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Slip-sliding Through Trail in a Muddy Cloud Forest

Second stop is Salento for hiking

rain 64 °F

After my hike of the Cocora Valley Loop - note the mud-splattered shoes and pant legs

After our short stay in Medellín (we will be back in a few days), we flew south towards Salento. There was a hike we wanted to do in Colombia’s “coffee country.” Not wanting to endure an 8-hour bus ride through mountain roads, we chose to fly. And that’s where the adventure began! As we were gliding in for a landing in Perreira, the captain suddenly hit the thrusters and we climbed up, away from the airport. Five more times we circled the airport, lined up for an approach, and aborted landing. No announcements in English, so I stopped a flight attendant who said it was weather in the airport was supposedly socked in. Except we saw the ground clearly on descent. And com to think of it, I never did hear the landing gear come down before we did our initial go-around. Hmmm. Either way, it was way more exciting than I like for my flights! We returned to Medellín, refueled, then got in on our first try the second time!

The view from our room at El Mirador del Cocoran

Colombia’s coffee country is mountainous and scenic, so I had booked a room that had a view of the green hills stretching into the distance. The view out our hotel room lived up to its billing. Our room at El Mirador del Cocora had one wall that was all window. So sitting in a chair or laying in bed you are presented with an amazing view. After checking in and unpacking a little, we set out to explore Salento. It is a small town, but it’s shops, restaurants, and cafes are brightly-painted. It is definitely a town geared towards visitors with lots of amenities and places to dine, drink, or buy souvenirs. The sky had been partly cloudy on our drive in from Pereira, but now the dark clouds slowly were gathering. Before long, it began to rain and proceeded to do that on and off for the rest of the evening.

Another view from our hotel room in Salento, Colombia

I was worried about the weather for tomorrow’s hike of the Cocora Valley. It is a 4-6 hour loop through jungle, Cloud Forest, and the valley with the wax palms, for which it was famous. The last thing I wanted was for it to be pouring rain all day. The trails were supposed to be somewhat muddy already. During a rain storm, I imagine they would be turned into muddy creeks. We would ascend to almost 10,000 feet, so going up and down would be dangerously slippery if it was pouring rain. However, the morning dawned at least partially sunny, so maybe we would get lucky!

Salento’s Calle Real and it’s colorful stores and buildings

Backpackers and hikers come to Salento for two things: the hike and the coffee tours. The way hikers are shuttled out to the trailhead from Salento is really interesting and part of the experience. Locals have refurbished dozens of WW II era Willy’s jeeps. Think of the classic American Jeep you see in movies. Now paint it bright colors and trick it out with a vinyl roof that can be rolled up or down depending on the weather. The round trip fare is about $2, but drivers make up for it by packing 8-10 people in. This includes 2-3 standing on a metal rail in the back and holding onto the roof frame! I knew the roads would likely be not only winding but also bumpy, so I said “no way!” to the standing!

One of the brightly-painted Willy’s Jeeps that are the taxis in Salento

However, it is very organized. You buy your ticket for the half hour trip at a little booth and then wait in a line. When your Jeep is next, the guy in charge collects your tickets. Once everybody is seated, he solicits those still waiting to hang off the back. Every Jeep I saw had willing volunteers clinging to the back, taking selfies or videos of the experience. I had done similar things in my younger days, but seeing how I am less than a year away from 60, I will leave such thrills for the younger travelers. The ride out was scenic, and it was smoother than I had figured. Upon arrival at the trailhead, we found a sprawling tourist set up, with horseback rides, cafes, and an almost amusement park feel. It wasn’t just hikers who made the trip here. Families came here for the experience and to see the wax palms - Colombia’s national tree - which soars nearly a football field in height.

Beautiful Cocora Valley, known for its towering wax palm trees

Which brings me to my first gripe about the Cocora Valley Hike. The information online is somewhat misleading - especially once site that calls itself “The Ultimate Guide to the Cocora Valley” (by The Culture Trip). His or her account is complete bogus, making me wonder if they even visited or if instead compiled it from second hand sources. First, the completely reverses the directions. It recommends hiking in a clockwise direction if you want to see the wax palms first. Um, “Ultimate Guide”, you got that backwards. What’s more, the site makes it sound like you hike through the jungle for a ways then suddenly come to the valley. The trailhead IS the valley. It is where most the wax palms are located. That’s why all the non-hikers are there, Mr. (or Mrs.) Ultimate Guide! Sure, if you hike in the opposite direction from your recommendation, you do come to some nice viewpoints. But there are other nice miradors right in the area of the trailhead.

Another view of the wax palms from the trailhead area of the hike

My second gripe is the trail has ZERO signs or “blazes” to mark the path or turnoffs. In fact, the only signs along the path are essentially advertisements for the local conservation organization. One of their signs, in fact, conceals the proper branch the loop hike should take. Everyone I met along the hike or before or after lost their way on it more than once. We had downloaded the All Trails map app for our phones and STILL took three wrong turns. For such a draw that this hike is for visitors to Salento, you would think they could invest a little in signage infrastructure. When you are talking about a hike rated as “Difficult,” through thick jungle and mountainous terrain, the potential for hikers to get dangerously lost is high.

The beginning of the hike with its wide dirt, rock, and mud surface curving away beneath the trees

Had we not had the app, we would have never known we had gone off the trail. How many hours of our hiking would have been in the wrong direction? The lack of infrastructure on this hike makes this a somewhat risky venture. I would warn potential hikers to be prepared with maps or some sort of equipment. There was no cell signal once we were into the Cocora Loop Trail, too - so hikers cannot rely on that. We met only two groups in the first hour of our hike. Both were turning back because they had lost the way forward. For the next four hours, we met no one going in either direction. It was only in the last hour of our more than six hours on the trail that we saw other hikers. If someone fell and injured themselves in the middle part of the trail, I am not confident they would be found anytime soon.

The first - and most substantial - of the bridges we crossed along the trail

I’m sure everyone is lining up, now, to follow in my footsteps and hike the Cocora Valley Loop trail! So, without too much foreshadowing in the above disclaimers, how did our hike go? It started out easily enough. The path was wide, a mixture of mud, dirt, and rocks. The mud tended to be in the center of the trail where the horses (or perhaps pack donkeys?) go. Their hooves churn up the trail into a mud porridge, so there was a lot of picking your way to find the firmest ground. Thankfully, we had brought collapsible hiking poles. They proved helpful here and invaluable on the steepest and most difficult portions of the trail. The loop crosses a river a couple times, and as we continued on, the bridges got more rickety and “Indiana Jones” like. In fact, the first bridge was where we thought we had lost the way. We discovered the All Trails app is less reliable the more you zoom in to the onscreen map. You need to keep it relatively zoomed out. We spent about 10 minutes thinking we’d missed a turnoff until we figured it out.

All this Indiana Jones bridge was missing was Short Round jumping up and down on it to prove how safe it was

The second bridge was a mini version of the swaying “See, lady? This bridge is safe...aaah!” bridge from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom scene. I wasn’t like Short Round and didn’t fall through into the raging stream below. It was at this point that the second of groups who’d turned back passed us going the opposite way. We went a little further and saw why. A steep rock staircase ascended from this point. The wide dirt, mud, and rock road was gone. Not for the first time, Jenny eyes widened as she looked up and reminded me she’d be going at her own pace. As it turned out, an all-rock staircase was one of the easier portions we’d encounter on the trail. As we ascended, we noticed the clouds rolling in. Any “views” would be of cloud and fog for the time being. I kept waiting for us to come to the valley of wax palms “after a half hour hike through jungle” as the Ultimate Guide claimed. Instead, the trail narrowed and became narrower and steeper. The hiking pole became essential at this point.

Off trail, we came to this “bridge” of two logs crossing a rushing, white water stream

Finally, we came to our first sign on the trail. It turned out to be essentially an ad for their nature conservancy organization. It featured pictures of animals in this park zone, including - alarmingly - a mountain lion! What?? Mr. Ultimate Guide never mentioned cougars! The worst part of this sign was it actually hid our turnoff. The well-intentioned group had placed their sign at a critical branch in the trail, literally hiding he correct, ascending path behind its pictures of animals and such. I have only three words for the do-good moron who erected the sign: Whisky. Tango. Foxtrot (WTF?). What were you thinking? Blissfully unaware, we took the wider branch onwards, baffled as we began to descend rapidly. This was supposed to be a steep upwards portion - not a slippery descent. I think it was at this point, or maybe not because I had three, that I took my first tumble. I was covered in muck and used about a quarter of my water bottle to clean off my camera lens cap that had come off and my hands.

The trail narrows to a slippery, muddy tracks as you climb ever upwards into the jungle

Uninjured, I plodded on down the path, extra wary in the slipperiest sections. We descended to the river and found our third bridge. This one was literally a couple logs braced across the fast-rushing stream below. There was a wire to hold onto, though, and we made it across in Indiana Jones style without incident. Except the app was telling us we were off course. We climbed on out of the gulley, but according to All Trails, we were on a completely different trail. We sighed, and retraced our steps. I was worried that the detour might have convinced Jenny to turn back as the others had. We resolved to check the app more regularly and it led us back to the offending sign, which it insisted was a fork in the trail. That’s when I scouted around behind the sign and found the hidden passage - Cocora Loop’s secret path.

The mist and fog closed in as we ascended into cloud forest

From there, the going simply got more and more intense. The trail was a muddy morass, the switchbacks became steeper and more frequent, and the mist intensified as we entered the Cloud Forest. We kept tabs of our progress on the app. The fractions (“halfway,” “two-third”) were rising slowly. Too slowly from for as tired and out of breath Jenny was becoming. I began to worry that she simply might not make it. We had seen no other hikers in the last couple hours, going either way. I was getting tired, but was fine - well, other than falling again. I tried to encourage her, calling out when we had a relatively firm and not so steep section. I hinted going back would be more grueling than pushing on. Without saying it,we had truly passed the point of no return. Unsaid was my thankfulness that it had not started raining. The mist was gloomy, and at one point we both heard a grunting or rumbling of an animal not far from the trail.

In the damp gloom of the cloud forest, we heard a large animal rumbling and later saw paw prints of a...cougar?

Eventually, thankfully, the top arrived. We had ascended to the peak of the hill and had somewhat flat going as we walked along a ridge for awhile. What goes up must come down, though. So, we began the even more slippery descent. I fell again, of course. At one point I clearly saw a large, clawed fresh footprint in the mud. I took a picture of it to check to see if we were having a near encounter with Colombia’s biggest cat. We saw the prints again and again. I hoped it was a dog ambling along with a hiker, because doesn’t everyone take a large German Shepherd hiking with them? I might next time I do this!

After we summited the mountain, the mist slowly began to clear and the going became easier

I thought it was a good sign when the trail meandered out on what looked like a meadow. It got more and more mucky and I eventually realized it was a bog on the side of a hill. What? To make things worse, we’d lost the trail again. We ended up flailing along in the bog in the direction the app said the trail was. After a harrowing interlude, we were back in the woods. Eventually, I caught sight of the trail - wide dirt and rock like at its start. And walking along the trail were two other hikers! People!! But there was a ten foot sheer drop between where we stood and the sanctuary of the honest-to-goodness trail. The hikers motioned us to our left, where they said it was less steep. We found a potential spot, and ducking beneath the barbed wire, slid down to the trail. Both of us were uninjured with boots on a wide trail we hadn’t seen in 3-4 hours of slip-sliding up and down the side of a mountain.

One of the viewpoints of the wax palms towards the end of the hike - still foggy

From that point, the Cocora Valley Loop was literally a walk in the woods. We even came to the viewpoints of the wax palms that the Ultimate Dyslexic Guide said we would arrive at five hours ago. The mist was still cloaking the valley, so we took some photos anyway. One of the miradors even offered a shortcut back to the trailhead. We jumped at the chance to shave some distance off our loop and followed it downhill. All around us now were the day trippers and families, taking selfies and posing with backdrops of the palms as the fog began to lift. The last mile or so was one steps with slabs of stone set into the hillsides. We had made it, and even the sky began to clear a little to reward us.

The mist slowly cleared as we ended the hike, giving us glimpses of the scenery at the trailhead

The Cocora Valley Loop was certainly not what it was billed to be. You don’t need to hike it to see the wax palms. The only reason to take this hike is if you enjoy a grueling challenge. Now, it may be easier in less rainy parts of the year. But my final criticism of this hike is there is no “payoff.” There is no grand vista that others who don’t go through your trials and tribulations don’t get to see. Am I glad I took it? I am not sure. Challenging oneself is always a thrill. Yes, I physically still have what it takes to do a difficult hike like this. But was it worth it? If my goal was to see cool scenery, then no. If my goal was to test the limits of my 59-year-old body, then yes. But otherwise, I will leave it up to you...

Posted by world_wide_mike 02:08 Archived in Colombia

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Glad you made it out of there in one piece.

by Jason Mirosavich

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