Could it be the shared willy (jeep) ride from Salento to the famed valley of Colombia’s national tree? Maybe it’s the thin, towering Quindio wax palms that stand tall and proud like the Truffula Trees in Dr Seuss’s The Lorax? Or the endangered wildlife that one may stumble upon when trekking through the cloud forest?
Cocora Valley (commonly known in Spanish as Valle de Cocora) is one of those destinations that you would have heard of prior to visiting. Regardless the number of picture postcards that you have seen featuring Cocora Valley, the beauty of Mother Nature at this central cordillera of the Andean mountains will take your breath away, make you sigh, and ponder over wonders of the wild.
The national tree of Colombia is the tallest palm in the world
Unlike most visitors that have travelled miles to catch a glimpse of Colombia’s national tree, my virgin encounter with these famous wax palm (known also as Palma de Cera) did not occur at Cocora Valley but San Felix of Salamina in the department of Caldas. It was an experience that sparked greater fascination in these once-endangered species.
Months later, I went on to search for these world’s tallest palm trees at the Cocora Valley in the coffee triangle region of Colombia. Even on our way to the valley, these tall, slender giants could be seen emerging atop green mountainscape, seemingly calling out a friendly welcome! Did you know that the Quindio wax palm can grow up to a height of 60 meters (200 feet)?
Hike through changing landscapes and climate
Green hills and rolling valleys cast an expansive natural landscape at the Cocora Valley. Close your eyes and breathe in. The cool and fresh mountain air will be tainted with the occasional pungent odour of horse dung that lay like silent bombs, marking the path of the well-trodden. Listen to the excited chatters and camera clicks; every angle promises a winning shot of nature.
Interestingly, the Cocora valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park, (thankfully) putting it under conservation status. Located in the upper reaches of the Quindío River at an altitude of 1800 and 2400 meters, Cocora valley has a pretty diverse landscape to cater to different visitors. Should you be a fit hiker, you may consider the 4 to 6 hours loop trail that will bring you through a dense cloud forest, river crossings and hummingbird sanctuary prior to the valley of towering wax palms. Continue hiking even when it seems like you are heading to nowhere. This is a tedious path but you shall be rewarded.
An alternative shorter trail would be to head directly to the wax palms upon arrival at the valley. Horseback riding is available for those who prefer to explore the region more leisurely. The latter two options are great for families with young children or those who do not like hiking.
Are you a tree-hugger?
Supposedly referring to people that care about the environment and the planet, some of us took the term ‘tree-hugger’ one step further, and literally hugged the trees. Be it to show gratitude to nature or to absorb health benefits (as claimed by science), you may want to try hugging a wax palm here at the Cocora Valley for no reason other than to show your appreciation because … …
It was not too long ago when these palm trees with the binomial name of Ceroxylon Quindiuense was threatened by habitat disturbance, over-harvesting and diseases. One would not know by looking but these Quindio wax palms are extremely useful!
Wax from the trunk was used to make candles before electricity was invented. It was also used for making soaps, its fruits for feeding cattle and pigs, and that was not all! Previously exploited for the local celebrations of Palm Sunday and other ceremonies, these palm trees (with a lifespan of 120 years) have come a long way to secure their survival. Recognised as Colombia’s national tree since 1985, the Quindio wax palm is a legally protected species in the country.
Not a hugger? Well, if you prefer to enjoy from a distance, wait patiently with those zoom lens and you may catch a glimpse of some exotic birds. But no, I did not come across any of the wildlife (such as the puma and spectacled bear) reputed to be residing here.
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8 Important tips to know before visiting Cocora Valley
To get to Cocora Valley, know that the gateway is Salento - a charming heritage town - and a 30-minute drive away. Hop on one of the willys (jeep) and hold on tight! Depending on the size of your group, you may have to share the ride with others. Arrive early to avoid disappointment. Don’t forget to get the phone number of your driver so that he can pick you up for the return ride.
As Cocora Valley is located near the equator, it has temperate weather year round but it is subjected to more rain during September to December. Being a cloud forest, it can get very wet with frequent precipitation. Waterproof shoes or boots and a light jacket are recommended!
Do your research! As mentioned earlier, there are two routes to consider at Cocora Valley and no, there is no signage.
Check the weather forecast and plan ahead. If you are heading there after it rained the previous day, think twice. The path will be very muddy, and difficult to navigate. Certain outdoor gears such as the hiking poles can be useful.
The best time to visit is in the early part of the day, especially if you do not have your own transport. Most willys drive returning visitors to Salento before 7 pm. You may have to pay more if there are no other passengers sharing the ride.
There are only a couple of restaurants and a cafe near the entrance of Cocora Valley. Consider bringing your own food and drinks, especially if you are going on the loop trail, but please don’t leave any rubbish behind.
Use the toilet before you start your trekking. Otherwise, you may have to find a private spot when nature calls.
There are a couple of souvenir shops selling the traditional poncho, knit wears and cute trinkets. Cash only.
Cocora Valley: Experience Colombia’s wild magic
Once in awhile, one may come across one of those magnificent natural landscapes, so full of life, beauty and mysteries that it commands your respect for the environment. The Quindio wax palm is native to the mountainous forests of the Andes in Colombia and Peru, and these species thrive in Cocora Valley of Quindio, Colombia. Should you be fortunate to visit, know that this is one of those natural places of wild magic.
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