied me through my journey.

With a cheesey smile on my face, I sank gratefully into the comfortable reclining bus chair to the applause and questions of those whose physical stamina couldn’t handle the second part of the mountain. I was hungry and exhausted, but felt accomplished. I was proud of myself. But it wasn’t over yet. The second part of our adventure tour was soon underway. After a short bus ride that I slept through, we stopped on the side of the road, amid some smaller mountains and plateaus. Those who felt up to the challenge of mountain biking were asked to step off the bus and put on helmets. Our guide sternly reminded us of the waivers we had signed stating that we were physically fit and trained in the exercises of hiking and biking. I’m a competent city biker, so naturally I wanted to join the mountain bike trip down to the lagoon.

The second I parked my ass on the small, hard bike seat and felt the back wheel skid on the gravel without my permission, I knew I was in trouble. But I don’t give up. The procession began with a tall blonde German boy in a bright orange vest. I was second, but not for long, because I soon ate it and tumbled off my bike. I took the rest of the way down easy, and thankfully it was all down hill. The road was unbearably rigged and bumpy and covered in small and large rocks. I dodged these obstacles, gritting my teeth and screeching most of the way down, not daring to look at the beautiful scenery around me for fear of missing a curve in the dirt or a bump in the road that would send me flying. The image of a girl from my hostel who had cut up her face falling off one of these mountain bikes seared in my head. My hands were killing me from holding onto the handle bars for dear life. 60% pressure on the right for the front wheel and 40% on the left for the back wheel. That’s what my instructor told me to do, and pretty soon I understood why and was flying down, able to glance up every now and again to take it all in and realize that I was alone and could see none of the other bikers ahead of me. For some reason I wasn’t worried. I had control of my bike, and though it was physically challenging, I had my bike and a general idea of where I was headed. After all, I had seen this very road ending with the lagoon when I was climbing the mountain.



I was the last one to make it but at least I made it. One girl had to stop and get on the bus before she reached the finish line. The lagoon was cool, the day was cloudy, and I looked up at the mountain that I had climbed, happy that I came to Ecuador and ready for more adventures.


Check out Latin Adventure Tours based out of Quito on TripAdvisor!


by Rebecca Bellan