While the mysteriousness of the Valle de Cocora is part of its charm, it’s a good idea to get some background knowledge before visiting, especially if you plan on hiking independently as I did. As popular as the valley is among travelers, it’s still a rugged experience with little information available once you arrive and few services. The do-it-yourself nature of this park can be fun provided that you’re moderately prepared before you go.
Surprisingly, my guidebook didn’t offer much advice on hiking through the Valle de Cocora, and while I found plenty of pictures of the valley’s wax palms, I couldn’t find much practical information on the internet either. So I gathered advice from travelers who’d already visited the valley and picked up a few more tidbits during my hike. These are the tips I found most useful in preparing for my hike (and what I wish I knew before I went) that will help you make the most of your time in the Valle de Cocora:
1. Go early.
This part of Colombia is incredibly green, and with that comes an abundance of moisture in the air. The Valle de Cocora has a cloud forest climate and it’s notoriously foggy. If you want to have the best views of the wax palms, it’s a good idea to go early before it gets completely fogged in, especially if you plan on spending 5-6 hours hiking the loop. Even if you don’t want to get out of bed early, rally and get yourself to the square by 6am to catch a 6:10-ish jeep to the valley. You’ll probably want to get on a jeep by 7:30am at the latest.
2. Rent rubber boots.
As mentioned in the previous tip, this region is damp. There’s a good chance that it will have rained recently or that it will rain during your hike. This was my experience even while visiting in the driest month (July). At the beginning of the hike, the trail was not that bad, but a little while later, I was in mud up to my ankles and there were times when I walked through streams. There’s also an abundance of cows and horses along the trail so you can imagine that the mud is not just mud. Even if you have good boots, you probably won’t want them covered in that mess.
I saw people wearing sneakers who were slipping and sliding to avoid stepping in mud with nothing to hold on to except barbed wire. Rubber boots won’t be as comfortable as your own shoes, but it’s easier to hike when you can step wherever you need to and not worry about it. I was staying at Hostel Tralala when I visited the valley and I rented boots from there for a just a few bucks. The Plantation House and some of the other hostels also rent out boots or you can rent them when you arrive at the valley before you enter.
3. There are easier ways to see the valley, but if you’re somewhat able-bodied, do the hike.
The best views are at the very end of the loop that most hikers do. If you really don’t want to do the whole 5-6 hour hike, you can just go past the first entrance to a second entrance where you’ll find the most picturesque part of the valley. Another option is to rent a horse and hire a guide for the day. But if you can, I recommend doing the hike. It makes for a much more memorable experience with varied scenery along the way and rustic bridges to cross that add to the adventure. And doing the hike makes those final views even more magical. After sloshing through mud, crawling across boulders, and a steep hike up to the summit of a mountain, it was glorious to descend into the misty valley of wax palms.
4. When the trail forks, go left.
There were several times when the trail was unclear, especially when I reached the cloud forest section. But the most confusing part of my hike was when I came to a sign that offered two options but no guidance. The right side pointed to Acaime, and the left side pointed to Finca la Montaña. My guidebook mentioned this part of the trail, but it didn’t clearly explain why you should opt for one side or the other.
Eventually I figured out that even though my guidebook said that most hikers go to Acaime, it’s a detour that isn’t necessary unless you are looking for a place to have a hot beverage, sleep, or watch hummingbirds visit bird feeders. I’d brought my own food and while I think hummingbirds are great, Acaime didn’t seem worth the extra time. I went left and followed the sign up to Finca la Montaña and followed the trail back down to the valley from there to complete the loop. Based on what I heard from other travelers who went to Acaime, this was the right decision.
5. You may have to wait a while for a jeep to fill up before you can go back to Salento.
Even though I bumped into plenty of people in valley, there were often long stretches of the hike when I didn’t see anyone. I’m not sure if this is also the case if you go later in the day, but I think it’s natural that people spread out on the trail because people are hiking at their own paces and going different directions. The quiet stretches are wonderful, but if there aren’t many people directly ahead of you or behind you on the trail, there’s a possibility that you’ll have to wait when you finish because the drivers won’t go back to Salento until the jeep is at capacity (or beyond capacity in many cases). You’ll probably be hungry after your hike so if you have to wait, there are places just outside the park where you can get a bite to eat and sample the local trout (trucha) dish. Or you could just spend a little more time in the valley…