Colombia’s wax palms are a national treasure.
They grow in Colombia’s Quindío, Valle de Cauca, Caldas, and Tolima departments and nowhere else in the world. They’re spectacular, and they’re highly threatened.
If you’ve never visited Colombia, chances are you’ve never heard of these fantastic trees (we hadn’t, before we moved here). Once we became more aware of the wax palms’ symbolic importance in our adopted country, we were excited to go and see them first-hand. We finally got our chance in December with a visit to Salento in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera.
Our trip was cut short when I broke my ankle (yikes). But before the weather went sideways and fractures happened, we had a lovely day hiking in La Carbonera, a spectacular and off-the-beaten-path forest of wax palms.
Here are a few more factoids about ceroxylon quindiuense, the Quindío wax palm:
- It’s the world’s tallest palm tree, growing up to 60 meters (200 feet) or more. That makes it the world’s second-tallest tree (after California’s sequoias). The tallest trees are at least 100 years old.
It’s the national tree of Colombia and, as such, is highly protected. It’s not only illegal to cut down a wax palm, but also to disturb a fallen tree once it dies and crashes into the forest.
- Wax palms thrive only in high-altitude, wet areas, and they can’t tolerate temperatures over 20 C (70 F). That’s why the high-Andes regions of Colombia offer such an ideal habitat.
- Prior to attaining protected status in 1985, Colombia’s wax palms were harvested for the waxy coating on their leaves and trunks to produce torches and candles. Their long, straight trunks were valued for power and telegraph poles and for building houses, fences, and stables. Many were also cut down to create grazing land for cattle.
- For all these reasons, the wax palm is still highly endangered today. Ironically, one threat is their growing popularity and opening up of areas that were once off-limits due to guerilla warfare. Here’s an article from the New York Times on the topic and efforts to save these iconic trees.
How to see Colombia’s wax palms
Salento, a postcard-pretty colonial town in Colombia’s Zona Cafetera (coffee-growing region), is one of the most popular and accessible places to see the wax palms. From Medellín, Salento is served by airports in the nearby cities of Pereira and Armenia.
Most tourists flock to the famous Cocora Valley, home to some 2,000 wax palms. It’s easy to book a trip to the Cocora Valley – just look for the rows and rows of brightly colored Willys jeeps waiting to ferry visitors there in the early morning. Since we didn’t go that route, here’s an article with plenty more about visiting the Cocora Valley.
Since there’s something in our DNA that says “get off the tourist trail,” we opted instead for a guided hike with Salento Trekking to the lesser-known La Carbonera valley. It’s billed as home of one of the densest forests of wax palms in Colombia, twice the size of the Cocora Valley. And after spending a day there, we see why. Set against a gorgeous Andean backdrop, the palms were something to behold. And we had it all to ourselves – we did not see any other hikers or tourists all day.
We started this adventure with a bouncy ride in an ancient Land Rover along an unpaved road, an old highway that connects Salento to the city of Ibagué. The 23-km drive took us through some beyond-breathtaking scenery including a brief glimpse at snow-capped Nevado del Tolima, an active volcano and one of Colombia’s highest peaks. After a bone-jarring couple of hours, we arrived at La Carbonera.
We spent a couple of hours hiking through La Carbonera and marveling at the lush, thick stands of wax palms. Our guide, Andres, was a great source of information about the trees and their importance to Colombia. After a coffee break at the Finca La Carbonera ranch headquarters, we headed back in the bumpy Land Rover for another hour before beginning the 16-km trek down into Salento (we were almost there when we were caught in the big storm that precipitated my fall). Altogether, we hiked about 18 km (12 miles), mostly downhill.
Because La Carbonera is so remote, we don’t recommend doing this trek without an experienced guide. We can’t recommend Salento Trekking highly enough, and we lucked out and had Andrés all to ourselves. He was not only a great companion for this day-long adventure but kept a cool head in rescue mode when I fell and broke my ankle. We also owe a huge debt of gratitude to Diego Garavito, the owner of Salento Trekking, who went above and beyond to get me off the mountain and to medical care.
Although most of the hike is downhill, it is quite strenuous and the trail is fairly rugged. Hiking poles are a must and, as we found out, the weather is very changeable – so take layers and rain gear. If you do get caught in a downpour, GO SLOW (take it from me!).
- From Medellin, we flew to Pereira (about a half-hour flight) and rented a car from our go-to rental agency in Colombia, Localiza. Once again, Localiza gave us great service and was very accommodating in giving us a credit for the unused days when we had to cut our trip in half.
- There are tons of outstanding lodging options in Salento in all price ranges. As we usually do, we went mid-range and stayed in Terrazas de Salento, a beautifully appointed inn on a hill overlooking the main town. Not only is the property absolutely gorgeous, but the staff was exceptionally kind and helpful as I learned to navigate the world with crutches. We can’t wait to go back and stay there again!
- After landing in Pereira on the morning of our first day and collecting our rental car, we made a pit stop in the charming colonial town of Filandia. Like Salento, Filandia is steeped in Colombia’s coffee culture and is a magnet for visitors; as such, the town has developed quite the gastronomic scene. There, we had the best meal of our short trip, lunch at Helena Adentro.
We’re already planning a return visit to the Zona Cafetera! There’s SO much to see!
Colombia must be about the prettiest place on earth, but who’s biased? I’m happy for you that you get to see so much of it!
Shhh, don’t tell anyone 🙂 But Forbes magazine ranked Colombia the third most beautiful country in the world last year. We really hope you two can come back someday and see more of this spectacular country!
Thank you for taking the time to visit Colombia, my American family when I was an exchange student, are coming to visit me in Medellin, they are coming from De Moins.
I live in El retiro Antioquia, let me know when you come back!
Another great article!
Thanks, Darrell 🙂
This part of Colombia really is spectacular!
Yet again everything in this post looks and sounds fantastic – well, apart from broken bones. I hadn’t heard of those trees either. Fabulous hiking country – it’s even more rewarding when you’re on a less used trail and see few other hikers. We’d love that trail.
We think you’d love this trail, too! Put this one on your “to-do” list for Colombia. 🙂
What a beautiful area! I can see why it would be such an inspiration for Encanto (which is our latest favorite movie and so we’ve watched it at least 100 times since it first came out). More and more Colombia is climbing my list of places I would love to see 🙂
We love Encanto also! We especially love all the little Colombian in-jokes and cultural references (like the wax palms). Hope you get to experience Colombia someday!
Wow! Not only did I learn something today I got to view your stunning photos. I’m so sorry you broke your ankle, and I hope you are mending well. I love how even after the fall you continued your trip. The parts of Columbia you have described and shown are just stunning!
Thanks, Mike and Kellye! Ankle is almost well – getting my cast off in two days. We continue to be blown away by Colombia’s beauty and diversity. It’s a really spectacular country!
A wonderful post and great information about the national tree of Colombia. I didn’t know that the wax palm is featured on the 100,000 peso bills! That’s right, I’ve never seen that bill before. The ATMs only disperse 50K bills, haha. I sure hope Mark and I will be able to walk in a wax palm forest while we are here.
I finally read our Lonely Planet section of Colombia and Salento already made it to my list! 🙂
Hmm, we get lots of 100K COP bills from the ATM. It could be that you need to be nearer to a big city to get them. Maybe as you get closer to Bogota . . .
I’m sure you’ll find plenty of opportunities to walk among the wax palms while you’re in Colombia. And you’ll love Salento 🙂
I wish we had known about this trail when we went. We went to Cocora which was still amazing. There were a lot of people at the base but we actually only saw a half a dozen people on the trail so it actually wasn’t bad. Most people just seemed to walk up the road to see the trees from there. Hope the recovery is still going well. 😊 Maggie
When we go back to Salento, we’ll definitely visit Cocora. We’ve read too many great things about it to give it a pass! We were going to hike there too on this trip, before it was cut short. Thanks for your well wishes – only two more days in the cast!
So much greenery, WOW! Wax palms are impressive, but it’s also the landscape which takes my breath away…small as it is, Colombia nevertheless is such a diverse country, especially in terms of its terrain, which here is lush and mountainous. Glad you had a fun time adventuring around (although going off the beaten path worried me a bit)!
Thanks, Rebecca! Colombia truly is a magnificent country, with so much diversity of terrain and wildlife. And as we said, going with an experienced guide is the best way to enjoy these types of hikes. We never felt unsafe – my fall was just a fluke!
I thought I’ve seen so many palm trees in my life, but I’ve only found out about the wax palm after reading this post. Now whenever I watch Encanto again, I will definitely notice those wax palms in the background. I can see why in your other post about the mishap, you mentioned about how the day started really well. Going to a place most tourists don’t go and being presented by such a beautiful landscape filled with unbelievably tall palm trees, that just sounds like a perfect day out! How is your ankle now, by the way? Has it fully recovered?
Thanks, Bama! One of the things we enjoyed about Encanto were all the local Colombian references, like the wax palms. And thanks for asking about my ankle – I’ve been in a cast for six weeks and it’s finally coming off in two days! I can’t wait to get my freedom back. 🙂
Oh wow, the wax palms are incredible. And the views, especially out over La Carbonera are so special. What an incredible area 🙂
Thanks, Hannah! They WERE incredible. I never thought I’d get so blown away by palm trees, but considering how rare they are and the environment they’re in, they’re really special. And the views were spectacular.
I’m in awe. What memories you two will have when you are my age. I so enjoy thinking about all the places I visited, but can only imagine how many more you will have. Enjoy, enjoy. Muriel
Thank you, Muriel! I’m sure you have many great memories of your own. We’d love to hear about them over a glass of wine (or two) someday! Hugs, Susan
Oh Susan, this sounds like a fabulous day! Well, not so much your broken ankle – I hope it’s well healed by now – but the rest of it sounds amazing and exactly the kind of thing we like to do. And those palms are something special.
I’ve been MIA for a while (2.5 months living a completely different life in Oz) but home and starting to catch up now.
Thanks so much, Alison! We’ve been following your adventures in Oz – so many beautiful photos! We’ll get down there someday. Welcome back home to beautiful Vancouver!
Thanks Susan. It’s good to be home ( though I could do without the snow! ❄️❄️❄️😳)