Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Valle de Cocora

I stayed in the cheapest hotel I could find in Armenia last night because it is the closest city to Salento. There are no hostels in Armenia that I know of, and my hotel room in Armenia didn’t have a shower. I guess that’s the price you pay living on a budget. The scenic half-hour bus ride to Salento this morning made me forget that I was tired and dirty.

So why had I left Manizales to come to the small town of Salento? First of all, Salento alone is a must-see, but I will talk about it later. Today I wanted to visit Valle de Cocora, and Salento was the closest place without camping out. Because the Valle de Cocora is a popular tourist destination, I wanted to hike through it before the holiday weekend.

In Salento’s main plaza there are jeeps parked in front of the police station. Five Colombians were standing near one of the jeeps. I asked one of the girls sitting down when the next jeep leaves. She asked me if I was alone. I said yes, and she jumped up and introduced herself to me. She and her friends had been waiting for another person since the driver would only leave with six people. The five Colombians were from Armenia and very friendly and excited to be on their way. They looked like hikers. The 45-minute ride was slow since most of the way we rode across a bumpy dirt road.

Encouraged by the girl I met, I bought snacks and water at a concession stand before we began our hike. Near the snack stand horses stood in a line for those eager to go horse-riding. I was not one of those people. I still remembered my sore rear-end after riding a horse in Cuba (Viñales Valley). We began our hike down a dirt path and past a trout farm (fresh trout is the dish of choice here and in Salento). Walking along the valley floor was my favorite part of the hike. Because it often rains, there were bright green pastures for cows to graze, and various shades of green along the surrounding, steep mountains. The valley’s main river is the Río Quindío with its various streams and tributaries branching off the higher one hikes. Tourists and guides passed us every so often on horseback. The primary reason Valle de Cocora is so special and recognized as a wildlife sanctuary is because of a unique palm tree that is only found here, called palma de cera, or wax palm tree. It is the tallest palm (about 50 meters) in the world and can live up to a hundred years. The wax on its trunk was used to make candles. Because the wax palms were being cut down, primarily for Palm Sunday, the government declared the Valle de Cocora a national park in 1985. In addition, at this time the wax palm was named Colombia’s national tree, and a law forbidding anyone from chopping it down was implemented to protect this endangered species. The wax palms are a site to see. Because they are so tall and they are scattered so far apart along the mountainsides, they seemed out place, like they don’t belong. Maybe this is why I was the slowest one in our group, stopping to gaze at these magnificent trees. The Colombians I was with had done this hike many times so it didn’t quite have the same effect for them.

Following the trail to the edge of the valley, we entered a tropical forest that made it difficult to see where or how high we were. We walked across hanging bridges, brooks, and slippery muddy spots. The girl who had been so eager to go hiking began falling behind with the other girl and one guy. I carried her backpack so she could make it to the top. Apparently they had drunk too much aguardiente the night before. Even though I could see big, thick clouds next to me, I started sweating profusely. The air was thin and I had to take deep breaths. We took some breaks, but not for too long because we had to make it to one of the lookout peaks and back in time to catch the jeep to Salento.

By the time I reached the top I had eaten all my snacks. The girl’s backpack I had carried was filled with sandwiches and she gave me one. Everyone seemed in better spirit having eaten. From a log-cabin porch we couldn’t see much around us because it was so cloudy. I did, however, see a couple of hummingbirds feeding on some pink flowers. This was just one of many peaks along this enchanting national park. Some people hire guides to travel for several days as the Valle de Cocora is not only a wildlife sanctuary but part of a larger national park known as Parque Nacional Los Nevados, which includes the snow-capped volcano Nevado del Ruiz.

For us it was a great day hike. Everyone hiked much faster on the descent. I, on the other hand, did not. The Colombians waited for me and we eventually arrived at our starting point. The valley was even more beautiful with the setting sun and mixture of white and gray clouds. The jeep ride back wasn’t so great because the jeep only fit four people. So the driver lowered the rear door flap and two of the guys sat on it as dust from the road blew in their faces. Things could have been worse. As the jeep bounced along the dirt road, I saw a girl who had stayed at the same hostel as me in Manizales. She was lying on the ground next to a horse with people huddled around her. I later found out that she had fallen from the horse. I didn’t see any blood so I assume she was ok. I arrived back to Salento, tired and dirty. One of the Colombian’s aunts lived in Salento. We stopped by her house and drank aguardiente straight from the bottle as a pair of horses watched us from the yard next door.


Anonymous said...

Sounds like a fantastic adventure.. I'll make sure that my next trip to Colombia will include this place..
Thanks for the information.

Anonymous said...

i've been there, it was amazing, i will never forget how beautiful it is, how wonderfull it feels to be there, the water is great along with the clean cols air, i recomend people to go and visit, ou wont regreat it.

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