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How to Explore La Carbonera, the Largest Wax Palm Forest in the World

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Grove of wax palms in front of a large palm forest



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.




\\ 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.

Grove of tall wax palm trees in Colombia



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