Cycling above the Clouds

Riding the Andes by Bicycle

The tallest palm trees you ever did see

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Next stop out of Salento was to visit the stunning Valle de Cocora which stretches away from the town and runs right up into the mountains.

Time for another ride, this time on the back of a Willys Jeep from the main plaza in Salento, to get to the start of the hike. I rather enjoyed myself, although I do still get strangely nervous travelling in vehicles now as I’ve got so accustomed to the slower pace of a bicycle.

The Valle de Cocora is famous for the dizzyingly tall palmas de cera (wax palm trees) – Colombia’s national tree and the largest of the world’s palm trees, growing up to 60m tall.

Starting off the trail through stunning grassland with peaks towering to either side, framing the length of the valley

Already, the palm trees were visible, looking striking along the ridge lines. I also loved the purple flowers in the trees lower down.

The hike took us winding up along the side of the river, with some precarious wooden bridges to cross. I got chatting to Sandra, from Germany, and we decided to do the hike together. It was a pleasure to have some company for once and by the end we’d completely set the world to rights.

We followed the pretty river as the trail took us up from the grasslands and into the cloud forest.

Then over some very rotten, dodgy looking wood and rope bridges…

At the top, there’s a small hacienda that is home to many varieties of humming bird. They have little feeders containing syrup water hanging in the trees to attract the birds. Their wings are so fast it was just impossible to take a picture of them in flight – this was the best I could do!

And I got a little visit from a colourful moth too

The air was pretty fresh up at the finca and they were serving hot chocolate included in the small entrance fee, but looking at it, there was a good layer of oil floating on the top and the cheese that hot chocolate gets served with here really didn’t seem appetising to me at all. We decided to give it a miss and instead set off again, to climb up out of the far side of the valley and to enjoy more towering palm tree views on the way down.

View out across the top of the valley from another finca, after we’d made the steep climb up the opposite side.

The wax palm trees from closer quarters – they’re so skinny it’s hard to understand how they manage to stay upright!

These things really are huge!

After heading back down the valley and flagging down another Willys ride back to town, I had one final night to enjoy my rest time in Salento. I had a tiny little room up on the hill overlooking the town, but the old house that had been renovated into this hotel really is stunning, with a traditional internal courtyard – perfect for blog writing in! I can definitely understand why so many people say the Zona Cafetera is their favourite part of Colombia.

My first visit to a Mariposario (butterfly farm)

The next morning, I reluctantly left my peaceful temporary sanctuary and the cosy coffee shop luxury of Salento to get back on the road. I wasn’t going far, as I planned to head just 30km to the Jardín Botánico del Quindío in Calarcá, just to the east of the major coffee city of Armenia. First though I had to get down and back up that blasted hill. I kept an eye out for sloths again but sadly didn’t see any.

The botanical gardens are really quite something, and I got an excellent 3 hour English (!) tour with one of their volunteer biologists. The highlight was undoubtedly a visit to their butterfly farm, housing up to 2000 butterflies at any one time. They whiz around thick in the air, sparks of colour glimmering in the sunlight. It’s magical.

With real patience, and a little juice from a fresh orange, the butterflies can be encouraged to land on your hand so you can get a really good close-up look. Apparently people who are covered in sweat are also very attractive to butterflies. I thought that seeing I’d gone straight there and was still in my riding clothes I might get covered in them, but sadly not – apparently I was cleaner and smelt better than I thought!

Chicks in a hummingbird nest

Blue birds – no idea what they’re called unfortunately but they looked pretty striking

The botanical gardens cover 15 hectares and are full of all sorts of plants and flowers as well as the butterfly farm. These trees are known as ‘walking palms’ because they grow new roots and so gradually move over time, as they hunt for water.

The swinging suspension bridge out across to a bird viewing hide. More opportunities to look out for sloths again too. This trip seems to be giving me plenty of opportunities to keep my vertigo in check…

The impressive 680 sqm mariposario, in the shape of a butterfly

The pretty butterflies within. An interesting fact: apparently one of the main differences between butterflies and moths is that moths can’t close their wings, but butterflies can.

This is the Blue Morpho Butterfly, one of the largest butterflies in the world, with a total wing span of up to 5″ – 8″. The electric blue colour is due to microscopic scales on the backs of its wings, which reflect the light.

The underside of the wings provides camouflage against birds and insects – this is definitely a case of not judging a book by its cover.

These butterflies are severely threatened as their habitat is disappearing due to deforestation and unfortunately they are popular amongst collectors. They only live 115 days and the butterfly farm is constantly working to continue the breeding cycles. If I remember correctly, they said that breeding on their own, only something like just 20% of butterfly eggs will survive long enough to become new butterflies. Whereas in the butterfly farm, this rate reaches as high as 90%.

With patience butterflies may land on your hand. (I’m definitely not that patient so this is a picture I took of someone else;).

Here are some videos from inside the mariposario – check out all the colours twinkling in the sunlight!

And last but by no means least….after all my talk about sloths, I still didn’t see one (they only come down from their trees once a week to poop on the forest floor, so you really do have to be there are the right ‘moment’) but our Biologist guide shared this amazing video with me of one he’d spotted just a couple of weeks earlier. I was so jealous!!

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