What to Know before You Hike to Colombia’s Wax Palms

I recently met up with Nadeen at The Sophisticated Life, and we were talking about the fact that we like to incorporate physical activities into our travel itineraries. Let’s face it – I’d rather spend part of my vacation biking through a new city than power walking on the treadmill in my hotel’s gym any day.

So during our trip to Colombia – partly out of my desire to get in a good workout and partly out of my desire to visit the lush site of Colombia’s national tree, the Quindío wax palm – I arranged a hiking tour through the beautiful Cocora Valley.

Set in the Central Andes, the valley is part of the Los Nevados National Natural Park, and it’s a prime spot to take in the wax palms. The valley is a preservation area that was created by the government to prevent the palms’ exploitation and the threat against the endemic species that depend upon them.

If you’re headed to Colombia and you’re thinking of incorporating a hike to the wax palms into your itinerary, here are some things you should know before you go…

You should go with a guide

Our guide,

Our excellent guide, Luís, of Fog Walkers

After getting lost in Tayrona, we decided not to risk this hike without the guidance of a knowledgeable guide. The route we chose was El Camino de Los 4 Bosques (Road of the 4 Forests) that took us through four different forest habitats: low forest, Andean tropical forest of high mountains, a pine forest, and of course, the famous wax palm plantation that we hiked through towards the end of the tour.

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

Entering the first forest habitat…

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

The difficulty of our tour progressed throughout our hike the higher we climbed, and we often found ourselves stopping to catch our breath. Our guide, Luís, was very patient with us and very encouraging. Whenever I’d ask how much further we had to hike until we’d reach the top, he’d assure us, “Just a little bit further”, or “Just up this hill and then we’ll be there.”

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

It was also great having a guide because he distracted us from the rigorous workout with stories about his travels along Colombia’s coasts, his love of Afro-Colombian culture, his plans to move to Tanzania and to open a hiking tour company there, and his run-ins with spectacled bears and mountain lions in the valley.

While I’ve read accounts from several bloggers who’ve hiked through the valley in small groups without a guide or even solo, I don’t think it’s the wisest thing to do, especially after Luís shared that many people have gotten lost along the route we took. He shared about times he’s encountered people sobbing in the forest because they’ve lost their way. He even shared about his own experience getting lost for several days in one of Colombia’s jungles back during the height of the country’s guerilla warfare. He said he allowed himself to cry for a good five minutes or so before he kicked into survival mode. I believe he spent a total of three days lost in the jungle, and he even ate a snake while he was at it! Of course, we shared the details about how we’d gotten lost in Tayrona just a week or so before hiking Cocora Valley.

The hike can be tough

The start of our hike was easy peasy

The start of our hike was easy peasy, but it got progressively difficult

While I’m not a fitness guru, I like to think of myself as being in relatively good shape. Still, I found our four-hour hike through Cocora Valley to be quite difficult. Perhaps it’s the route we took which was primarily uphill through dense forest on an unpaved path.

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

Past cows...

Past cows…

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

...and private fincas (farms)...

…and private fincas (farms)…

...and horses...

…and horses…

As we made our way into the forest, we found ourselves climbing over slippery rocks, crossing a somewhat rickety bridge, and jumping over small puddles as we gradually made our way to the top of a mountain. The higher we climbed, the harder it was to catch our breath, and we found ourselves taking frequent breaks to recuperate. Jave and our guide were the exceptions; they made the climb seem effortless.

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

Making our way through the dense forest...

Making our way through the dense forest…

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

The types of trees changed the higher we climbed…

The final stretch to the summit

The final stretch to the summit

If you have bad knees, you may find that the hike downhill can also be a bit tedious. On the way down, in an effort to get us more up close and personal with the wax palms, and in an effort to get us back to the base faster, we veered off of the paved path leading downhill and instead walked down the side of the steep mountainside in the midst of the palms. While I enjoyed every bit of the scenery, my knees were not happy campers.

Be prepared for some weather

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

Cocora Valley has a subtropical highland climate, and at higher altitudes, it’s known for its cloud forest. As such, come prepared for a variety of weather: daily rains, fog and the chills the higher you hike.

When we arrived to the valley floor where we started our hike, it felt like the morning cold was just beginning to burn off, or perhaps the start of the hike was beginning to warm me up. In any case, I was prepared with my trusty anorak that goes just about everywhere I travel. It waterproofed me from the inevitable drizzle, and it was light enough to keep me sufficiently warm without causing me to get too sweaty which would’ve most definitely been a recipe for a terrible cold.

The summit

The summit

The care of the surrounding area is the responsibility of a local family who lives in a house on the summit. In exchange, they live on the land free of charge.

The care of the surrounding area is the responsibility of a local family who lives in a house on the summit. In exchange, they live on the land free of charge.

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valleyYet, by the time we reached the summit where we stopped for a brief rest and lunch, I was shivering cold, my fingers were frozen, and I found myself wishing for a heavier coat. As a side note, the bathroom at the groundskeeper’s house was out of order, so we had to find a spot to pee outside in the freezing cold; I’ve never felt so liberated in my life!

Pack plenty of water and a light lunch

It goes without saying that after a tough hike, you’ll need to refresh and replenish yourself with plenty of water, but it’s also probably a good idea to pack some snacks or a light lunch in your day pack since you will be out in nature and there aren’t any restaurants or food vendors around apart from the convenience store that can be found at the base of the hike.

The views are your reward

After huffing and puffing our way up the mountain, it was so gratifying to finally reach the top where we could enjoy uninterrupted views of the wax palms that looked like small dots when we initially started our hike in the valley below. We spent a good amount of time up close and personal with the palms taking pictures, running and jumping like kids, and simply savoring the fresh air. The views were proof that all of our hard work was definitely well worth it.

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

Fog Walkers Tour Cost: 95,000 COP ($33 USD for a group of 4) + 54,000 COP ($19 for group transportation).

PINNABLE

colombia-national-tree-cocora-valley

Where’s the toughest hike you’ve ever taken?