If you are headed to the sleepy pueblo of Salento, it is likely because you were drawn to hiking the spectacular Cocora Valley (Valle de Cocora).
This breathtaking area of Colombia is surrounded in emerald green hills and dotted with the country’s national tree – the wax palm. Called the Quindío wax palm, this spindly variety can grow up to 200 feet. Their comical appearance looks like something straight out of Dr Suess’s book The Lorax.
The valley itself is named after the Quimbayan princess, Cocora, who was the daughter of the local chief Acaime. The name means ‘star of water’. In Spanish that translates to estrella de agua. Two names you’ll see again later.
Whilst you can get to this iconic valley via a short 30-minute walk, I would highly recommend hiking the full loop and enjoying the lush Colombian countryside.
The long route involves a six-hour hike through jungle forest and several river crossings. The reward for the long trek is a hilltop view of the valley at the end.
From this unique advantage point, you get the best perspective of the tall wax palm trees. The trail takes most of the day, but does include ample breaks to enjoy lunch, watch hummingbirds, and snap photos.
Coming to Salento without going to the valley would be like going to Paris and not visiting the Eiffel Tower. You just have to do it. But before you head out, I’d highly recommend thoroughly reading this article as the trail isn’t well marked and there are several obstacles to be aware of.
Prepare Before You Head Out to Cocora Valley
Before you head out on this trek, I’d advise grabbing a few essentials.
First, rent some rubber boots from a hostel in Salento. You’ll definitely need them! The majority of the trek is a quagmire of mud. Additionally, there are several sections where the trail traverses up a stream, where at points is calf deep.
You really don’t want to ruin your own shoes and the rubber boots only cost 5,000 pesos. Also, from my experience and comments from other hikers, the rubber boats had better traction than sneakers. One guy’s whole sole of his shoe came off!
Second, grab a packed lunch from Brunch. I chose the large packed lunch with the chicken sandwich. For 19,000 pesos, it includes a large bottle of water, a sandwich of your choice, a banana, crackers and homemade peanut butter, packets of homemade granola, and best of all Brunch’s signature Peanut Butter Brownie.
The packed lunch is worth it for the dessert alone. Two large homemade brownies are sandwiched together with homemade peanut butter in a delectable taste sensation.
Third, print out or download a copy of the map. The trail is not marked and there are several sections that are notoriously hard to follow.
Finally, it is advised to carry a back-pack with a liter or two of water, sunscreen, and a raincoat. The area is part of a cloud forest, which is typically wet and foggy. Even if it’s sunny in the morning, the weather can quickly change so plan for the worst.
Additionally, the valley sits at between 5,900 – 7900 feet (1,800 – 2,400 meters) and at this altitude the sun is very strong. Even though it was very overcast the day I went, I still got a sunburn.
Location of Cocora Valley
How to Get to Cocora Valley
To get to the Cocora Valley from Salento you’ll need to grab a seat in one of the many Willy jeeps that transport tourists and locals at 7 miles (11 km) out of town to the start of the trail. During the weekday, the jeeps depart from the main square.
On the weekend, you’ll need to join one of the jeep convoys leaving from Calle 3, between Carrera 4 and Carrera 3. Anyone in town can point you in the right direction, and might even give you a lift there! Cost is a mere 3,200 pesos each way per person.
The jeep journey is almost as eventful as the hike itself. The driver insists on maximizing his trip so stuffs as many individuals into one load as he can.
Adventurous souls can stand on the back rack and hang on for dear life along the winding road. I chose to be squashed in the inside along with 11 others. Safety over comfort for me.
Luckily, the journey isn’t long. You’ll be deposited in or near a large fenced in area which will be on your left. Some restaurants and toilets will be on your right. Walk straight ahead up and you’ll find a large wooden sign on your right indicating the entrance.
You’ll walk along this path for about 15 minutes, then you’ll meet a check point where you will be asked to pay a small fee to enter the private land and the rest of the hiking trail.
As previously mentioned, the trail isn’t very well marked so take a picture of the map at this check point if you didn’t get one before. And it is advised to listen to the ticket collector’s description of where to head. From here the trail can be divided into three main sections.
Hiking to the Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary
The first section of the hike starts out fairly flat through cow-filled pastures, which after about 30 minutes turns into dense jungle forest. The path is extremely muddy and includes many river crossings. Some of which you must wade through, in places calf deep, others involve traversing some rather dilapidated, wooden plank bridges.
Eventually you’ll get to a T junction where you will see a red arrow pointing right. This is actually a 40-minute one way detour to the Acaime hummingbird sanctuary. A diversion that I’d highly recommend.
When you get to the end of the trail you will see several homes perched high on the hill. One of these houses the sanctuary and there is a 5,000-peso fee to enter. The fee includes a warming cup of hot chocolate, which you can choose to add a wedge of queso. It’s also a natural stop for a lunch break, as by this point you will be two to three hours into your hike.
What makes this place really special though are all the hummingbirds flitting around. These iridescent birds are unbothered by the presence of humans here and dart past you by the dozens. This is a rare opportunity to photograph these magical birds in their natural habitat. Not to be missed.
Climbing to the Mirador at Finca La Montaña
After the visit to the hummingbird sanctuary, you will need to backtrack 40 minutes to the T junction with the red arrow sign. Here you should take the left-hand path, the one you haven’t yet been on, to complete the trek.
You might see a sign for a path called Estrella de Agua along the way. Don’t not take this route unless you want to add another three hours to your hike.
The next section is a 30- to 40-minute strenuous uphill climb along a very muddy path. Along the way you may spot some colorful red and white poisonous mushrooms, so don’t forget to look down.
At the top, you’ll reach another resting station called Finca La Montaña. At 9,300 feet, you can take in amazing views on a clear day. On a rainy day, it offers a great refugee to have another cup of hot chocolate and wait out the rain.
Traversing Downhill to the Cocora Valley
After leaving the finca, the rest of the journey is downhill along a rocky meandering road. Along the way, the Cocora Valley will start to come into view. In addition, there are numerous scenic viewpoints along the way to snap photos and take in the scenery.
From the valley floor, it’s just a short walk through farmland until you make it back to where you started. Furthermore, there are a couple of cafes and restaurants located here for you to grab a drink or a snack and use the toilet.
Returning to Salento
Willy jeeps will be waiting to take you back to Salento until 6 pm. They usually depart on the hour, but will go at any time there is a full 12-person load.
Top Cocora Valley Hiking Tips
- Start early. Before 9 am if possible. This will offer the clearest views and the least number of tourists.
- Bring lots of small peso notes. There are a few entrance fees and chances to buy some snacks and drinks, but breaking a 50,000 peso note in this area will be challenging.
- If you’ve decided that hiking the Cocora Valley might not be for you, then don’t worry. Horseback rides are available for around 25,000 pesos per hour.