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Hiking Colombia’s Cocora Valley, just outside the pretty little town of Salento, is practically a rite of passage for Colombian travelers these days – the spectacular trail takes in cloud forest, jungle, farmland and, to top it all off, the tallest palm trees in the world. Everyone traveling to Colombia wants to experience it, so here’s the ultimate guide to hiking the Cocora Valley.
Getting to the trailhead to start the hike is easy, what with so many travelers in Salento wanting to visit Cocora – simply head to the main square of Salento at one of the scheduled departure times: usually at 6:10 am, 7:30 am, 9:30 am, 11:30 am, 2:00 pm and 4:00 pm (get an early one if you want to enjoy the entire hike). If you miss one of these jeeps, ask around and see if there are enough people wishing to make the 30-minute journey, and you can usually then hire a jeep. The cost is just over US$1 per person.
There are several different routes you can take when hiking the Cocora Valley. If you’re not particularly fit, or low on time, then take the road to the left at the start of the trailhead. This will lead you to the main valley full of the iconic Wax Palms – which can measure up to 60 meters in height – in about half an hour.
However, assuming you’re reasonably fit and healthy and want to enjoy a real hike, then you’ll want to take the classic five-hour Cocora Valley route – you can do this either clockwise, or counter-clockwise. The clockwise version is marginally easier, with fewer uphill sections, but you start off with the Wax Palm Valley. The counter-clockwise hike is certainly harder, but you get to enjoy the amazing sensation of finally arriving in the stunning and surreal valley at the end of your hike. For this reason, the counter-clockwise option is recommended.
To take this route, simply turn right down the hill at the trailhead. You will then follow a clearly marked trail through farmland (bring boots, it can get incredibly muddy after rain) before you arrive at the entrance to the forest after about 45 minutes. The hike then meanders through the jungle for about another hour, crossing multiple rickety suspension bridges over the river. Keep your eyes peeled for beautiful birds in this section.
You will then arrive at a little T-junction of muddy trails in the forest. If you turn right – which you really should – you will be taking a side-trail up the hill to a little farm called Acaime, where hummingbirds come to multiple feeders and you can enjoy lovely views and a drink and snack. If you’re not interested in more hiking, then take the trail uphill to the left at the junction.
This is the hardest part coming up: you will slog uphill for about an hour from here, so take your time. When you finally reach the end of this section, you will arrive at a small house called Finca La Montaña with a great view back down the valley. Here you can buy water – or even a beer if you want to celebrate the end of the uphills – before heading along the gently sloping downhill path to the left through pine forests. This path should take a leisurely hour and a half at most (make sure to follow the little side trails to the left every now and again – they lead to viewpoints with stunning panoramas over the valley).
You will then finally arrive at the valley of the Wax Palms, the main draw of any trip to Cocora. Spend some time wandering among these magical giants, before strolling back down the valley – you will arrive back at the trailhead after about half an hour, ready to take a jeep back to Salento for a well-deserved break.
When planning a hike in the Cocora Valley make sure to pack smartly: bring good quality walking boots, a raincoat, various layers of clothing (the weather can change dramatically, as can the temperature), and plenty of water and snacks. It can be good to bring a packed lunch too, in order to maximise your time in the valley so you don’t have to rush back for lunch. Above all, just remember to enjoy it: hiking Cocora Valley is an essential part of any trip to Colombia, so you’ll want it to be memorable.