The Valle de Cocora hiking guide: practical tips for Colombia's most beautiful valley
Updated: Mar 8
The Zona Cafetera in Colombia, the so-called coffee region, is famous for its coffee plantations. On closer inspection, however, I found out that it is not the biggest coffee producing area. Ah, amen to a good marketing plan right? The proximity and accessibility of major cities such as Cartagena, Bogota and Medellin probably has something to do with it. But its main attraction is the Cocora Valley, where towering palm trees demand your attention and never let it go, where the intense colors of the hummingbirds pass you by in a flash, where you alternate every drop of sweat with a sincere oeh or aah! And where they drink hot chocolate with cheese ... It's true!
First and foremost: how do I get there?
I visited the Zona Cafetera after my passage through Popayan. We took the bus in Popayan (the service desk of Belalcazar bus is red and white, you can't miss it) to Armenia (the bus also stopped in Cali). Once there, you walk outside, to the other side of the station and you will see smaller bus stops. The Salento stop is a bit tucked away, so keep walking. You can just pay on the bus. The driver will drop you off in the center. Salento is a super nice town to stay for a few days. From there you can easily visit the Valley and undertake other activities.
Popayan -> Bus (Belalcazar, 41,000 pesos, 6 hours with a stop in Cali) -> Armenia -> Bus (local bus) -> Salento (4500 pesos)
You can also reach Armenia from Medellin and Bogota, by plane or bus. Pereira also has an airport where you can travel to Cartagena or Panama. Those in time need can even consider a taxi between Salento and Armenia or Pereira.
I am not going to add prices or departure times because they change more often than you think and buses sometimes do not leave on time. Moreover, I can only give my opinion on my own route. But a wise advice: don't plan a travel day too tightly.
Start of the hike
According to our host, the first Jeeps - the main form of transportation in the area - leave at 7:30 am in the center (4000 pesos). I would strongly recommend taking that first jeep because the later in the morning, the more people want to go to the Valley with the jeep. If you are staying in a lodge or something outside the center and the first jeep is full, you can always ask to call a jeep for you. You can rent the jeep privately. That will cost you 35,000 pesos, but according to European standards and given the circumstances that is still not expensive.
The short route
There are basically two routes that you can follow. Most tourists take the shortcut. If you take the short route, it is fairly easy. Upon arrival you simply walk straight on the dirt road and you will be led almost automatically to the start of the hike. You actually walk in a loop around the valley, with an outlier to the miradors (from where you walk back). We saw a number of tourists extending the route to the Finca Montaña, to then walk back from there. Not our favorite route: but maybe a safe bet if the weather is bad or if you are out of shape.
The long route
1) Whoever wants to walk the long route (my recommendation), must look for a blue fence on arrival. There is a path leading to the start of your hike. You will walk straight ahead almost all the time, with the wax palms on your left side (if there is no fog). The first part is a nearly straight line along and across the river via (muddy) paths and suspension bridges (about 7). The further you go, the greener the scenery. You will end up in the forest. At the end of this section the road becomes a bit steeper.
2) At a certain point you will have the choice to turn left to return in a loop, via a steep hill. You will arrive at Finca La Montaña where you can eat your lunch. You can also instead of turning left immediately continue straight ahead to visit Acaime, the House of the Hummingbirds (Casa de los Colibries). Recommended!
3) If you want to visit the house, you have to hike another 1km to Acaime, La Casa de los Colibries. This is indicated on a wooden sign. If you look at the road on a map, it deviates slightly to the right. This road is slightly ascending. To go back, walk down the same road.
4) When you have visited the house and you are back at the junction, take the steep road (800 m in height) to the right to go to the Finca (when you stand with your back to the hummingbird house). We also met tourists who did the route in the opposite direction, but we found ending up in the Valley an added value....
5) Once at the top you will arrive at Finca La Montaña where you have a beautiful view of the mountains and the valley. Many blogs recommend having lunch here but when we were there you could NOT order anything and the toilet was not accessible for visitors.. So keep this in mind (July 2019).
6) From here you walk further down the loop through the valley of the wax palms to end at the starting point.
3 tips for a successful hike
Be prepared for 4 seasons in 1 day
The weather in the Cocora Valley is very unpredictable. One minute it's raining, the next you will be puffing and panting from the heat and the bright sun. Don't be fooled by what you see through the window in the morning and be on your guard. A misty valley changes quickly into a sunny, green oasis and vice versa.
Bring your lunch
There are a number of restaurants at the starting point but if you do the long hike, you will get hungry before you get back anyway. Many blogs say it takes you 5 hours to complete the long route, but a toilet break here and a 'wow it's beautiful' moment there, often take longer than you think. Moreover, as mentioned before, we didn't find a place to buy or eat food. Nothing like eating your own lunch in the valley. Lunch with a view doesn't get any better than this!
Bring some cash
Whether you're on the short or long route, at some point you'll have to pay the entrance fee. This was 4000 pesos in July 2019. Also to enter the hummingbird house you have to pay some pesos, namely 5000. I found it very worthwhile to see the hummingbirds fluttering back and forth and to eat nectar. For this price you will get a cup of tea or coffee. And for those who dare, hot chocolate with cheese. Yes, that's really one thing there! There is little information about the following on other blogs; you might have to pay some kind of tax or second entrance for the long route, at the beginning (3000 pesos). So be sure to bring enough money!
Bring an offline, digital map with you
Download a map of the region in advance, and use it offline. I definitely like maps.me.
A real lifesaver. This app shows the smaller paths very accurately (Google maps doesn't ).
Where to stay?
There are plenty of hostels and hotels in Salento for every type of budget and traveler, but we really enjoyed was our stay in Reserva El Cairo, just outside the center.
Reserva El Cairo is a 100 year old traditional coffee farm with 7 fantastic rooms in the middle of a nature reserve surrounded by mountains, birds, mammals,... and even a private waterfall. They offer a variety of local products and options at breakfast, including eggs, milk, bread, cereals, pancakes, fruit, homemade jam, coffee and juice. Not to mention the fresh trout and vegetables at dinner.
What else is there to do?
Many tourists only do the Cocora hike and then quickly move on, while the options are endless here. Think abseiling, trekking, bird watching, cycling, etc..
You can also spend a day in Salento to score some nice souvenirs or to have a hipster toast avocado. My favorite coffee house? That was Le Kfee.
Coffee is king
After enjoying some perfectly made cappuccinos in Salento, we decided to give our coffee knowledge a boost (and our coffee intake as well) during a plantation tour.
Coffee farm El Ocasa is only 5 km from the main square and 16 km from the valley. This family business promotes the Colombian coffee culture by giving its visitors a glimpse into the lives of traditional coffee farmers, by experiencing it themselves.
You can opt for a Traditional Coffee Tour that gives you a quick but very complete overview of the coffee process with the approach 'As short and intense as an espresso coffee'. True black gold aficionados can also go for the Premium Coffee Tour where your smell and taste buds will be extensively tested and where you can also go into the fields yourself to pick coffee berries.
On the main square in Salento you can check the departure times of the next jeep willy. You can already book your spot online. You can pay on the spot.
With a backpack full of great memories and some ground coffee for the folks back home, it was difficult to say goodbye to the Cocora valley and the coffee region. In the taxi to the airport (we were going to Medellin next) I noticed a slight neck ache. Probably from looking up at those beautiful, captivating palm trees. In an imaginary distance I saw them waving at me, yes, they were taking me in completely. This place truly got my fantasy going. Or did I drink too much coffee?