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Cocora Valley: Valle de Cocora Loop Hike

by Pomy

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For nature lovers looking for a magical and authentic hiking experience in Colombia, the Valle de Cocora Loop, with a side trip to Acaime’s Hummingbird Sanctuary, is the perfect destination. This enchanting trail offers a mesmerizing journey that combines wonder and true authenticity.

Salento- Entrance to Cocora Valley

Our adventure started in Salento, El Quindío, the gateway to the Cocora valley and its renowned Valle de Cocora loop hike. To reach Salento, we arrived at El Edén International Airport in Armenia, a city situated at the foothills of the Andes. Our Airbnb host arranged a taxi to transport us from the airport to Salento, a 40–50-minute drive through lush landscapes.

Salento, with its bustling streets adorned by colorful row houses, welcomed us with open arms. This typical touristy and artisan town boasted numerous shops, bars, cafes, hostels, and restaurants, creating a vibrant atmosphere. Despite its relatively small size, Salento’s charm is undeniable, with a total population of 8,500 residents in both rural and urban areas combined.

Colorful Row Houses at Salento 
Colorful Row Houses at Salento 

Cocora Valley’s Name History

The Valle de Cocora Loop Hike is situated in the Cocora Valley, and the name “Cocora” comes from a Quimbayan princess, the daughter of the local chief Acaime. In the Quimbayan language, “Cocora” is thought to mean “star of water.” This unique name connects to the history and culture of the region, adding a meaningful touch to the valley.

The Quimbaya were native people who inhabited Colombia’s central regions, specifically in the Quindío (coffee plantation region) and Risaralda departments. They gained renown for their expertise in metalworking, creating elaborate gold figurines with intricate designs.

Cocora Valley’s Unique Climate

Located in the Andean mountains, Cocora Valley is recognized for its mild climate. The area receives daily rainfall caused by winds carrying water from the Pacific Ocean meeting the Andean mountains. This interaction forms a distinctive humid environment, perfect for nurturing dense forests at elevated altitudes. In December, the temperature stays pleasantly in the high 60s, creating a warm and comfortable atmosphere primarily influenced by the prevailing humidity.

Upon our arrival in Salento, we were welcomed by a powerful thunderstorm. It rained like cats and dogs. The downpour continued throughout the night and into the next day, finally subsiding around 10 am. Undeterred by the rain, we embarked on a jeep ride from Salento’s Main Square, a service running every hour from 7:30 am to 6 pm daily.

Boarding the jeep at 8:30 am, we reached the trailhead at 9:00 am to kickstart our Valle de Cocora Loop adventure. The persistent rain until 10 am created a mystical atmosphere, setting the stage for a unique and memorable hike through wet, misty, and pristine landscapes.

Note: Tickets for Willys (Jeeps) to Cocora Valley can be purchased at the cabin located in the main town square (Google Map Pin). The Willys provide pickup and drop-off services from the same parking lot (as of Dec. 16, 2023).

What to Expect During the Hike?

As this trail is a loop, we opted for the often-recommended counterclockwise hike, starting where the jeep drops off. If you choose to go clockwise, you’ll need to walk further up past the restaurants and shops to reach another area marked by a prominent COCORA sign. Regardless of the direction, an entrance fee is required to pass through the private land. We opted for the counterclockwise hike due to wet weather, which would have made a downhill section challenging on a slippery slope. By choosing the counterclockwise direction, we faced an uphill climb instead of navigating the steep, tricky descent during that particular stretch of the hike.

Note: You can find the entrance to the trailhead behind an iron gate at the Google Map Pin coordinates 4°38’16.8″N 75°29’12.0″W. A friendly Policia welcomed us and asked about our hiking destination.

 Velle de Cocora stats
Click to view Velle de Cocora stats

Note: You can view our complete route on Google Maps here. The starting point is at the trailhead, and the endpoint is at the Willys parking lot. 

There are two additional (optional) charges—one for visiting Acaime’s Hummingbird Sanctuary and the other for the wax palm tree park. The Hummingbird Sanctuary is off the main trail, requiring an extra two-kilometer hike. It’s worth noting that the hummingbirds at the sanctuary are not in a free environment; they feed on sugar nectar from bird feeders, allowing you to get a closer look when they come to suck the nectar.

The Wax Palm Park is close to the end of the hike, starting from Mirador 2 Viewpoint (See on the Map here) to the end of the hike. Before this point, you will pass by a cabin where they will ask if you want to visit the park for a closer look at the palms for a hefty fee. This park resembles a small theme park, but there isn’t much to see compared to other more captivating viewpoints during the hike. You can skip both and continue your hike by staying right at the Mirador 2 Viewpoint fork.

Weather During the Hike

Sun, mist, and rain accompanied us throughout the hike. At times, we wore rain jackets only to remove them later. When the rain subsided, the humid environment, coupled with uphill movement, generated warmth, making the jackets unnecessary. However, weather conditions in Cocora Valley are highly unpredictable. The weather tends to change frequently throughout the day, with multiple rain instances, mainly in the afternoon. If you commence your hike early in the day, there’s a higher likelihood of experiencing clearer skies and enjoying some impressive views once the weather clears up. Always go with a rain jacket!

Note: We were there in Salento during the second week of December 2023

Difficulty Level of the Hike

A muddy, rocky, and unmaintained trail runs alongside the stream. It involves crossing more than seven suspended cable bridges, yet it did not pose a significant challenge for the hike.

Describing the difficulty level of a hike is subjective, but from our perspective, it falls within the medium to easy range. We provide the following statistics for your assessment: the total distance covered from the trailhead is 8.21 miles, with an elevation gain of 2246 feet. The highest elevation point reaches 9575 feet. Our hike’s GPS stats with elevation profile are located here.

We completed the hike in 2 hours and 50 minutes of moving time. However, we dedicated three hours to capturing photos, observing birds, and sipping coffee while enjoying the hummingbirds at their sanctuary.

Fresh Water and Food Along the Trail

There are small kiosks along the trail where you can purchase water and snacks. Additionally, abundant fresh water is available in the form of streams and waterfalls, providing ample opportunities to replenish and stay hydrated during the hike. However, bringing water and food as hiking essentials is always advisable.

Note: We always carry a Garyl water purifier with us to safely purify stream or glacier water, mitigating any potential health risks.

The Colombian Signature Wax Palms

Fauna and Flora

You’ll encounter abundant fauna and flora during the hike, ensuring there’s never a dull moment. The surroundings constantly change, from the weather to the breathtaking views. Keep an eye out for the Colombian signature wax palms, the national tree of Colombia. Cocora Valley is home to the vast majority of wax palm trees in Colombia. This palm species can reach an impressive height ranging from 45 to 60 meters and lives up to 100 years. Sadly, this species is endangered due to extensive cutting in the past for candle making from its thick white wax (sap) found in the trunk. Adding to its vulnerability, the tree only reaches reproductive maturity at the age of 80 years. Endangered species of yellow parrots also inhabit these wax palm trees.                       

Orchids Growing on a Tree

Thanks to the Colombian government, the felling of the wax palm tree has been strictly prohibited and is punishable by law since 1974.

The entire valley appears lush green due to the daily rain. As you gaze around, you’ll witness various shades of green that extend as far as your eyes can see. The misty environment is conducive to air plants and orchids. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to encounter numerous orchids and air plants hanging on a single tree adorned with vibrant red flowers in full bloom.

Cocora Valley also hosts a diverse array of birds and butterflies you’ll encounter during the hike. The air was filled with the delightful sounds of birds chirping and flowing water, creating a serene and immersive natural experience. Listen to the original sounds of the environment and birds above the video.

At the highest point of the hike was a house where we spotted a hiking couple enjoying a picnic in their yard. That point offered a panoramic view of the valley, with grazing horses and coffee plantations sprawled across the landscape. Watch this video for an entire hiking experience.

Acaime’s Hummingbird Sanctuary

Adding a delightful detour to our adventure, we explored Acaime’s Hummingbird Sanctuary, just a 2km round trip from the main trail. Amidst the rain-kissed foliage, the sanctuary offered an enchanting encounter with various vibrantly colored hummingbirds. I was particularly amazed to see a black and white hummingbird, a rare variety I had never seen before. 

Petrified Piece of Wood

The sanctuary staff graciously provided visitors with Agua de Panela hot chocolate and coffee, creating a cozy atmosphere while observing the hummingbirds. Additionally, visitors can use the restroom facilities available at the sanctuary.

Petrified Wood on the Trail

Last but not least, I was intrigued to see something similar to petrified wood buried at the final stretch of the loop trail where the forest road began.

I wonder if it was a petrified forest underneath that was exposed due to rain and erosion. However, I can imagine it was a petrified forest because I have also seen something similar in Argentina. If anyone else thinks it is petrified wood, please share your experience and thoughts with me. 

Despite the challenging weather, the Valle de Cocora Loop, with the added charm of Acaime’s Hummingbird Sanctuary, proved to be a photographer’s dream. Each step revealed a new aspect of the captivating scenery, from the towering wax palms to the delicate dance of hummingbirds.

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