SOUTH AMERICA – THE JOURNEY PART 28
Cocora Valley, the coffee zone, central Colombia
Only 11 kilometres from the cappuccino-sipping town of Salento lies another world completely. In Cocora Valley the menu is simple: a dose of tranquility, eye-boggling scenery, a side helping of cowboys and a sprinkling of the world’s tallest palm trees.
Available to devour in one or two days.
One thing’s certain about Cocora Valley; the incongruous natives will have you craning your neck at near 90° angles. Lofty wax palms tower above cloud forests eclipsing everything else into triviality. Standing at 70 metres tall, these looming trees hold the trophy for being the globe’s highest palms and the most photographed trunks in Salento.
On route from Salento to Cocora Valley, the area’s famous giants march up hillsides, waving visitors by as they teeter in the wind. The journey winds past sighing hills on whose hunched shoulders strawberry-and-cream coloured fincas (farm houses) rest. Three times a day, jeeps whisk tourists from Salento’s plaza to the beginning of Cocora Valley where a couple of restaurants, cabins (55,000 pesos – US$27 per night) and a campsite (bring your own equipment) are situated.
Muddy trails into the dewy forest are worth the wading through the muck. Cowboys with their trusty steeds tote supplies and day-trippers along the paths, turning the ground into a squelching puddle. If you fancy the jaunt by foot through Cocora Valley, find the track on the left behind the last restaurant, signposted ‘Aicme‘, for a wander through the canopy to a magical orchestral performance.
Inside Cocora Valley’s cloud forest is myriad green foliage and slain tree trunks, uprooted by powerful storms. These high altitude woodlands thrive in a high, damp environment, the tree tops often obscured by low mist. Fortunately, I was lucky as the sun made an appearance but the mud suggested recent days hadn’t been as dry.
The hummingbirds’ star performance
After 2.5 hours of relatively flat walking and signposts for ‘Aicme, hummingbird sanctuary, 3,000 peso entry‘ lie rustic cabins sitting in the shadows of limestone mountains. However, the star performers at Aicme are tiny fluttering wings that fill the forest with music.
A delicate figure, ebony against the blazing sky, brings the orchestra to its crescendo, a tapestry of different sounds woven together to a seamless finish. The cicadas deftfully take centre stage with their melody reverberating through the forest before softening their chords and giving way to the hummingbirds. Velvety twitters dance in the air, creating a natural symphony fitting for London’s Albert Hall.
Overhead, orange streaks paint the sky and silhouette the tiny pulsing wings of a dozen hummingbirds, billed as the main act at Aicme. The evening orchestral performance gradually peters out to a low whisper rustling through the trees.
Situated 5km from the start of the trail, the privately-owned property revels in its hummingbird sanctuary, where visitors can snap happy at the wild birds’ captivating movements. The 3,000 peso entry includes a cup of hot chocolate or deliciously sweet panela juice, made from sugar cane. Perfect if the drizzle catches you.
Accommodation in Cocora Valley
Very basic accommodation for 15,000 pesos a nightis available at Aicme (no electricity, dorms only and cold
showers) but it’s the only way to take in the sunset and the birds as they dance to the changing sky. Free of day visitors – but not mosquitoes – the evening is utter serenity, with only the forest sounds to keep you company.
There’s no need to book, hardly anyone stays, just rock up. But if you want to be sure, you can try your luck on 311 311 0701. You’ll need warm clothes, it gets cold at night. There’s a kitchen available, bring all the food and purification tablets that you’ll need.
After breakfast (not provided) there is an alternative route back to the trail head ascending 500 metres to La Montaña. Atop the hill brilliant red loopins frame the view of a nearby mountain, visible from Aicme. Now in the clearing, wax palms once again play in the breeze, previously blotted out by the forest’s canopy. The 2.5- to 3-hour walk will descend into verdant fields with grazing cows and neck-craning trees.
Transport to Aicme, Cocora Valley
- You can walk from Salento to Aicme, just follow the road out of town until you reach the restaurants at the beginning of Cocora Valley. The entire walk, as I did it, took seven hours and was the best way to take in the scenery. Leave by 8.30am and you’ll arrive at Aicme with time to settle in before the evening’s performance starts.
- Alternatively, jump in one of the jeeps that leave the plaza in Salento at 7am or 9am (check current times when you’re in Salento). This will give you enough time for the five-hour return trek (leave some time to watch the hummingbirds) to catch the afternoon returning jeeps at 1pm or 3pm. The jeeps leave when full despite them giving you a fixed departure time.
- At the start of the trail to Aicme cowboys saunter around, gathering up mainly Colombian tourists for a giddy-up along the path. Prices to Aicme by horseback are negotiable and take 1.5 hours.
- Jeeps to Salento leave from the restaurants in Cocora and cost 4,000 pesos per person. Departure times are approximately 1pm and 3pm but more realistically when they fill up or spare seats are paid for.
WHERE ON EARTH?
- Sandwiched between Panama, Brazil, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela, it’s the third largest country in Latin America (behind Brazil and Mexico).
- The currency is Colombian pesos, 1,000 pesos is approximately US$1
- Once a tourist no-go zone, it’s increasingly becoming known amongst travellers as ‘the friendliest place in South America’
- 11km from Salento, central Colombia.
- Famous for the tallest palm trees in the world, reaching a staggering height of 70m
- If endless hills, hummingbirds and tranquility are your cup of tea, you’ll enjoy mugfuls of the stuff here
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