Pan de Azucar

I’m not sure if I’ve always enjoyed the outdoors. I get eaten alive by mosquitos every time, I get sunburnt, and I’m terrified of everything that flies at me. I love camping, but more than a couple days and I’m done. Of course, I’m not sure where my intense desire to do Machu Picchu and the Ciudad Perdida 5-day hikes come in then. Perhaps it all started when my mom and step-dad took us on a camping trip to Canada when I was a kid. Looking at these pictures, though, maybe not…

Sometimes though, after inhaling pollution on the streets every day, you get a hankering for a visit with nature. Luckily, some other teachers knew of a place just outside the city where you could get some fresh air. There is a little neighborhood area called Pan de Azucar (yes, that means “Sugar Bread”) that you can walk to from Parque San Pío, which is in Bucaramanga.

Saturday morning, 4 of us took off. It was only about an hour up, although with constant picture-taking, it took us a bit longer. Instead of telling you all about it, I’ll just show you. My highlight was picking the cacao pods off the cacoa trees. I had no idea they grew like that…you have to pick the deep red ones, break them open against something hard, and then you pick out these little white nubs that you suck on. Inside are purple beans, which is what they dry and ferment to turn into  cocoa. Unfortunately none of the ones we found were very juicy at this time, but now I’ll know what to look for next time!


It was really nice to get out of the city and into some peace and quiet for awhile! Afterward, we headed to a wonderful vegetarian restaurant with delicious, cheap food and a health foods store connected to it. I stocked up on some quinoa, coca tea, and a fiber mix. Glad that I’m starting to find things I’ve missed since being in the states. As I get to know this area more, the more it really feels like my home!

Valle de Cocora – Home of the Wax Palms

The last major activity on our fall break trip included a nearly day long trip to the Valle de Cocora, up into Acaime and past the finca La Montaña. When I first started researching this trip, the pictures I kept seeing were from this area. The valley is full of the wax palm tree, palma de cera, which is Colombia’s national tree and one of the only places left you can find them. They pop straight up into the sky and look almost comical, like the Truffula trees from Dr. Seuss. (I secretly wonder if this is where he got his inspiration for them…)


With having such a late night the evening before in town, we had a hard time getting up at 6am so we started our day a bit later than planned. We walked into town, got some food to take for our hiking trip along with the extra clothes and plastic sacks we had brought in case we got caught in a down pour again. We were lucky enough that a willy jeep was just leaving the main plaza and heading out to the valley. Unfortunately there was only one seat left, so I ended up joining those standing on the back of the jeep as we drove about 30 minutes away. It was terrifying initially because I could have easily accidentally fallen off and gotten really hurt, but then I began to enjoy it! Very liberating feeling.


Upon arrival to the valley, there are a few little shops and restaurants. You have to find the wooden sign that says “Alquila de botas”. Everyone we had talked to had recommended that we rent the tall rubber boots because the hike is so muddy. It only costs 4 mil and they let you leave your shoes there during the hike.

IMG_8289 We set off, happy and excited. About 20 minutes down the road, we realized the back of one of my boots had a hole in it. :/ We decided to keep going. Then we came to a river/waterfall you had to cross….decided I needed to go back and exchange my boots. So we walked all the way back and then returned to the river. After crossing the river and looking at the first signs we had seen, we realized we went the wrong way. By this point, an hour had passed so we were a bit annoyed. We backtracked  again and found a guy standing by a gate that was the entrance to the valley with the wax palms. You pay 3,000 pesos to enter, which is well worth it. It was gorgeous and we stopped for a while to take some fun pictures next to the giant palms.

We continued on the path, passing only an older couple going down. I had read that there was a cafe at one point along the trail, so I kept expecting to see it anytime. It got hot, so kept stopping to strip off layers. It was an incline the whole way too, and with the increase in altitude, you definitely noticed it was harder to breathe. About two hours later, without having seen anybody else, no signs, and no indication that we were on the right path, our patience was wearing thin. Finally we happened to run into some German girls we had met the night before, going the other way. They actually had a map, which we took a picture of (get one before you depart…we had asked someone and they said the paths were well-marked and we didn’t need one. Don’t believe that. Get a map.) They told us we were close to reaching the finca called La Montaña, but we had gone the opposite way as everybody else. Basically we were going up what everyone else would go down. Whatever, it worked out. I don’t know what they meant by soon, though, because it was at least another 45 minutes before we reached the finca, a cute house where a family lived.

At this point, the path got way muddier and harder and we passed a few more people going the opposite way as we entered into the actual forest. One Australian man we passed was BAREFOOT. I was in awe…he told me he just had strong feet. Haha. By now, I was wishing I had worn my hiking boots, even though they were still wet from the day before. The rubber boots had zero support and when you’re going down the path, your toes slammed into the front of the boot and made even my toenails hurt. We kept on keeping on, though, we were getting quite exhausted.

Finally we saw a sign to go up to Acaime, a nature reserve and hummingbird sanctuary that took you up to one of the highest points you could go and there is a little cafe there to have some cheese and hot chocolate. It’s off the main path, though, so you have to deviate from the trail, go up and then backtrack down. I wasn’t sure if we’d make it with our friendship and sanity intact, but we went for it anyway. It seemed like it was way further than the map indicated and just straight up. We saw some other hikers coming down and they told us only 2 minutes more….again, I don’t know if I just have a different concept of time or something, but it definitely took us another 15 minutes from that point to the top. I wanted to kiss the Acaime entrance sign. You pay 5,000 pesos, in order for them to keep the bridges updated and for the chocolate/cheese. It’s some amazing hot chocolate, and resting up there for about 45 minutes was so rejuvenating and exactly what we needed.

Right as we were about to leave, it started raining. Of course. Luckily, the forest mostly protected us from it. We continued down the path that everyone else had ascended. We asked another couple that was hiking how much further back to the beginning and they told us 3 hours. That about shot all our new enthusiasm to hell. Mind you, we had already been hiking for 5 hours at that point. And my feet were killing in those boots. But this part was into the cloud forest, where we were sinking into mud left and right, and crossing seven different bridges. Although some of them I hesitate to call bridges since they were literally just logs placed across the river and some just had a piece of wire to hold on to. Others were pretty nice, but again, just slats of wood with giant spaces between them. The first one I took real slow, but by the seventh, I was feeling more confident. It was actually really fun! And this whole time, we only passed a few other people mostly going the opposite direction.

With how many times we stopped and times we backtracked though, I was a bit concerned we wouldn’t make it out of the forest before dark. Neither of us had a flashlight or were prepared for that, and so I kept looking around us, recalling all my knowledge from survival tv shows of how to use bamboo, vines, and giant leaves to build shelters, how to gather water from the river, and so on.  Luckily it only took us about an hour more until we were out of the forest and from there, you follow a long muddy path through some pastures and beautiful landscape. A family that we had seen up at Acaime at the top even passed us on their horses. Unfortunately a ways up, one of the horses actually lost his footing in the uneven muddiness and fell…partially on top of the 9ish year old boy riding him. His parents did not seem too upset or concerned though, and he seemed to be okay besides the dent in his ankle. As I’ve mentioned before, Colombia is like the Wild West and you do things at your own risk…knowing that many safety precautions are not in place. All I could think about was how in the states, parents would have been all about suing the guides immediately for something happening like that.

Another hour or so on this path and we FINALLY reached the little “town” where we were dropped off 8 hours earlier. The hike should have only taken 6 hours, but like I said, we backtracked too many times from being lost, stopped to take pictures, and needed a serious rest at the top. Ultimately, it was challenging, but so rewarding. We experienced many different emotions throughout the 8 hours, but looking back, I can’t wait to return to Salento again and do the hike again, with my newfound knowledge of the paths, what I need to wear, and what to pack.

We took the jeep willy back to Salento and then got some trucha (river trout) with a patacón (giant flattened plantain…of course fried) in our muddy clothing and went back to the hostel. Both of us were in bed asleep by 9:30 pm and slept hard until 8 the next morning! I was so glad to have brought my ear plugs because I didn’t wake  up once when other people came into the dorm.

My suggestions and tips if you’re heading to the Valle de Cocora:
–Leave early and try to take one of the earliest jeeps leaving from the plaza. They also leave when one fills up, but you don’t always know when that will be. It costs 3,400 pesos per person out to the valley.
–Take plenty of food and water. (Get in town before you leave.) You’ll need the breaks and nourishment.
–Wear waterproof hiking boots that you know will get covered in mud. We stepped into mud that came up nearly as high as the top of my boots. The suction almost caused me to lose my boots a few times. If you don’t want your hiking boots ruined so much, rent the rubber boots, but carry your hiking boots and change into them after the muddiest parts. Your arches and toes will appreciate  it.
–If you rent the rubber boots, check them before you leave the rental place for any holes or cracks!
–Get a map so you actually have an idea of when and where you will reach different stopping points.
–Sunscreen! I was mostly covered, but my neck and arms where I’d pushed up my sleeves got really burnt.
–Raincoat plus poncho if you go in the rainy season. We were lucky it only rained a little near the end, but we talked to other people who were in a downpour for the entire six hours. (Or more)
–Camera obviously. It’s so beautiful.
–Definitely go up to the Acaime reserve. It’s extra time, but well worth it, and then you can continue on to the finca La Montaña from there. I believe you can even stay the night up there, but keep in mind, there is no electricity and very rustic conditions (of course, less rustic than sleeping on the ground….which I wouldn’t recommend unless you want to sink into mud throughout the night.)

Some people took horses up into parts of the mountain and valley. I’m sure it makes it much easier, but they can’t go everywhere you can on foot, and plus, I personally don’t know if I’d trust the horses on some of the terrain. I still have no idea how they crossed some of the bridges or if they took a different path. Regardless of what you do, enjoy the valley! It’s amazing!