Also known as the River of Five Colors, Caño Cristales is the most spectacular natural wonder in the country. Found in the mountain range of Serranía de la Macarena, the river mesmerizes with amazing colors: vivacious yellow, green, blue, black and red shades quiver from the bottom.
Caño Cristales is often called “the river of five colours” or the “liquid rainbow”, and according to local legend, it escaped paradise to flow through the Earth. While the river’s kaleidoscopic colours may seem like the work of supernatural forces or Colombian magic realism, it’s actually the result of a unique biological phenomenon that generally takes place from June to November. According to Javier Francisco Parra, local coordinator of Colombia’s Cormacarena environmental authority in the La Macarena area, a rare, endemic plant called macarenia clavigera lines Caño Cristales’ rocky riverbed. Park guides explain that for much of the year, this moss-like growth appears in a muted dark-green hue. But when the rainy season returns and the water level rises and just the right amount of sunlight reaches the river’s floor, the plant erupts in a vibrant spectrum of purples, fuchsias, pinks, yellows and greens that blanket the riverbed. Caño Cristales flows about 60 miles until opening up into the waters of Guyabero. This river is a natural phenomenon, a paradise of rich flora and fauna making it a Colombian monument. This area was once isolated and inaccessible to tourism due Farc guerrillas, but today it is a thriving area for anyone to visit thanks to the pact signed by Juan Manuel Santos, ending the guerrilla movement. Visitors come from all around to admire this splendid natural wonder.
One of the wonders of this fragile and finicky ecosystem is that with each new season the river appears different than it did the year before. Like autumn leaves on a tree, the macarenia clavigera’s growth and colour is determined by the year’s rainfall, temperature and sunlight. So, while one year a stretch of the river may be carpeted in crimson, the next it could appear bright green or yellow.
When to go
The river becomes colorful from July through November. It is only during these months of the year that river turns shades of red, blue, yellow, orange, and green. During this time, the temperature and water level is just right for the macarenia clavigera – the plant that determines the color of the river. In fact, the macarenia clavijera plant thrives during the rainy season and dies in the dry season. Therefore, for the most optimal viewing of Caño Cristales, visit during the rainy season from June to November!
How to go
That is quite a challenging task. First get to Villavicencio from Bogota by plane or bus. From Villavicencio catch a plane to La Macarena. From here you can hire a guide, that would lead you to the river. Most visitors start from Villavicencio, a 430,000-person city at the crossroads of the Andes mountains and Llanos plains that’s known for its rugged cowboy culture. Despite only being 210km away from Caño Cristales as the crow flies, it’s a bumpy 26-hour drive through waterlogged roads, so most travellers hop aboard a single-engine propeller plane and fly an hour over an endless sea of green on daily flights.
Can you swim
The answer is yes! The river has little to no fish or other water creatures, so travelers can float or swim in the natural swimming pools and waterfalls, practically undisturbed. However, take long sleeves, a pant, and a hat. It’s forbidden to apply sunscreen on your skin if you enter the park – to protect the aquatic plants. So you’ll want to make sure you have some articles that can protect your skin from the sunshine! Also, note that the Centro Ambiente (Environment Center) is closed on Tuesdays.