I had been travelling full-time for seven months when I visited the small town of Salento in central Colombia.
I had seen endless, stunning mountain landscapes, palm trees, waterfalls and forests. I had done a plenitude of hikes including Machu Picchu, Cotopaxi in Ecuador and Colca Canyon in Peru.
And yet, the cloud forest and wax palm trees of Cocora Valley just outside Salento were enough to take my breath away. I still classify it as one of the most visually impressive things I have seen on my travels and adored it despite having a not so smooth day hiking there.
We drastically underestimated the hike and spent nine hours trekking in the valley on account of getting completely and utterly lost.
So to prevent what happened to us and to experience the valley as it was intended, here is everything you should know when planning your visit to Valle de Cocora.
Getting to Salento
The best way to get to Salento is to take a bus from either Bogota or Medellin. If you have begun your journey in Bogota, I highly recommend getting the bus from here to Salento on route to Medellin. It is a great way to break up the journey.
Coming from Bogota, you will arrive to Armenia in about six hours and you can take a relatively cheap taxi for thirty minutes into Salento.
Leaving Salento, there are a small number of buses that leave Salento direct to Medellin during the day. However, you can get a transfer to Pereira (about forty minutes away) and find buses departing for Medellin at all times (and similarly for Bogota).
Enquire in your hotel or hostel for prices and times as they appear to change regularly.
What to bring to Valle de Cocora
For some reason, my travel buds and I assumed this was going to be an easy hike. We expected to rock up to the valley entrance, walk for an hour, snap some pics with some palm trees and head home.
We could not have been more wrong.
Now there are actually a couple of ways to do the valley and some include significantly shorter hikes or no hikes at all. However, most people tend to go for the half day hike, taking anywhere from four to six hours.
This is a hike that will take you half a day to a full day depending on your speed and ability. A significant part of it is uphill and other parts are through slippy and muddy forest floors.
I would recommend waterproof hiking shoes and rain-gear but not too many layers as it is very hot. As someone who did the hike in runners (trainers) I would advise against it. It gets extremely slippy in places and it was a truly terrifying feeling like I was going to slip at all times.
Other things to bring are plenty of water, loads of snacks, sun screen and bug spray.
Transport to the valley
Regular, cost-effective mini-vans go from the centre of Salento every day according to demand. Head down to the main square to avail of these at any time.
You can book private transport from your accommodation to the valley though this is significantly more expensive. However, you can take the contact of your driver and have them pick you up and drop you back to Salento when you are finished which is a plus.
The hike through the valley is challenging but culminates in reaching the stunning landscape of the cloud forest which is a great way to finish a long day of walking.
When you get dropped off you will see that you can continue along the road or turn right onto a dirt path with signs for Los Nevados Parque Nacional.
The most common route if you want to get a good hike is to follow this path for the half day hike (you can of course follow the road and do the palm trees first and then hike back around finishing at the path entrance but we think it’s better to arrive at the palm trees at the end of the trek).
The first part of the hike consists of an easy trail through flat fields. From here you get a great view of the valley from far away and an opportunity to take pictures.
The second part of the hike is through forest and consists of many bridges over pretty streams and small waterfalls. This is a fun walk but very damp and slippy which is where the hiking shoes are beneficial.
After about two- three hours of walking you will arrive at the Acaime La Casa de Los Colibris which is a small humming bird sanctuary that offers some cheese and hot chocolate to walkers complimentary when you pay in. You can enjoy a well-earned rest here.
From here, things get a bit tricky. According to the map the logical route to follow appears to be around to the right after you leave the sanctuary.
Basically you are trying to get to Finca La Montana so follow the signs for it. This will take you on a hike up a steep mountain. At the top of the mountain you will get another stunning view and a chance to take a rest.
From here, it is a pretty easy walk straight down into the valley where you can lie back and watch the clouds drift in and out of the tall palm trees.
I made that all sound simple but the reality is that this park is a nightmare to navigate.
How not to get lost
Like many attractions in Colombia, the trail is not well marked or laid out by the given maps. Therefore, instead of relying on the maps and directions given at the entrance, I would suggest downloading Maps.Me and consulting this as you walk (instead of after you get lost!). Also take a good look at this fantastic map above by Tom Plan My Trip.
The first part of the hike is very straight forward. You can keep walking until you reach the hummingbird sanctuary if you choose to go there. After this it is quite hard to find the turn for Finca La Montana.
AND so you can end up on an extra four hour hike up a mountain you did not intend or were mentally prepared to traverse.
The trail is not marked at all and you basically have to double back on yourself about twenty minutes after the sanctuary to locate it. Alternatively you can skip the sanctuary altogether and take the turn while you are walking the initial route (keep an eye on Maps.Me to find it as it is not clearly signposted).
Once you are on that trail it is again easy from here. Hike to the house atop the mountain and then take the road back down to the valley.
At all costs, do not follow signs for Estrella de Agua. That will take you on a four hour adventure uphill into the wilderness that you do not want to do(unless you are avid hikers than this is a nice but challenging hike!)
Note that there is no way to do a loop so you will have to hike to the waterfall and then back the same route you came (though at least on the way back it is all downhill!)
OR Skip the Hike
If that all just sounds to much, you actually do not have to hike at all!
Yep, you can just turn up at the entrance and instead of taking the trail, simply follow the road and you will find yourself in the midst of the cloud forest itself.
From here you could walk up for perhaps thirty minutes through the forest itself and back down.
And if you are REALLY feeling lazy, you can even hop on a horse to take you down the road and through the forest. After going through what we did, I have absolutely zero judgement for people who choose to do this!
Refreshments (don’t expect much)
If you plan to spend the day here, make sure to bring enough snacks to keep you going. There is a restaurant at the entrance and then nothing until you hit Acaime (the hummingbird sanctuary). Here, you will only get something small and similarly at Finca La Montana.
Your best bet is to pack some snacks to have along the way and sandwiches to have a small picnic upon reaching the cloud forest.
How much does it cost?
We made a total of three payments total throughout our day here.
First, we paid 4,000 COP to enter the first trail. We then paid 5,000 to enter the hummingbird sanctuary (but bear in mind that is completely optional!).
We then had to pay another 1,000 COP to enter into the cloud forest at the end of the hike (not optional).
These prices are true as of June 2018.
The Valley itself
As I said earlier, everything we went through on that day was so worth it just to get to the cloud forest itself.
In fact, we probably appreciated it even more considering we hiked for seven hours to get to it. The vista is stunning and unlike anything I have seen on all of my travels.
I, personally, love a good palm tree myself but these were outstanding. There is also something so magical about how the clouds move in and out of the valley.
Luckily, there is always transport going to and from the valley all the time so don’t expect to wait longer than fifteen minutes for a ride back to Salento (so there is no need to book in advance).
Sure if your day is anything like ours was, you never know how long it might take you!