Hiking Valle de Cocora is one of Colombia’s iconic hiking experiences, a true must when visiting Salento and the Coffee region. The famous wax palms are stunning, and it feels so unreal to walk through the cloud forest. I’d seen the pictures and absolutely wanted to see these amazing palms in real life. The Valle de Cocora is a sight you do not want to miss, but please make sure you come prepared! Before I went on the Cocora Valley hike, I hadn’t been able to find very detailed information about the route and the trail conditions, and it’s fair to say it was worse than I expected!
My husband, David, and I, only left for our hike around 11 in the morning. We should have left earlier, because by the time it was late afternoon, we were still on the mountain. We were running out of time to reach the end of the hike before sunset… I could see the highest point towering above me, Finca La Montaña. It didn’t seem too far away, but I wasn’t sure I would make it there fast enough. There was certainly not enough time to turn back the other way. David was about 20 meters ahead of me and kept calling me to keep going. But I needed a break, I struggled to breath and I had a headache. Every step was literally an uphill battle. I had no idea that hiking the Valle de Cocora would be this difficult…
This guide has turned out quite long as I’ve tried to be very detailed in my description of the hike, because I felt that other guides I’ve read lacked this detail. But feel free to scan if it’s a bit too much for you! I’m keen to provide you with the best guide for unexperienced hikers, to make sure you can take an informed decision on the route you’ll take, without unpleasant surprises.
If you have lots of hiking experience, including hiking through mud or at altitude, the Valle de Cocora hike might be easy for you. But David and I don’t do a lot of hiking, so for us it wasn’t easy at all. David mostly struggled with the slippery conditions of the track, because it was quite muddy and he was wearing simple trainers without a lot of grip. I struggled with the altitude, mostly on the parts of the route that were above 2700 meters or so. But then you should also know that I have exercise induced asthma, so I guess I would be more prone to losing breath at this altitude.
How to get to the Valle de Cocora
As we were able to borrow a car from a friend, we had no problem getting from Salento to the Cocora Valley. We parked the car at a large parking lot, that was already quite full. This is probably because December is a busy tourist time in Colombia. To pay for our parking we were told to just buy something from the shop right next to it, so we did that. Once we finished the hike, we also had a trout dinner at the restaurant right next to the parking lot to celebrate our safe return 🙂
If you don’t have a car to use, you can easily use the local transport of the area, the Willy. These are jeeps that they fill to the brim with people. If you are one of the last on the jeep, you might end up standing on the back of the car. It’s cheap and gets you from Salento to the Valle de Cocora the same way as you would when driving yourself. It was so funny to see people standing on the back of the Willies! But if you’re one of the ‘lucky’ ones to be in that position, I think it might be scary, because the ride takes about 20 minutes and you don’t want to fall off!
You can find the Willies at the main square in Salento. It might be a good idea to check beforehand for up to date info on departure times (your accommodation will probably have some information on this). I have read that you also have the option to pay more for a private ride, in which case the Willy leaves whenever you want. On your way back, make sure you are on time to catch the last Willy at 6pm, back to Salento!
The short Valle de Cocora hiking route
Before starting your hike, you’ll want to decide whether you’re up for the long route, or if you prefer the short route. The latter is way less intense, and you will still get to see the famous wax palms, so if you’re not in a good physical shape, this might be a better option. I’ll tell you about our experience hiking the long route, so you can make up your mind. Even though it was difficult, I found the long route to be very rewarding, so I would recommend it if you think you are physically capable of completing the hike. If you only arrive in the afternoon, you’re definitely better off sticking to the short route, or you might not make it back in time for sunset or for the last Willy back to Salento.
The short route is very simple. When arriving at the entrance location, you would just follow the dirt road that cars can drive on. At some point you will see a blue gate on your right-hand side, and this is the entrance to the long route. So, if you want to hike the short route, make sure you DON’T enter this gate. Just keep going on the main road and you’ll get to the wax palms super easily. You can then decide how far up the mountains you want to walk. There are already lots of palms to be seen before any sort of steep incline begins. To go back to the parking lot or Willy departure point, simply turn around and walk the same way back. The short route could take you anything from about 1 to 3 hours, depending on your walking speed and the amount of time you’d like to spend looking at the palms towering above you.
The long Valle de Cocora hiking route
Having done some reading about the trail, we were expecting a bit of mud and climbing, but I found that lots of other people made the hike sound quite easy. We didn’t think we were heading out for a tough walk that day. We slept late and arrived at the site only around 11 am or so, but there were still other people leaving on the trail, so we had no idea that we had left it a bit late. We even had a look around a few shops before starting our hike. We started hiking around 11:20 am and ended up struggling to make it back before sunset! If you are an unexperienced hiker, like we are, you might be better off starting your hike around 10 am or even earlier if you can manage! I have heard that the cloud forest looks much better earlier in the day, so it would be worth waking up early.
To hike the long route, you need to enter the blue gate from the main dirt road. It’s pretty clear and hard to miss if you know what to look for. Just walk up the dirt road, with the shops on the side, and you will see this blue gate appear on your right-hand side. If you walk through it, the rest of the trail is quite obvious, so just follow it. At first, it’s super easy, there is one bridge to cross and the path leads you through lush green fields.
There might be a few puddles and a bit of mud, but this is nothing compared to what you will experience later on, when you start going uphill. The surroundings are beautiful, endless green fields surrounded by forests, all in vividly green colours. Cows and horses are grazing in the fields and there were lots of butterflies when we walked there. You will see the wax palms in the distance, a little taster of the reward waiting for you at the end of the long hike.
Unfortunately, I haven’t timed this part of the trail, but we felt like it took us quite long before we actually started on our uphill battle towards the waterfall and Acaime.
The uphill trail and waterfall
At some point the lush green fields change into dense jungle-like forest and the trail starts to go uphill. This is where the muddy conditions really start. This is where David and I gave up trying not to get mud on our shoes and trousers, because you don’t really have a choice!
The forest is very nice, but you will probably be so focused on the trail that it’s hard to appreciate your surroundings. This is where it gets very challenging. There is lots of mud with horse poop and rocks, which makes it all super slippery.
Then there are also lots of rickety bridges along the route. Some people call them adventurous, but I just find them scary. There are rickety suspension bridges, and bridges that are basically just a bunch of logs thrown over the river, with a wire to hold onto if you’re lucky.
At some point you get to a wider part of the trail, with big rocks, where you will find horses seemingly having a break or waiting for their riders. At that point you should try to find a small downhill path to your left, which will lead you to the waterfall. If you’re taking the effort to hike this muddy trail, make sure you don’t miss the waterfall!
And then you will need to continue your way through more mud and over more rickety bridges just like the previous ones. We felt like it was never going to end, this is when we knew the long route was a tough one. Unfortunately, I haven’t taken any pictures of the worst mud stretches, because I was too occupied trying to make my way through them! But trust me when I say there is a lot of mud. And we didn’t even have rain to make it worse…
At some point you will reach some sort of junction, and it is very important to pay attention here. If the signs look like this, it means you have reached the junction at 2650 meters altitude, and you need to decide whether you want to go straight up to Finca la Montaña or make the detour to Acaime.
Detour to Acaime, the hummingbird sanctuary
If you would like to see the hummingbirds and you have enough time to spare to make this detour, follow the path to the right to go up to Acaime. This is a hummingbird sanctuary where you can have a break and enjoy lots of hummingbirds flying around you. There are lots of them, so even if you are not a great photographer, you’ll probably manage to get some birds in your pictures.
The hike up to Acaime went through very dense forest, the greenery seemed to completely enclose us. The main challenge for me here wasn’t mud, but the rising altitude. The hummingbird sanctuary is situated at an altitude of 2811 meters, so this is where I really started to struggle and had to slow my pace. Apart from that the surroundings on the way up were beautiful, so we took regular breaks to take in the sights.
To go up to Acaime you will have to pay the entry fee of 5,000 Colombian pesos, which includes a drink while you have your moment of rest. There are feeding stations for the hummingbirds, so this gives you plenty of opportunity to take pictures of the hummingbirds quite easily. I found it very special to see them so close, so I was very happy to have made the effort to get to Acaime.
Acaime was also the place where we were finally able to get some more information about the rest of the hike, because there was a map. Before arriving there, we had no clue where we were going and when we would finally see the valley full of wax palms. The people at Acaime were very friendly and were able to tell us what to expect and where to go. We quickly started making our way back down to the 2650 m. junction, where we now knew how to make our way up to Finca la Montaña.
The way up to Finca la Montaña
When you are back at the 2650 m. junction, in order to go up to Finca la Montaña, you will need to take the pathway leading up the mountain. This is the one opposite the pathway leading to Acaime. So basically, when you first reach this junction, you need to decide if you’re gonna go to Acaime or straight to Finca la Montaña. In this case Acaime is the pathway to the right, while Finca la Montaña is the pathway to the left.
You will then start the steep incline up to Finca la Montaña. You will know you’re on the right track if this pathway looks very different from the trail you were on first. The forest slowly started to become less dense and the path is so much steeper. It took us a long time to make our way up, because this was the part of the hike where I struggled a lot with my breathing and got a headache. At one point I could only take about 5 steps before I had to take a short break. For me this was the most difficult part of the hike, but David was fine because he doesn’t have asthma.
Then, eventually, the forest completely cleared and you go up a very steep incline to the farm on the top of the mountain. We could already see the farm, but the last bit was so difficult! It was so close, but I wasn’t sure I would ever make it up there!
Finally, I did reach Finca la Montana, the small farm on top of the mountain. We had a short break, drinking hot chocolate to try to fill up our stomach. (Who doesn’t bring food on a hike?!) But lucky for us, at the farm they sold Colombian hot chocolate with cheese. I know, it sounds strange, but some people love it! You just have to try it at some point when you’re in Colombia, might as well be at the top of a mountain! And don’t think that because they sell hot chocolate, this is a proper café/restaurant with toilets, because it isn’t. You’ll have to wait for toilets until you get off the mountain. After finishing the drink, I took lots of pictures of the beautiful view and wonderful flowers. Then we quickly had to start making our way towards the famous wax palms, or we wouldn’t make it off the mountain before sunset.
The descent to the famous wax palms
You leave the farm following a proper path, along the flowers at first, then it turns into a pine forest. There was still a little bit of uphill hiking, but the track is so much better here. The surroundings are beautiful and if the clouds are not too thick, you might soon be able to see the valley below.
The clouds completely came down around us as it was late afternoon already, so at some point we weren’t able to see anything apart from trees surrounded by clouds, which was quite special as well! Try to look for little sideway paths on your left, they might give you some great views for pictures 😊
At some point the track changed into a proper road which looked like it could be used by vehicles as well, so the road is clear to follow. I think we had to climb over a fence at some point, we weren’t sure if we were going the right way, but by just following this road we ended up in the valley full of wax palms. At some point we decided to stop following the road and just walk down into the valley.
Walking between the wax palms was so amazing. They are so unbelievably tall! It felt so strange walking among these thin tall palms, I’m in awe that landscapes like this exist. We spent some time wondering around, taking pictures, it was great 😊 Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay too long, because it was getting dark, so we had to make our way back to the car before we couldn’t see a thing! It would have been so much better if we would have had some more time to stay in the valley, so we could have seen the weather change. If you look up more pictures you’ll see that sometimes it’s super sunny without clouds, or sometimes it looks like a super mystical cloudy place. You can experience all these weather types in one day, if you leave enough time to stay in the valley for a while! You might have a better chance to see the sun if you visit in the morning.
Some practical information about the Valle de Cocora hike
Be prepared for rain on your hike. The Valle de Cocora is a cloud forest and therefore the climate is very wet. It makes the forest wonderfully green, but it causes lots of mud and rain on the way. The driest months are January and July, the wettest months are April, May, October and November. But during the driest months there is still a good chance of rain. We visited in late December, so I think it wasn’t as wet and muddy as it can be. We had no rain on our hike, which is pretty rare.
Make sure to pack enough food and water for the hike. You’ll be hiking through forests with no opportunity to buy anything. We didn’t bring any food, and we were starving by the end of the hike. Lesson learned: be more well-prepared. You can buy some drinks at Acaime and they sell Colombian hot chocolate at Finca la Montaña. These are small stops along the hike, about halfway through.
There is an entrance fee of 3,000 COP (0.90 USD) for the hike, whether you pay this depends on where you enter. We didn’t pay this entrance fee, because we started our hike from the blue gate entrance. Also if you want to visit the hummingbird resort at Acaime, there is an entrance fee of 5,000 COP (1.50 USD). Entrance fees and currency conversions may change over time. If your budget is very important to you, please check if this information is still correct when you plan to visit.
I hope this guide will help you on your hike in the Cocora Valley! If you’re planning a trip around Colombia, you might want to check out some of my other Colombia content. I have posts on Santa Fé de Antioquia, which is a great day trip destination from Medellín, a walking tour of Medellín’s Comuna 13, and a beginner’s hiking guide about visiting Cabo San Juan in Parque Tayrona in one day 🙂
Have a great time in Colombia!