Valle de Cocora: “hard on the thighs, easy on the eyes”

Editor’s note: Sara and I have found it interesting to think about what this blog is and isn’t. It’s not a public-facing cash cow (though there are plenty of heavily monetized travel blogs out there), but it’s also somehow more than a diary for us and our friends and family. We’ve leaned heavily on certain blog posts that explain how to do XYZ thing, so we’re starting a “Pay it Forward” series in which we explain in greater detail how we did things that weren’t necessarily obvious to figure out, and that we think others may want to do in the future.

Editor’s note 2: This and a few more forthcoming posts will be pretty substantially backdated. We had the great fortune of traveling with friend Derek and parents Howard and Wendy in Colombia and Ecuador over the last few weeks, and we spent our precious free time with them! We’re catching up on our chronicles over the next several days.

While we were in Salento, we decided to visit and hike through the Valle de Cocora (Cocora Valley), northeast of town and famous for its exceptionally tall wax palms. This turned out to be a Very Good Decision, although (1) the hike is very strenuous and not for everyone and (2) honestly, the wax palms were probably the least compelling part of the experience. (Then again, folks who didn’t grow up with the coast redwoods – the actual tallest trees on earth – might feel differently.)

At a Glance

You’ll take a jeep from Salento up to the trailhead, hike at fairly high intensity for four to six hours, then return. You’ll probably want to start hiking by 11:00 am, and the last jeeps back to Salento depart Cocora around 6:00 pm. Bring 18,000 COP per person – 8,000 for transportation, 5,000 for access fees, and 5,000 for an optional but lovely visit to a hummingbird reserve.

Here’s a Strava recording of our hike:

PRO TIP OF THE DAY

While Google Maps is an invaluable resource worldwide, we have found that it is not very good for (1) hikes (2) in South America. Compare the level of detail for the Valle de Cocora offered in Google Maps vs. OpenStreetMap: OSM has much more, and more accurate, information, including clear hiking paths for the entire journey.

You may already be aware you can download Google Maps data for offline use, but you can also easily store offline OSM data using MAPS.ME, which seems to be pretty popular among the hiker/backpacker circuit.

Another great resource for planning hikes is the Strava Global Heatmap. Strava, which I linked to above, is an app that lets people record bike rides, runs, hikes, etc., and share them online. The company has aggregated millions of activity recordings to produce a global map that shows where people have recorded the most activity – which, in popular hiking regions, tends to clearly illuminate the best, or at least the most popular, trails.

Getting from Salento to Cocora

The Valle de Cocora hike is about 8 miles long, so you probably don’t want to walk to and from the valley in addition to the hike itself. It would be a fierce but feasible bike ride (on the way up; easy on the way back down), but the best way to get there and back is by informal transit, i.e. riding in the back of a jeep.

There’s a fun and funky fleet of WWII-era Willys jeeps based out of the central square in Salento. Scheduled departures leave for Cocora theoretically at 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, and 11:30 am, and probably before and after that. We took the 10:30 departure and there were enough passengers that they sent two jeeps instead of just one. Tickets are 4,000 COP (about $1.30) per person per direction, and are sold at a kiosk on the main square. If you need to leave between scheduled departures, you can charter a jeep for 36,000 COP, which could be a good deal if you have a big group (since you can squeeze about 14 passengers, sitting and standing, per jeep). Buy round trip tickets at the kiosk in Salento so you can save a little time and trouble buying the return journey later.

It’s maybe a 20 minute jeep ride from Salento to Cocora. You get off in a parking lot next to a restaurant and from there you can walk out to the main road and walk up the hill to the trailhead.

The Trailhead

There are a few decent guides to this hike online, but they don’t do a good job of explaining where to actually start. Part of the issue is that it’s a loop hike and you can go either clockwise or counterclockwise, so there are two “trailheads.”

We chose to hike counterclockwise and were very glad to have made that choice. Traveling counterclockwise, you begin by passing through lovely farmland, then climb gradually up along a creek in the cloud forest, then attack a very steep hill to reach a farm at 9,500 feet elevation, and finally descend gradually among the wax palms themselves. This seemed to be both more challenging and more satisfying than the other direction.

In either case, start by heading uphill on the main road after you leave the parking lot. Keep an eye out for a blue metal gate and a path leading off to the right.

The trail for the counterclockwise loop leads off to the right here.

If you’re hiking counterclockwise, turn right after the gate; it’s a little sooner than you’d think, and it’s not super obvious that it’s the trail, but you’ll know you’re on the right track because you’ll descend to a stream and encounter a well-maintained hiking path up the valley. (If you’re using Google Maps, this trail is marked as the “Via al Valle del Cocora.”)

If you go clockwise, keep going straight up the main road, which quickly turns into a broad unpaved path that snakes gradually up the side of the valley. (This is the roadway, unnamed in Google Maps, that runs along the stream labeled “Rio Quindio” – although Google Maps is wrong; the Rio Quindio runs through the Valle de Cocora itself and the northern tributary is actually the Quebrada Cárdenas.)

The Hike

You’ll walk east-south-east amid farmland on the valley floor for about an hour. Early on, you encounter the first of two “tollbooths,” where you pay 2,000 COP per person for the privilege of walking through some private property. (There is some controversy about these tolls – tour guides and local tourism promoters are understandably opposed to them – so I wouldn’t be too surprised if they disappeared sometime in the future.)

After about a mile and a half, the farmland ends and you enter a dense cloud forest. The trail pitches upwards, gets wetter, and repeatedly crosses the Rio Quindio on a series of increasingly, even comically, rickety bridges. The foliage here is just amazing, and you might consider bringing binoculars as there are probably some ostentatious birds afoot.

After about another mile and a half, you’ll come to a fork in the trail – a decision point. The trail to the right leads up to the Acaime Natural Reserve, a lovely lunch spot that is a hummingbird sanctuary. It’s about 20 minutes’ walk each way, and it costs 5,000 COP per person to enter, but (1) hummingbirds!!! and (2) you get a free drink, including the perplexing yet undeniable local specialty of hot chocolate with a big piece of cheese in it. We took this option and were glad we did. Or you can go left and immediately begin the steep crux of the hike.

Whether you go straight up the hill, or go to Acaime and back, now it’s time for the hardest part of the hike. You’ll gain about 600 feet of elevation across just over half a mile of hard climbing – take your time, as this hike tops out above 9,500 feet elevation. (Sorry, rest of the world, for my use of these Freedom Units.) At the top you will find the aptly named Finca La Montaña and stunning views of the imposing Cerro Morrogacho across the Cocora Valley. (Fewer photos here as we were hiking too hard to take pictures!)

Now all that’s left to do is to descend gradually into the wax palm forest, and to marvel at the views. You’ll be on a broad dirt road and can’t possibly get lost. There’s another toll booth (3,000 COP per person), and later on there’s a fun and steep optional cutoff on your left. Or you can stay on the dirt road all the way to the end of the hike.

Getting from Cocora back to Salento

Walk back to the parking lot where you got off the jeep earlier and there will probably be a queue of folks waiting for a return jeep. I don’t think these go on a schedule but they seemed to come quite frequently and we didn’t have to wait for more than a few minutes. Did you already buy your return ticket? If not, you can pay cash to the guy who manages the queue. Easy!

Again, the last jeep back to Salento leaves around 6:00 pm, so plan ahead.

This counts as informal transit, and it works just fine.

And that’s that! All in all, it was about 8 miles of strenuous work and gorgeous scenery. This hike is really a must-do if you’re in or near Salento. Hopefully this post helps others have the best experience possible.

One Reply to “Valle de Cocora: “hard on the thighs, easy on the eyes””

  1. Well hiked! And, yes, California has some really special trees, too. I enjoyed your friend’s transportation blog about the cable cars, etc.
    Wishing you only the best adventures.

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