Trail Running Cocora, Colombia

Some background…

Cocora and coffee seem to be the main drivers of tourism to the Salento. It is also a cute town, but there are a lot of cute towns in Colombia, and a there’s also a lot of coffee. However, there is only one Cocora.

Overlook of Cocora valley

I will not spend my time here describing the Cocora valley and its majesty and splendor. The Cocora valley is a gorgeous and well worth the visit. However, the valley is at the base of the Cordillera Central which has peaks, accessible from Salento which rise up to greater than 17,000ft (5200m) glaciated (at the time of this writing) summit. This area will be my focus, and there is plenty in the area to play on.

First, some qualifiers…

The weather. Count on mud and rain. Lots of both. Most of these trails are used by horses and livestock and they create a lot of mud. This, combined with the steepness and the altitude, means you will be moving significantly slower than you normally would and it takes a lot out of you. I did a few 20 mile excursions and they felt like rough 50ks. No doubt a 50k would feel like a 50-miler.

The rain tends to come in the afternoon, around 2, plus or minus an hour, and will stick around for a few hours. The rain can be heavy and heading east into the mountains can mean colder temperatures, so be prepared.

Fincas: There are several ranches, known as “Fincas” that are along the trail. Most allow guests. It is a big part of their revenue. I did not stay in one. They should be set up in advance but I did my exploring without a guide and they set up the Fincas. This is usually done by radio but some can be reached by phone, if you wanted to reserve on your own.

I hear La Playa is most welcoming if you have no guide, but they are the hardest to reach and I didn’t want to risk it. I have some numbers to try if you want. Primavera is a mess, but no doubt has its perks. It is likely the best outfitted on but it is in a giant mud-pit. If you use a guide, this and Buenas Aires are the ones you are most likely to end up at.

To my understanding, you don’t need a guide to go to the Fincas, despite what might be said (though I could be wrong). However, going beyond the Fincas is officially the National Park (Parque Nacional). At that point, you are supposed to have a guide. I have read climbers posts and others who went out that way with out a guide and even had a guide tell me not to worry about it. However, if you are a strict rule follower, you may want to keep it inside of those boundaries established by the Fincas.

One of the better sections of trail

The trails were more obvious and better marked than I expected. But this does not mean they were always obvious and well-marked, just that my expectations were low. The trails I describe here will be general easy to follow and I will articulate where this is not the case. It is best to use a map with gps. I have loaded most or all of these on GaiaGPS and TrailRunProject and AllTrails has some, if not all, of them as well.

In the high-country, beyond the Fincas, if the fog rolls in (and it always rolls in) it could be really easy to get disoriented on the maze of livestock trails. Up to the Fincas, you’d likely be fine without a GPS, but beyond them I would be very wary.

There are fees when you go through the southerly portion and at the hummingbird house and another place (if you follow different routes) on the more standard Cocora loop. None are very pricey. About 7–9000COP (that was about $1.50 — $2 when I was there), but it is something to be aware of so you aren’t caught off guard.

These all start at the Cocora area where you get dropped off by the famous Jeeps. These can be found in the main Plaza (Plaza de Bolivar), unless there is an event going on in the Plaza (like when I first arrived), then the Jeeps can be found just inside of Carerra 2, on either Calle 3 or 4 (I think 3, but am not certain). For each of these, go find the Jeeps, pay the 8000 COP round-trip fare, and ride on the back. The view is great from back there.

If you need a gpx file, let me know. Now, on to the trails…

Cocora short-Loop (6.5 miles / ~1800 feet of elevation gain)

I’ll start with the first one I did. This is going to follow (mostly) well-worn paths and have a low risk factor. I chose it first to get a feel for the trails, the mud, and my speed of movement.

As mentioned, this starts where they all start: Cocora. Get dropped off at the main spot, right across from Los Orillos (the driver may stop at different spots so it may be good to speak with him or others, or be tracking where you are on the map to be sure).

There will be a gate one the right side of the road dropping downhill toward the restaurant Truchera and the river. You’ll cross the river on a great old bridge and in another 3rd of a mile (600m) you will come across a shack where there is likely to be a gentleman charging for entrance. It was 9000COP (if I recall) to enter.

You’ll follow a gently ascending “trail” (its really a boardwalk submersed in mud). This trail will eventually reach the “Entrada al Bosque” (entrance to the forest), and this is where it starts getting pretty spectacular.

The trail is easy to follow and becomes a more respectable ‘trail’. Look for a side trail accessing a waterfall off to your left soon after entering the forest. The trail follows the river, crossing it several times. The trail is lovely and rugged and begins climbing as the water cascades out of the mountains.

Guiding you to the waterfall soon after entering the forest

At about 2.75 miles in, the trail crosses the river, to the left side as you head upstream. The trail continues to head upstream and another trail comes in from the left. For some extra mileage (but not much) you can continue straight to Acaime where you will be able to take a trail to the right to reach La Casa de los Colibries (The house of the hummingbirds). This addition might add a mile round-trip. I did not go (I wish I did, but it didn’t work out) so I cannot vouch for its value or worthiness. But, it is inexpensive and there are hummingbirds. How can you go wrong?

Back at the trail junction, you will take the trail heading uphill. You have a steep climb for about .5 miles to where the forest opens up to pasture (meaning, no trees and lots of mud). Climbing through switchbacks up the hill you will reach Finca Montana. At this point you will connect with a gravel road that makes the going much easier.

Most people either come up this road or head down it, to return to the beginning. There are supposed to be some spectacular views of the valley and the wax palms for which the area is so well-know. I didn’t go there, so I can’t tell you if it is worth it but it would only add a couple of miles to head out to the view and come back.

From Finca la Montana, head down the road for about .5 mile, there will be a trail heading up on your right. This will climb up over the ridge and drop down into the drainage to the north. This trail will start heading up through pasture. You know what that means; it’s a muddy mess. You’ll climb steeply and may have trouble following the trail. I made the mistake of following a trail to the left that went into the woods. Use your GPS and follow the route on one of the apps discussed previously.

Though the trail starts not so beautiful, you will soon get into the forest. This will also be a route that you will see significantly fewer people on, and those people will be of the more adventurous kind. I ran into some good people and groups there.

As the trail steeply ascends, it climbs into a dense forest that, while I was there was in the clouds. I don’t know if this is technically a “cloud forest” like you might find elsewhere in the Andes, but it was absolutely stunning. It was a very subdued and surreal experience and well worth the climb.

Surreal experience going through the cloud forest

The trail tops off and begins to descend down the other side, as steeply as it climbed. This is one of those situations where I found myself more stable gently running that walking. The trail is muddy and trying to walk is an invitation for slipping and falling on your ass. That being said, running had its own precarious moments. The trail drops you at another structure build for the ‘Cascadas’ coming down from upstream. I passed by this three times and never saw it open, so I am not sure if you will have the chance to go view the waterfalls.

This trail is more heavily used as it heads up to Finca Argentina and Finca Buenas Aries on the way to Quindio Peak and Paramillo del Quindio, both above 15,000 feet (more on these and attempts to get there, later in this post).

The trail become a bit more gentle for the rest of the route as it follows the river downstream. These is more mud (always more mud) but nothing problematic. From the junction it is about 1.5 miles back to the Jeeps for your ride back into town.

Cerro Morrogacho (8 miles / 5600 ft ascent… yeah, you’ve got some climbing ahead of you!)

Cerro Morrogacho

This is an infrequently used trail, but used enough that you won’t have any trouble following it (except near the top). It isn’t as scenic or interesting as the others listed here, but it is worth doing nonetheless as you will get some serious climbing in and there are only so many options in the area, so why not?

If you read other write-ups about this trail there is mixed-messaging about whether it is public or not because of no trespassing signs and/or private property signs. However, it is open to the public. It is like a lot of paths out here, like roads anywhere; the path is public but it is flanked on both sides by private property, for much of the way. Do not worry. The trail is public. You’ll even see a sign or two guiding you the way.

It starts that same way as the Cocora loop described above; head around the gate at the Jeep drop-off and head downhill toward the river. Follow the road until you can turn right up a road shortly before you hit the shack where you have to pay to go on the Cocora loop. Basically, if someone asks you for money, you’ve gone to far.

The road gently climbs with farms on each side and pretty quickly rises above them.

View of the Cocora Valley from the trail (without the crowds)

Around 1.5 miles in, you will hit a ‘Y’ in the road. A sign points the way to Morrogacho up and to the left along the trail (another indicator that this is open to the public). To the right is the route the horses and livestock take. So, this route to the left is more of a trail than the lower (and, unfortunately, later) section and is a great path until they reconnect later.

Continue up the trail as it climbs steadily. You’ll go through some gates, and definitely cross across some land that feels like trespassing, but push on and get to the other side. You’ll follow along the ridge and eventually reach the Refugio. It’s easy to get confused here. Stay higher and to the left (uphill) on the other side of the Refugio and you’ll find the trail climbing away.

From here, the trail starts to get a little more tricky, and this is where you may want to do some additional research and bring GPS. There is a point on the map that I had that takes a sharp left to climb steeply to the overlook (Mirador Cumbre Cerro Morrogacho). I took a left there and it was an overgrown shit-show and could find nothing that seemed to clearly be a trail. So, I headed back and continued up what seemed to be the trail but beyond the turnoff shown by the Alltrails map.

Frequently, around, and after, this point I could not tell what was a real trail and what was a livestock trail. Perhaps there was no difference.

Continuing on the trail forward, you enter the forest and come across a sign that clearly shows this is a nature preserve. A previous article had mentioned these signs and gave the impression to keep going past them, but when I did the trail simply devolved into livestock trails. Perhaps I was not persistent enough or did not do enough research. I recommend you doing what works for you. I never got to the top of anything or a view. I turned around and headed back with a solid day of climbing in the books.

Simply head back the way you came.

Cocora to Finca Buenas Aires to Finca Primavera loop (22 miles, 5600ft of elevation gain)

An infrequent but helpful sign pointing the way

This is a loop with which I have mixed emotions. I loved finally getting “out there”. This is the first of the trails described that starts to get a bit more remote into the backcountry of this area. However, the first 3 to 4 mile stretch from Primavera heading back down to Cocora is an absolute shit-show. Tons of people head up that way, as Primavera is a popular place to stay and this is the way to Tolima, but many of those people, and all of the supplies, are transported using horses. Cattle also use this stretch. I saw horses sinking halfway up to their knees in the mud. That would swallow a small human. So considered yourself warned.

However, despite the sufferfest that is that stretch, this was a spectacular loop, which will revisit much of the what was covered in the sections closer to Cocora. If you want to avoid the nasty section there is a shorter (15 mile) option outlined below. However, with the suffering comes beauty you won’t see otherwise (well, you could do an out and back). But, it is good to know this option exists if you decide a shorter route is needed.

To begin, from where the Jeeps drop you off, you will continue to go up the road straight ahead of you. In fact, you should be able to get a ride further up the road if you are heading up early (which you should. It’ll be a long day), as the Jeep tends to head up further to drop off local workers. This might save you a half mile.

Keep heading up the road where ever the Jeep drops you off. If you did the shorter loop described above, you’ll know this way as the way you returned at the end of that excursion.

The road will quickly reach the river. If you enjoy wet feet, you can cross here, or, you can find a bridge just a little upstream. At this point the trail continues on the left side of the river as you move upstream, while the road you were on continues up and to the left of the crossing (there is a gate with no trespassing warnings all over it, which is a shame because it looks like a way to access interesting trails up higher).

Along this stretch, you’ll navigate some minor mud but nothing excessive (be patient). You’ll cross another bridge to shift to the right side of the river and will begin to do some climbing about a half mile in. Nothing too strenuous but a noticeable departure from the gentle grade in the beginning. The climbing is exciting! It means you’re climbing toward some goodness; toward the Paramo and the Paramillo and snow-capped peaks! There is an increasing sense of remoteness with each mile deeper you get.

Around the 2 mile point you will hit a trail coming in from the right. This is the trail you would have come down if doing the shorter Cocora loop discussed above. The trail will hit the always closed Finca (perhaps you’ll get lucky) with the promise of lovely cascadas. At this point the trial will turn to the right, climbing away from the cascading river.

After another half mile you will reach to Monteloro la Picota. You’ll be getting into some mud that you can either slog through or navigate. I managed to generally avoid anything too bad without needing to get to creative, but it does lead to slower movement.

You’ll hit a descent as you close in on the 4 mile mark. This will drop you steeply down to a creek crossing. It is a beautiful and lush cascade. Worth getting some water or just lingering to enjoy. It seems to me that this is the point where I began feeling like I was getting further out there.

Climb away from this crossing and continue to ascend, enjoying some of the views you’ll get off to the right. With any luck, you’ll have a good mix of views with the low clouds rolling in. The combo creates quite an effect.

About 6 miles in you will come to a trail junction. Taking this down and to the right will create a loop of around 15 miles. Longer than the short Cocora loop but shorter than the one outlined here. I did not take this trail so I cannot vouch for its viability or level of use. However, given my other explorations here, I would have felt comfortable taking this way as long as I had a GPS. The trail shows up on GaiaGPS, and likely elsewhere. If you take it, you will (should) end up on the return side of this loop, below the mess I discussed above around Primavera.

From this trail junction, continue straight. You’ll go through more mud, cross through gates, more mud, catch some splendid views, maybe a bit more mud, and just generally have that great experience of traveling through a novel environment in a remote area.

There will an increasingly amount of water cascading down from the hillside, creating delightful little waterfalls and cascades and providing plenty of water access (note… I tend to drink freely from creeks in mountains, but never did here. No matter how high I went, there was always evidence of cattle. I wouldn’t trust the water here even though you are close to the source).

At about 7.5 miles (or what felt like 10–12 to me) you’ll reach Finca la Argentina. I went this route twice. Once I went through the property, which is allowed but feels really intrusive. The other time I went up and around along the fence. This was harder and more awkward, but felt less intrusive. I probably just looked like a weird and confused gringo. Going through the property there is an unavoidable mud bog (at least when I went) but tromping through and sinking into the mud never seemed to cause problems that justified the extent through which I went to avoid the mud. So, sometimes, it is just worth it to just plow through.

From La Argentina to Finca Buenas Aires it is a little less than two miles. This is a gorgeous stretch where you really start to feel that you are getting remote and into the mountains. You start to see the Paramo and the mountains take on that significance, steepness, and grandeur that occurs when you begin to enter their depths. The mist is likely rolling in over the verdant mountainsides. This stretch is truly a gift.

Somewhere between mile 5 and Finca Buenas Aires you may start to see other hikers. This route seems somewhat common for people as a backpacking trip, typically with a guide. Everyone I met was great and there were people from all over the world, and it was never excessive enough to remove the sense of remoteness.

Pass through Finca Buenas Aires (all three times I went through here it was empty) and shortly after you will reach a junction in the trail. To the right the trail will gently descend down into the valley to the river. To the left, a steep climb up to the ridge line and, if you went far enough, North Quindio peak (I will speak more of this way in the next summary).

The loop I am describing here takes the right and heads down to the river. You’ll pass through this lovely valley and, if the weather cooperates, you’ll be able to see Quindio Norte (North Quindio Peak) and the Paramillo. There was snow on a lot more than just Qindio when I was there. The scene was fantastic and very much unlike anything I had seen before, including in Ecuador. Traversing this valley, and climbing up the other side (at least the views it afforded) was the highlight of this loop.

Quindio Norte from the paramo. Even with the poor resolution, the snow can’t be missed.

From the river, the trail climbs about 800 ft to just over 13,100ft at the ridge. This stretch can be challenging to follow with livestock making routes everywhere and the ground being soggy, wet, and muddy (shocker). Still if you climb up, and slightly to your right, you’ll reach the ridge. Along the ridge is a fence and there is a gate where you can pass through. Enjoy the view of the mountains in the distance you’re about to lose sight of (Quindio and the surrounding mountains) and enjoy your first glimpse of Tolima, ahead of you.

Tolima, looming in the distance (17,200 ft)

Below, a few hundred feet, you’ll see Finca La Primavera. You now have a visual of what to target if the trail becomes challenging to follow (and it will likely be challenging to follow, like it was on the climb). Once you get to Primavera, the solitude and beauty of what was behind you turns into a mud slog (unless you are incredibly fortunate with the weather) that will test your patience, persistence, and tolerance. Still, know that on the other side of all of that mud is a lot of lovely trail that will finish this route on a high note. Knowing this may help you through the next few miles.

This stretch is also annoying for more reasons than just the mud. Mentally, you think that it is all downhill from here but over the next 2.5 miles you actually gain altitude. Between this and the mud and the trenching and just the fact that this is undeniably the shittiest stretch of trail I have ever had the displeasure to find myself on, you will not be moving quickly. I increasingly was concerned about making it back in time for a ride from the Jeeps (I made it and had a blast cruising the trail once I got past the mud).

The entirety of the shitty stretch is about 4 miles. I have no guidance other than it is good to use GPS, stay to the left if there is doubt, and look at it as an experience you can retell for the rest of your life (“that sounds like a shitty trail but let me tell you about the time I was in Colombia… “).

By the time you get to Estrella de Agua you will be getting back into the good stuff (back below treeline). From Estrella through to the next trail junction (the one you would have taken if you did the short Cocora loop), you will have some climbs but mostly you will be descending steeply along a, generally, frolicsome trail through the “Bosque de Niebla” (cloud forest). I thoroughly enjoyed this descent and, no doubt, it was made all the more blissful because of enduring the mud bath above. I was able to make good time. This may be the finest stretch of trail along this loop. This was good because I needed a speedy return if I was going to catch the Jeeps (if I missed the Jeeps, no doubt I could have gotten a ride back with someone).

You’ll pass a gate for the “Casa de los Colibries” (the hummingbird house). I did not go, and it was not open when I passed it on this loop (it was late by this point). Something to check out at another time. Maybe a quarter of a mile past this gate is another trail junction (this is where you would turn to climb to Finca Montana on the short loop). You will stay along the river, slowly descending back towards Cocora.

Shortly after the trail junction you will reach a short trail that descends to a waterfall. If you have time, go have a look and enjoy it. You will be leaving the forest right after this so it’ll be your last chance to bask in the splendor of this unique environment.

After the waterfall you will soon exit the forest. From here, it is simply a matter of following the trail (now more of a shitty muddy road with rail road ties sank into the mud) back to Cocora where the Jeeps will be waiting to return you to warmth, food, and a much earned shower.

Adventures past Finca Buenas Aires (pick your own adventure)

This was an attempt to go further out and get more into the Paramo, the Paramillo, and closer to Quindio Norte with its tropical snow-capped peaks (at least when I was there). My thought was that I would do an out and back, rather than the loop last described, and, by doing so, I would be able to get further out and more remote.

This plan was largely thwarted by the weather, but I will describe what path I traveled, what I encountered, and describe the experience to help you with your own planning.

Quindio Peak, round trip, is about 26 miles. Doable by some, but probably not me given the time constraints imposed by the Jeeps schedule and the slowness of moving along these trails (for me). The Peak tops out at 15,354 feet (so, only 2200 feet higher than on the long Cocora loop).

When I was out there it was snow-capped, as were the mountains surrounding it. It was spectacular, even from a distance, but I do not know how often this is the case. To my knowledge it does not host glaciers so it is possible there will be no snow when you are there (it would still be spectacular and the views of glacier covered Tolima would, presumably, be amazing).

I will not reiterate the beginning of this route, as it follows the same path to Finca Buenas Aires as described in the previous summary (long Cocora loop). Here, instead, I will start at the trail junction just past the Finca.

At the trail junction, just past Finca Buenas Aires, I went left, following the trail GPS map I got from AllTrails for going to Quindio Norte (I have put it on Gaia GPS). This will head steeply up the side of the mountain toward the ridge line. If I were to head out this way again, I would not take this left, but instead head toward the river. I will expand on this at the end, but thought I would point this out here.

Up on the paramo in the (seemingly) perpetual fog

The trail heading up to the ridge would be easy to follow if it were not for all of the intertwining trails. Some of these may be from hikers but I suspect most are more livestock trails. Use the GPS to keep you heading in the right direction. If you have a choice, stay to the up and to the right.

You are up in the Paramo now. If the clouds have rolled in, you will lose the spectacular views but gain a supernatural feeling environment unique to this part of the world. The cactus looking plants are everywhere and will look like aliens enveloped in the mist. This reality also makes navigating a bit more challenging, so continue to use the GPS to keep you on the right path (figuratively and literally).

The climb slogs on steeply and muddily through boggy terrain for a bit over a mile (a SLOW mile) before hitting the local high point. From here, you will move flatly, with a mild descent and the opportunity to actually do some running!

I didn’t make it far along this stretch. It quickly became obvious I was not going to get the views I was hoping for and without that reward, the risk associated with being out there (it was cold, windy, and threatening to rain, and when it rains here it RAINS!!! You don’t get 500 inches of rain through a drizzle) was no longer justified. I had about an hour to go before my turn-around time, and no doubt I could have gotten to the base of Quindio Norte (where it reconnects with the trail that went down to the river), but with the view only being whatever was within 50 feet of me, I called it.

I decided to take a “trail” that was on the map, descending steeply down the mountain-side, into the valley, instead of turning around. The benefit was, I knew where I was going: I was heading toward the river crossing from the long Cocora loop. I could see the valley and the river, and I knew the crossing was simply downstream. I had no desire to go back the way I came. However, simply “dropping into the valley” is easier said than done. The hillside is torn up by, you guessed it, livestock, and it is a fairly precipitous descent. It is a muddy, boggy, impossible to follow any trail descent. Despite this, I was able to navigate the way (slowly), to reach the river crossing, and start the mild climb back up to Buenas Aires for my return trek.

Creek crossing at the bottom of the valley

Returning to my earlier note, if I were to do this again, instead of taking the left to head steeply up the hill, I would turn right and head down to that river crossing. From there, it seems you can take a trail following the river upstream through the valley and, eventually, you will connect with the trail I had taken up high. The benefit of this valley route is that, after the short descent to the river crossing, there is a simple gradual ascent until you get to the base of Quidio Norte. Whereas, the way I went involves a very steep ascent on crappy terrain (though it was beautiful up there in the clouds. That should be noted) only to descend and stay generally flat until the trails came back together.

If you are fast enough, where these trails merge, you will find yourself at the bottom of Quidio Norte surrounded by the Paramillo at about 13,700 feet. From here, the trail heads straight up, climbing 1500ft to reach the west flank of the mountain. From there it is a rough climb up (I imagine) of a few hundred feet to the summit.

Thoughts on additional options (future adventuring)…

My recommended adjustment to the Quindio Norte peak (mentioned in the previous description) is thought number 1.

As for additional options, there is the medium Cocora loop option mentioned in the long-Cocora Loop option. I think that would be a great 15(ish) mile outing that would skirt the worst part, though you would lose some amazing views, if the weather is cooperating. I also think the stretch up to Finca Buenas Aires is worth covering.

If I wanted a 20-miler again, rather than doing the long-Cocora loop, I think I would head out to Buenas Aires, but instead of cutting across to Primavera, I think I would back-track to that medium Cocora loop connector trail and take that across the valley (though I do not know this trail so I can no vouch for it. But that’s part of the adventuring, no?)

If I were to head back to Salento, what I would love to do is bring my fast-packing gear. Doing so would relieve me of the burden of lining up the Fincas if I wanted to head further out (though I may try La Playa as they sound more friendly and could seemingly use the funds). I would spend three or four days out there, heading up Quindio Norte, around the backside to Laguna del Encanto (via Cuevas Laguna el Encanto). From there, attempt Tolima, and head down to La Playa (Aquilino). From there either head down the shit-show from Premavera or, if I am feeling frisky or militantly opposed to that shit-show, cross back over to Buenas Aires and head back from there.

This would be an amazing little adventure. Get started early, go until noon-2, set up tent, and occupy oneself with a journal and a well-stocked Kindle until bed time. Wash-rinse-repeat.

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