When planning a visit to Colombia, I learned about the Cano Cristales River, a unique place in Colombia and all over the world. Caño Cristales is located in the Serrania de la Macarena province of Meta department. Flowing 80 kilometres through a narrow gorge that levels out on stone terraces, it is sometimes called the “Liquid Rainbow”. From July to November, the Cano Cristales River strikes with shades of red, blue, yellow, orange and green in a vibrant natural display, being a unique place on Earth where you can see that.
The vibrant colours are made by the picky endemic aquatic plant, Macarenia clavigera, on the bottom of the river. This plant requires precise conditions, including just the right water level and just the right amount of sunlight, to enchant the river. The plant is rather fragile, with thin, delicate leaves. It comes in various colours, depending on the amount of sunlight the plant is exposed to and the depth of water in which it is growing. In sunny areas, the plant can be pale pink, magenta, and various shades of red and deep purple colours. In shaded areas, it’s usually bright green and can also be blue, yellow, or orange coloured. Caño Cristales belongs to Sierra de la Macarena Natural National Park. The river has been known to indigenous locals for ages, but it was not discovered by modern society until 1969 when a group of Colombian farmers stumbled across the river in full bloom. Only recently reopened to tourism, the river long remained a mythical and forbidden mystery, mostly unknown to the public. After air travel to La Macarena became possible in 2009, traveling there became easier and more popular. Currently, about 16 000 travellers visit Cano Cristales every year.
Planning a visit to Cano Cristales
It’s not an easy task because of its remote location and strict government regulations. It’s also not cheap. I tried to find ways to do it in less than three days, which is the usual offer of the tour companies. Then I learned all about restrictions for the number of visitors and the need to obtain an official entry permit, plus the rule that doesn’t allow visiting the river on the day of arrival. Furthermore, you must be accompanied by the guide while visiting Cano Cristales. So I gave up and booked a three day tour from Bogota for 570 euros per person with Caminantes del Retorno tour company. The allowed number of visitors to Cano Cristales per day varies in different sources from 120 to 200 persons, some say 300, but the latter does not seem very likely, so I was lucky to get this tour. The first part of the trip is flying to La Macarena town by charter flight, which takes one hour from Bogota. La Macarena is the closest town to Cano Cristales and the land part of the tour starts there.
La Macarena is a small town developed also to cater to tourists. It has just about 7000 inhabitants. You will usually see a much bigger number being cited, about 33 000, but this is actually the total population of the province. The airport of La Macarena is quite small, only for small planes, and the waiting hall is smaller than many small bus stations. La Macarena is located next to the tea-coloured Guayabero River. The Inderena port of the river is used to get to the entrance of the park. The river, known also by the name of Guaviare, is about 1500 kilometres long and is part of the Orinoco River basin. There are many shops, some restaurants, and hotels in the town; there is also the park information and management centre. The local Catholic Church is interesting, with paintings depicting mother Maria, Jesus and other Biblical personalities as local inhabitants. In the town, you can find a statue of the indigenous girl from a legend about Cano Cristales. It says that she was punished by her father to have 6 months long permanent menstruations and she had to live at the Cano Cristales River. That’s why it became red.Be prepared for having just cold water available in your hotel room. There are a number of dogs wandering around the streets. Our guide said that they are not stray dogs but during the tourist season they “work” in town, getting food from tourists.
Our Cano Cristales trip day by day
The first bit of info we received about our trip was that we had to be at the airport at 5 am in the morning. The day before, the time was changed to 10 am. After waiting for a long time with very limited information because the organisers only spoke Spanish, we were brought to lunch in the city and then back to the airport. Our charter flight departed around 2 p.m. and of course, I was not happy at all about it. Later, re-reading the tour company information, I saw that they stated several times that they were not responsible for flight delays and delays were very likely. So we experienced it in its fullest. After the not so warm Bogota, in La Macarena we were surrounded by heat from the first minute. Our tour guide was waiting at the airport and brought us right away to the Cormacarena office for compulsory induction to be allowed to visit Cano Cristales at all. After the procedure in Spanish, we successfully got our wristbands as a visible sign of our permit. Then we quickly checked in at our Hotel Fuente to rush to the boat tour to Cano Cristalites, a tiny version of Cano Cristales. We boarded a boat at Inderena port and started our trip up Guayabero River. It was nice and we spotted some animals on the way before turning into a smaller branch of the river and disembarking for a walk around Cano Cristalites. It was the first time we saw the famous aquatic plant, Macarenia clavigera, which makes the red colour of the water. The area of Caño Cristalites is very peaceful and has a natural pool of warm water where you can rejuvenate yourself during your trip. We arrived late because of our delayed flight, so we had no time for that, but you will hopefully be luckier so bring your swimming suit. We also learned about the rich oil resources of the area, which make the future of this natural beauty questionable. I was happy to learn that in 2016, the Colombian government revoked the lease of land to a Texas oil company to protect Caño Cristales and the surrounding area, so for the time being, it’s safe. On our way back we were rewarded with an awesome sunset.
We started our morning with a pleasant 20-minute boat trip up the river Guayabero from La Macarena. We were lucky to see different birds and animals during our trip, and I was only unhappy about not having a zoom lens for taking good pictures of them. After disembarking, we went to the entrance point of Cano Cristales special area where our luggage was checked and only reusable water bottles were allowed after this point. So be warned. Then we had a 4X4 jeep ride for some six kilometres to the next entry point where our hike started. The road was really bumpy, with paddles in many places.First, we walked in the direction of the river, turning right a short while before reaching it to explore the part of Caño Cristales surrounded by dense vegetation. The Macarenia clavigera there takes on yellow and green hues. We had our first swimming opportunity there, which I used with pleasure. Then we headed back to lunch at a local farmer’s property. We had our packed lunch with us, and it was really good. There was an opportunity to buy water and beer there. After lunch, we learned that we had to take all our waste with us out of the park to save the environment, so we were happy to follow this rule.
Then we were ready to admire the multicoloured stream of Cano Cristales as it gushed through pools and waterfalls. It was stunningly beautiful. We had one more opportunity to swim in a natural pool, which I was happy to use again, followed by the last walk along the river before we turned back to the entrance to catch a jeep and then a boat back to La Macarena. The total length of the hike was about 8 kilometres. We were lucky to see a caiman on our way back at the shore of Guayabero River.
The weather had changed dramatically, there was no sun and a light drizzle. We felt happy to have gotten some sunshine while visiting Cano Cristales the day before. This last day of our trip, we had a jeep ride to the hill that offered sweeping views of the Río Guayabero and the surrounding countryside. We had the opportunity to see a lot of birds on our way. We were lucky to have our visit in November when the endemic Vellozia plant blossoms. The locals even have a special festival this time of the year, dedicated to Vellozia flowers. With their horizontal roots, they absorb minerals from the rock. You can find up to 5 white flowers on one plant. The plants are strong enough to survive quite frequent bushfires and revive quickly after. On our way back, we had a stop at the local farm to admire their parrots and peacocks. We also had a short walk to the local river to see the red coloured Macarenia clavigera for the last time. There were opportunities to swim in a natural pool there too but the weather was not pleasant enough to do so this time. After getting back to La Macarena, we had some time in our hotel before our flight back to Bogota. If I remember it right, the flight departure time was around 3 pm and it was on time.
Our hotel in La Macarena
We stayed for two nights at Hotel Fuente. It is a new property with pleasant rooms surrounding the swimming pool. We even had Wi-Fi, not so great but much better than nothing. We were not promised Wi-Fi at all before our trip. The hotel only had cold running water. It did not serve breakfast, for us in any case. We had it at another place. In general, our stay there was quite pleasant.
Practical information on visiting Cano Cristales
Usually, Cano Cristales is open for visitors from July to November. It’s the time when the colours of the river are visible. Still, each year the opening time can vary because of nature and weather conditions.
The number of English speaking guides is very limited so ask your tour company about their availability in advance.
The colours of Cano Cristales are a natural phenomenon and therefore there is no 100% guarantee of seeing them if the weather conditions and especially the water level in the river are not as required for the Macarenia clavigera plant.
A yellow fever vaccine is required. You may be asked for proof that you have this vaccine before you board your plane.
Bring a reusable water bottle as usual plastic water bottles are not allowed in the park. Your luggage will be checked at the entrance and plastic bottles will be confiscated.
Visitors are allowed to swim in designated natural pools, but sun cream lotion or bug repellent is not allowed for anyone, not just swimmers.
Bring a wide-brimmed sun hat and wear light, long-sleeved shirts and pants to protect your skin.
Have shoes with good traction to walk on slippery rocks and make sure that you don’t mind getting wet.
Usually, the taxes and the entrance fee are not included in the tour price, so bring cash to pay the following: municipality tourist tax, COP 42.000 for foreigners; entrance permit to Caño Cristales, COP 99.000 for foreigners; contingency tax, COP 12.000 per person; airport tax in La Macarena, COP 6.000.
It was a special trip and I felt quite privileged to visit Cano Cristales. I can recommend our tour company, Caminantes Del Retorno, and its guide, who did an excellent job. We were two people traveling together, and we had a guide for just for the two of us. We were given lots of detailed information about the places we visited, animals, birds, and plants. We had separate rooms at the hotel, not a shared one. The meals in the local restaurants were included, and the food was really good quality and tasty.
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What did you think? Have you been to Cano Cristales? Or perhaps you’re thinking of visiting in the near future? Either way, I’d love to hear from you so please add your comments below.
Author: Anita Sāne
About the author
Anita is a part-time traveller, passionate photographer and a retired career woman from Latvia, travelling mostly solo for more than 15 years. She is a skilled travel planner who plans and executes her travels by herself. Anita wants to show you how to travel the world and open your mind to new experiences. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest, Twitter and Bloglovin.