Salento and the Cocora Valley (Valle del Cocora)
Salento is the gateway to a thousand possibilities. A charming little colonial town, with distinct and colourful bahareque architecture. On first refelctions it can seem like an isolated time warp, with only its quaintness to offer, but you would be fooled. For it is a gateway town to the Nevados National Natural Park (Los Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevado) via the Cocora valley.
The town of Salento is now highly ranked on the list of Colombian tourist destinations. The hiking routes through the Cocora Valley and into the National Park, are on every back packers Colombian to do list. Head down to the town square early in the morning and you will find the area swamped with overseas tourists eager to catch a Willys Jeep to the Valle de Cocora 11km away.
The town itself is wonderful little settlement. It has a peaceful magical charm, not yet fully lost to the influx of tourism. Yes for sure it is a tourist trap. The shops all sell trinkets aimed purely for the visitors. The restaurants really have swung widely from the Colombian norm, and there are more dedicated tourist’s services in this town of just over 3,500 inhabitants, than in some of the larger Colombian cities. But if you look beyond that you can still find a colonial market town at its heart.
The tourists issue is ever increasing, and not just for foreign tourists. Colombians are also now beginning to appreciate the beauty of their own country more. On the weekends, and national holidays, Salento and the surrounding areas become very busy due to the local tourists.
Along the main shopping street in Salento, the Royal Road (Calle Real), you can find pretty much any traditional or hand crafted product Colombia has to offer. If you shop around you can find some very good quality artisan products, but you will be paying the ‘tourist premium’. As always you can barter of course for a better deal.
The excursions organised from Salento can also contain a more apparent and clear tourist premium. If you check the price list of a guided tour through the valley you may find the price is lower for a Colombian national, and some tourists take offence to this. You can look at it two ways. The locals are unfairly taxing the tourists, because they see them as a commodity to be milked. Or that the Colombians are offered a discount to enjoy their own country, and to allow the working class families who visit, to enjoy the local facilities.
Many tourists. Especially the young back packers who arrive, shirk at the idea of hiring a guide for an excursions. They are mostly interested in taking the famous Valley circular hiking route which can take 5 or 6 hours to complete. In which time you will take a loop around the valley taking in all the spectacular scenery.
There is a shorter route, which just cuts across the bottom of the loop to probably the best views of the valley from the bottom, which you would otherwise encounter at the end of the longer looped route.
With either choice, you will encounter the famous national tree of Colombia, the wax palm (Ceroxylon quindiuense). Known as the ‘palma de cera’ or ‘palma de ramo’ in Colombia, this lanky palm can reach 45-60 metres in height. It produces a wax which has been used to produce candles for centuries. It now has protected status in Colombia, and removing the wax from the trunk is prohibited, as it will eventually kill the tree.
The palm is home to the yellow eared parrot, of which you are sure to see many. An endangered bird itself, now protected and preserved thanks in part to the protection of the palms, and through various other conservation initiatives.
The humming birds are even more common throughout the valley, and a humming bird sanctuary can be visited not far from the start of the looped hike.
The more timid creatures such as the Spectacled bear, the mountain lion, and tapirs maybe a little harder. If you do manage to catch a glimpse of one these, you should feel very lucky.
As you trek through across the valley you will see signs for the Nevados Park, and it is this ‘secret’ gateway to the park which I think makes it pretty special. Unlike other main entrances to the park, this beautiful backdoor has no entrance or permit fees, and you can wander straight into the park using one of the most beautiful areas of Colombia. The Cocora Valley.
To access the park though, takes a little more effort, and we would strongly advise you to organise a guide to take you there. It is common for Salento excursion guides to offer one, two, and three day guided hikes. The one day hikes as we already explained are the looped hike around the valley.
Salento is at an altitude of 1,895 metres, and through the Cocora valley you will reach altitudes of around 2,800 metres. For the two and three day hikes you will be taken up to elevations of 3,500-5,000 metres within the park, to give you some scale to the task.
There are several possible routes, with the most extreme trek, taking you to the edge of the glacier at the Nevado Del Tolima. A stratovolcano, and the third largest volcano in Colombia. During these more advanced treks, you will be required to stay overnight on the mountains, with mountain families or in accommodation shacks.
On descending from one of these challenging hikes into the park, you can reward yourself back in Salento with famous Salento trout (Trucha de Salento). Fished locally in the valley you can find them cooked in a wide variety of sauces. The restaurants may have lost some of their Colombianisms, but the food is still mostly traditional.
It’s nice to support the local community, even if it does feel more detached these days. But the increased exposure to tourism that has seen the rapid change in the town of Salento, will also take its toll on the valley if responsible tourism is not adhered to.
Let your pride take a hit and hire a local guide even if it is only for the looped route. For sure they will be able to keep up with your pace, whether it be slow or fast, and in most cases you will be supporting a local university student through their studies as this can be part time work. But most importantly they will almost certainly teach you a thing or two about conservation, which is what the Valley needs most. In time this ‘secret’ gateway may have the same checkpoints, and permits systems as the other entrances if we don’t treat it with the respect it deserves.