Hiking the Cocora Valley, Colombia
The Wax Palm Tree is Colombia’s national tree and in the Cocora Valley, the Wax Palm trees stand up to sixty meters tall. They are the tallest palm trees in the world and they are certainly an impressive sight.
The Cocora Valley is part of the Los Nevados National Park and is situated in the coffee region of Colombia. It’s an easy day trip from the pretty little town of Salento.
Hiking the Cocora Valley was a highlight of our time so far in Colombia and South America. It is a must-do activity while in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera.
Here are some tips for an unforgettable hike.
How to get to the Cocora Valley?
Getting to the Cocora Valley from Salento is pretty easy. You need to head to the town’s main square where colourful Willy Jeeps are waiting to take you to the valley.
The Jeeps have a timetable and leave at regular intervals, at least once per hour. The timetable changes a lot, so check with your hotel or at the ticket booth in the square. But they seem to leave only when they’re full (in both directions), so even if you miss a given departure time, you might not have to wait that long. Visiting the Cocora Valley is the most popular thing to do in Salento, so there are always plenty of people wanting to go there.
The cost for a shared ride is 4000 pesos. If you don’t want to wait for the next one or if you’d prefer a private transfer, you can organise your own Willy ride but it will cost a lot more (around 35,000 pesos).
A map of the valley
The routes for the Cocora Valley hike
Once you’ve been dropped off by the Willy jeep, you have two options for hiking the Cocora Valley.
The Counterclockwise Loop
This is the hardest loop because you’ll be climbing steeper slopes. However, you do get the hard part out of the way early on, leaving you a nice gentle walk downhill for the last half of the hike.
The Counterclockwise loop starts up the hill from the field that the Willy drops you off in. When you exit that field, turn left and walk up the hill a bit until you see a blue gate on the right-hand side of the road. Head through that gate and the trail will lead you down into the valley
This is the easiest loop in terms of exertion but it’s harder on the knees and ankles as you’ll be walking down a steep, uneven slope in the second half of the hike.
To begin the clockwise loop, rather than turning right off the road and heading through the blue gate, instead, continue past the gate and further down the road.
Hiking the valley counterclockwise
We chose to do the counterclockwise loop based on recommendations we’d read online. It’s more effort going up to La Montana but easier on your knees going down it. You also arrive at the valley of Wax Palm trees at the best time of the day, when the lighting is perfect for photography (or at least you are supposed to!).
The loop is 12 kilometres long, regardless of which direction you choose. The hike takes at least 5 hours, or longer if, like us, you visit the Hummingbird Sanctuary. It took us 6 hours and we stopped frequently for photos and breaks to enjoy the scenery.
The first part of the loop
After going through the blue gate, keep walking down the hill and along the river. The scenery is magnificent from the start and you straight away come across a few wax palms trees. Along the way, you will pass local farms where cows and horses are happily munching on the lush green grass.
Follow the wooden rail and stick to the right. Along the way, you will need to cross multiple suspension bridges which are themselves quite fun. They also provide great photo opportunities.
About an hour and a half later, you will arrive at the intersection for the Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary. The Sanctuary is clearly indicated with a red arrow.
The Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary
The Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary is tucked away off the main loop. It takes an extra 40 minutes (each way) to reach but if you are a bird lover you should not miss it. All of the small birds are in the wild and are free to come and go as they please. However, there is sugar water on offer at the sanctuary, so they spend a lot of their time there.
Entrance to the sanctuary costs 5000 pesos which includes a free drink. There are also very basic toilets that you can take advantage off because there aren’t any others on the trail.
Once at the sanctuary, you can enjoy your drink while watching these little birds feeding and flying around. If you are not a bird lover, you can probably give the sanctuary a miss and get on with the rest of the loop. Other than admiring the birds, there is nothing else to do there.
After your visit to the sanctuary, you need to backtrack and return to the intersection. Once you arrive back at the intersection, head up the hill on your left to continue the loop. That’s where things start to get a bit more difficult.
Walking up La Montana was tough and very sweaty. At one point I was wondering why I chose to do the loop this way! It took us another hour of clambering uphill to reach La Montana.
Once there you will want to take a break, eat some snacks or have lunch and enjoy the views. Unfortunately, as we arrived at the top, the weather covered up and we didn’t have the best view. We were however very glad to know that the rest of the loop was all downhill!
Saving the best for the end – The wax palm trees
After a break at La Montana, we made our way down to the famous Wax Palm trees valley. As we neared the palms, the weather quickly deteriorated and it began to rain heavily. But fortunately, we still saw the palms before the rain set in. Then, once the rain started, the whole valley covered in mist, giving it a magical look that was quite breathtaking.
In the valley, you can choose to follow the trail and simply enjoy the Wax Palm trees from afar or you can take the shortcut down through the field to get closer to them. We would suggest heading down to them and then back-tracking to finish the rest of the trail. There are some awesome sights later on that you will miss if you continue with the shortcut.
Fun fact: Did you know that a Wax Palm tree is dioecious? That means that it can be either a male or a female plant!
How to get back to Salento after the hike?
Once you finish your hike, you’ll no doubt be pretty exhausted, dirty and ready to head back to your hotel for a shower. Don’t worry, getting back to Salento is just as simple as getting to the valley. The Willys will take you back the same way you arrived.
Make sure you buy a return ticket in the morning, then, once you are finished, head to the Willys and show your ticket. Someone will point you to the jeep that is leaving next.
What time should you start?
We would suggest starting early in the morning to avoid the crowds. If you can, start no later than 9 am. The first jeep leaves as early as 6 am.
How much does the hike cost?
The hike is a bargain by international standards.
- Willy Jeeps to Cocora Valley: COP 4000 per person each way, so COP 8000 return.
- Entrance fee to the national park (if you do the complete hike) = COP 6,000 each. You’ll pay COP 3,000 about half an hour after the start of the hike and another COP 3000 as you arrive at the Wax Palms valley.
- Entrance fee to the hummingbird sanctuary: COP 5,000 per person,including a drink
So that’s COP 19000 per person which is AUD$8.60 or USD$5.50. Bargain!
When is the best time of year to visit the Cocora Valley?
People say that the best months to visit are from December to March and July to August because they are the driest months. However, the valley is located in a cloud forest which makes the weather quite unpredictable.
Even during the driest month, you don’t know what kind of weather you will get. We began our hike with bright sunshine. The sky started covering up as we arrived at La Montana and when we reached the Wax Palm trees it was pouring down with rain! But never mind, even in the rain the valley is stunning.
Tips for a good hike
- Bring a lot of water with you, it can get very hot and you will need it.
- Bring insect repellent, sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses.
- Wear some good walking shoes or hiking boots. It can get quite slippery, especially after heavy rain. Don’t do the hike in sandals or flip flops. It can also get very messy!
- Bring a fully charged camera as you will be taking lots of photos.
- Don’t forget a raincoat. A waterproof cover for your backpack could also come in handy.
- Dress in layers and add or remove layers as the weather changes.
- Bring a supply of snacks. You will get hungry with all that hiking. Even better, take a picnic to enjoy along the way.
- Download the Maps.Me app. This app will help you keep track of where you are, so you can’t get lost. The app is free and it’s great for hiking.
- Take your time. Enjoy being in one of the most amazing parts of the world!
Check out our video
Where to stay in Salento?
Although you only really need one day to visit the Cocora Valley, allow much more time to enjoy the surrounding area and to spend some time in the lovely town of Salento.
Where we stayed: Hospedaje El Buen Descanso (a low key hostal with a very friendly owner).
Here are the best reviewed places in Salento on booking.com
Best location: The Corner House Hostel
Top rated: Real House Salento
Good value: Bosque de Niebla Hostel
If none of those are available or take your fancy, try using HotelsCombined to search across all the leading accommodation websites. We use it all the time