Colombia’s valley of the palms
Colombia's Cocora Valley is peppered with wax palms, the country's national tree and the world's tallest palms. (Fred Meyer)
Images of Colombia’s Cocora Valley are plastered on postcards all over the country, where peculiarly skinny, incredibly tall palm trees are set against a backdrop of glaring sun, enigmatic mist or broad Andean foothills. Wax palms – Colombia’s national tree and the world’s tallest palms – are a source of pride among locals, and reason alone to venture to this peaceful hikers’ playground. But the more time you spend in the Cocora Valley, nestled in the central Colombian coffee growing region (la zona cafetera), the more the scenery unfolds. Beyond the postcard-perfect images is an ever-changing landscape that unfolds a host of little surprises.
The curious beauty of the valley is immediate. When you arrive in the small rural hamlet of Cocora, the views from the single narrow mountain road spill out into an idyllic emerald valley that begs as many words for green as Eskimos have for snow.
One of the only places on Earth to see them in their natural habitat, the wax palms in Cocora Valley can grow to 60m tall, and hundreds of them randomly dot the cleared grassland like floral pinwheels, towering above fields of grazing livestock. Even at the bottom, the trunks of the spindly, shag-topped trees are thin enough to wrap a good hug around, yet hard as concrete. Viewed up close or from across the valley floor, the effect is transporting; you are somewhere uncommon and arresting.
The hamlet of Cocora, if you can call it that, is a cluster of just three buildings, one of which is Bosques de Cocora, a countryside restaurant that serves regional cuisine, including the area’s famous trout. A smattering of locals will greet you on the main road, offering inexpensive horseback tours. But while the steeds cover a lot of ground, you can see more variety by staying on foot, simply wandering to your heart’s content up the main road, over downed fences and into the hills for an hour or two. This is a place that changes and shifts throughout the day, as outcroppings cast deep shadows and mists mingle in the ravines. At 1,800m in elevation, low clouds often fill the valley like a lid, the palms scratching their wispy underbellies. Then periods of sunlight inevitably persevere, giving the valley a tropical radiance. Even in the afternoon sun though, a short walk can easily lead you into perennial mist forest and over the trickle of a mountain stream. Butterflies bandy about and a new dense and mossy ecosystem fully takes over – until you pass out of the mist forest mere metres away.
A tour of Cocora could stop here. Seeing the palms is what draws people in, so an hour or so of ambling and photographing might be enough, with lunch in the village or perhaps back in the town of Salento, about 11km to the west, where vendors in the colonial square hawk slices of salted mango and hybrid guava-apples. But if you have decided to hike for the day, seek out a blue gate near Cocora’s cluster of buildings. It leads down at first, but just past a small trout farm, the path begins to gain elevation.
The muddy 5km path winds up the valley, crossing over a succession of weathered, rickety bridges that span the headwaters of the River Quindio. A hundred metres above the valley floor, as the big shouldered hills and pastures of the foothills roll up into the Andes Mountains, the earth is almost furry with the sort of green growth that comes with year-round warmth and rain. Halfway through comes tropical forest that looks eerily similar to the pine copses of Tahoe. When you reach a fork in the path, follow it to the right for a kilometre to Acaime Reserve (57-2-893-3052), a nature reserve with a rustic wooden hikers’ sanctuary serving cheese, chocolate and agua de panela, a hot heart-warming drink made from hardened cane sugar. Pay attention to the trees and water stations throughout the sanctuary for the chance to spot six different kinds of playful hummingbird, plus red-and-blue masked trogons and a host of other tropical birds. To reserve a bed at the nature reserve’s rural, rustic inn, you will need to make reservations a month in advance (there is also camping down in the valley).
If you are not staying the night, Acaime makes a peaceful pit stop on your way up to Finca la Montaña, a small country house offering more relaxation and edibles. Back at the fork, go left and tackle the intense ascent to 2,800m, where the house is perched in the mountains facing the 3,450m peak of picturesque Morro Gacho.