Visiting a Colombian coffee plantation is good fun and pretty much mandatory, yet whatever you do in Colombia don’t skip Cocora Valley (Valle del Cocora), a truly unique place not only in this South America nation but in the world.
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Where is Cocora Valley?
How to visit Cocora Valley (short version)
What should I wear in Cocora Valley?
What to do in Cocora Valley?
Is Cocora Valley safe?
How long is Cocora Valley hike?
What is the best time of the year to hike around the Cocora Valley in Colombia?
Cocora Valley where to stay
How far is Cocora Valley from Bogota?
How far is Cocora Valley from Medellin?
It is very easy to get there once in Salento: simply jump on any of the Jeep Willy’s that leave at pre-arranged times and enjoy the ride to the valley’s entrance. Once there you can hire a guide for a tour, opt for a horseback ride or walk along the well signed path on your own.
This is what I did and highly recommend you do too.
There are several itineraries to choose from, including horse rides and other guided tours.
However, the most typical is also the best: start by heading to the hummingbirds place (called simply like that) right through the first gate on your right and follow the path uphill without any guide.
The walk is not very spectacular during this stage but it can be rather windy. Walk steadily ignoring the several signs that mention a 3 USD fee for the walk and eventually you’ll reach a place with a sign that says Colibris (Hummingbird).
More details of what to do around Cocora Valley can be found further on.
Cocora Valley Colombia: Background
Cocora Valley is home to the national symbol of Colombia, the wax palm. These impressive tropical trees only grow at high altitudes, meaning they depend on an extremely rare set of environmental conditions.
Located roughly 3000 meters above sea level, Cocora Valley is one of the few places in Colombia – and the world, actually – where the wax tree can flourish. In this verdant highland valley, the wax palms stretch up to 60 meters into the sky, with uncannily slender trunks that seem to defy physics.
Get up close, and these trees get even weirder; their smooth trunks are, as you’d expect from the name, waxy like candles. In fact, during the colonial era, wax palms were used in Colombia to manufacture products like soap and (you guessed it) candles.
Meanwhile, the fronds were hacked down and used as cheap roofing, or as decoration during Palm Sunday festivities.
The many industrial uses of the wax palm meant that throughout Colombia’s history, the tree was subjected to intense logging, leading to waning populations throughout the northern Andes.
It wasn’t until 1985 that the Colombian government stepped in and halted the logging of wax palms, and today the trees are the focus of conservation efforts for many Colombians.
Although pockets of wax palms exist in various corners of the northern Andes, the best place to see the pride of Colombia is Cocora Valley. The valley is part of the larger Los Nevados National Natural Park, which stretches over more than 58,000 hectares of Colombia’s Cordillera Central.
Did You Know?
Along with sporting glorious green-coated mountains of cloud forest and volcanic landscapes, the Los Nevados National Park is also one of Colombia’s largest sources of fresh water.
Along with sporting glorious green-coated mountains of cloud forest and volcanic landscapes, the national park is also one of Colombia’s largest sources of fresh water.
Over 2 million Colombians depend on water that runs from the glaciers at the heart of the park. In fact, glaciers account for around 4 percent of the park.
Cocora Valley Climate
The Cocora Valley is one of Colombia’s finest examples of a sub-tropical highland region. Temperatures range from 25 °C (77 °F) and a minimum of 12 °C (54 °F) throughout the year, with an overall average of 15 °C (59 °F).
For most of the year, this means you can expect breezy, cool days and mildly chilly nights. However, be aware that the weather can change extremely quickly.
One minute you can be enjoying a cool breeze, the next the harsh Andean sun could be searing the back of your neck.
Come prepared for everything from heavy rain to moderate heat.
Whatever time of year you come, expect to content with some serious mud. Between glacier run-off and tropical rain, Los Nevados National Natural Park is a water-locked wilderness for much of the year, and with it comes ankle deep, thick slodge that can really slow your hiking pace to a crawl.
What to Bring to Cocora Valley - Packing List
Salento and the Cocora Valley are up in the mountains, which means that temperatures will change a lot during the day (even in summer) and you can expect rain and clouds at any given moment.
With this in mind some of the things you definitely have to consider bringing are:
As far as clothing goes you should bring shorts , long pants (convertible pants will do the trick), a light jacket if you're here in summer and an extra pair of socks (if it rains while trekking your feet can end up quick cold).
How to Get to Cocora Valley
I recommend you get on the first Willys at around 7:00 am to avoid the crowds. Additionally the walk between the palm trees will be done when the sky is still clear and the light is excellent for taking pictures.
How to Get to Cocora Valley from Bogota
There’s a plethora of options for getting from Bogota to Cocora Valley. Most people arrive from the capital by bus, and this is, for the most part, the most cost-effective option.
You’ll need to start by making your way to Bogota’s sprawling Terminal de Transporte, and finding a bus to either the city of Armenia or Pereira.
Have your cash handy before you get there.
From either city, there’s regular transport to Salento. The shorter of the trips is the ride via Pereira, but only by a whisker. From Bogota to Pereira the trip is around eight hours, depending on traffic.
From Pereira to Salento, it’s just a short hop, skip and a jump of 45 minutes.
On the other hand, if you end up going via Armenia, then don’t feel too bad about it. The trip to Armenia from Bogota usually takes around nine hours, plus an additional hour from Armenia to Salento.
Generally speaking, there’s no need to book ahead. Buses are frequent, roughly hourly, and outside school vacations you’re pretty much guaranteed a seat no matter when you rock up.
The exception, however, is if you want to travel overnight and want to ensure you get a comfortable seat on a line like Bolivariano.
To guarantee you get the trip you want, consider booking a day or two ahead. Whichever route you end up taking, you can expect to pay around COP60,000-70,00 (US$15-16) to get from Bogota to Salento.
If you’re short on time, take note that flights are frequent between Bogota and Pereira.
It’s usually possible to find flights for less than US$50, making it a pretty affordable option if you’d rather not spend the better part of a day squished into a bus.
The flight is less than two hours, though take note that you’ll have to cross town from the regional airport to the bus terminal. A taxi should cost around COP20,000 (US$5).
How to Get to Cocora Valley from Medellin
If you’re coming from Medellin, the best way to reach Salento is via Armenia, with the trip taking around six hours. Regular buses depart from the South Terminal in Medellin. Just like if you’re coming from Bogota, the Armenia-Salento leg is around an hour.
However, if you have a bit of Spanish up your sleeve, tell the bus driver you’re going to Salento, and they should be able to drop you off at a spot on the side of the highway about half an hour before Armenia.
Assuming they drop you at the right place, it’s possible to hail a bus bound for Salento – thus trimming maybe an hour or so off he overall trip.
If you have trouble getting a bus to Armenia, vans for Pereira also leave from outside Medellin’s South Terminal, offering another option for how to go to Cocora Valley.
The trip to Pereira is shorter – just five hours – and you don’t need to backtrack. From Pereira’s main bus terminal, you can find regular buses to Salento that take around 45 minutes.
Overall, Pereira to Valle del Cocora can be a quicker, easier route.
How to Get to Cocora Valley from Salento
From Salento, Cocora Valley is just a hop, skip and a jump away. Tours are available all over town, and regular transport can be found at the main square.
Salento, Valle de Cocora Colombia and the Jeep Willys
As mentioned up top, from Salento the easiest way to get to the valley itself is with one of the colorful jeeps lined up on the main plaza, Plaza de Bolivar. From 6.30 am to around 5.30pm, these jeeps (AKA, the Jeep Willys) ferry visitors to and from Cocora Valley.
These jeeps are well-organised, and there’s even a ticket booth where you can pay your fare. At the time of writing, a single way ticket was COP4000 (US$1), and two way tickets could be purchased for COP 8000 (US$2).
Once you’ve got your ticket, find a jeep and pack in. Officially, the jeeps are supposed to leave at least once an hour; however, they tend to set off once full, which during peak season can be every 15-20 minutes.
Needless to say, there isn’t much need to wait around too long. Stock up on food (try the badeja paisa) and incredible coffee and walk down to the main square.
This is especially true in the mornings, when most visitors head out. To return from the park, just wait in the parking lot where the jeep dropped you off. Within an hour, you should have your ride back.
Cocora Valley Map
How to Hike Cocora Valley
Blue Path: The Short Valle del Cocora hike
Just after leaving the parking lot, take a hard left and keep an eye out for the blue-marked trail. This 5 km hike is the easiest walk in the valley, taking only around 45 minutes to an hour to complete.
The whole one way trail is one big loop, and is suitable for anyone of average fitness.
No guide is needed to visit the valley. However, you can easily organize a Cocora Valley tour.
Hiking Cocora to the Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary
Instead of turning left, at the entrance to the valley take the right path marked “Acaime”. This trail will lead you all the way to the popular Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary.
The path will take you along the bank of a river, before you cross a few bridges and eventually end up at a crossroads. Take note of the direction you came from, as you’ll be backtracking here in a few hours.
Follow the red arrow to the right, and continue taking every right turn you see for the next half hour or so.
Heads up: nobody had told me that this is private property within Cocora Valley and there is a fee for checking them out. I was not impressed by this, but at least you get a drink (coffee or chocolate) and cheese to fill your stomach up while you rest and try taking good shots of the birds.
In total, expect to pay a modest COP 5000 for the privilege of hanging out with the hummingbirds.
The way back is a little confusing because the spot where you have to divert is not very well marked, yet your intuition will make your guess a good one and you will soon find yourself following the path that meanders between the Cocora Valley palm trees.
This is the best part of the trek, and if there are no clouds you will take some award winning photos.
The walk takes about five hours (make sure you have water with you) if you do it slowly and will be one of the highlights of your Colombia trip, assuming you have good weather.
If you don’t I recommend you wait until it is- if you can’t, well, you’ll still enjoy it but the views won’t be as breathtaking.
Acaime to the Wax Palms
From the hummingbird sanctuary, return to that afore-mentioned intersection and take a right (yes, right if you’re coming from the sanctuary) and take the uphill path. Eventually, you’ll reach a landing dubbed La Montañita by locals.
From here, there’s some great photo opportunities. I’d advise stopping for a water break or packed lunch here and soaking up the views.
After the viewpoint, you’ll be able to enjoy a pleasant downward stroll into the heart of the valley.
Take your time as you wander between the wax palms, and eventually make your way through the valley and back to the parking lot. Expect the round trip to take around 2-4 hours, depending on how hard you pound the trail.
The total Cocora Valley hike distance is around 12 km.
Where to Stay in Salento - Cocora Valley
All accommodation will be within the Salento city limits, and while the town is small there's no lack of options. It all comes down to what you prefer.
Best Views - Hotel El Mirador de Cocora is our top pick because of its great service, spacious rooms, and unparalleled views of the valley. Salento's city center is only a 10 minute walk away.
Best Hotel Downtown - Hotel Salento Plaza is only a three minute walk from Simon Bolivar plaza and has cozy rooms in a quiet environment.
Best Hostel in Salento - Hostal los Girasoles offers quite a few services including bike rentals and tours. You can stay in a dorm room, camp outside or have a room for yourself- all with superb views.
Find Accommodation Deals in Salento
Salento is very easy to walk. Decide if you want to stay in a quiet place or close to where everything happens.
Without a doubt Cocora Valley (Valle del Cocora) is one of the highlights in Colombia and should not be missed if possible. Plan on spending at least a couple of nights if you're on a hurry, 3 or 4 if you have some time and want to take it slowly.
Generally speaking prices are quite affordable, the food is good, and you can be as busy- or as laid back- as you want.