It’s been called the River of Seven Colors, the Most Beautiful River in the World, and the River that Ran Away from Paradise, but superlatives don’t even begin to do Caño Cristales justice. Located in the Serrania de la Macarena in the Meta region of Colombia, about 170 miles south of Bogota, Caño Cristales is a natural wonder that has yet to be seen by too many eyes. Due to the Meta region’s history of guerilla violence, it has developed an unsavory reputation and has been isolated for many years. However, now under the control of the Colombian army, the region is much more secure and is a growing destination for ecotourism.
Before I left for my trip in August, my Colombian friends and students responded with gasps and questions about security and transport. One costeño who had been to area himself just a few weeks prior said, “Don’t go there. It’s so scary. Guards are everywhere.”
But as with so many experiences in life, the fearful miss out. Not only did I not feel like I was in danger for even one moment during my four-day trip to the vibrant river, but the locals I met there were among the most genuinely friendly and open-minded people I encountered throughout my year in Colombia. There were no stares, intrusive questions, or insincere invitations: simply people enjoying their precious secret and happy that their region has become stable enough for outsiders to enjoy it as well.
The river itself is undeniable in it is awesome rock formations, colorful plants, and diverse wildlife. Strange nests adorn the trees, housing ants and bees. Seemingly electric salamanders dart between fern bushes. And of course, Colombian tourists swim beneath incredible waterfalls.
From the town of La Macarena, you arrive at the river via a turtle and exotic-bird filled longboat ride, followed by a quick jaunt on a jeep through the jungle, and finally a 45-minute walk through untouched fields. The river is accessible only with a guide, who will likely be a friendly, athletic man with plenty of knowledge about the flora and fauna and the history of the region. You might have a lunch of roast chicken, salad, fried plaintain, and rice wrapped in banana leaves.
The town of La Macarena is still very much developing. Electricity in most of the town is only turned on for a few hours during the evening and the showers don’t even have the electric heads that are so ubiquitous throughout Bogota. Besides hiking and swimming in the river there is not much do to except for playing billiards and sharing a bottle of aguardiente with the locals. There are a handful of bakeries and restaurants in town, all serving typical Colombian food in a typical Colombian style. The weather is hot and crisp year-round, lending itself perfectly to hikes punctuated with dips in swimming holes and bathing under a natural waterfall.
Perhaps best of all, the region will soon be open to English teachers. Beginning in early 2013 the town will begin a program to teach the park guides English. This is an essential development, as non-Spanish speaking tourists have begun discovering the region and the guides have no way of conveying important safety information, much less the valuable details about the area.
One exchange in Spanish I had with my guide, Juan, went something like this:
Juan: Miss, please don’t stand there. You might get stung by a bee.
Me: Oh, yes. It’s very beautiful.
Juan: No, please move. There are many bees here.
Me: I am so happy that I came here.
Juan: BEES!!!! THERE ARE BEES!!!!
The details of the English teaching project are yet to be nailed down, but if you are interested you can send me an email and I will be happy to get you in touch with the organizers.
When to go: The river’s colors are at their peak from approximately July through November every year.
How to get there: The only really feasible way into La Macarena is to take a cargo flight from a small airport in Villavicencio. The easiest and most financially efficient method is to book at trip through a travel agent. I went with Caminantes del Retorno and paid 1,250,000 COP which included all transportation from Bogota and back, three nights’ accommodation in a basic but comfortable hotel, and all guide and park entrance fees. Food was an additional 60,000 COP for the weekend. I was put in a group of six along with an Indian family and a Colombian couple and we were accompanied throughout the weekend by Laura Luse, an English-speaking Latvian employee of Caminantes.
It is possible to book the tour on your own, but the people I spoke to who had chosen to do that spent over 1,500,000 COP and had to deal with all the hassles of arranging travel. The tour group is the way to go.