Travels in Colombia No.3: The Cocora Valley

December 30th, 2015

What is it that makes an experience unique?

Yesterday we discussed this on our walk to our campsite (beyond the ‘Al Rio‘ sign we found at the end of this post). We had believed Salento to be a picturesque little town curled sleepily among the sunlit coffee bushes, waiting to be discovered. Instead, we had been confronted with cheerful vendors and loud-mouthed touts, curious tourists and cheeky kids. We were both disappointed by the town, although to different extents: I felt it weigh on Nathen’s shoulders as he described a friend’s truly unique experience, a New Year’s kayak in a frozen glacial lake.

Today we woke up at half-past six. It was pleasantly disconcerting when I opened my tent curtain to see a sliver of fresh woodland, instead of a pre-wrapped, banal slice of city. We packed our gear, and crept up the footpath to rejoin the road with the ‘Al Rio‘ sign that had enticed us to the camping spot last night. Now we walked not back into Salento but onwards, towards the north-west. In front of us was the Nevado del Ruiz National Park and the Cocora Valley, filled with wax palms and waiting for us to explore it.

Palms standing to attention on a windy ridge. Some of these are 60 metres high!

How delicious the first hour of hiking was! Even though our route (following a Colombian A-road) wasn’t adventurous in itself, the coolness and stillness of the morning and the occasional glimpse of the cloud-wrapped future present painted a fresh coat of optimism on my morning. I was further encouraged by the incredulous stares of motorists, who would whip their heads round as they passed on bikes, or whoop words of greeting while clinging onto the back of an open 4×4. One wag shouted, ‘you are so much more hardcore than us!’ It was true: I had 12kg on my back and 9km to walk up a long and winding road that was increasingly hot from the sun and unblemished by spots of tree-shade – you bet it was hard. The unrelenting easy beauty of any photo I took seemed to add salt to my sweat, blood and tears. So it was a relief when, on the last 800 metres of road before the park entrance, a gentleman in a pick-up stopped to offer us a lift.

Whizzing along in the back of a ride we’d hitched.

The National Park turned out to have many unnatural amenities. We lingered over tiny cups of coffee, our first in the Eje Cafetero, and then started to hike through the valley. I was impressed by the size and height of the wax palms, which, when juxtaposed with the ambling tourists and the coffee stands gave an otherworldliness, a Liliputian air of everyday life in miniature. There among the monstrous trees was a tiny fairground: horseback rides, endless stalls of goodies, overpriced cocktails. This natural wander-land was rather unnatural. I wondered, was the rest of Colombia still untouched? 

We continued. The pack was painful on my shoulders, and I was thirsty, but still we walked deeper into the park. Eventually we arrived at La Cascada (The Waterfall). It had no waterfall, but we did find a route which wound down a narrow track to the most exquisite camp site. Dotted with red and purple jewel-flowers, littered with shadows and sun, graced with red-breasted woodpeckers and creaking insects. It was paradise, and just a pity that we had arrived too soon: at one o’clock, now was too early to pitch camp. However, we had no food, and the next hacienda, La Primavera, was 19km ahead, so we returned reluctantly to the valley filled with tourists. Still, we had tried; and found a secret spot that no-one else knew. A unique experience, of sorts.

Sunlight through the wild vegetation.

Even though today was just a walk in the park, it left an impression on me that will take a while to shake off. The juxtaposition of familiar and strange felt ‘one-of-a-kind’ – although I accept that many people wouldn’t agree. So then, I suppose, the answer to my question: what is it that makes an experience unique? Why, it’s you.

Sunrise over the hills holding the Cocora Valley.

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