Waxing on about the Valle de Cocora

Text by Huw Hennessy

Photos by Huw & Caitlin Hennessy

“What’s such a big deal about a bunch of skinny palm trees?” This was my feeble protest against my partner’s determination to visit the Valle de Cocora, best-known home of the wax palms, Colombia’s implausibly tall national trees. Luckily, she easily won that argument, as this valley in the Coffee Region also offers some of the best hikes to be found anywhere in South America.

Tucked inside the southern limits of Los Nevados National Park, these lush hillsides are flanked by sheer-sided peaks rising above cloud forest. Brimming with wildlife, particularly butterflies and hummingbirds, the best way to get there is from Salamina, one of the region’s prettiest towns, for its traditional colourful buildings and beautiful surrounding landscape. Jeeps, known locally as Willys (named after a former US car-maker, apparently), go from the main square, packing a dozen passengers inside, plus several more riding shotgun on the back step.


Right from the start of the trail, walking through flower-filled meadows, you’re dwarfed by ranks of these giant palm trees, soaring some 45 m (148) high. In all other aspects, wax palms look like typical palm trees, but as tall and gangly as pro basketball players, without the string vests and Nikes. What is so special about them though is, for a start, the sheer quantity. There must be hundreds, lined up in spiky clusters, standing guard over the valley floor. It’s also the amazingly green and fertile valley of their setting. If you can tear yourself away from the wax palms for a moment though – and unless you have an extremely wide lens you’ll have to paste together several photos – the trail draws on, soon rising into the forest.


Here, under the tree cover, bromeliads cling to the clefts of tall ceiba trees, lianas dangle over the sparkling river running alongside the path, with spiky heliconias flashing red and yellow in the undergrowth, and dayglo butterflies flitting ahead, always just out of reach. The path winds inexorably upwards beside the riverbank; separated at first from the horse trail, an easier option, but eventually sharing the same increasingly muddy route. Wooden suspension bridges drape across some of the steeper sections, adding a dose of Indiana Jones-style thrill to the trek. On busy high-season weekends walkers may have to queue to cross some of the wobblier spans one at a time; with one extra-challenging bridge comprised of several logs bound together and just a taut wire handrail to keep your balance.


The reward for your efforts is not far off, however: after about an hour and a half, this steep uphill climbing brings you to the Acaime Hummingbird Reserve. Here, lured by nectar feeders hung from the trees, dozens of dazzling hummingbirds flit to and fro, so close the buzz from their wings tingles the ears and fans your face. A small entrance fee includes a drink, with the option of trying the local speciality of hot chocolate with chunks of local cheese mixed in as sort of chewy croutons – don’t knock it ‘til you’ve tried it! Here, on the lower fringes of the cloud forest, the tropical foliage has given way to pines, with old-man’s-beard lichen draping the branches, and the air cooler and fresher.


This is a good thing, because the trail goes on… You have several choices now: either go back the same way, carry on up deeper into Los Nevados, or wind higher upwards then back down to Cocora. We chose the third option, partly because we were on a sentimental journey, retracing the route taken by our daughter, who travelled around Colombia two years ago.


This trail, up to El Mirador, branches off the main path, just past the tree-trunk footbridge, going back downhill for 10 minutes or so. Now, you’re really climbing up steeply, but at least the going is firmer, without horses’ hooves to churn up the mud. After another half hour or so of zigzagging up through the trees, everything suddenly opens out in a grassy meadow, with cows placidly chewing the cud, when you might have expected mountain goats.  Stretching out below are the most amazing views of the valley, glowing in the afternoon light. This includes, of course, the wax palms, though now you can look down on these lofty giants, rather than up at them. Most dramatic is Cerro Morrogacho, (3450m) the craggy bare peak looming over the other side of the valley. In total, the climb up from the entrance at El Mirador to the park is about 1000 metres. Soak it all up and recharge your batteries for the final descent back down to the valley floor, now a blissfully easy wide and open path, meandering through more and more palm-filled hillsides.

 

Factbox:

What: The Valle de Cocora lies within Los Nevados National Park, in the southeast of the Zona Cafetera, near to Salento. Wax palms are the tallest monocot trees in the world, growing up to 45m, with some record-breaking 60m trees also recorded. This is the most accessible place to see them, though there are also clusters in the Valle de la Samaria, near Salamina.
How to get there: Willys jeeps go from the Parque (main square), from about 7.00am, last one back at 6.30pm. They run as soon as they fill up, usually every 20 mins or so, and take around 30 minutes to the park entrance in Cocora, with restaurants, souvenir shops (plus waterproof capes for sale), and horses for hire.
How long: many walks are available, from a few hours to several days’ hiking into the park. The circular walk described above takes between 5 and 7 hours, depending on your pace and level of fitness, including a 30-minute stop for lunch.
Costs:  Willys jeep ride: approx. US$1.50 pp; National Park entrance fee: US$1, Acaime hummingbird station: US$2, including a drink.
When: open all year round, though it can get very wet and muddy at any time of year, so ask locally in advance; wear good walking shoes, or hire wellies (from local travel agencies or hotels); a stout stick would be helpful for the steeper sections. The most popular paths can get very busy during peak seasons, in July and August.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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