One of the most recognisable tourist attractions in Colombia, the Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora) is home to the country’s national tree and symbol, the towering Quindío wax palm. An easy trip from Salento, the region was our favourite and a must-see on any Colombian itinerary.
Formed in 1985 (which might I add, was a mighty fine year!), the Cocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park. Prior to the formation of wildlife sanctuary, there were concerns regarding the exploitation of the wax palms, but the national park has since provided a safe haven for these gorgeous trees along with countless other species of local flora and fauna.
Navigating The Cocora Valley
Transport: How to Get to the Cocora Valley
Getting to the Cocora Valley is surprisingly easy and affordable thanks to the colectivo 4WDs (affectionately known as ‘Willys’).
These old trucks give travellers a ride out to the Valley for only COP3,800 each (one way) – the ride isn’t particularly comfortable and they are sin seatbelts, but hey, you’re in Colombia!
Normally you’ll find the colourful Jeeps in the main square but when we found ourselves in Salento over New Years Eve, the square was closed so we made our way to Willys HQ which you’ll find just before the corner of Calle 3 and Carrera 3. Basically, walk up the main road (Carrera 6) and turn left when you come across Calle 3. From there, walk down and up the hill again until you get to Carrera 3 (it’s not too far) – there you’ll find the 4WDs on your left.
Though there are officially set times of departure (check with your hostel as they seem to change a lot), we learnt that in reality, the trucks just leave when they’re full (in both directions). We do suggest you leave no later than 9am, though, to ensure you make it onto the trail with plenty of time to spare.
Option One: The Short Trip To Valle de Cocora
If you’re tight on time or just aren’t in the mood for a full hike, you can still tick off the highlight of the Valley, those giant wax palms.
Once you arrive, just keep walking straight ahead and after 20 minutes or so, you’ll find yourself at the base of the palms. From there, you’ll be free to head higher towards La Montana or to stay down on the lowlands – both are gorgeous.
Option Two: The Full Hike Through The Cocora Valley
Do you have more time to explore? With a whole day at your disposal, we really recommend you undertake the full hike, looping around Valle de Cocora.
To start, you’ll want to turn right at the blue gate, following the path down the hill. This track will take you past the trout farm and eventually through the cloud forest, along the river and up to La Montana before winding back down through the palms.
The Highlights of the Full Hike Along the Cocora Loop
Checking out the Trout Farm
As you approach the bottom of the hill, soon after passing through the initial gate, you’ll come across a trout farm welcoming visitors.
The farm itself isn’t anything spectacular but we enjoyed wandering alongside the tanks, trying to spot the biggest fish whilst scattering food. It certainly wasn’t the main highlight of the day, but if you have the time, it’s a worthwhile stop on the hike.
Cloud Forest Beauty
The start of the hike along the loop is a fairly uninspiring one, working its way along a muddy walking path, with paddocks on either side. Before long though, grass gives way to the most beautiful cloud forest; if not for the lack of ferns in fact, we’d have sworn we were back home in New Zealand!
The hike through the forest is absolutely gorgeous. Aptly named 7 Puentes (or 7 bridges), hikers move back and forth over a series of bridges, always weaving their way over the cascading river.
The hike itself isn’t incredibly challenging but on a muddy, misty and surprisingly warm day, it’s fair to say, we felt it that evening! If you’re prepared and take it slowly, you’ll make it through the hike without any problems, regardless of the weather.
Acaime – Hummingbirds Galore
Tucked a little off the main loop, you’ll find Acaime, a hummingbird sanctuary. Though the sanctuary is basic, it’s a great opportunity to see these incredible little birds in the wild. All of the birds are free to come and go as they like (but with sugar water on offer, why would they ever leave?!) and a reasonable array of species can be found showing off.
Entrance includes a drink and there’s a very basic kitchen if you’d like some food cooked up. The walk adds approximately 40 minutes each way to your hike but if you have the time, it’s a worthwhile addition to your day. We sat happily for 20 minutes or so watching the birds flitting around – I just can’t get enough of them!
La Montana & The Main Event – The Wax Palms
The icon, both of this region and of Colombia itself, the wax palms are no doubt the main reason visitors make the pilgrimage to the Cocora Valley.
When we first reached the palms, just down from La Montana, they were absolutely enveloped in mist. Though the mist brought with it its own sense of magic, it was a little disappointing to have finally made it to the palms, only to find them practically unrecogniable.
Though visitors are able to walk down (or up) the steep mountain path, due to the rain and mist, it was abundently clear to us that it wasn’t a good idea at that point in time. Instead, we continued our hike down the road, where we could be sure of our footing.
As we neared the bottom, we were finally rewarded with clearing weather and beautiful views of the trees that we came to see…
Seriously – look at them!!
The Cost of a Day at Cocora Valley
The real beauty of a trip to Valle de Cocora (aside from the obvious natural beauty) is its price. A day in the national park will cost you very little but even at twice the price, it would be a bargain by international standards.
- Colectivo to Cocora Valley = COP3,800 per person, one way (USD1.35/NZD1.85)
- Entrance to the park (for the longer hike) = COP3,000 each (USD1.05/NZD1.45).
- A self-guided tour of the trout farm = COP3,000 including a bag of fish food (USD1.05/NZD1.45)
- A visit to the hummingbird sanctuary, Acaime = COP5,000 including a drink (USD1.75/NZD2.40)
All up, a that’s a total of COP18,600 each (USD6.55/NZD9.00) which, if you ask us, is fantastic value!
NB: We’ve been hearing mixed things about hiking directly to the palm trees… some people say that part of the hike is free, whereas others have said it’s more expensive than entering from the other side of the park. If you’ve recently visited Valle de Cocora and decided to head straight to the wax palms, we’d love to hear of your experience.
Gear List: What You’ll Need for the Cocora Valley
Good shoes. Ensure your shoes/boots have good soles on them (and that you don’t mind them getting dirty). If you don’t have anything that fits the bill, you may like to look at hiring a pair of gumboots from town before leaving Salento.
- A rain jacket. Due to the location and elevation of the palms, they often sit amongst the mist and rain in the afternoon. This needn’t stop you but be sure to take a jacket (or at the very least, a poncho) so you can hike in comfort.
- Water and snacks. There are a few places on the trail where you can buy food and drinks (La Montana and the hummingbird sanctuary) but options are limited. You’re best to take your own and supplement your packed lunch with treats should you wish.
- Sun protection. Though we didn’t need it, on a nicer day, you won’t want to be without a hat and sunscreen.
A good backpack. If you undertake the full loop you’ll want to put your gear in a comfy day bag.
With gorgeous views, iconic sights, a good dose of exercise and a price tag that’ll make your wallet happy, a visit to the Cocora Valley, just outside of Salento is an absolute must whilst you’re in Colombia.
… just remember, we told you how muddy it can get!