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!