Colombia’s endangered Quindío wax palms provide the backdrop for an enchanting visit to the real-life setting of Disney’s animated film Encanto.
Let’s talk about Colombia’s Cocora Valley.
The bona fide setting of Disney’s Encanto beguiles those who wander among its sky-high and century’s old palm trees, but it will take more than a miracle to save these guardians of the Cocora Valley.
In the last few months, it feels like the world has spent a lot of time talking (and singing) about not talking about Bruno, one of the characters in Encanto, Disney’s Oscar-winning film about the magical Madrigal family. As much as I appreciate Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tune, I can’t stop thinking about the enchanting place the Madrigal family calls home—a secret hamlet protected from the outside world by soaring mountains topped with tall, skinny palm trees. The setting is not just something the animation team dreamed up from their imaginations; the movie is undeniably set in Colombia’s majestic Cocora Valley, home to the world’s tallest wax palm, the national tree of Colombia. But unlike the Madrigal’s domain, the Cocora Valley is anything but a hidden gem.
Part of the Eje Cafetero, or Coffee Triangle, travelers are drawn to the region, not just for the famous trees, but also for trekking in Los Nevados National Natural Park, adventure sports, horseback riding and agri-tourism. Within this relatively compact territory, there are numerous stand-out places to visit, from coffee farms to hot spring resorts. The most popular base for exploring the Cocora Valley though, is the colonial town of Salento, where the white-wash buildings are punctuated with colorful window frames, doors, and balconies.
From Salento, the valley of the palms is still a 20-minute drive away. To get there, we head to the Plaza de Bolívar to catch a ride in a Willy, the predominant form of regional public transportation. When WWII came to a close, the U.S. military had a surplus of Willys Jeeps that found their way to Colombia. They were quickly adopted by coffee farmers to transport workers, equipment, and heavy loads of Arabica beans for market over mountainous terrain. These days, mechanic mules, both old and new, ferry up to 14 passengers to and fro as shared taxis. The most fearless riders climb onto the back bumper for the best open-air views and unobstructed breezes. My husband, Chris, and I remain safely inside the vehicle with our young daughter, Kinley, sandwiched between us.
The narrow paved road to the Cocora Valley winds through an area dominated by cattle and dairy farms. While the driver dodges horse-driven carts laden with galvanized-metal milk cans, our eyes are transfixed by the incredible number of palms spread punctuating the pasture land and the surrounding emerald-green hillsides. Their long, skinny trunks look like giant Fourth of July sparklers topped with blazes of palm fronds.
The Willy driver drops us off in a public lot near a cluster of horse stables, restaurants, campgrounds and souvenir shops. We part ways with our fellow passengers, some of whom are heading for the five- to six-hour counterclockwise trek in the national park that ends in a cloud forest with sweeping views of mist-shrouded wax palms. In another lifetime, my husband and I would have followed that path, too, but we know instinctively what our daughter wants to do before she says it: “I want to ride a horse!”
Our guide leads our horses along a dirt road that heads downhill before turning right through a gate and climbing up a steep embankment covered in palm trees. Along the way, we pass plenty of people, who are huffing and puffing as they hike up the mountain on foot. Once we reach the top, our guide encourages us to hop off our horses and wander among the stately palms to take in the unforgettable aerial from the lookout before heading back to the stables.
There is no question the Cocora Valley has an enchanting quality, but peering out from atop the mountain, we can’t help but notice many fallen palm trees scattered on the hillsides. According to a report in El Espectador, more than half of the palms will die by 2029 as they reach the end of their life cycle. Even though the trees are protected by law, deforestation of other endemic vegetation to make way for cattle grazing remains one of the major threats to the future of the Quindío wax palms. When their seeds drop to the ground, they get eaten by grazing cows, which means no new wax palms can take hold to replace the current crop of aging specimens, which have survived nearly two centuries and grown as high as 130 feet.
Preserving wax palms for future generations has become an urgent priority for the people that make a living from tourism in the Cocora Valley, so, on a subsequent visit to the Cocora Valley, I participate in a tree-planting ritual at Donde Juan B., a restaurant with rustic accommodations. After dining on local rainbow trout served with deep-fried plantains the size of a human head, we head outside to meet the gardener, Jacin. He’s carrying a foot-high tree sapling with three green fronds emerging from a short stem. We are surprised to find out that this diminutive plant, which bears no resemblance to its sky-scraping ancestors, is already three years old. Jacin strips away the protective casing around the sapling and asks us to put our hands on the bare dirt and raise it above our heads.
“We lift up this palmita as an offering to you, Pachamama,” he begins, closing his eyes to offer a brief prayer. “We bestow upon you the gift of a long, fruitful life that extends way beyond our own. Give it strength to grow.”
Together, we drop to our knees to place the sapling in a small hole, packing the loose dirt around the delicate stem. He motions for us to turn our hands upward toward the sun, to draw energy from the source and direct it to the tiny tree. After dousing it with water, the ritual comes to a close.
“You came as guests,” Jacin says. “But you’ll leave as ambassadors for the region and the planet.”
I can only hope that my small contribution toward repopulating the wax palms will ensure future travelers will fall under the Cocora Valley’s spell for many generations to come. It may take more than a miracle to save the guardians of Colombia’s coffee-growing region, but it’s worth the effort to preserve the magic of this real-life encanto.
Where to stay near the Cocora Valley: Town vs Country
Town: Hotel Salento Real
Not unlike Encanto’s charming casita, the Hotel Salento Real is designed like a typical colonial-style hacienda with its hotel rooms wrapped around a central courtyard filled with plants and local art. Here, you’re close enough to the heart of Salento’s commercial center, but just far enough away for some peace and quiet. The in-house restaurant’s menu fuses the flavors of national and local dishes, including pan-fried trout. The rooftop bar has sweeping views overlooking the town. hotelsalentoreal.com
Country: Pino Hermoso EcoHotel
A few years ago, dairy farmer Julian Noreño decided to open up his hacienda to overnight guests. Located midway between Salento and the Cocora Valley, the Pino Hermoso EcoHotel is now an agri-tourism destination in a relaxed pastoral setting with comfortable but rustic accommodations. There are four rooms in the main house and three new cabins a short walk away. In addition to a hearty farmhouse breakfast each morning, the welcoming staff can arrange a range of memorable activities, like cow milking in the pasture and horseback riding, on the farm and surrounding valley. It helps to have a car in this rural setting, but transportation is only a phone call away. pinohermoso.com