There’s no place left on earth that has not yet been discovered. At least not where I can realistically go. The oceans and landmasses of our world were mapped centuries ago, with civilisations rising and falling for millennia long before I was born. It’s a reality that the 21st century has opened the entire world to be explored and an irony that there’s nothing new to discover. But there are places, if you’re willing to look hard for them, that make you feel like you’ve stepped into a world so strange and unique that it hardly seems real.
A landscape with elongated trees that reach effortlessly into the sky, towering over you with an ease that belies the slenderness of their trunks. Weather that turns in an instant from clear blue skies to ominous grey. From dazzling sun to soaking rain. A destination of inverse realities where clouds look up at mountains. It is true that there’s nothing left to discover in our world, but step foot in Colombia’s Cocora Valley and you’ll feel like you’ve found a whole new one.
The Cocora valley, or Valle de Cocora, is home to the Quindío wax palm, or Ceroxylon quinduiense. Nestled away high in the Colombian Andes this is the only place in the world to see wax palms in their natural habitat. This makes the Cocora Valley an acutely limited space for an entire plant species to survive. But in the acidic, sandy soil of the valley they have carved out a home. The wax palm is more than a natural wonder though. Although they are the world’s tallest palm trees. They are also the national symbols of Colombia. Forget Cocaine in Medellin, Ceviche in Cartagena or Cerveza’s in Bogota. If you want to see Colombia personified. The Cocora Valley is the place to go.
The Cocora Valley – History
Growing in the high-altitude and decidedly Andean-esque Cocora Valley, in the department of Quindío in northwest Colombia, these trees have trod dangerously close to extermination. Reaching heights of up to 60 metres (200 feet) with slender trunks you can wrap your arms entirely around and living for over a century these uniquely rare natural phenomena are now rightfully protected. But it wasn’t always that way.
The smooth, light coloured trunks of the wax palm are covered in, as the name suggests, wax. Throughout Colombia’s history this wax was used to make soap and candles, a vital precursor to electricity, in the pursuit of progress. But it wasn’t just the trunks that had value. The outer part of the palm frond was widely used as a building material and fuel. While the spread of Western religion throughout the Americas strained the palms further. The waxy branches cut down and used widely during Catholic Palm Sunday celebrations. If all of that wasn’t enough reason to target the wax palms, their fruit also served as livestock feed.
With all these factors in play there seemed little hope for the Cocora Valley. The irresistible wheels of modernity kept spinning and it looked like these wax palms were destined for destruction. Exploited to extinction for human progress.
First noticed by the Western world in 1801, thanks to my namesake Alexander Von Humboldt, it was the intervention of the Colombian government in 1985 that marked the turning point for the wax palms. The Cocora Valley was designated a protected park and the extensive felling of the trees ended for good. The Cocora Valley got its happy ennding and the palm trees became the national symbol of Colombia. To the benefit of everyone these giants of nature are now preserved for all curious travellers to see.
The Cocora Valley – How to get there
To get to the Cocora Valley you’ll first need to make your way to Salento. You can use Colombia’s country wide bus network to make your way here from Bogota (via Armenia or Pereira) or Medellin.
Salento itself is one of Colombia’s fastest growing tourist destinations. Found in 1842 it was one of the first Spanish settlements in the Quindío state. Throughout its colonial history, it was an important stop on the route between Colombia’s capital city, Bogota, and the cultural centre of Popayan. This Spanish heritage is still widely reflected in the architecture of Salento today. The bahareque style, typified by bamboo and cane skeletons reinforcing a clay facade, is king here. In fact, entire streets act as stunning visual time capsules to colonial times gone by. The brightly coloured doors and windows of the one and two-story buildings a welcoming sight after so many hours on the bus to find this hidden gem.
Once you’ve made your way to Salento, and spent time wandering it’s quaint and colourful streets, you’ll be ready to make your way out to the Cocora Valley. And it’s this 11km journey from township to valley that offers a travel experience you won’t see in the brochures.
As all good Colombian days do, this experience starts in the town square. In an unassuming row sits a selection of fading, time worn jeeps. Like monuments to the past you might recognise their aesthetic, although they are wholly un-Colombian. These jeeps, or Willy’s, are an icon of the region. But they weren’t always so synonymous with Salento. In fact, these Willy’s are originally American. They were first used by the United States Army during World War Two and as the jeep of choice for the Americans their production numbers exploded. Following the War however, these vehicles were left in such surplus that they needed new homes. And many of them found that home in Colombia.
While it may seem like a strange marriage in theory it was a relationship that flourished in practice. It turns out these vehicles were extremely useful for Colombians in the hilly regions surrounding the Cocora Valley. An area known as the Coffee Axis, or Eje Cafetero. Their open cargos were perfect for loading up supplies, tools, and as has become tradition in Salento, Cocora Valley tourists.
A ride from Salento to the Cocora Valley will set you back around 3600 COP (Colombian Pesos, which is roughly $1.25 AUS). And there’s a palpable sense of history driving out to the valley in these retired generals. They leave the Salento plaza roughly every half an hour from 7am to 11am, or whenever they are full. And in a world where technology is behind so much human interaction it’s a beautiful feeling to share the experience of anticipation with a packed jeep load of fellow travellers, with nothing but nature to look forward to at the journey’s end.
So just grab a spare piece of the Willy and hold on as you hurtle towards a good time. (That didn’t come out right). Forget those Western values concerning road rules and seatbelts and, at least for now, enjoy an integral part of the Cocora Valley experience. It’s tight fitting, crowded and bumpy. It’s all part of riding the Willy! (That came out just right)
The Cocora Valley – What to expect
The Cocora Valley is temperate all year round. This is due in part to its altitude, sitting between 1800 to 2400 metres above sea level. As well as its location, situated close to the equator. So, you can expect similar weather patterns whatever time of year you go. As a part of the Colombian Andes the Cocora Valley is also protected from westerly winds from the Pacific Ocean. This is more than a pointless geographical fact. With such winds kept at bay the conditions are perpetually humid. The combination of these geographical and topographical features then creates the perfect conditions for a cloud forest.
“Whoa, Cloud Forest! How cool is that. Clouds. Forests. Those words don’t usually go together. Isn’t language fun. Anyway, let’s go for a hike!”
If that’s your internal monologue then let me set you straight before you disappear into the mist. As a high-altitude cloud forest the temperature in the Cocora Valley varies dramatically over a 24-hour period and experiences rain almost daily.
Taking a few extra layers of clothes is super useful. One minute you’ll be hiking under clear blue skies and the next you’ll be surrounded by mist and falling rain. Bringing sturdy walking shoes and an extra layer in case the weather turns will make sure your Cocora Valley experience is comfortable and enjoyable.
It’s also worth noting that the Cocora Valley borders land historically and currently used for pasture. This means you can expect to see cows. Not only do these benign bovines offer a great perspective for the immense height of the wax palms. They also shit everywhere. Don’t rent gumboots just for the hike. Don’t wrap your shoes in plastic bags, you’ll just look like a nutcase. Just walk proudly into the fields. The view of the valley is just as impressive if you smell like manure. If anything, it might even boost the experience because you’ll know you earned it. As the old saying goes. Take only photos. Leave only footprints. Even if those footprints are in cow shit.
The Cocora Valley – Know before you go
When you disembark from your Willy you’ll find yourself stepping down into the Hamlet of Cocora. Which is an ambitious name for a collection of three buildings. Here you’ll have the option to stock up on provisions for your hike ahead. And it’s a good idea to carry spare water with you.
If you’ve ever travelled Colombia by bus you’ll know the routine by now. An hour or so on the road before you pull over in the middle of nowhere. There’s nothing around but vegetation, forests and fields. A real 50 shades of green situation. Suddenly, a young boy clambers on board with a wicker basket full of snacks and treats. You don’t have time to question where he just appeared from though because you’re fumbling through your spare pesos to grab that weird bag of Colombian chips you like so much. Well, the Cocora Valley isn’t like that. You’ll have one chance at the valley entrance and that’s it. Grab some water or food and throw it in your backpack for the day ahead.
It’s also a good idea to learn some facts about Hummingbirds. Aside from the immensely impressive wax palms, the valley is home to a hummingbird sanctuary, at the rustic hiker’s retreat Acaime. Here you’ll be charged 5000 COP ($2.30 AUS) for entry and a hot or cold bevvy. You’ll also be able to sit and watch the local hummingbirds zip around and feed on the bird feeders nearby. This will be your chance to drop some knowledge on your fellow hikers. “Did you know a hummingbird takes up to 250 breaths a minute? Amazing isn’t it. Anyway, I should hit the road. Something hummingbirds don’t travel on as they fly using wings that beat 70 times a second. See you later!”
Cocora Valley – Final Thoughts
There’s a whole chapter that could be written about the Cocora Valley, just on the hiking options alone. The muddy, well-worn path that leads away from the Cocora Hamlet offers a 5km hiking loop that will take you through the most incredible natural scenery. But it’s very difficult to explain exactly where you should go and what direction to take. And that’s never my intention to express. Because travel blogs never really make you feel like you’ve visited a certain place. And nor should they. What they should do is make you feel like you have to go. Like there’s no other recourse but to buy a ticket today and wake up wherever it is you’re reading about tomorrow.
The Cocora Valley is a place like that. Hundreds of towering wax palms dotting empty fields and ravines in patterns that feel random. In reality, the wide root system of the trees keep them perennially apart. What looks like chaotic placement is really planned to perfection. Viewed from afar they’re like matchsticks waiting to fall but up close they are as hard as concrete and powerfully rugged, etched with scars over their century long growth towards the heavens. Monuments to nature that appear to hold the clouds above in a loving embrace. And no two days here look alike. With shadows that rise and fall as the sun attempts to burn through the mist, often in vain, it’s an ever changing landscape of light and darkness. When the rays of light do find their way through there is a serenity to the moment. Suddenly the air is full of the sound of birds while butterflies wing their way through open fields and over the rickety wooden bridges that span the nearby river Quindío.
But even when the sunlight is driven away, the beauty stays. Although it’s transformed. Mist trickles down steep Andean slopes like water. The greyness of the skies contrasts the deep, rich greens that envelope the valley. And through it all the immense wax palms stand silent. An ever-present reminder that in the unrelenting pursuit of discovery, some places are best left untouched.