Cocora’s Valley, Colombia: Home of the Wax Palm Tree

When we hear about Colombia’s coffee region, it immediately comes to our minds a region dedicated to the production and maintenance of extended plantations of coffee. Indeed, all the economy of this central region of Colombia has been dominated by the magic aura of the coffee aroma.

However, the central inspiration for this article will not be the coffee, but an even more intriguing inhabitant of these Andeans mountains: the Quindio wax palm tree (Ceroxylon quindiuense). The Quindio wax palm trees are located in the Cocora’s valley, a majestic wildlife sanctuary just a few minutes away from the small village of Salento (Quindio). This valley has an extension of 590, 78 km2 with numerous endemic species besides the wax palms such as the spectacle bear, Andean guam, and hundreds of hummingbirds and butterflies.

According to the indigenous people of this region known as the Quimbayas, the word “Cocora” means “ water star.” The name was given in honor to a Quimbaya Princess. The Quimbayas are very well studied due to the important decorative art that they left behind. This culture was experts in the elaboration and manufacturing of gold ornamental objects. Many of those works were pieces of jewelry that were worn every day among the community members and during special celebrations. This gold jewelry is representations of butterflies, birds, insects and the palm trees.

the Quindio wax palm tree (Ceroxylon quindiuense).

The Quindio wax palm tree is an endangered species that only pertains to the Cocora’s valley biodiversity. The wax palm has been Colombia’s national tree since 1985 when former president Belisario Betancur created law 61 to protect the palms from exploitation, especially from people that used its branches during religious celebrations such as Palm Sunday. Besides the palm trees, the law also covers the Colombian mountainous system known as the National Park of Snow Mountains.

The National Park of Snow Mountains consists of numerous peaks such as the snow mountain of Quindio, snow mountain of St. Isabel, and the infamous Ruiz volcano (aka – the sleeping lion-).

Along those snow peaks it is common to find several natural reservoirs for flora and fauna like lagoons, lakes, rivers, high-altitude valleys, and forests.

Cocora’s valley can be visited all year round by taking a small transport in Salento’s downtown; the transport is an old fashion and war veteran jeep Willis, a car introduced to Colombia after World War II. This jeep quickly became an indispensable tool to conquer the rough mountains and to mobilize farmers from small villages to countryside farms. Usually the jeeps are overloaded with people, farm products, and even animals; it is the cheapest and friendliest way to move around the Colombian coffee region.

Cocora's valley and wax palm trees governing the Andeans landscape

During the 25 minutes that takes the trip from Salento’s historical center to Cocora’s valley, you will discover the essence of the Colombian mountainous region and all the culture and heritage around it, which in comparison to other world regions, the first to come to my mind is Apenzell (Switzerland).

There is a deep truth in a comment that I heard many years ago during my schooldays in Colombia. Quindio can be considered, as the Switzerland of Colombia for its compact geography, amazing beauty, and all ranges of green.

Once in the Cocora’s valley there are many activities that will contribute to your ecological tour such as hiking or horse riding on long unpaved roads that will take you to unique landscapes such as crystal clear water rivers and waterfalls. Bird watching will be another tantalizing experience in these areas, because there are numerous birds’ species that are unique to the valley. However, there is always time to do one of my favorite activities, which is taking pictures next to the palm trees. You will look small in comparison to the 60-meter wax palms governing the Andeans skies like natural skyscrapers.

Cocora’s valley temperature is diverse and vary from a maximum of 15º C to 25º C to a minimum of 0º C to -2º C. There is also room for daily rainfalls, which creates a moist condition allowing the formation of dense banks of clouds covering the tops of mountains. These clouds are denominated “cloud forests.”

After a fantastic day of ecotourism at Cocora’s valley, the region also offers you an unbelievable diversity of gastronomic options ranging from the typical “Bandeja Paisa” (Partisan dish), which is a dish designed for larger than life eaters. The dish consists of rice, beans, meat, egg, avocado, thick bacon, sweet plantains, pork sausage and “arepa.” In addition, there are up to ten different ways to prepare trout and green plantains. For desserts: wild strawberries with cream, or a regional wafer known, as “oblea” with caramel. For snacks, “buñuelos” (cheese balls) and “pandebonos” (cheese bread), along with a delicious gourmet coffee cup which will complement your gastronomic experience.

While hiking on this beautiful landscape surrounded by those high-altitude and magnificent palm trees, I feel that something is missing in the scene, then I recalled an old joke,

Why are Quindio wax palms so tall?

Because they are looking for the sea.

Salento is the nearest village to Cocora’s valley. This colorful and historical town offers a diverse array of bed and breakfast options ranging from the typical coffee farms (eco-hotels) to small and decent hotels.

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