I still couldn’t tell you why we picked Colombia for our first trip together. Maybe it was because we’d heard almost nothing about it, and it seemed like the kind of place we could collect unique stories. Maybe it was because of the magical places we’d seen only in photos like Valle de Cocora and Ciudad Perdida. Perhaps it was inspired by our fascination with early 2000’s drug documentaries and South American soccer. It also might have been the $835 airfare – it was probably the $835 airfare.
Without a Taj Mahal or Machu Picchu to idolize, we were left to our own impulse when it came to trip planning. We asked a coworker and solicited advice from a friend. With two weeks off work, the first time we really dreamed up our triangle was while thumbing through our Lonely Planet during our in-flight “meal”, disguised as cheese and a roll.
By the time we tore the foil wrapper off our orange concentrate, it was settled. We’d get our grit and culture in Bogotá, our coffee in Salento, our adventure Valle de Cocora, our party in Medellín, and our sleep in Guatapé. We went to Colombia with as close to no expectations as you really can, and I can honestly say it — Colombia exceeded our “no expectations”. Everything was amazing, actually. The trip was appropriately rugged, sufficiently fun, and seriously affordable with the occasional helping of realismo magico, as García Márquez would say.
about Valle de Cocora
You know, magical realism in Colombia is serious stuff, and the hike to Valle de Cocora is a perfect example. Trekking amongst sky-high wax palms as the clouds swallowed the mountains was an experience so surreal that it made us think the Lorax might be real.
The wax palm was once on the verge of extinction, to be forever erased like the late Carribbean Monk Seal, obliterated like the Bubal Hartebeest, and killed off like the Pyrenean Ibex. Popularly used as the fronds for Palm Sunday, Colombia’s national tree was harvested by the thousands until it came under protection in the 1980’s. Now, we have the altogether epic and (protected) Valle de Cocora. The tree is back on the ups, and climbing high.
where is Valle de Cocora?
Valle de Cocora is part of Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados in Colombia’s Andino region. Valle de Cocora is most frequently visited as a day trip from Salento — a neat little coffee town with agricultural surrounds.
Getting to Salento: The journey to Salento will cost about $20, and takes about 8 hours from Bogotá, and 6 hours from Medellín. Rather than going directly, most bus routes will stop through Armenia or Pereira, but it’s certainly worth the extra hour to complete the journey all the way to Salento. Getting to Valle de Cocora: You can get from Salento to Valle de Cocora in about 30-minutes in the back of a semi-recently refurbished jeep ($2) alongside 7-13 travelers (group size depending on how many people can hang off the back). Jeeps depart from Salento’s main square as they fill, but we recommend going around 7am to avoid long waits and hiking after dark.
trekking in Valle de Cocora
Guess what! We made a video. Why don’t you see for yourself?
Hiking in Valle de Cocora: The typical progression of the Valle de Cocora hike is to get your start at the trailhead and venture the 2.5 hours to Acamai (land of huts and hummingbirds) via a series of muddy trails and precariously perched bridges. After stopping for a chocolate and cheese at the warming hut, you’ll backtrack about 30 minutes, and make a steep 1 hour climb to Finca la Montaña for spectacular views of the palms set amongst the clouds. From here, you’ll complete your loop with the most rewarding descent through the valley, and this is where the views really start. It’s pretty much just you, the horses, and the palms, which we recognize either sounds like the best or the most boring thing ever. This whole hike should take about 5-hours.
While we were reassured it would make sense when we got there, it kind of didn’t? Bring a map, and we’d recommend skipping Acamai if you’re running on limited energy; the real views come on your descent from Finca la Montaña.
when to visit Valle de Cocora
The temperature sits somewhere around 59°F all year long. There is a short rainy season from October-November and April-May, so we’d suggest avoiding these months unless you think you might enjoy a 5-hour, muddy, treacherous hike in the fog. As Valle de Cocora is a cloud forest, it’s perpetually wet — it’s safe to assume you’ll need a rain jacket and one excellent pair of hiking boots whenever you go.
Valle de Cocora is more magical than if a sleeveless magician pulled a rabbit out of a hat. For a place we had never heard of to have hundred-foot tall palm trees set amongst endless green grass (California is in a drought, after all) and obscured by cloud forests, we were legitimately amazed by how magical it was. Cinematic and kinda otherworldly. Definitely worth it.
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