Valle de Cocora – the sky’s the limit!

8 Mar

They say that opposites attract but we would never have expected to find these two contrasting landscapes in one place. It really was an incredible sight to see tall palm trees shooting straight up into the sky, rising like giants above a canopy of cloud forest and we couldn’t take our eyes off it for one minute. The 60 meter Quindio Wax Palm is the tallest in the world and we felt dwarfed as we craned our necks to see the tops. But we weren’t at the beach or even on the hot savanna plains where you may expect to find palm trees. We were surrounded by a mountainous region of cloud forest with eery swirling mist making the Valle de Cocora feel like a very alluring place.

Set at the foot of the Los Nevados National Park and just a stones throw from Salento (11 kilometres), the Cocora Valley is considered to be a natural treasure, with the famous wax palm declared Colombia’s national tree. The park was established in 1985 in an effort to protect the wax palm and the endemic species that rely on it. The palms were traditionally cut down for their timber, their wax for candles and predominantly for their fronds close to Palm Sunday, but these days the protected park is a very popular tourist attraction in Colombia.

For us, the fun started even before we arrived at the park, when we took one of the shared jeeps, leaving from Salento’s main square every few hours on weekdays or more regularly at weekends. The jeeps were classics from World War II and were called Willys! They looked fantastic parked in a long line around the plaza and are still used as the main form of transport around the Zona Cafetera where the dirt roads can become impassable for regular vehicles when it rains.

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These surplus army jeeps were sent from the States in the 1950’s and to this day they still look as impeccable as they did back then. We climbed in the back where two planks of wood faced each other and we were sure we’d soon be off with two people in the front and four of us in the back, but somehow the driver managed to squeeze two more in the already cramped back with us, and let two others hang off the back whilst standing on the skirting board!

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The bumpy 30 minute ride (3,000 pesos – 1.5 USD) took us to the end of the line and dropped us at the mouth of the valley near a cluster of restaurants and where a number of trekking options can commence. We decided to follow a popular walk through the wooden entrance gate to the right, onto Reserva Natural Acaime, passing Finca La Montana for views across the park and then back around to Cocora.

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We set off in high spirits but this was soon squashed when we realised the previous days rain combined with Colombian day trippers taking horses along the trails rather than walking, made for a rather wet and muddy path. We tried to make some small detours over grassy fields but it always brought us back to the path and our shoes and trouser bottoms were soon caked in mud.

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What made it even worse was that every time we stopped to let horses past, we would get sprayed in globules of mud from head to toe. “Aah, the great outdoors” we said through gritted teeth whilst wiping mud from our faces with tissues. Even the cows weren’t impressed!

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The trail continued through dense cloud forest and across a series of rickety bridges which swayed with every step. The rivers we crossed were high and fast after the rains and we shuffled along so as not to fall in.

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It took us just over an hour to reach Reserva Natural Acaime and we paid an admission fee of 3,000 pesos ($1.5 USD) which included a refreshment of choice. As the weather was cool, we decided to have a hot drink and a local speciality called Panella was recommended. Panella is a very sweet drink made from sugar cane and heated like tea. Bizarrely, a chunk of cheese accompanied the drink and, as the locals were all adding the cheese to the hot panella so it would melt, we decided to follow suit. Dan was disgusted by his drink and pulled all kinds of faces whilst I was pleasantly surprised with both individual components but couldn’t quite get over the image of the cheese bobbing around in the cups!

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Reserva Natural Acaime is famous for its hummingbirds and there are literally dozens of them. The reserve contains 6 to 8 different species of hummingbirds and the numerous twitchers with long lenses were in heaven. The birds were totally unphased with us tourists gawping and squealing with delight and they went about their business of gathering nectar from big colorful flowers.

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A number of bird feeders had also been set up around the reserve and because the hummingbirds were going completely crazy for them we suspected they’d been laced with panella.

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Hummingbirds are some of the smallest in the world measuring 7.5 to 13 centimeters. Despite their size these birds were no walk overs and they jostled with each other and sometimes with us to reach the plants they wanted.

The hummingbird has the ability to hover perfectly still in mid-air by flapping their tiny wings 12 to 80 times per second depending on their species, and this creates a humming sound which is audible to humans. They can also fly up in excess of 54 kilometers per hour and are the only birds in the world that can fly backwards.

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Being enthralled by our tiny, busy friends, we hadn’t noticed that the sky had darkened ominously and clouds were circling. We decided to get going and retraced our steps around twenty minutes to where the trail forked. We took a steep trail climbing towards Finca La Montana. By this point the fine drizzle we’d felt after leaving the reserve’s shelter and which made the green foliage come alive, had turned into torrential sheets of rain which soaked us to the skin. We slipped and slid up a muddy hill and each time we looked up to catch our bearings it felt like a bucket of water had been thrown over us.

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A few canny trekkers had sought refuge in the Finca and sat dryly sipping hot drinks when we arrived looking like drowned rats. We decided to join them and shelter here until the rain passed. Finca La Montana was a cool mountain refuge with rooms and a restaurant and it had a distinctly alpine feel to it.

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The grounds were covered in vibrant an exotic flowers.

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After around fifteen minutes, the rain had passed and we ventured out once again. The sensational views we’d been told about had been completely obscured by low-lying mist but we posed for photographs anyway.

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The final part of the walk was predominantly downhill and took us up close to the impossibly tall wax palms. The weather was damp and the forest was alive with earthy smells.

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The birds chirped as they shook the last water droplets from their puffed up bodies.As we walked we stole glimpses of the scenery as the mist dissolved for a few seconds and then re-appeared just as quickly. The cloud forest was a dense green wilderness. Large leaves pooled rainwater and fungi clung to fallen logs.

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The wax palms shot straight up, holding aloft a cluster of fronds. There was certainly no attempt to climb the trees for their coconuts. At one clearing we were glued to the spot with the vision of wax palms clinging to the green hills as far as we could see.

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As we headed down the final part of the trail and towards a line of Willy’s waiting to fill up (!), we agreed that the Valle de Cocora is a truly special place. Legend has it that ‘Cocora’ was the name of a Quimbayan princess, daughter of the local chief Acaime, and ironically means “star of water”. A little bit of sunshine whilst we were there wouldn’t have gone amiss but even the rain and cool mist couldn’t dampen our spirits.

2 Responses to “Valle de Cocora – the sky’s the limit!”

  1. infused exposures March 11, 2014 at 8:33 pm #

    great pics guys!!! Especially those hummingbirds! We’ll have to add this place to our travels in Colombia. Beautiful!

    • latinchattin March 11, 2014 at 9:56 pm #

      We’d highly recommend a trip here – even in the rain it was gorgeous. Laurent won’t even need his super zoom lenses as the hummingbirds fly right next to you.

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