You know that weird feeling when you’re just waiting for a pack of hungry velociraptors to jump out of the woods and a brontosaurus to appear after the next turn? No? So you have to visit Valle de Cocora, a jaw-dropping valley in the Colombian coffee region, where green slopes and huge wax palm trees, up to 60 meters tall, take your mind to your childhood –if you’re old enough– when you saw the first and unforgettable Jurassic Park. Just make sure to not get lost. I’ll explain this last part in a moment.
To visit Valle de Cocora you have to first reach Salento, a colorful little village which is changing a lot due to its increasing popularity among tourists. We took a bus from the nearby city of Armenia early in the morning to be able to enjoy all the hike with our proverbial slow pace, but the “Willys” in Salento’s main square were not ready to leave for the valley yet, so we decided to take a short walk in the village.
Salento was a typical small village of farmers cultivating mainly coffee, but in recent years tourism became the main pillar of the local economy so, especially along Calle Real, you can easily find handcrafts, coffee products and restaurants specialize in freshwater trout. Since it’s a relatively small village we recommend to walk in other streets too, to be able to find more authentic locally-made products and avoid the more crowded and commercial places.
The rule of thumb is that a Willys jeep is never really full.
Eventually the “Willys” were ready to go, so we jumped on one… with 12 other people and we headed to the entrance of the valley. The “Willys” are the original WWII jeeps –just to add up to the Jurassic park feeling– but pimped-out Colombian style.
The rule of thumb is that a Willys jeep is never really full. Andrea, already experienced on these vehicles, was quite comfortable hanging on the back but, as a “gringo”, I felt quite uneasy clenching my hands on the roll-bar the whole time. If you want to get a taste of how extreme this can get, just google “Yipao parade”, where these jeeps filled up with… everything run around town on two wheels, with or without the driver!
The ride lasted about 20 minutes and it took us at the entrance of the valley, where we were already able to see the first iconic wax palm trees –officially the national tree of Colombia–. This is a somewhat crucial point: after the last shops you have to take the path on the right and enter a blue gate, but we just went straight. Don’t make our same mistake… or do it if you have time, it’s a nice walk too.
As I said, we went straight and, knowing that the entire walk would have taken 4 or 5 hours, we didn’t mind being in the cloud forest for a while. Oddly enough there weren’t many people on the same route.
The trail initially runs along a river, crossing it a few times on sketchy-looking bridges made out of old tree trunks and taking you to a gorgeous small waterfall where a girl, walking in the forest with her headphones, passed us at twice our speed –seriously, who wants to listen to music during a hike?!–. This is where we started to go up, and up, and up, but hey, we’re in the mountains, it’s not supposed to be flat.
After 3 hours, dozens of pictures portraying the local fauna and flora, and almost no one else, the cloud forest didn’t seem to have an end, when we suddenly met the “headphone” girl walking back. Were we finally close to the end? Nope!
–Hey, what a relief to listen to a girl’s voice! –she said to Andrea –I followed the path for a while but it doesn’t seems to go anywhere… then I saw a couple of people on the trail ahead and you know, I’m a girl alone in the jungle and I got scared, so I decided to come back!
–Umm, really? –I said, a little confused –I think this is the only path there is. –And of course I was wrong.
Most tourists always imagine South America, and especially Colombia, as a huge and wild jungle.
Anyway Andrea and I were trying not to laugh! Jungle?! She will probably have an amazing story for her friends back in the Netherlands about the day when she got lost in the Colombian “jungle” and survived, so we didn’t want to tell her the truth: this is “just” a cloud forest. For some reason –and Andrea has her theory about it– most tourists always imagine South America, and especially Colombia, as a huge and wild jungle.
After some talking trying to figure out where we were, an old farmer passing by with his mule told us that we were on the wrong path heading to Los Nevados Natural National Park, a 2 day hike. Fuck! We had two different feelings at the same time: the sadness for having thrown away an entire day without seeing the famous valley, and the satisfaction for having done a good and different walk.
On the way back we encountered various people who made the same mistake and the group got bigger and bigger, but we weren’t in a rush so we gradually ended up at the end of the line, loosing sight with the rest.
Back in Salento we met Séfora, an old friend of Andrea who lives there. After a well deserved coffee break, she took us to the lookout at the end of Calle Real. Climbing all those stairs is worth it during the late afternoon, when you can appreciate the sunset and the nearby valley flooded in yellows and oranges. Once there, Andrea and Séfora wanted me to try a forcha. The forcha is a kind of sweet beer made of cane sugar tea, spices and flour. Delicious!
And don’t forget to ask for a ñapa, the customary free refill of your cup. After this we ended up in the shop of Séfora’s mother, a nice and small store selling all types of handcrafted products, chitchatting until it was time to take the bus back to Armenia.
Two days after our first and failed attempt to see Valle de Cocora we tried again and this time we succeeded, with the plus of a sunny day. This time we entered the blue gate and found ourselves walking in a beautiful open valley surrounded by green mountains, but the landscape changed quickly, becoming again cloud forest.
This path is not very well-marked, and after a few small bridges and a couple of wooden signs, we managed to arrive at the first stop of the hike: Acaime, the hummingbird sanctuary. The entrance is 5,000 Colombian pesos (about $1.7) with a complimentary hot or cold beverage.
In Acaime we had the opportunity to watch those fragile little birds from really up close, flying at incredible speed from one feeding pot to the other. We also saw some South American coati, also knows as Nasua Nasua, walking among tourists looking for food. Keep an eye to those little skunks, they bite!
We wanted to continue to Valle de Cocora so we walked back on our steps for a while, about 20 or 30 minutes, and continued on the other direction from where there is the first wooden sign pointing to Acaime. This was the hardest part of the hike but not anything too difficult, after going uphill for a while we eventually reached Finca La Montaña, where the path starts to go down again.
The scenery is mesmerizing, almost unreal.
Not long after this we finally entered the iconic Valle de Cocora. My jaw literally dropped on the ground when we were faced with all the countless giant wax palm trees. The scenery is mesmerizing, almost unreal. After recollecting my jaw we chose a nice spot to eat our packed lunch and contemplate this unique landscape.
On the way back we got welcomed in Salento by a beautiful rainbow, our last salute from this beautiful village before taking the bus to Armenia.