This year, when travelling through Colombia, I was lucky and got to see the Cocora Valley. Located close to Salento, in the south of the country, it is a valley of green pastures, cows, hummingbirds and wax palm trees. Those palm trees are the national tree of Colombia and the tallest ones in the world. Walking in between them makes you realise how beautiful nature can be and also how small we are.
The Valle de Cocora is not just worth a visit because of the palm trees. Along the way, you will get great views of lush green valleys and you have the chance to spot hummingbirds and other wildlife at the Casa de las Colibris. Plus, the Cocora Valley is easily accessible from Salento. As you can see, there are lots of reasons to go there.
First of all, you need to get to the Cocora Valley. To do so, you should take a jeep from Salento. Also called willy, the jeep leaves from the town square at set hours in the morning. I have two recommendations for you. First of all, inquire about the exact schedule the evening before. And second, get up early.
The hike takes about five hours, maybe slightly longer if you have more breaks along the way and if you also want to see the hummingbirds. My experience, from the few days I spent in Salento, was that it gets more cloudy in the afternoon. So the sooner you start hiking the higher the chance that you’ll have good weather.
Also, you don’t want to miss the last willy back into town and having to pay for one by yourself.
Talking about which. If you’re unlucky and the jeep is already packed with people, you have two options. You can either hang around and wait for the next one or you can rent one yourself. Try to find other people who will go with you to split the cost. It is more expensive than going with the shared jeep, of course, but the price is still reasonable.
The ride to the Cocora Valley takes about thirty minutes. When you get there, make sure to inquire about the last ride back, just to be on the safe side.
Starting the hike
You have several options for hiking the Cocora Valley. If you’re short on time, you can do a one-hour trip which takes you to the wax palm trees and back again. You will get to see a lush green valley and the palm trees but you’ll miss out on everything else. That’s why I recommend you go for the full loop.
There are two directions in which you can hike the loop. The first one is clockwise. That means you start with the palm trees and then walk through the rainforest until you eventually get back to the parking lot. It is supposed to be easier since the uphill sections are not as steep.
But I highly recommend you go counter-clockwise. That way, you will end your hike in the palm tree valley and save the highlight for the end. Most people were hiking in that direction and I really enjoyed it.
To go counter-clockwise, you start walking in the direction of the palm trees. Then, you eventually need to turn right. I found the beginning of the hike very confusing since there are a few buildings and paths at the starting point. Together with some other backpackers, we walked around for a while until we figured out where to start the hike.
What you need to do is continue walking along the road until you see the gate in the photo above. Then, you have to turn right and follow the signs leading to Acaime (which is the hummingbird house). Someone will ask you for an entrance fee shortly afterwards and then you can start your hike.
Meadows and rainforest
The first part of the hike takes you through lush meadows with grazing cows. The path can be extremely muddy, especially if it rained the days before. Expect to get dirt all over your shoes and trousers (I heard some rumours that you can rent rubber boots at the start of the trail). But the scenery is beautiful and you will have lots of nice views at the beginning.
Eventually, you go into the rainforest where you will cross the river multiple times. There will always be a bridge. If you arrive at the river bed and don’t know how to cross, that means you went wrong and should backtrack. Eventually, you will come to a sign that points to Acaime, Casa de las Colibris. Now you have to decide whether you want to make the detour or not. The Casa de las Colibris is a hummingbird sanctuary. Going here will add another hour or so to your hike but if you have the time, I highly recommend you go.
Casa de las Colibris
Acaime, the hummingbird house, was one of the highlights of the Cocora Valley hike for me. It was a detour and we had to pay to go there but it was totally worth it. Around the house, the owner has put up a few hummingbird feeders and those tiny birds were zipping around everywhere. We spent ages taking pictures of them. And then, just as we had taken a seat, a coati showed up! The animal wasn’t shy at all and I suspect that he often hangs out in the area, in the hopes of picking up food from tourists.
The entrance to the Casa de las Colibris includes a drink. You have a few choices but most people go for the hot chocolate with cheese. Yes, with cheese. I know it’s a weird combination and I am still undecided about whether it works or not. But that’s how they serve it and the combination of cheese with something sweet is one I have seen all over Colombia. I’ll leave it up to you to decide whether you like it or not. The cheese comes in a block so it’s very easy to take out.
After you’ve finished your hot chocolate and taken a hundred hummingbird pictures (out of which 99 are going to be blurry because those birds move incredibly fast), it is time to get going again.
Finca La Montaña
This is where we got lost for the second time. Somehow, we had managed to leave the path behind and ended up in front of the river with no bridge nearby. Remember how I told you that there would always be bridges? If this happens to you, backtrack until you come back to the main path. The funny thing is that the main path was very obvious and I have no idea how we managed to miss it.
While searching for the right path, keep in mind that you don’t want to go to Estrella de Agua. You’re looking for Finca La Montaña. So go back to where you went on your detour to Acaime and then start climbing up. This part of the hike is very steep and you might run into a donkey or two along the way. From the Finca, we had a great view of the valley. After taking another break up here, we decided to move on and to finally see those wax palm trees.
The wax palm forest
Finally, after hours of hiking, the forest opened up and we saw our first wax palm trees. This part of the hike slopes gently downhill with lots of viewpoints along the way. We stopped to sit down and have a snack, right underneath one of those giant palm trees. Unfortunately, we took a bit too long because by the time we started walking again, clouds pushed in and the valley didn’t look as nice anymore. Then again, the moody weather adds to the atmosphere.
We took what felt like another hundred photos on your way downhill. From here, the path branches off multiple times to lead you to viewpoints but I found it very easy to keep an overview over where we were. It helps to have maps.me on your phone so you can figure out your location.
All of the paths you can take down the valley eventually converge and end up on a road leading to the starting point. You will walk past the blue gate and get to the parking lot from where you can take a willy back into town.
Things to take
There are a few things you should absolutely take on your hike to the Cocora Valley. Here is a list of what you need to pack:
- Good shoes – if it is very muddy, you might find people renting out rubber boots at the beginning at the trail
- Lots of water
- Snacks – you might not get the chance to buy any food along the way
- Your camera with lots of space on the SD card (taking pictures of hummingbirds is really hard)
- Enough cash to pay for the jeeps and the entrance fees
- Rain poncho – you never know when it might start raining
And that’s it. You don’t need much else on this hike.
Also, consider spending more time in Salento because there are lots of fun things to do. From here, you can easily go on to Medellin and then to Santa Marta in the north or to Bogota in the mountains. Or maybe you’re done with Colombia and prefer to go to Ecuador instead? This is an easy trip as well.
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