Valle do Cocora is the best place to see the tallest palm trees in the world. The trees are incredibly tall and with their heavy tops balancing on long skinny trunks, they make an unusual looking forest.
Before reaching the town of Salento and Valle de Cocora we spent a day in the city of Cali. It’s the third largest city in Colombia with a population of 2.5 million people. There isn’t much in Cali for a tourist, but we were able to find a few things to do. Set on a small hill above downtown we enjoyed walking through the historic neighborhood of San Antonio. It’s a great place to wander up and down the hilly streets exploring the colourful neighborhood. The historic homes in San Antonio have mostly whitewashed walls with colourful doors and windows painted bright pink, yellow, blue or green. The homes in this neighbourhood are well taken care of and many were being repainted while we were there. At the top of the hill is the small colonial church, San Antonio.
In the neighboring community is the modest La Merced Church. Built in the 1500s, the church has a large attached building that used to be a monastery, first for monks and later for nuns. Today is used as a museum. This historical building helps you imagine what Cali looked like during its early colonial days.
A few blocks away, in downtown, we found Plaza de Cayzedo with lovely old historical buildings that are now banks and government buildings. The crowd that hangs out there are quite dodgy-looking so we didn’t stay long. Finally, a couple of blocks away we found the most famous building in Cali, Catedral de Ermita. The large white and grey gothic church with tall spikey spires and central tower is a spectacular building. It seems odd that it is hidden in a small square near the river rather than having a commanding presence in the main square.
Positioned equally spaced between Bogota, Cali and Medellin is the small mountain town of Salento. With clean streets, friendly locals and brightly painted homes, it is a popular place for Colombians and foreigners. The main square is lively with tourists and locals eating street-food or shopping in the many trinket stores. Iglesia Nuestra Senora del Carmen takes a prominent position along the side of the square.
The streets leading away from the square are some of the most colourful we’ve seen. Most of the buildings have colourful walls painted with murals or portraits. Its beautiful mountain views and a cool climate make Salento a wonderful place to spend a few days. We visited in early December when they celebrate with the Festival of Lights. Villagers fill the streets with colourful paper decorations lit by candles. It was very pretty.
Valle de Cocora
Nearby is the famous Valle de Cocora with its Dr. Seuss-looking, unbelievably tall Wax Palms. Standing at an incredible 45-60m tall (150 – 200ft) these heavy topped palms look tipsy as they sway in the wind. We did a 12km trek to get a closer look at these giants. Spread across open fields on the sides of the mountains and along ridges, these tall giants make a spectacular scene. Forests of these palms look like matchsticks with only their long skinny bodies at eye level. You have to crane your neck to be able to see their tops.
After seeing the palms, we continued to climb the mountain through a dense jungle to reach the Acaime Hummingbird Sanctuary. What a site to see dozens of colourful hummingbirds zooming all around us. The sanctuary has a small, rustic café where we drank coffee and watched at least five different types of hummingbirds as they quickly darted around. There were also a few other colourful birds taking advantage of the feeders and natural flowers. The entrance is 6,000 COP and includes a coffee or hot chocolate & cheese (a Colombian tradition).
After the hummingbird sanctuary, we followed the steep trail crossing the river on rickety bridges. At the base of the mountain we could see more palm trees, but by now the clouds were moving in, spoiling the view.
Colombian Coffee plantations
In addition to the giant wax palms, this area is also known for coffee plantations. Finca El Ocaso is located on a hillside with lovely views. On the plantation tour we walked through the coffee trees learning about the different beans grown throughout in the world. In Colombia they grow mostly Arabica beans. Bright red when they’re ripe, the beans are called cherries. We each picked 10 cherries and when we peeled them we found 2 small white beans inside. We sucked on them and were surprised how sweet they are with their slimy covers. Between the coffee trees were many other tropical fruit plants such as orange, banana and mango. The fruit trees help to maintain a healthy soil for the coffee plants. After harvesting the beans are dried and then separated by their quality by hand. At this Finca this task is performed by one woman. What an onerous job!
At the end of the tour we had a cup of pure Arabica coffee. It was quite bitter and weak for our taste. Our guide Jaimie explained that Europeans and North Americans are used to the Italian method of a bold taste which includes a blend of Arabica and Robusta beans. In fact, much of the local ‘tinto’(brewed black coffee) in Colombia is much weaker than we prefer.
Getting to the Fincas – Shared Willys leave from the main square in Salento once an hour where there is a ticket booth to buy your Willy tickets. Tell the driver which one you want to visit.
About the Valle de Cocora trek
Getting to Valle de Cocora – Shared jeeps (called Willys) leave from the main square in Salento beginning at 6:10 am. Willys will leave when full. Cost is 4,000 COP one way. The 15-20 min ride is on a mostly paved road, but if the jeeps are full you have the option to stand on the back of the Jeep, which we did. It was fun, but it was a rough ride.
The 1 ½ km trek begins a short walk from the jeep parking lot at a small ticket booth (entry 4,000 COP). There’s a map, but the trail is easy to follow.
The 12 km trek can be done CW beginning at the same ticket booth (4,000 COP) or CCW beginning at a blue gate across not far from the parking lot. Many people recommend doing it counterclockwise.. They feel it’s best to get the hard climb over with and have a gentler decent at the end. The problem is that the clouds roll in around 9 am so you won’t have great views by the time you reach the palms at the end of the hike. We did the trek clockwise and are glad we did. We passed the palms first and had the best light to photograph. Going CW, the trail is very easy until you reach the midway point café, Finca La Montagne (1 1/2 hrs, approx. 500m gain). From here the trail becomes narrower and is covered in slippery rocks. When you reach to a T-intersection, follow the Red Arrow if you want to see the hummingbirds. It takes about 20 min and climbs 150m. After the hummingbirds, return to the T-intersection and take the trail to the left that follows the river. This final section is very steep downhill and crosses the river 4 or 5 times on rickety wooden bridges. It ends going through private land where they charge 3,000 COP whether going up or down. We heard that the trail would be very muddy, but when we did it in December it was mostly dry.
Getting to Salento
To/From Cali or Bogota – You can’t get directly to Salento by bus from either Cali or Bogota. You have to go through Armenia. We used Expresso Palmira (28,000 COP) from Cali to Armenia (3hrs). Once in the Armenia bus terminal, go to the upper level. There are minibuses leaving for Salento.(1hr).
To/From Medellin – Flota Occidental operates direct buses between Medellin and Salento 5 times a day. The station in Salento is the Terminal Parade de Buses (54,000 COP, 7-8hrs). It arrives at the south bus terminal in Medellin.
Coming Next: Medellin and the lively town of Guanaca
To read about more of our adventures go to Destinations.
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