Colombia has 51 national parks, Amazonian jungle, Andean glaciers, coral reefs, and the richest bird biodiversity of any country in the world. The hiking, paragliding, and snorkeling options are incredible. All of which is to say that Columbia is a paradise for outdoor lovers. Yet one outdoor adventure towers above the rest.

The Cocora Valley, home to the world’s tallest palm trees and a landscape plucked straight out Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, is Colombia’s most famous attraction. Backpackers and hikers flock to the sleepy coffee town of Salento for easy access to the valley’s hike, which culminates in the main attraction: the wax palm valley. Most do the hike clockwise, but you should do it the other way around. Here’s why.

Do the hardest part first and save your knees

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The trailhead is easy to find and follow as you enter the blue gate to the right off the main road. About one kilometer in, you’ll meet a park worker who will ask for the 3,000 Columbian peso fee, which comes out to less than one US dollar. He’ll show you the route on a large map and point out highlights, like where to see the hummingbirds or enjoy a hot chocolate and cheese.

Complete the Cocora Valley hike’s five-hour circuit counterclockwise — as opposed to the traditional clockwise loop — to hike up the steepest part, toward the palm tree nursery and the Finca La Montaña coffee farm, rather than down, and finish in the park’s iconic wax palm valley. When you go counterclockwise, you save your knees from the relentless onslaught that is steep downhill stretches of switchbacks, as any seasoned hiker knows downhill is more taxing on your body — the knees in particular — than a steep upward incline.

You also finish your hike in the park’s main highlight, the wax palm valley. This is where the slender, 60-meter palms for which Cocora is famous stretch impossibly high and sway in the winds of the cloud forest. Going counterclockwise also means you meander through green pastures and grazing cattle flanked by the dramatic peaks of the Andes to the north at the beginning of your hike. You’ll continue on through a forested section with rivers, waterfalls, wooden suspension bridges, and finish with the wax palms. There’s something to be said for saving the best for last.

Fuel up before the steep stretch to Finca La Montaña

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Hiking Cocora is a long and physical day. Most need up to six hours to complete the trek, and even prepared hikers with their backpacks full of plantain chips and browning bananas need some extra calories before the steep ascent toward Finca La Montaña. Hence another reason to take off counterclockwise. You’ll pass the hike’s only comedor, local parlance for restaurant, before the steepest part of the trek. It’s located right next to the Acaime hummingbird sanctuary where you can observe and photograph a variety of hummingbird species and their rich, iridescent plumage. Fuel up on the plato del día, the plate of the day, and sip a complimentary hot chocolate and cheese, a unique but strangely enjoyable pair, while getting to know your fellow hikers.

Finding the hummingbird sanctuary can be a challenge. Once you pass over the seven wooden suspension bridges and emerge from the dense leaf cover of the forest, you’ll come to a T on the trail with a red arrow pointing right and a sign that says Acaime La Casa de Los Colibris. This part is misleading. You don’t want to follow the red arrow and go right but rather go straight and slightly to the left, down the path marked with stones. You’ll come to a clearing with two buildings, and the hummingbird sanctuary is the one on the right. Entrance is 5,000 COP (less than $1.50) and the plato del día is reasonably priced, as well.

Enjoy Cocora before greeting the throngs of people

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Cocora is one of Colombia’s most visited destinations, and its fame and draw have only grown in the age of Instagram. It’s a busy place, and the valley is often flooded with people trying to snap their best selfie, especially on the weekends.

In truth, it’s possible to see the wax palm valley without even doing the hike. Simply walk past the blue gate as though you were attempting the hike clockwise. Enter into the valley with those mile-high spindly wonders and get your pic. But we advocate for experience over publicity here at Matador.

Much of what we love so much about being outside is the peace and tranquility we don’t get in our daily lives. And when you go counterclockwise, you get to enjoy the tranquility and beauty of Cocora before facing the crowds.

The gradual descent from Finca La Montaña brings the valley into view slowly, steadily, and to your benefit once you see the towering pines, with much anticipation. The trees on the left clear away, exposing viewpoints into the valley below with its yielding trees and low-hanging mist. These are the views you came for. Stake out a quiet grassy patch and take it all in before exiting the park and greeting the throngs of people who’ve come for their own perfect pic.

Getting to Cocora Valley

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Base yourself in Salento for the easiest access to Cocora Valley. Jeeps run from Salento’s main square to the valley regularly throughout the day, both on weekdays and weekends. Online guides will give a timetable for departures, but in reality the Jeeps leave whenever they’ve filled up. The hike takes five to six hours, so it’s best to start early. And don’t forget to bring 3,600 COP ($1) for the ride. Once you’ve arrived at the parking lot at Cocora, go right on the road and walk past the various restaurants and shops. You’ll come to a blue gate on your right. Go through it to complete the hike counterclockwise. Bus service runs from Bogota to Salento, and the ride takes about eight-and-a-half hours.

What to bring

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Cocora Valley is a cloud forest, meaning it rains year-long and often with little notice. Bring a rain jacket and a warm layer for the top of Finca La Montaña; it gets cold. Here’s what else to have with you:

  • Hiking boots or sturdy sneakers — No flimsy tennis shoes for this trip. Wear something sturdier.
  • Sweater — Salento may be sunny, but this says nothing about the conditions in Coroca.
  • Rain jacket — It’s a cloud forest. Take your rain jacket.
  • Water bottle — We recommend at least a liter. You can refill at Finca La Montaña.
  • Sun protection — SPF, hat, and sunnies. Bring ‘em all.
  • Money — Bring 50,000 COP (about $15) and you’re covered for the day.
  • Snacks — The comedor at the hummingbird sanctuary has food available, but bring some snacks anyway.

You don’t need a guide for the hike. Some visitors rent horses, but if you’re in decent shape, the hike is very doable. There are park workers along the route to collect your fare and give directions. The trail is easy to follow with little chance of getting lost.