Hiking the Valle de Cocora

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When we set out to hike the Valle de Cocora near Salento, we weren’t exactly sure what to expect. We had heard reports of the trail being extremely muddy and people having to rent gumboots in order to make it through without getting completely soaked. A couple days before, it had poured rain, and people who had gone that day told us that they basically weren’t able to see anything. None of them seemed very enthused about the trek. Others we spoke to told us that it was a relatively easy stroll and that they got through it in four hours with no problem. The map that our hostel gave us told us it would fall somewhere in the five to six hour range, so we were more confused than ever about how long it would take us to make the loop. With our fingers crossed for a sunny day and dry trails, we squished in to a Willy’s jeep with six others adventurers and headed off to see what awaited us.

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After about half an hour of bumpy roads in the squishy jeep front seat listening to the sounds of made-up songs strummed on a guitar by a Chilean fellow traveller, we reached the beginning of the trail. The first section took us through and between farmers’ fields, past horses grazing and cows happily hanging out in the long grasses. The trail wasn’t overly difficult right off the bat. There were some muddy sections and a lot of uneven rocky spots that made me glad to be wearing the hiking boots I’d been complaining about carrying around for the last couple of weeks, but it was relatively flat. The palm trees towered high above us, but they seemed so far away. We figured there was no way we’d be getting anywhere close to that height on our trek.

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The river crossings on this trail are not for the faint of heart. Most of the bridges were made up of a series of small planks of wood held together precariously by cables. They swung and bounced as we gingerly stepped across, trying to avoid the wobbly wood pieces that felt like they might fall in to the river at any moment. One crossing presented us with something even more rudimentary – a few logs lashed together to form a questionably sturdy surface. I don’t think I would have wanted to navigate those bridges in the rain, but in their dry state we made it across each time with no issues.

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The first of the big climbs on the trail is the optional one kilometre hike up to Acaime, a sanctuary where they are attempting to restore the land to its natural state. 5000 Colombian pesos (about 2.50 Canadian) gets you admission to the area, as well as a drink. We went for the apparently traditional hot chocolate and cheese. I’m not sure that we ate it in the proper manner, we just ate the cheese and drank the hot chocolate separately, but it was quite delicious! The cheese was just a little bit salty, and had the texture of a slightly harder mozzarella with the squeak of curds. My cheese intake has really been suffering on this trip, so I was more than happy to gobble the rest Zevi’s slice up when he decided he didn’t want all of it. We watched tens of hummingbirds swoop in to drink from the feeders and tried (mostly in vain) to take photos of their swiftly flitting wings.

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The next part of the hike was by far the most difficult. It’s hard to even enjoy the downhill trek from Acaime because you know you’ll just be slogging uphill again very soon. The trail climbs relentlessly up with switchback after switchback through dense forest that feels like it may never end. In reality it’s not that long of a stretch, and I’m kind of thankful to have climbed Monserrate a week or so earlier because this seemed like a breeze in comparison. The view at the top made it all worth it. The pictures we got of the towering mountain that revealed itself when we got up there really don’t do justice to its majesty. There were also a couple of very cute dogs waiting to greet us, which is always a bonus in my book.

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As we made our way down, we were delighted to find out that the best part of the hike had been saved for last. We rounded a corner and came upon one of the most amazing views I’ve ever seen. There were mountains on both sides covered in greenery, and an even brighter green valley running between them. Hundreds of wax palms towered as far as we could see. It was breathtaking. The rest of the walk down was spectacular as well. We finally got to walk among the rows and rows of unnaturally tall palm trees, and the fact that it was downhill and beautifully sunny didn’t hurt either.

By the time we made it back down to the jeep pick up area, we were exhausted. We had also grossly underestimated the amount of water we would need (oops), so we were very happy to see a small stand selling cold drinks and cold treats. I was pretty giddy to get some ice cream – apparently I’d been dairy deprived on the trip so far because I’d been craving some for a while.

Hiking the Valle de Cocora took us around six hours in total, and clocked in at around 16 kilometres or so, including the detour up and down to the hummingbird sanctuary. I certainly wouldn’t classify it as easy, and I could see it being even tougher on a wet day, but it’s definitely worthwhile and a must-do if you’re in the area. The views were absolutely unreal, and the palms were unlike anything I’ve seen elsewhere. It was a taxing trek, but sometimes those are the best kind!

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