Yes, the coffee is heady, the salsa hot, and the history rich and dangerous, but Colombia’s natural splendour is by far and away its most endearing and surprising feature.
Wilderness encroaches upon sprawling cities - mountainous peaks cradle Bogota and Medellin and the ocean laps upon Cartagena’s crumbling walls. Rolling avocado plantations, coffee fields, untamed forests and wild beaches choke the country in a breathing tangle of green.
But amidst all of this lies a place of such astounding loveliness that it’s hard to comprehend it’s gone unnoticed for so long. Just outside of Salento, and nestled between fields of avocados and mountains, lies Cocora Valley – a hub of natural diversity.
We hiked 15 km through more vast and distinctive landscapes than we could have hoped to stumble upon in a four-hour drive. This diversity is revered and celebrated. Exploring the valley with a local guide on Intrepid Travel’s Café Colombia trip offered an incredible insight in to the political and environmental significance of the region.
Just eight years ago Cocora Valley was overrun with guerilla, it was considered an incredibly volatile and dangerous area. It’s hard to imagine such beauty was largely inaccessible for so long. This seems to have heightened the valley’s magic - you can sense the local reverence for the landscape and what it represents.
The valley is vast and this list is not comprehensive, but here are some of the highlights that make Cocora so special.
The valley is protected from prevailing westerly winds by the Andes, which fosters a humid environment perfect for the growth of cloud forest at such a high altitude. As we slowly wound up into the forest, low cloud settled around the canopy, creating an eerie coolness and some seriously haunting views from the peak. I couldn’t have anticipated such a climate existed when we were walking through sun bleached fields just moments before entering the forest.
The Wax Palm is Colombia’s national tree and it makes a surprisingly spectacular addition to Cocora’s landscape. Far from the their lazy, swaying beachside sisters, wax palms erupt from Cocora’s rolling fields while cows graze in their willowy shadows, a dramatic collection of towering, spindly palms dotting the lowlands of the valley. Cocora is allegedly home to the tallest wax palm in the world – hard to know if this claim is true, but credit to Cocora for owning it. I certainly felt compelled to give the swaying giant a hug when we first stumbled upon it.
Cocora hosts an array of flora and fauna but it is especially known for the 6-8 species of hummingbirds that make it home. Bird-lover or not, these fast moving creatures are quite special. Their speed and size means they’re usually quite hard to spy in the wild, but Cocora has a little hub in the centre of the valley that attracts them. We stood sipping hot, sweet tea amidst fluttering wings and darting beaks, while looking out across the clouded valley - an otherworldly experience.
Cocora translates to ‘star of water’ – a reference to the constant rainfall in the region. The result is a rushing creek and a series of undulating waterfalls. Walking through dense forest with the winding creek glowing in dappled light beside us, cloud descending around us, and suddenly seeing a rushing waterfall opening up before us was really something else - fairytale-like. Stopping to cool off in the waterfall-fed swimming holes only heightened the magic.