My pants are covered in mud. My shoes are soaked. My wrist is killing me from a fall earlier. My poncho is a sweat lodge. Lia is flirting with death as she slides down a mountain nearly in tears and I think, “Where was this shit in Lonely Planet?”
Salento, Colombia. One of the major non-party tourist destinations in the country. It’s a small town in Eje Cafetero, the picturesque coffee region, located a few hours west of Bogota as the bus drives (OK, so more like 12 hours). The region is popular because in it grows one of the world’s most popular drugs: coffee. The town of Salento has numerous coffee farms – including our favorite, Ocaso – but it also has plenty of hikes. None of those hikes are as notable or as popular as the famous Valle de Cocora. We had seen postcard-perfect photos of the towering wax palms and bright green hills, which convinced us – amateur hikers though we are – that we needed to do the Valle de Cocora hike! What we didn’t realize was that the Valle de Cocora hike is as difficult and potentially dangerous as it is beautiful….
How to Get from Salento to the Valle de Cocora Hike
Every day, hikers converge on Salento Plaza in the middle of town to grab a jeep to the valley. Salento doesn’t have moto taxis or yellow cabs; they have Willys. Willys are jeeps that can hold up to 15 people and the driver. I say “hold”, and not “seat,” because 5 of those lucky people stand on the bumper and hold on for dear life. It sounds sketch, but you have to try it. It’s so much fun! (Read more about the ridiculous and nerve-wracking transportation in Colombia in our transportation guide!)
Willys leave for the valley every hour starting at 7:30 AM until 2:30 PM. The start of the hike is about 5 miles out of town, so have no choice: you have to take a Willy (unless you prefer your hikes with an extra 10 miles, in which case, this is probably not the blog post for you). Thankfully, they’re cheap; Lia and I paid 3.400 COP (about $1 USD) each.
Once you are dropped off at the entrance of the Valle de Cocora hike, you will be instantly treated to amazing views. The Valle de Cocora is lush – the hills are a bright, unbelievable green – and at certain times of the day, the cloud forests in the mountains attract a low-lying fog which only serves to enhance the scenery. One thing you’ll notice immediately is the primary reason that the hike is so famous: the giant Colombian wax palms. They’re incredibly tall, skinny palm trees that grow up to 180 feet tall! They look like they’re straight out of “The Lorax.” They also happen to be Colombia’s national symbol.
In addition to the enticing rolling green hills and giant palms, there are a couple of little shops that sell snacks, coffee, tea, water, and bathroom admission. Once you’re ready to get moving, head up the hill. As soon as you pass the last building, you’ll see a bright blue gate on the right. Go through and you’re off!
The Beginning of the Valle de Cocora Hike
The first hour or so of the hike is extremely easy, and incredibly beautiful! Lia described it as Wales meets South America. Thousands of wax palms dot the tops of mountains. Everywhere you look are vibrantly green hills with farms nestled throughout the valley. On the farms, happy livestock graze on grass and observe passers by (I even made a couple of cow friends).
As you hike, groups of families on horseback tromp past: this is actually the least scenic bit, as the horses look miserable and tend to splash you with mud. But all around you is beauty. Be sure to take lots of pictures. Every view is better than the last. Depending on how many pictures you stopped for, about an hour in, you’ll reach the end of the valley and the start of the cloud forest covered mountain.
Immediately, you’re engulfed in jungle. It’s actually pretty surreal – one minute you’re in a sunny valley, the next you’re in a thick, misty cloud forest.The climb is sudden, but don’t worry, it levels out.
A note about the trail conditions: they suck. The people at Acaime – the reserve which takes care of the Valle de Cocora hike – do what they can to maintain the trail, but after frequent rain and constant horse trampling, the trail turns into rivers of thick mud mixed with manure by the end of the day. And I don’t just say this just because it’s icky and I want you to be mentally prepared to end up covered in manure; it’s the sort of mud that can be very dangerous. It’s slippery and thick, and can easily throw off your footing or eat your shoe. Choose your steps very carefully and take your time. Trekking poles were incredibly helpful in differentiating between “12 inches of mud” and “a rock I can sort of balance on.”
About 200 meters into the forest, the trail makes a sudden left turn. At the turn, you’ll notice a gnarled branch that is used to tie up horses. Upon first glance it seemed like a weird spot to tie them up. However, if you look to the left, you’ll see the tiniest trail, winding through the jungle and past a small cave. Follow this trail and you’ll be rewarded with a great view of a waterfall.
Note: For those of you who are short on time, or don’t want to get incredibly dirty, this is where you should turn around. The rest of the trail is an uphill slog through mud and tiny, rickety bridges over a rushing river. The valley and the waterfall were our personal highlights, so don’t feel like you missed out if you want to head back now.
The River Crossings on the Valle de Cocora Hike
If you’re continuing, you’ll head back to the main trail and see the first of several forks. You want the one on the right. For future reference, if you see a fork that isn’t marked, don’t worry. If you take the wrong path, you’ll quickly reach the river. The reason for that is the horses cross the river there, and the other path is for humans because it leads to a bridge. So anyway, you want the right fork.
Soon you’ll reach a rickety , incredibly sketch bridge. As the sign says, take it one person at a time. Don’t worry. If you fall, it’s only like 100 meters until you’re tossed off a waterfall into some rocks. Should be fine.
I hope once you make it, you thought it was fun, because this hike has EIGHT of those sketchy river crossings. To make it more interesting, three of those crossings are just logs thrown across a fucking river! And they’re all wet and muddy! Adventure.
The trail continues for about another hour, depending on your speed (our pace, as always, is very slow). Throughout the trail, you’ll be fighting your way through a lot of mud. Like…more than you actually believe. We’re talking Tough Mudder levels of mud. The horses trotting past (which occasionally fling mud at you while you stand balancing precariously to the side) churn the mud into a thick, viscous sludge. Your speed will be compromised because you have to hop from rock to rock so you don’t get stuck in the mud. I kept wishing I’d brought my big ass boots, but I didn’t think backpacking with 10 pound shoes would be worth it. I also didn’t think I’d be hiking through knee-deep mud, but whatever.
The Mud on the Valle de Cocora Hike
I know what you’re thinking: “um, you warned us about the mud already, dude.” But this bears repetition and emphasis: the mud on the Valle de Cocora hike is freaking insane.
As you’re crossing the river
18 thousand times there are a few parts of the trail that are straight up dangerous. The first part that made us legitimately fear for our safety comes after the fourth bridge and is a steep downhill that is akin to a mud slide (but not the fun sexy college kind, unfortunately. Although we tried to look as sexy as possible while slipping and falling). This short 50 meter stretch took us ages, because we had to carefully audition each step, like an old lady with a recently broken hip. To make matters worse, this stretch is uncharacteristically devoid of tall rocks to stand on (or perhaps they were just too deep mud to find). And as if the trail wanted to really stick it to us for thinking we could handle the Valle de Cocora hike, there’s a handrail … but it has ZERO support bars. So it might as well be a garden hose. Thanks so much for this floppy railing, menacing mud-jungle. We get it, we’re totally out of our league.
At one point, Lia had the brilliant idea to actually stand on the sagging handrail and sort of scoot down it. That might be your best bet. I decided to speed through, and as a result I slipped and landed with my hand bent backwards. Hiking in South America Injury #1. (read about #2 and #3 …) Lucky it was just my wrist and not my ankle…
millionth seventh “bridge,” you’ll reach the La Montana junction. If you have time, take the right to Acaime, which is about 1km away.
Once you’re past the junction, you only have one more “bridge.” Bridge is really a stretch for this one: it’s actually just logs thrown across the mud with a lone wire to hang onto. But like, thanks for the wire, I guess?
After the “bridge,” there’s another steep mud slide. This is another one of the dangerous stretches I mentioned. It’s all uphill and there is NOTHING to hold onto. Good luck! Sliding down this stretch and trying not to tuble face-first down the mountain on our way back to civilization was the point that had Lia nearly in tears and me cursing and shaking my limp, injured wrist at every blog post that didn’t mention the insanity we had decided to undertake. Consider yourself duly warned!
Acaime: Hot Chocolate & Chill
Once you defeat the mudslide from hell, you’ll see a junction with signs for Acaime. Take the stairs up (screw you, mud-slinging horses! So long!) and continue on for twenty minutes uphill until you reach Acaime. You might notice signs for La Estrella de Agua as well. I haven’t heard anyone say it’s worth the detour. In fact, I’ve only heard bad things. But hey, hike your own hike.
We arrived miserable and defeated from slogging through the mud and rain (although it wasn’t raining when we started the hike, the further up you go, the rainier it gets – cloud forests will do that). Acaime is a neat little house in the hills, run by the reserve that maintains the Valle de Cocora hike. Here, you pay 5.000 COP ($1.66 USD) and you’re treated to hot chocolate, coffee, or tea. They also have water, a bathroom, and food (limited supply…we didn’t get any. I almost cried). Around the property are a bunch of hummingbirds for you to enjoy. There’s even a pet coati (closely related to a raccoon but approximately 40 times cuter)! It’s a nice reprieve from the mud, sweat, blood, and tears of the cloud forest.
Lia and I have this thing (kind of like a curse, or just a shared character flaw) where we always start hikes too late, don’t give ourselves enough time to finish them, and end up scrambling to get back before dark – or in this case, before the last Willy leaves for Salento (6pm). To make matters worse, we had run out of water, which is a death nell for Lia – she drinks water like a dehydrated camel whenever she hikes. So when we finally arrived at last at Acaime, we could barely talk – much less in Spanish – but we flomped down on a bench and after a mug of hot chocolate, we felt much better and were able to discuss our game plan.
Finishing the Valle de Cocora Hike … Sort of
After Acaime, there are two options, and they both take about two hours: go back the way you came, or go up further into the cloud forest, which – after some even more strenuous hiking – reveals some incredible views. We considered our time limitations: the last Willy leaves at 6, it was 3, and we’d already been hiking for 5 hours. Given our typical pace of very, very slow, we didn’t really stand much chance of making it back in time to catch our only transportation option. So, sadly, we decided to give up on the beautiful views and the further uphill climb, and try to make up time on the way back down.
Note: If you choose to complete the hike, you’ll go back to the junction and head uphill for as long as you can. You’ll be rewarded with spectacular views of Valle de Cocora from above. After you’ve drained your camera battery, take the road down the hill and you’ll end up where you started!
Having made our decision, we turned around and slipped and slid back the way we’d come. At this point it was even more wet and muddy, and each river crossing was more and more slippery than before. Going downhill was just as difficult as uphill, and we took our time and tried not to fall as much as we could. Somehow, miraculously, we made it out of the cloud forest in exactly 2 hours, despite it taking us so long to climb up.
Emerging from the forest into the slightly more sunny valley, with its rolling green hills and mooing cows, we felt light on our feet. We laughed at tiny mud puddles which had slowed us down on the way in – both of us were covered in mud from the neck down at this point anyway. We skipped through the valley in exactly an hour and caught the very last Willy at 5:59 PM back to Salento. I even got to be one of the people standing on the back all the way to town, which is the BEST.
Timing had worked out perfectly, and we rode the high of our good luck for the rest of the night. Even when we realized we were completely out of cash, and then the entire town of Salento suffered a mysterious power outage causing all of the ATMs to stop working, everything seemed like it would somehow work out. We were experiencing that truly Colombian vibe: tranquilo. The driver took us home and waited while we searched our hostel for spare change to pay him – tranquilo. We made it back to our hostel 15 minutes before the family style dinner by candlelight was served . We were famished, and it was magical and delicious. We made new friends, chatted by firelight, ate chocolate cake, and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves (read more about our amazing hostel in Salento here). It was such a good feeling that even an ice cold shower in the dark (thanks, power outage) to scrub off our mud couldn’t bring us down! What an incredible hike. It’s true what they say (or, well, even if *they* don’t, it’s what *I* say): the harder the hike, the better the food and shower feel afterwards.
All in all, it was worth the stress, mud, and exhaustion. I just wish we were better prepared, and had started earlier. Learn from our mistakes!
Tips for Hiking the Valle de Cocora
- Pack a bag with loads of water, extra cash (small bills are better), a fully charged camera, pants you don’t mind getting dirty, waterproof shoes and/or socks, and the usual sunscreen and snacks. We didn’t encounter any bugs so we didn’t need spray.
- We did not make it up to Primavera, which has the most iconic views. As it turns out though, there’s a shortcut. We took the long way. Oops.
- You can hire horses to take you through the hike. However, the trail isn’t good for them, they’re not taken care of well, and they’re not good for the trail conditions.
- We were told it’s easier to do the full hike in the reverse of our instructions, because the uphill will be on road and the downhill is trail.
- Start early. Rain is unpredictable and the more horses that go through, the more beat up the trail gets.
So, reader, get out into that cloud forest, but know what to expect! One day we’ll be back to finish the second half of the hike…. What do you think, does this hike sound worth it, or would you rather take the shortcut?