Picture this: You’re walking through a misty valley in the foothills of the Andes. Cows graze in the pastures beside you. The occasional farmer stops to have a quick chat. The only sound is the clip-clop of horses on the trail. Then, suddenly, you come to a clearing where you’re surrounded by the most incredible palm trees you’ve ever seen — some of them 80 meters high. This is the Cocora Valley hike near Salento, Colombia
The Cocora Valley is home to the wax palm — Colombia’s national tree and the world’s tallest palm tree. The best way to see this iconic landscape is on a half-day hike. Your efforts will be rewarded when you find yourself surrounded by a grove of the magnificent palm trees. It’s easily one of the best hikes in Colombia.
In this post, I’ll walk you through how to take on the Cocora Valley hike on your own, without a guide. And I’ll cover a few alternatives if you’re feeling less active on your Colombia holiday.
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How to get to the Cocora Valley hike
Salento, a small town in the Coffee Axis, is the typical base for hiking the Valle de Cocora. The town itself is immensely charming. It has colorful houses, gorgeous mountain views, and one of Colombia’s best hostels. You’ll need to stay overnight in Salento before heading to the Cocora Valley.
One of the best parts of Salento is that the public transportation in and around town is in World War II-era Willy Jeeps. They can fit about fifteen passengers at a time, with up to four people standing on the rear bumper. They’re perfect for the mountain roads and great fun, and you’ll need to ride in one to reach the Cocora Valley.
Start out by going to the central plaza in Salento. Willy Jeeps leave for the Cocora Valley every hour, on the hour. Arrive ten minutes early to guarantee a seat. You can buy your ticket from the small office on the southern end of the park. I recommend buying a round-trip ticket for 8,000 COP — some of the drivers try to overcharge on the way back if you don’t already have a ticket. Be sure to specify that you’re going to Cocora, as some Jeeps also leave for the coffee farms from the same place.
If you want to leave between public Jeep departures, you can split costs with other travelers and hire a private Jeep for the same price (you can use the same ticket). They fill up fairly quickly — every 15 minutes or so.
Then, hop in/on the back and hang on. It’s a windy, slow, and mildly uncomfortable 45-minute ride to the start of the Valle de Cocora hike.
Which direction should you hike the Valle de Cocora in?
The Valle de Cocora hike is a loop if you plan to do the whole thing. You can cover the loop in either direction, but there are pros and cons to both options.
If you hike clockwise, you get to walk through the wax palm trees first thing. The first part of the hike will be the star of the show, and afterwards, you’ll simply be walking through the forest the rest of the way.
The biggest advantage of hiking clockwise is you will go down the steepest part of the trail. The other nice thing is it’s easier to gauge if you have time to do side trips, because the turnoffs for the side trips come closer to the end of the hike.
The disadvantage is you don’t really get the best views of the Cocora Valley. Sure, you’ll see all the same places, but climbing up through the wax palms doesn’t quite have the same effect as descending into the valley from above.
That’s why I’d recommend doing the Cocora Valley hike counter-clockwise. This way you save the best views for last. When you first see the clusters of wax palms from above, you’ll know the tough hike to get there was all worth it.
The only downside to hiking counter-clockwise is that there is one very steep climb right in the middle of the hike. It only lasts about 20 minutes, so if you’re in moderately decent shape, it shouldn’t deter you (unlike the Lost City trek).
How to do the Cocora Valley hike: Step-by-step directions
Once your Willy Jeep reaches the Cocora Valley, you’ll need to choose which direction to complete the hike in. I’m going to cover these directions counter-clockwise, since that’s what I did, but you could reverse them.
Step one: Walk toward the wax palms and take a right at the blue gate
The Willy Jeeps drop passengers off in a large parking lot in the little commercial center at the start of the hike. You can grab a coffee or a snack here if you want, and the restaurants will let you use their bathrooms for about 500 COP. You can see some of the wax palms from here.
Most people will walk straight toward the valley, down the main road. If you want to do the full hike, don’t follow them! Walk straight until you reach a blue gate to your right (just outside the commercial center). A less-traveled path that’s clearly used by horses leads downhill to your right. Follow that path.
You’ll know you’re in the right place because after about 15 feet, there’s a bit Welcome sign. Keep walking to the bottom of the hill and you’ll reach a small stream crossing with a bridge. This is the proper beginning of the trail.
Step two: Walk past the farms and into the cloud forest
If you’re hiking the Valle de Cocora in this direction, the first 30 minutes of your walk will be through flat, rolling farmland. You can get some nice views of the wax palms in the distance to your left.
The trail is pretty narrow here and completely unmarked, but it’s impossible to get lost. A barbed-wire fence runs along the right side of the path, and to your left is river and an open valley where cows graze.
After 15 minutes or so, you’ll come to a gate that is sometimes manned by a guard. You may have to pay 1,000 COP to continue (with another 1,000 COP fee charged on the other side of the mountain). It’s not consistently enforced.
Keep following the river as you gradually climb toward the mountains. After about an hour, you’ll notice the landscape start to change. You’ll leave the farmland behind and enter the misty, shady cloud forest. Before long you’ll come to a signpost that says “Fundacion Herencia Vero” — follow the trail to your right.
Step three: Cross suspension bridges and climb towards Acaime
The next section of the Valle de Cocora hike takes you over a series of suspension bridges as you gain altitude. You’ll notice the trail start to get steeper, but it’s still a fairly easy walk.
The suspension bridges are rickety and made out of wood, but don’t worry, they’re perfectly safe! You’ll cross about 6 of them.
After about another hour, you’ll reach another junction. Here, you can take a right toward Acaime Farm — where you can see their hummingbird garden — or continue toward Finca La Montaña, the highest point on the trek.
If you want to see the hummingbirds, it’s about a 90-minute round-trip side trip. You’ll have to pay 5000 COP to enter the farm (which includes a beverage like coffee or hot chocolate). It’s pretty steep and a far less-traveled path. Many travelers report not seeing any hummingbirds when they went after 11 am, so if you’re intent on seeing the birds, make sure you set out very early.
The trek up to Acaime is out-and-back, so after you see the hummingbirds, you’ll come back to the same turnoff.
Step four: Climb up to Finca La Montaña
This is the one difficult part of the hike — the climb to the summit of the mountain. Finca La Montaña is at 2,800 meters and you gain most of the elevation in this last section.
The trail becomes a series of switchbacks, which are quite steep in places. It’s rocky and narrow, so watch your step.
Many guides estimate an hour for this last section, but I’m not in spectacular shape and I did it in about 20 minutes and found it easier than even climbing to Monserrate in Bogota. You’ll see lots of people coming down in the opposite direction so you can ask how far you are from the top.
When you reach the farm, you’ll immediately see that it was all worth it. The views of the surrounding mountains are spectacular. By late morning the entire area is often shrouded in clouds and mist, which just adds to the atmosphere. You won’t see any wax palms from up here, but it’s still a fantastic place to have a picnic lunch.
Step five: Walk down through the Valle de Cocora
Now is the part you’ve been waiting for — the descent! This is the best part of the Valle de Cocora hike.
At first, you’ll descend gradually along a wide dirt road. You’ll still be in thick forest and you won’t be able to see much. After 30 minutes, you’ll pass through another gate where you have to pay the rest of your admission fee (an additional 1,000 COP).
Pretty soon after you pass through the gate, you’ll start to see side trails cutting off to your left. Follow these! They offer the best access to the most incredible viewpoints along the whole trail. While you can barely see the wax palms from the main pathway, as soon as you get to the clearings on these side trails, you’ll be surrounded by them.
There are a few different approaches you could take from here. You could keep doubling back to the main trail and cutting out on different side trails. But if you’re enjoying the views, your better bet is to simply invent your own trail along the hillside heading downward through the palm groves. (You’ll see plenty of others doing the same.) Just be aware that some sections are pretty steep.
Step six: Walk back to the Willy Jeep drop-off point
The final step for hiking the Valle de Cocora is to get back to the Jeeps. If you walked down the main trail, you can just continue all the way back.
If you took the side trails/hillside paths all the way down, you’ll eventually come to a horse stable. From here you can take one of the well-trodden pathways to link up with the main path.
It’s about a 15-minute flat walk from the bottom of the hill with the wax palms to reach the drop-off point.
When you’re ready to head back to Salento, just go to the parking lot with the Jeeps and wait in line. They depart every few minutes (when full) until 5 pm.
How long does it take to hike the Cocora Valley?
If you opt to do the full Valle de Cocora loop hike, without Acaime, you’ll walk about 10 km. Add Acaime and you’ll end up hiking more like 15 km.
Most sources online say the full Cocora Valley hike takes about five hours from when you start walking (so about 7 hours round-trip from Salento). That’s a reasonable estimate if you take your time and stop for lots of photos.
I found that it took much less time — I completed the hike in about three and a half hours, including a stop for lunch. I would recommend rushing a little bit on the way up so that you reach the wax palms before 1 pm. It gets cloudy and rainy in the afternoons, and while that adds a lot of atmosphere, it also makes it hard to get really great photos (and it can be cold and uncomfortably wet).
Shorter alternatives to see the wax palms in Valle de Cocora
If you don’t want to do a full half-day hike, don’t worry! You can still see the iconic wax palms.
The easiest option is to simply walk from the Jeep drop-off to the wax palms and back. This would only take about two hours max, and wouldn’t involve any steep climbing.
You can also ride a horse through the Cocora Valley. This costs around 25,000 COP per hour, depending on your bargaining skills. Unfortunately not all the guides are trustworthy and the horses didn’t look like they were in the best shape, so if you really want to pursue this option, ask your guesthouse in Salento for a recommended guide.
The other hiking option would be to simply hike up to Acaime to see the hummingbirds and back. This would take about three hours, but you’d miss out on the wax palms entirely.
What should you bring for hiking the Valle de Cocora?
Since the Valle de Cocora hike is just a half-day hike, you can pack pretty light. You don’t need more than a small day pack.
First, be sure to bring enough water. One liter per person should be plenty. Don’t contribute to plastic waste — bring a Steri Pen to purify your own water from the tap.
Finca la Montaña makes an excellent place for a picnic lunch, and you’ll surely be hungry after the climb up. So pack some snacks or a proper meal. I brought a packed lunch from Brunch in Salento, and it was amazing. For 14,000 COP they gave me an awesome peanut butter and jelly sandwich (my favorite hiking meal), fruit, homemade granola, a giant brownie, crackers with homemade peanut butter, and juice. You can stop by in the morning before you leave for your hike and they can prep the lunch box for you in about five minutes.
In terms of clothing, I’d recommend proper hiking boots for this trail, but at a minimum you should wear sneakers. Some parts of the trail are rocky and you could easily roll an ankle. Sandals/flip flops would be a terrible idea. Bring something waterproof — a jacket or poncho — as well, since it frequently rains at Finca la Montaña and the elevation makes it chilly.
Overall, the Cocora Valley hike is one of the best hikes in Colombia, or even in South America as a whole. If you like outdoor activities and beautiful scenery, you can’t miss it. It’s an easy enough hike to be accessible to most, but the rewards are immense. It will surely be one of the highlights of your trip.
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Wow looks like a beautiful green place.a great experience