EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO EXPLORE THE HARD TO REACH LA CARBONERA WAX PALM FOREST. PLUS, HOW TO SEE ITS MOST FAMOUS RESIDENT, THE YELLOW-EARED PARROT.
While Cocora Valley might get all of the love when it comes to exploring wax palm forests in Colombia, if you are like us and are instead looking for a more off-the-beaten-path adventure, then maybe consider heading a bit further afield and instead explore the absolutely breathtaking La Carbonera - aka the largest wax palm forest in the world.
And if that fact wasn't enough to get you excited, how about these two additional pieces of information: firstly, the only way you can explore the wax palms is to take a 4x4 off-roading vehicle up to the forest and then either drive back down or mountain bike back to the town of Salento, Quindio (the closest town to the wax palm forest) and secondly, the La Carbonera wax palm forest is one of the last known habitats of the highly vulnerable yellow-eared parrot, which was believed to be extinct up until the late 1990s.
Is this starting to sound like an amazing adventure to you? Great! Below is everything you need to know about adventuring in La Carbonera, including even more information on the wax palm and the yellow-eared parrot, as well as more insight on actually mountain biking the famous Golden Road - the longest downhill mountain bike ride in Colombia.
EXPLORING LA CARBONERA
\\ What is La Carbonera
One of the most popular tourist attractions in all of Colombia is the famous Cocora Valley, home to the stunning, almost cartoon-like wax palm trees - the tallest palm tree in the world. Well, what if we told you you could explore the same type of trees in a place that was not only 20x bigger, but also completely devoid of tourists.
Sound too good to be true? We promise it isn't.
While La Carbonera is a lot harder to reach compared to Cocora Valley, the payoff is totally worth it. Not only is the palm forest completely empty of other people, but it is also home to one of the rarest birds in the world - the yellow-eared parrot.
We recommend spending at least an hour up in the wax palm forest just walking around looking for the rare parrot as well as other birds (like toucans). Though the landscape is pretty easy to get around, it is important to note that while there are clearly marked trails in Cocora Valley, due to La Carbonera's more remote, off the beaten path location, there are really no trails in the forest and instead you simply get to walk around various wax palm groves and out on open grassy fields.
💬 INSIDER TIP: make sure to wear some nice sturdy shoes, for the ground you will be walking around on when looking for birds can be a bit slick and unstable. Also, definitely bring enough water for a full day of adventuring because - though you won't exert much while biking (it is the longest downhill mountain bike ride in Colombia after all) - you are still exploring at 3,300+ meters or just over11,000 feet of elevation.
The Wax Palms
One of the most well-known icons of Colombia is definitely the famous wax palm - a palm native to the humid montane forests of the Andes. Wax palms can grow up to 60 meters or 200 feet tall (though on average they only reach 45 meters or 148 feet), which makes them the largest monocot in the world (a monocot is a grass and grass-like flowering plant).
Wax palms grow in large and dense populations along the central and eastern Andes of Colombia (and some in the Andes of northern Peru) at elevation ranges between 2,000 and 3,100 meters (6,600 and 10,200 feet) above sea level. Today, there are four major wax palm forests left in Colombia, with La Carbonera being the biggest one (some estimate that there are around 7 million palms wax palms in La Carbonera, which accounts for around 86% of the total population).
💬 INSIDER TIP: we were told it takes 57 years (though we also read it could be 80 years) for the plant to actually start looking like a palm. Before that, it is just a small green leaf that grows in the underbrush of the palm groves. We were also told that to know the age of a palm you measure the height in meters and then divide by two. So 57 years + height in meters / 2 = age.
The wax palms have faced a tough time in the past few decades. The biggest threats to the forests have been (and still are to some degree) deforestation and habitat loss, either due to the use of the land for farming and ranching (mainly cattle) or the use of the tree's wax for candles. Similarly, other reasons for the trees decline is from the use of the tree's fruit (which are bright orange in color) to feed pigs and the use of the young trees' palm leaves for Palm Sunday festivities. Luckily, since 1985 the wax palm has been put under protection in Colombia and there has been a focus on re-growing and preserving present wax palm forests in the country.
Similarly, the tree is so important to Colombia, that is has actually been designated as the national tree.
The Yellow-Eared Parrot
Definitely one of the biggest draws of exploring La Carbonera (besides maybe the mountain biking) is the chance to see one of the most endangered birds in its natural habitat. The yellow-eared parrot (loro/a in Spanish) is found only in the tropics of South America and almost always in wax palm forests (though today their habitat is almost exclusively in the Andes of Colombia).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the yellow-eared parrot was actually thought to be extinct up until 1999 when a group of researchers discovered a total of 81 individuals in the Colombian Andes. Today, the population has luckily started to increase and some estimates put their total number between 1,400 and 3,000.
But what does the yellow-eared have to do with the wax palm forest?
Well, in a great example of a symbiotic relationship, the parrots need the wax palms for shelter (they roost in the tops of dead palm trees) and food, while the palm trees need the parrots to distribute their seeds and therefore continue the growth of the wax palm forests. In basic terms, you need both to have a thriving yellow-eared parrot population and a healthy wax palm forest. Actually, because the parrot is really only found in La Carbonera, that wax palm forest is likely the only one of the four forests in Colombia that is still growing (because the other wax palm forests, including Cocora Valley, do not have any yellow-eared parrots).
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: the yellow-eared parrot population went into decline due to habitat loss (mostly due to the loss of the wax palm forests because of deforestation), but also because of the exotic pet wildlife trade and hunting. In fact, while the bird once lived in Ecuador, today there are no yellow-eared parrots left in the country because they were hunted out for food.
La Carbonera is one of the most well-preserved landscapes in the central part of Colombia. While it has faced threats in the past - mostly from people looking to raise their cattle on the land - today it is bouncing back. How? Well in a surprising turn of events, La Carbonera is now privately owned and the owners will not allow ranchers to clear any more areas for cows. That means that while it can still be tough for baby wax palms to grow (cows love to eat the leaves of baby palms) the groves that are still there are in fact growing (again thanks to the parrot spreading the seeds).
If you want to see a healthy wax palm forest, one that is treasured and protected for its basic beauty and natural worth, then we cannot recommend exploring La Carbonera enough.
\\ How to Get to La Carbonera
Like we mentioned before, La Carbonera is not the easiest to reach. In fact, the road up to it is hard to find on an online map (the road doesn’t even appear on Google Maps - though it does on maps.me). The basic directions go like this: head out of Salento on the road that starts near the foot of the stairs of the famous mirador. Once on that dirt road you will start heading up past a couple of hostels, a few private residences and even a few more miradors (viewpoints). The road twists and turns before finally reaching the top of the Andes mountain range that stretches across this part of Colombia.
From Salento, it is around 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) to the top of the ridgeline. But in those 20 kilometers you gain around 1,524 meters or 5,000 feet of elevation: while Salento sits at 1,895 meters or 6,217 feet, the top of the ridge sits at around 3,353 meters or 11,000 feet.
While the road up is relatively smooth to start, by around the halfway point it starts to get somewhat rocky and muddy - especially if it has recently rained. There are also a few points along the way that have fallen away due to landslides - though most of them are obviously marked with fences and tape.
If considering doing the drive up to La Carbonera yourself, we would definitely recommend having a 4x4 vehicle and going only if it is dry (so during the dry season which runs from mid-December to March or in the morning). While the road is still passable in the rain (or after rain) you do have to start worrying about possible landslides, which are quite common in Colombia.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: if you don’t have access to a 4x4 vehicle you can also bike up to the top. We recommend a mountain bike, especially if you are planning to then ride all the way back down to town (more on that ride below). Or, if you really are just looking for a full-day adventure, you could also hike up to the top. Along the way, there are at least two cafes that sell drinks and snacks.
\\ Mountain Biking in La Carbonera, Colombia
One of the best adventures in the Salento area is definitely mountain biking. Even if you are a novice biker you can very likely still handle most of the routes from town; including the ride down from La Carbonera. In fact, even though you do have to drive 20 kilometers up to reach the ridgeline (and then an extra 8 kilometers to reach La Carbonera) you never actually have to pedal once on your bike.
We headed out with Salento Cycling and we cannot recommend them enough. The two owners and operators, Eduardo and Jose, are both extremely nice, knowledgeable and fun. Plus, they know the area - especially La Carbonera - like the back of their hand. But even better, you can tell right away that they actually care a lot about the environment and protecting the wax palm forests and the yellow-eared parrot and not just about shuttling people up and down the mountain. Seriously, Salento Cycling and their La Carbonera mountain bike tour, is one of the best mountain biking tours in Colombia.
The La Carbonera Mountain Biking Tour (The Golden Road)
All of the mountain biking on the tour is done along a wide dirt road (actually the same one you drove up on). While the main bulk of the ride is the 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) back down to Salento, you actually first get to ride from the top of the mountain ridge down to La Carbonera. This part is around 8 kilometers (or around 5 miles) long and is a great precursor to the much longer ride to come. Plus, these 8 kilometers give you some stunning views of the wax palm forest, various small fincas and the tall mountains that surround the valley.
Once you finish the first ride, you will get to hop off the bikes and do a tour around the actual wax palm trees (this is when you are most likely to spot the yellow-eared parrot). After walking around for an hour or so it is time for lunch. And what a lunch spot it is: 360° views of the towering wax palms, fog covered mountains and the occasional large bird. It is truly a sight to behold.
After lunch, you will drive back up to the top of the ridge (the road you just biked down) and start the long 20 kilometer ride back to Salento. Along the way you will get to see a wide array of landscapes, from misty cloud forests to open meadows to dense pine forests to even a few waterfalls.
While the road is somewhat rough in places, Eduardo (your biking guide) is super knowledgeable and will give you lots of tips along the way, including the best way to get around the trickier rocky parts and how to take the sharp turns (there are very few straight sections during the whole 20 kilometers).
Funny enough, during our own adventure down the mountain we got stuck in a massive rainstorm. This storm not only dumped heavy, cold rain on us but also lit the sky up with lightning and blasted our ears with booming thunderclaps. It was equal parts exciting and scary (we found out later this type of storm is not super common, so don't let our experience scare you off this epic adventure). And even though we were all soaking wet by the time we got to the halfway point, we all loved every second of it.
Seriously, if you have any desire to go mountain biking in Colombia - especially in the Salento area - then we cannot recommend this tour with Salento Cycling enough. The whole day was an absolute blast - from the bumpy ride up to the palm forests to the actual walk around the wax palm groves searching for birds, to the long, exhilarating ride back to town. This exciting tour is such a great adventure to take part in in Salento.
\\ Extra Things to Know About La Carbonera and the Mountain Bike Ride
Always Go Early
Like most adventures in this part of Colombia, you should always try to set out early in order to beat the weather. We would say that 80% of the time - maybe higher if it is the rainy season - the afternoons will usually see some level of rain. This could be a short, light sprinkle or a gushing downpour.
Like we mentioned above, when we were riding our mountain bikes back down from La Carbonera we encountered a monster thunderstorm. Seriously, this storm was insanely strong. Booming thunder, crackling lightning, heavy, thick downpouring rain. The works. By the time we made it back to Salento, not only was the road completely flooded but we were all soaked to the bone and more than ready for a hot shower.
While this storm was definitely not the usual kind to hit Salento, the fact is that you will likely deal with some form of waterworks during your time exploring the Colombian Coffee Region. Just know that if you are willing to go early in the day your likelihood of getting caught in a rainstorm is slightly lower.
Bring Rain Gear
That brings us to our next helpful tip: always bring some form of rain gear with you if planning to head out on an adventure. Especially if that adventure is in the Salento area. Luckily, our mountain bike guide, Eduardo, had extra ponchos for us to wear once the rain really started to set in during our ride back down to town.
But oftentimes you won’t have someone there with extra rain gear for you to use, so we always recommend bringing at least a poncho (even those funny plastic ones work well) - though a full rain jacket works best. Similarly, if you plan to carry electronics with you (like a phone) make sure to have a waterproof bag handy.
While Cocora Valley is definitely an amazing place to explore, in our opinion La Carbonera takes that awesomeness up about 10 notches. Plus, there is just something so incredibly exciting about not only getting to see the largest wax palm forest in the world, but also being able to see it almost entirely by yourself.
Add on the fact that you also have the chance to spot the elusive yellow-eared parrot and then mountain bike a gorgeous road back to town (the longest downhill bike route in Colombia) and you have all the makings of one epic adventure. We know we will surely cherish our own adventure exploring La Carbonera - soaking wet clothes and all - for years to come.
📣 If you are looking to head out to La Carbonera and want to combine exploring the wax palm forest with an awesome mountain bike adventure, then we cannot recommend Salento Cycling enough. Eduardo and Jose are both extremely nice people who very obviously care about protecting the wax palm forest. Plus, they are super knowledgeable about the area - including knowing the best spots to find the elusive yellow-eared parrot.
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Find more photos of La Carbonera below.