ramblings & exploration

Valle del Cocora in Salento, Colombia

Valle del Cocora in Salento, Colombia

A week ago one of my big bro’s, Andrew, dropped by for a visit. And when I say dropped by, I mean he took a 30-hour route from Shanghai to Bogotá to spend a week with me in Colombia. The main highlight of the trip would definitely be worth the effort. We planned to fly to Salento and take a day trip to the Valle del Cocora—most famous for its enormous wax palm trees.

If you’d rather not read about Bogotá (YOU MONSTER), skip on through to here.

Andrew’s Arrival

Shanghai to New York. New York to Miami. And Miami to Bogotá. It’s no picnic flying from Asia to South America and it absolutely showed when he arrived—sorry bro!

At 06:30 I took the 45-minute Transmilenio lap from my place in La Macarena neighborhood to El Dorado Airport and waited for his arrival.

He emerged through the duty-free pit, wound his way around the baggage claim and headed through the mess of people waiting to meet passengers outside the gates.

Every airport I’ve been to in Latin America is like this. Drivers holding signs, looking for Mr. Businessman. Or the entire family anxiously awaiting loved ones, clamoring around the ropes, pointing and shouting as they make it to the other side. Taxi drivers and shuttle companies also mix in and bombard you with their transportation services as soon as you cross the threshold.

El Dorado isn’t too bad in this regard. From my experience, I’d give the gold metal to San Jose’s airport in Costa Rica. Man, those guys were obnoxious.

Transpo to Mi Casa

The next step was getting an Uber back to my Airbnb in La Macarena. The trouble with Uber in Colombia is that it’s sort of kind of illegal. It exists, but the police and taxi drivers have some beef with Uber drivers.

Most Ubers here will ask you to sit in the front seat, making an attempt at appearing like you guys are old pals and definitely not doing business.

Taxis are the second option, but the fact that there’s free WiFi in the airport gives you a choice between the two and any chance to go cashless in Colombia, I take it.

Bogotá Brake Lights

The supposed 20-minute drive back took well over 45 minutes due to the morning rush. The Transmilenio on the other hand was whizzing past us in its priority lane, and I casually mentioned to Andrew that it probably would’ve been faster taking it. He’s a fan of comfort over duration or expense, however, so I didn’t say much more about it.

Two digs in less than 500 words. Off to a good start.

bogota city view

Along the ride he didn’t seem too put off by the congestion of the city and aggressive nature of the motorbikes, weaving in and out of traffic. Certainly not an issue when you’ve been living in Shanghai for any real period of time. But, any other tourist in a city this dense might feel a bit claustrophobic and overwhelmed by all the action.

A handful of traffic lights and right turns later and we made it to my Airbnb in La Macarena. He unpacked his bags and we didn’t waste much time before heading out again.

Play the Part

The first day we played super tourists in the historic district of Bogotá, visiting the museums and government buildings on the south side of Bogotá.

On the walk through La Macarena to Centro Historical, you pass by Plaza de Toros la Sanatamaría. The Spanish-styled bullfighting arena is still used for this purpose, but also to hold concerts and other events.

Plaza de Toros from above Bogota, Colombia

Continuing from there you walk beside La Torre Colpatria, which is for the moment the tallest building in Colombia. From bombing campaigns in the 1990’s, Bogotá has seen many buildings destroyed, and for a while, no skyscrapers were built out of threat of being targeted.

But First, Buñuelos

Before we make it to Plaza Bolivar, our first stop, and the main focal point of the area, Andrew’s gotta eat. No disses here; airplane food is the worst (amiright?) and he hadn’t eaten much since he left China.

So we made a pit stop at a nearby café, drawn in by the aroma of baked goods and fried foods in the glass display outside the doorway, which is oh so typical of Colombia.

I asked Andrew what we wanted, quickly remembered he didn’t know much of the food and then ordered us two buñuelos and two tintos. Just a little something to hold us over until we made it out of the museums.

Buñuelos are crispy tennis ball-sized balls of dough, fried on the outside and 1,000-thread count soft on the inside. They’re usually less than a buck and don’t taste like much. Fried dough. That’s about it. Tinto is Colombian’s equivalent to Foldger’s shitty office coffee and is usually served with two packets of sugar.

That’s one of the conundrums of Colombia—they produce arguably the best coffee in the world, but the majority is exported. The good stuff that isn’t exported is often too expensive for the local market and is usually sold in small quantities at independent coffeeshops.

I even recently found out that two out of every three cups of coffee served in Colombia is actually made using lower quality beans, imported from neighboring Ecuador and its neighbor, Peru.

But I digress.

Time for a lesson

After a quick snack, we carried on toward Plaza Bolivar. The scene is usually the same: hundreds of pigeons loitering around the plaza, waiting to be fed, or even worse, picked up by tourists and locals alike to be held for pictures. No thanks.

Pigeons in Plaza de Bolivar in Bogota Colombia

Some people are hawking selfie-sticks, while others are walking about talking on their phone or sitting silently, staring off towards the mountains.

Surrounding Plaza Bolivar to the east is Catedral Primada de Bogotá, appearing all the mightier with the towering mountains in the background.

Woman selling balloons in Plaza de Bolivar with Catedral Primada de Bogotá in background

Looking south, behind Bolivar, is where the Congress of Colombia holds session. It’s strange to imagine, but just some 36 years ago Pablo Escobar was walking through its chambers after having been elected to the Chamber of Representatives as an alternate member. Although his term was short-lived, and he was eventually booted out, he did manage to hold a major position in the Colombian government, despite his unforgivable past.

Doing a one-eighty and turning north and you have the Palacio de Justicia. It’s a rebuilt version of the older one, which was taken over by rebel groups in 1985 and later burned down.

Of all the buildings here, this one is probably the most fascinating. Definitely something for a later post.

The Palace of Justice is pictured in front of a crowd of people and pigeons in Bolivar Square in Bogota Colombia

And finally, you have the statue of Simon Bolivar itself. Bolivar played a major role in the history of not only Colombia, but also Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Panama and Peru before the countries established themselves as independent of one another, free from Spanish rule.

The statue of Simon Bolivar for which the plaza is named is seen in front of the building where Congress takes session

History lesson half complete, Andrew and I ventured further south, where just beyond the Congress, is the Palacio De Nariño, where the Colombian president resides. Armed soldiers are close by, and although not always visible, will definitely alert you when you get too close to the gates.

According to Wiki, the house was bought by Don Vincente Nariño in 1754 for 5,200 patacones, which if you read my last post, means it was bought for 5,200 fried plantains. Those are some expensive plantains, yeah?

Another tidbit: The oldest astronomical observatory, Observatorio Astronómico Nacional de Colombia, was the first one of its kind in the Americas and is housed in the corner of the presidential lawn.

Take the tour, or any tour, really

Most of this Colombian lecture I was giving Andrew was info I’d heard from a tour I’d taken a week previous.

I’m gonna go ahead and plug the tour because it was awesome, very informative and was also “free” (tip encouraged). You can find more info on it here in case you find yourself in Bogotá and want the curtain pulled back on Colombian history. The tour was in English, too, so no te preocupes, parce.

From the presidential palace, we walked northeast along Calle 11, toward the Museo Botero.

Generous proportions with Botero

Hallway Museo Botero

The painter and sculpture of most of the works inside is Fernando Botero. He’s famous for his huge bronze statues like the Medellin Women and the now half-destroyed (and replaced) Pájaro, while also painting larger than life and, in his own words, “fat”, paintings of women, men and children.

Painting of woman lying on bed in Museo Boter

A few of the rooms are strictly Botero—it is his museum, after all. Often his painting and statues are enormous and take up a lot of real estate. My opinion is that the works deserve to be uninterrupted and displayed with the same exaggerated and generously proportioned qualities for consistency purposes.

Dancing couple by Botero in Museo Botero in Bogota, Colombia

Andrew and I definitely had our fair share of laughs inside, as some of the paintings are just too much to take with a serious face.

Botero painting of family in Museo Botero

There’s additional works from Claude Monet, Salvador Dali, and Camille Pissarro, among others once you’ve had your fill of Botero.

Botero's Mona Lisa

Always break for coffee

After Botero, we stumbled upon Café Unión, conveniently located less than two bocks from Botero. By all accounts, it’s a small example of the transformation of coffee which is taking place in Bogotá.

The baristas are very involved with the customer and take time to explain the differences in the growing regions, climates, altitudes, taste profiles and everything else that gives coffee its huge variation. These guys are part of the movement in trying to get customers to really think about where their coffee is coming from and will go into great detail if you’re in the mood to listen.

After leafing through some of their guidebooks, we hit the cobblestone again, the Museo del Oro our destination.

From black gold to real gold

The gold museum is about a touristy as you can get. With an average of 4.7 stars from over 7,500 reviews on Google we had to see what all the noise was about.

I guess I’m just not that interested in super old ceramics, stones, and gold pieces from Precolombian times. We ended up spending about an hour here attempting to wait out the rain. This became a familiar scene throughout our time together.

Don’t tourist on an empty stomach

Stomachs grumbling at this point, La Puerta Falsa was on our list for typical tourists must-visit restaurants, so we risked it all and hurried past the people waiting under the museum’s front awning.

Probably not our best idea. Avoiding puddles here. Dodging hundreds of umbrellas there. It was a circus out there and the rain wasn’t letting up.

A bath in Bogotá

One big problem with Bogotá when it rains is that the streets get flooded. For a city that sees a tremendous amount of rainfall, they haven’t quite figured out the drainage and sewer situation.

Sides streets are a mess, where crosswalks are routinely left with surging water. You either get wet or get hit by a car. We felt the wetness was a better option, and despite taking strides to avoid these showers, we ended up leaving behind a pretty good trail as we stepped into the restaurant and made it to an empty table. The umbrella and rain jackets played their part and left our torsos without much trace of a sprinkle. Our soaking shoes and pants, however, were a different story.

Hot chocolate and cheese—who knew?


La Puerta Falsa sign outside the more than 200 year old restaurant

But enough pouting; we didn’t come here to complain, but to try the glorious hot chocolate and cheese. They make homemade hot chocolate, melting down big chocolate bars and stirring them vigorously before serving it accompanied with a good-sized chunk of cheese. Take the spoon, take some cheese, and dunk it in the hot chocolate. I’m usually not one to complain about carnival food, but this did make me laugh as Americans are regularly made fun of for strange concoctions and our obesity problems. Still not sure how this hasn’t caught on back in the 50 states of food freedom.

Hot chocolate with cheese plate with bread and ajiaco soup in background
Chocolate with cheese in front, ajiaco soup behind and a tamal to the right

It was really a delightful combination to battle the cold and wet conditions that had taken over our bodies.

Other warm things

What’s up next? Something just as traditional—a soup they call ajiaco. It’s basically a better version of chicken soup. Each region in Colombia makes it differently, but here in Bogotá ours came with shredded chicken, a few types of potatoes (Colombian boasts somewhere around 40 different types of potatoes), corn on the cob and an herb called guasca, which gives the soup a bit of flavor.

We were also keen on ordering their hyped up tamal—it’s made with corn dough and has chickpeas, chicken, pork and different vegetables. It’s wrapped in a banana leaf and is served piping hot.

Pro tip: La Puerta Falsa has hot sauce. We only saw it on our way out and were pretty disappointed as we kept saying that this was the only thing it was missing. Put that stuff on the table, man!

To anyone with a gluten allergy, first of all stop faking, but second of all, our plates came with like ten pieces of bread. No joke. We must’ve ordered something else because the bread was spilling off the sides. But don’t worry that you’re eating two loaves, just dunk the bread in the soup and enjoy.

Bellies full and supremely soaked, we left La Puerta Falsa.

This is one of Bogota’s most well known restaurants, and with pretty good food and a history of over 200 years, it’s one you shouldn’t miss.

Have a backup

I didn’t understand why Andrew was upset about the rain until I asked.

“I only brought two pairs of shoes.”

And one was white.

Except in a laundromat, dryers don’t really exist here. And since it was an Airbnb, there wasn’t a hairdryer. We ended up improvising and used the Bogotá yellow pages to dry our shoes.

Beer isn’t the best here

Out of wet clothes and two hot showers later, Andrew said he’d need a nap if we were going to anything else that night.

I woke him around nine and told him we ought to go out for a welcome to Bogotá beer.

He agreed. We walked a block to the nearest pub, which was a Bogotá Brewing Company. BBC is a huge Colombian beer chain serving up craft beers and a range of food.

The issues

The problem with BBC is that Colombian craft beers in general are pretty bad. Andrew ordered some type of blonde and I asked for an IPA. Upon first gulps, we both exchanged disappointing looks, then exchanged beers. Same result.

Specialty beers have begun to take shape here, but they might be some of the worst I’ve ever had, unfortunately. The other issue is that a pint of these bland beers come with a $5.50 price tag—which is basically robbery in Colombia.

Splitting a bigger pitcher gets the price around $3.50, but to be honest, Club Colombia, one of their national beer brands, is much better. Go for the Dorada or the Trigo.

The BBC does have good pizza going for it though, which was a pleasant surprise.

Tried and true

Our next stop was a bar popular with young and old. The reason? Dollar beers! The bar is Doña Ceci and it’s in the Candelaria. Most people here are splitting a big ‘ol bucket of Pokers or Aguilas, two other popular brands. The place is always blasting Colombian music and any Friday or Saturday is packed. It’s a laidback spot—the water dripping from the ceiling only increasing its charm—and is definitely worth a visit.

I thought it was about time to head back once I saw Andrew starting to fall asleep. I figured he had to be super tired still, given his ability to sleep with the thumping music and speakers overhead.

No problem. We had a flight to catch in the morning.

Dreaming of giants

The flight and its destination was the real highlight of his visit. I bought two tickets a few days before his arrival and the next morning we were heading to Salento, home to the world’s tallest wax palm trees.

Bogotá to Salento

Less than 8 hours later we hopped in an Uber and went back to El Dorado for our flight. The flight was under an hour long and more than half empty.

The plane landed in Periera some 40 minutes after takeoff. From there, you have to take a cab to the bus terminal.

SIM stop

Just outside the security for departing flights, Andrew spotted a kiosk selling SIM cards. I could see no service for a day was really stressing him out. So we stopped, bought a card, and then tried unsuccessfully to activate his phone. The woman behind the counter said his phone wouldn’t connect to her system. We left, a bit confused, headed for the taxi stand. I had a quick word about an estimate to the bus terminal, half fronting, because there wasn’t really another option to make it there. I made a motion for the door and we jumped in.

Since we weren’t spending any time here, I figured I’d get the quick Cliffnote’s on Periera. The taxi driver told us Periera was one of the safest spots in Colombia, and although probably a bit biased, he said it was the best city to live in in Colombia. Good food, less traffic, mild climate, good women and little safety concerns he said.

Attempt two

Ten minutes later and we were at the bus terminal. Walking past another counter for SIM cards, we tried once again. This time, the guy knew exactly what he was doing. No messing about. We bought a new SIM card and were connected with 500 megs in an Olympic-qualifying five minutes. Just like the supermarket here, who you get makes all the difference between waiting five minutes and waiting 35 minutes.

Officially ready for Salento.

Time doesn’t mean too much here

We scanned the ticket counters and found the only one indicating buses to Salento. It was 1:05 pm and the next bus came at 1:30 pm. Perfect. I asked the woman for two to Salento on the next bus. She said ok, then went ahead and sold me two for the bus that was supposed to have already left at 1:00pm. Technically, it was the next bus. I made sure it hadn’t left and she informed me it would be leaving right now.

My brother looked a bit confused when I told him we had to go now. I shrugged, letting him know it was just one of those things. We hopped on the bus and got the last two seats in the back. There wasn’t really any room for us, but we managed to pretzel ourselves in awkward positions—my arm around his neck, our knees pressed up against the seats in front of us.

But we made the flight, the taxi transfer and now the bus. Despite the discomfort for the hour ride to Salento, all was good.

Scenery saves

The silver lining was the incredible scenery along the way. It was hard to see through the shades that they had stickered on. But they were peeling a bit and with some effort you could peek under and see the changing landscape as we bumped along.

Salento, Colombia

As we stepped off the bus, we were met with an explosion of fresh mountain air. And man, that stuff was good. It was quite a change from inhaling Bogotá bus fumes for so long. The air was slightly warm with the familiar scent of a recent shower and it was air you actually wanted to breathe.

You could almost hear a collective sigh of relief as everyone else piled off the bus. Finally space to stretch our legs.

Jut outside of Salento, Colombia looking towards the mountains

Airbnb > hostel here

I opened my phone and scanned the directions our Airbnb host laid out. They weren’t all too accurate, but we did manage to find it without much issue. Like Bogotá, the town is set up in a grid. Here though, the calles run north/south and carreras run east and west. If you’re ever confused, have a listen to what John Mulaney has to say about getting lost in New York City.

The picture of our place did help once we made it closer, its brightly colored doors and window frames sticking out nicely.

A view out the back of our airbnb in salento, colombia
View from Airbnb patio

Jairo, our Salento Hero

Our host, Jairocito, promptly let us in and after all of five minutes asked if we’d like some coffee to get our trip started. Andrew and I looked at each other, knowing perfectly well we’d already had a few before our flight. But, without much more thought, we kindly responded with a, “Si, por favor.” And that was that.

Despite arriving around 3 pm, we planned to squeeze in a proper coffee tour during our two-day visit. I asked Jairo if he knew of any tours still open and two seconds later he’d pulled a business card out of his wallet and was on the phone with a farm in the surrounding countryside.

He told us we had to leave soon but that we’d be able to make it even after the forty-minute walk to the coffee farm, or finca, as they call it here.

We tossed the rest of our gear in the bedroom, got the directions—follow the road outside our place straight for 40 minutes—and were off.

Conte’s love coffee

Almost immediately the thunder started.

Arriving in April or May in Bogotá or coffee country can present some problems with the weather. It usually rains most days during these months and can start unpredictably often lasting from less than hour to more than three hours.

Huge trees on a path to coffee farm in Salento, Colombia

Not wanting a repeat, we picked up the pace a bit and ended up making it to La Finca Eduardo some forty minutes later, dry, happy and already buzzed thinking about the coffee awaiting us.

As we approached, a friendly woman next door pointed us in the direction of the main house to the finca. Walking up to the house we were greeted and told the next tour would start as soon as the guide finished up his current one.

Driveway leading to Don Elias coffee farm Salento, Colombia

We anxiously waited, playing with a few dogs that were hanging around the house.

A few short minutes later, the tour guide waved goodbye to a pair of French tourists and led us to the edge of the patio, where steps marked the beginning of the maze of coffee trees.

Our first finca

Our guide started with all the basics: climate, altitude, soil and the growing seasons. He then transitioned to focus on this finca, specifically, and which types of coffee trees grew here and in what proportion to the others.

Everything he said seemed to get more complicated the further we ventured into the forest. But, he did manage to keep it just light enough that we didn’t lose interest and weren’t buried with pH levels or anything close to it.

Giving fresh a new feel

Besides the actual tasting, the best part was seeing the stages after coffee picking—the sorting, drying, separating stages and the eventual grinding and roasting.

Since the farm was fourth generation, it was much smaller compared to some of the other more commercial farms around the area. This meant that this farm didn’t do much of their own roasting or packaging. They hired another bigger farm with more efficient machines to handle the bigger jobs, outside of the demonstrations during tours.

sign for Don Elias Coffee farm tour Salento, Colombia

After watching him hand grind the beans and then demonstrate the roasting process, we were invited to sample some that had been roasted a few days ago. These beans were by far the freshest ones I’d ever used, and the coffee reflected that. In much fewer words, it was good stuff.

Coffee confidential

Since we were the last tour of the day, our guide seemed like he wasn’t rushed, so we spent another half hour just shooting the breeze. Other than coffee, he gave us the low-down on which countries he almost always had bad experiences with while giving tours.

Usually these groups of people were more interested in taking selfies, talking amongst themselves or simply checking an item off their list because they felt like they had to do it, not because they were genuinely interested in the experience.

What did I say about tourist-ing on an empty stomach?

After checking that we could still hitch a ride back, we walked back up the driveway to the main road and waited for the next jeep to swing by. A few minutes later and we were bumping in the back on our way to pick up a second group from the neighboring finca. A dusty fifteen minutes later we made it to the main plaza, happy, but hungry.

We walked around a bit, seeing, smelling and discussing our options from the ten or so vendors serving up dinner in the plaza. The people here aren’t too pushy with their menus, so you can approach without getting bombarded and look over the menu—or just see what’s on everyone’s plates.

You know you haven’t eaten all day when the owner tells you that you won’t possibly be able to finish all the food and you shouldn’t order the last two thing you’ve just asked for.

Bandeja bro’s

After heeding his warning, we “limited” our ordering, starting with a bandeja Paisa, which is a huge plate of food know throughout Colombian, but especially in the department of Antioquia. It’s really Colombia’s version of the Sunday roast you might find in London. It’s most often a combination of rice, beans, roasted beef, chicaharrones, chorizo, fried slices of platanos or a patacón, an arepa, an avocado, and usually a tomato and onion-based sauce.

Bandeja Paisa in Bogota, Colombia
Different bandeja from Bogotá, but still a mountain of food

That was to split.

Then we ordered another plate of patacones because those things are just too damn good not to order.

Plate of patacones with cheese over top Salento, Colombia

A jug of juice rounded out our order.

It was a mountain of food.

The food arrived and we paused, only slightly, before digging in. I had the intention of getting a picture before we started but forgot about it when those crispy chicharrones and patacones came out.

We did a bit of walking around after the meal in the hopes of easing the battle that had just taken place. A few streets later and we were ready to call it a night.

Dreaming of giants v2

I wanted us to be some of the first to catch a ride to the park the next day. Jeeps started at 06:30 and it was better to arrive before other people or horses had a chance to muck up the path which can get super muddy if you’re not one of the first groups through.

Set the alarms for 06:15. Wake up. Head to a nearby hostel that rented boots. Grab something to eat. And find a jeep to take us with the second crew at 07:30.

Think of boots as insurance

Rent your boots from Hostel Tralala. It only costs COP 10 or 15k per person and is a good insurance policy when the rain makes an appearance. We buzzed the intercom and were in and out in ten minutes after finding our sizes, signing my name and paying a small deposit.

Breakfast is close

You should also eat breakfast at the corner of Calle 5 and Carerra 6; it’s called Panadería La Quinta and is 50 feet down Calle 5 from the main plaza. It’s one of only a handful that is open this early. Besides buñuelos or empanadas, go for the coconut sweets. These with coffee is a seriously good combination.

Load up

After a quick breakfast we entered the plaza and anxiously waited next to the row of jeeps, ready to head out. We loaded up around 07:30 with another few groups and totaled ten people—the driver, one riding shotgun, five in the back and three on the bumper, holding onto the railings above.

Unlike my ride into the other Valle (Bahía Solano), the 20 minutes or so to get there was almost entirely smooth.

The Valle del Cocora sits just 11km outside of Salento. It’s home to Colombia’s national tree, La Palma de Cera (del Quindió). These palms are the tallest in the world and can grow to 60 meters, or even a bit more. The palms have had legal protection since 1985 in this natural sanctuary.

Andrew and I read a few different blogs to try to get an idea of the best routes to take, where to start and end, and how much time we should budget. At the suggestion of guys over at The Adventure Junkies, we opted to follow the route at the right of the fork at the main entrance.

One of the entrance signs to Valle del Cocora in Salento, Colombia
The first path is just to the right of this sign

El Valle del Cocora

There are guides hanging out around the entrance and although I’m sure they’re worth the money, we wanted to do it on our own.

Besides one other pair, we had the trail to ourselves.

We walked over the first bridge, wooden and rickety, but sturdy enough to not worry. As we approached a second bridge, the two hikers in front of us had stopped and there was somebody of authority (or at least collecting money) in front of them.

Wooden bridge with rope supports facing mountains in Valle del Cocora

Apparently, the trail was closed for conservation purposes and we’d have to pay COP 5,000 each to pass through, even though the loop wouldn’t fully connect and we’d have to come back down.

It’d only been a 15-minute hike, so we opted to turn back and visit the palms first, using the trail at the left of the fork. We weren’t alone either. Another two or three groups made the decision to turn back.

shadows in valle del cocora

There’s tall, and then there’s these

The entrance to the palm forest is only a ten or fifteen-minute stroll after the jeep drop-off. You pay COP 7,500 per person to enter and explore.

Wax palms of El Valle del Cocora in Salento, Colombia

Almost immediately after entering the forest you want to stop. At this point it doesn’t really matter which way you look. You’re surrounded by enormous palms. The landscape all around you is incredible. It felt like a different world, closer to Dr. Seuess’ The Lorax than any place I’d been before.

palms valle del cocora

You could honestly stop hundreds of times along the trail for what is a better photo op. The thing is, they’re all good. Anywhere you stop is the perfect spot, although, some spots I suppose are more perfect than others.

The lookouts

As you gain altitude, the path narrows. There are a few lookout spots along the way, two particularly that are beyond impressive. The first one is marked with a sign displaying mirdador. Most people we came across just popped up to the top of the lookout and didn’t bother to go down. That’s a mistake. This view was easily my favorite of the entire trip and provides an alternate path down and out of the valley.

Standing on mountainside in valle del cocora salento, colombia

Not much further up the trail is a second mirador. This is probably the most popular spot to take pictures because of the dense coverage of palms all around you, whereas the previous palms were out of reach.

Can’t win them all

We took our fair share of photos from here and just as soon as we were about to leave, the same pair from before walked down and let us know that the trail further up was closed as well. Since the park is a big loop, we weren’t anticipating that we’d be able to go much further.

A man tending a fence in valle del cocora

Given the dark clouds passing over us and the change in wind and air temperature (yes, it’s all very scientific), we figured it’d probably start raining soon and opted to not go the additional mile or so up the trail, only to turn back around again.

Instead, we decided to return to the first lookout spot and take that alternate trail back down to the main entrance where we entered.

The hike down

This is seriously the way to go. The entire way down is spectacular. You want to walk backwards, staring back up the mountainside. The palms tower over you every step of the way.

Palms in looking up alternate route in El Valle del Cocora

Not wanting to leave, but also not wanting to get soaked when the rain started, we took twenty or so minutes to rest and take in the views before heading down.

We kept descending until the main entrance came into view and now found ourselves between a gate and a small farm, one which we didn’t notice before.

Huge wax palms valle del cocora

I followed Andrew down, looking past his blue jacket towards the cows happily grazing, not sure if they ever realized they had one of the best views of any livestock in the world. There’s some commercial or slogan from the US talking about USDA milk or cheese that’s like, “Happy cows make good cheese”, or something. H”appy cows are from California.” Happy cows may be from California, but the happiest cows I think are from El Valle del Cocora.

Cows and a small farmhouse in valle del cocora in salento, colombia

I purposely didn’t write too much about El Valle del Cocora because photos in this case paint a better picture than I ever could. Even photos though fall entirely short of describing exactly why Cocora is so unique. It’s simply a destination that needs to be visited firsthand and shared with someone you care about.

Coffee with a view

The next logical step after leaving the valley was to break for coffee. We found a treehouse-like café on the path that led back to where the jeeps picked up. The coffee didn’t really matter and was overshadowed by the views towards the mountains.

Remember those boots?

The rain began to fall a half hour after we arrived and despite the downpour that began to build, we rushed out of the café, heading for the shelter by the entrance, wanting to make the next jeep back.

I had old shoes, so unlike Andrew, this was the first time I put my boots on. For a few bucks, it was the best investment I made all trip.

Riding back to Salento

The jeep arrived around a few minutes later and we hopped in. It was crowded and definitely damp. Despite the wetness, everyone was pretty glad they weren’t doing the hike now, as the rain only intensified after starting the trip back into Salento.

A bit more of Salento

The rest of the trip felt quite uneventful compared to the hike in Cocora. We consumed entirely too many cups of coffee in Salento. I’d recommend a place called Jesús Martín. Their coffee was the best I’ve had in Colombia yet, and surprisingly it didn’t come out of a Chemex or an Aero Press, but a simple pump machine. It was so good we came back as soon as we finished our first cup.

Besides the coffee, I’d recommend having breakfast and dinner—dinner at the minimum—at a place called El Rincon de Lucy. They have a set menu for both, but they’re delicious and dinner is COP 8,000, or under four bucks for some good eating. We stopped here for dinner after the hike and then for breakfast the next day before our flight back to Bogotá.

Salento is a cool town where I think you could spend at least a month without feeling the need for city life. There’s not a ton to do, but if you’re a nature lover and want to hike, mountain bike or just enjoy the scenery in one of the most gorgeous places in Colombia, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend here.

Salento to Bogotá

The next morning was our flight back to Bogotá, but despite only having one full day in Salento, we managed the Valle del Cocora hike, albeit, not the complete loop. I see that as a future excuse to come back and finish it.

They changed our flight at 2:00 am that morning, scheduling us to arrive a half hour earlier—no biggie.

Siempre hay cambios

But, transportation being the dice roll that it is here, we got to the airport with 90 minutes to spare and almost like clockwork, the ticket agent told us we’d be leaving in 20 minutes, over an hour earlier. I told him they had already changed our ticket, to which he responded that he knew and that they were now issuing me a different ticket. This didn’t seem to be a second change in his mind and he simply told me that we’d better head to the gate.

They had decided to put us on the earlier flight to Bogotá. Obviously we didn’t have a real problem with this, but it was the first time I’d ever had a change of flight times simply because I showed up early. More beneficial than confusing but confusing nonetheless.

The actual flight out was identical to the one into Periera—40 minutes liftoff to landing.

Bogotá is cool, but…

The rest of our trip couldn’t compare to the other-worldly experience we had in Salento in El Valle del Cocora. We played tejo, drank a liter of coffee a day, tried more typical Colombian fare, once again got drenched by April showers and hiked Monseratte.

This trip solidified my love of Colombia outside the big cities and only intensified my desire to continue exploring the diverse and almost limitless possibilities that exist here for travel and exploration.

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