Deep in the Sierra de la Macarena mountain range in the wilderness of Meta, Colombia lies a hidden place where magic still exists. Rare and bountiful wildlife populate an incredibly diverse ecosystem that, for a few months out of the year, gives rise to one of the most fascinating natural wonders on Earth – the Caño Cristales liquid rainbow.
According to native legends, the Caño Cristales river escaped from paradise to wander among the mountains and prairies that make up this incredible region of South America. It has been called the rainbow river, the river of five colors, and a natural wonder of the world. Keep reading to discover the magic of this remote and unique destination in Colombia.
What Makes the Caño Cristales River so Unique?
From December through May, this river is mostly ordinary, albeit composed of interesting rock formations and deep hidden pools. In June, it transforms into a shocking riot of vibrant colors – red, green, blue, yellow, and black. This incredible metamorphosis remains through late November and, although it may seem like magic, it actually takes place because of a combination of algae, mineral deposits, and the presence of the endemic plant species Macarenia clavígera.
This flowering water plant is incredibly rare, growing only in a few tropical climates of the world. Caño Cristales is the only place where it blooms so prolifically and spectacularly.
Only recently reopened to public tourism, the river long remained a mythical and forbidden mystery, mostly unknown to the public before it became prohibited to go there in the 1980s. Now it is slowly becoming known as one of the natural wonders of the world as more and more visitors reveal stunning photos of the river of five colors.
What to See in the Serranía de la Macarena National Park of Colombia
Known as the Serranía de la Macarena, this mountain range and Colombian national park is so remote that you’ll need at least four or five days to travel there and fully enjoy its marvels. This area is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Made up of a strange amalgamation of large-scale grasslands, mountains, jungles, and waterways, an incredibly diverse multitude of animals and plants make their home here. The Serrania de la Macarena is home to jaguars, cougars, anteaters, eight different kinds of monkey, 550 species of birds, 1,200 species of insects, 100 species of reptiles, 50 different species of orchid flower, as well as an amazing array of plantlife.
When you’re not staring drop-jawed at the incredible Cano Cristales river, you can enjoy one of many different tours that are offered to explore this region and its range of flora and fauna.
What is the History of the Caño Cristales and Serranía de la Macarena?
Many have asked us “Who discovered Caño Cristales?” Technically, 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 cattle farmers stumbled across the river in full bloom.
At the time, no airports were located anywhere near the region, making the journey a long and hazardous trek through the wilderness that only the most adventurous travelers would dare to take. The miraculous rainbow river remained a little-known gem hidden deep in the Colombian wilderness until guerilla groups commandeered the tiny village of Macarena, transforming it into a dangerous headquarters for militant activity and cocaine production.
Throughout the following years, the Colombian national army sought out the guerilla hideout and the battles that followed turned the entire area into a virtual war zone. Tourist activity in the Serranía de la Macarena was totally prohibited in the late 1980s for safety reasons and remained so until 2002, but since air travel was not widely available in the region until 2009, it did not become a popular tourist destination until recent years.
Caño Cristales Safety
Unfortunately, the militant activity created a lot of damage to the delicate ecosystem and gave the region a dangerous reputation that still gives tourists caution. Be assured that the areas surrounding Caño Cristales and the national park are considered very safe due to the presence of constant military and police patrols. The officials are not just there to protect tourists, however; they are also present to protect the land.
The Colombian government is determined to protect the ecosystem and has implemented various regulations to monitor and control tourism. Keep reading for a few tips you’ll need to know before visiting Cano Cristales, the most beautiful river in the world.
How to Get to Caño Cristales
To access the river of five colors, you’ll have to fly. The fastest and most reliable route is to travel to Bogota and book one of their direct flights to the village of Macarena. It is recommended to spend two or three full days in this pueblito to fully enjoy all that the Serranía de la Macarena has to offer. There are several hotels in the immediate area of Macarena.
From there, you’ll need to book a guided tour to see the river. This leg of the journey involves riding in jeeps and canoes until you arrive at the most picturesque areas of the river. A tour guide is required by law in order to protect the fragile biodiversity of this national park in Colombia. If you book through an agency like Palenque Tours, the guide and tour will be included in the price of your trip. We will also take care some of the trickier details below.
Things You Need to Know Before Traveling to Caño Cristales Colombia
Due to the remoteness of the area and the host of regulations that surround Caño Cristales tourism, you’ll want to prepare beforehand:
- Get a yellow fever vaccination before you go. You will not be permitted to board the plane to Macarena without solid proof of a yellow fever vaccination.
- Book your tour guide and permit beforehand. Not only is a certified guide required by law, only 200 tourists are permitted to visit Caño Cristales per day, so you’ll need to arrange your tour accordingly. If you book through Palenque Tours, these details will be arranged for you.
- Don’t bother with the sunscreen or bug spray. Once again, great care is taken to protect the Macarenia clavígera plants that lend the river its miraculous color. The delicate ecosystem does not hold up well against foreign chemicals and contaminants, so no sunscreen or bug spray is allowed within the park. Since the journey involves walking and canoe rides in the direct sunlight, pack accordingly. Wide-brimmed hats, cool long-sleeve shirts, and water-resistant long pants are all highly recommended.
- Yes, you can go swimming in Caño Cristales. Although swimming is limited to designated areas, your guide will let you know when and where to swim.
- Pack a lot of drinking water. There will likely be no potable water available to purchase once you embark into the Serranía de la Macarena. Stay hydrated; it might get hot!
- Make sure you know when to go to Caño Cristales. The river only blooms between June and November. If you go during any other month, you’ll be sadly disappointed.
Other Attractions Near Cano Cristales
Although the river will be the main event, don’t forget to take advantage of the other amazing things to see in the Serrania de la Macarena:
- Charter a two-seater plane to take an aerial tour of this breathtaking Colombian national park.
- Ask the locals where to go to see some traditional joropo dancing and eat their typical dish, carne a la llanera.
- Visit the botanical garden in the nearby village of La Esperanza to learn about the tropical plant life that makes this area so unique, as well as ongoing conservation efforts. The garden also serves as a community center where you can research and book additional tours and activities in the area.
- Nearby Caño de Piedras is a natural swimming hole and picnic spot where the locals love to swim, relax, and cavort when they’re not busy serving the tourist trade. This a great opportunity to enjoy the local village vibe.
- Finca Cristalitos is a country home that allows tourists to book their cottage for the night. Here, you can camp out in the open air, explore a separate and equally beautiful outlet of the river Caño Cristales, and buy locally sourced food from farmers. This trip may be booked at the botanical garden.
- Madrevieja de Carmen is an area located 17 km outside of Macarena, formulated around an older branch of the Guayabero River. Find a concentrated array of endangered Amazonian wildlife and archaeological remnants of older civilizations. This is another excursion that may be booked through the botanical garden.
- Not for the faint of heart, visiting El Raudal will require an exciting canoe ride down the rapids of the Guayabero River to arrive at the ancient rock formations that give form to El Raudal. If you look carefully, you may find indigenous rock paintings, some of which are thousands of years old!
It’s your turn to become part of the magic. Discover the eighth wonder of the world when you book a trip with Palenque Tours to visit the Caño Cristales river in Colombia’s Serranía de la Macarena national park.
Have you visited this or any other must see places in Colombia? Share your experience in the comment section below.
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