After I’d lived for several months in Bogotá, I had heard the name Caño Cristales many times. The Colombians I worked with all wanted some day to go there, all called it their national treasure, the river of seven colors. We would sit around the lunch table and when that topic came up, just the fact that I was planning on going was fascinating enough to cease all other conversations.
And yet, before I got there, I wasn’t really clear on what Caño Cristales was. Didn’t that mean crystal canyon? They told me it was a river that was red with some kind of algae, and it was very pretty. It sounded pretty cool, but I didn’t quite get why it was such a big deal. But so many people had told me they wanted to go, that when I was invited by some expat friends, I knew I had to see it.
The way it worked was this: we each paid around $600 for the trip, including the stay. This seemed a bit steep for Colombia, but considering that the place used to be unreachable and was now just a tiny island in a sea of FARC-controlled jungle, I certainly didn’t have a better idea of how to get there, and happily forked over my money to someone who said he knew how to do it.
HOW TO GET TO CANO CRISTALES: We all met up at a specific grocery store at 4 in the morning and waited for the bus to show up. Because I slept straight through it, I’m not sure how long the bus ride was, but that took us to daylight, and an airport, where we boarded a cargo plane we had chartered. We all sat in little fold-down seats along the side of the plane and stared at the motorcycles and random boxes of possessions people were paying to have flown into La Macarena. Oddly enough, it looked like someone was moving their whole house via airplane, which in fact is pretty much what was happening.
After we each went to hang out with the pilots in the cockpit for a bit of nostalgia for the days when you could still do that, we settled in for the short flight and landed at a tiny airport (field of grass) in La Macarena, Colombia.
There, our bags were unloaded onto a wooden cart pulled by, I kid you not, a horse. The captain then pulled one of the girls up onto the wing of the plane for a photograph, and I came, too, though he was clearly not interested in having his picture taken with a man.
After that, we filled out basic entry forms, almost as if we were entering a new country, and the equivalent of customs officials turned us over to the tour guides. Apparently that’s pretty much standard procedure whether you’ve pre-booked a tour or not, because, though La Macarena was pretty, it wasn’t different enough from any other town in Colombia to justify packing a bunch of gringos on a plane to fly over FARC-filled jungle just to see it.
What I would do differently:
Since the town knows what you’re looking for when you get off the plane, and all of the guides are from one organization, chosen from the teenagers of the village, there’s no real need to book everything through a tour agency. I would recommend just finding a direct flight from Bogotá or Villacicencio to La Macarena and negotiating hotel rooms and setting up the tours once you’ve arrived. Our guide, while very helpful in organizing the trip, had never actually been to Caño Cristales himself, and from my cost analysis, we could easily have saved several hundred dollars a piece just by showing up on our own.
The trick is that the flights only seem to go directly from Bogotá weekly with Satena airlines, so you’ll have to charter a puddle jumper to get back, but if you’re traveling with more than a few people, this should still fit well into your budget. This is how we got back, and it was real fun, especially since I got to fly in the cockpit. From what I’ve heard about Satena, it might just be easier to charter a cesna and get enough people together to split the cost than to try to go commercially.
Somewhere around six hours into our travel now, we are anxious to see this damned river, but we get checked into the little hotel first, take some photos of a random puppy, then finally declare ourselves ready and are escorted down to little wooden motorboats that look like something out of Heart of Darkness. Technically, it’s possible to drive, but we couldn’t drive because the FARC might kidnap and kill us, so we accepted the boat option.
The boat ride was pretty fun, though for some reason there was a persistent feeling that we might all topple into the muddy brown water at any time and lose all the fancy camera equipment we had brought along to photograph this river.
Fortunately, we made it ashore, and from there had a bit of a hike to the jeeps. That’s right, so far we’d gotten on a bus at 4 am, taken a chartered plane unloaded by a donkey, sat in canoes, hiked and gotten into jeeps, and we still weren’t at this river. Finally the jeeps stopped, and we had another hike of about an hour or so, and there it was. I was so excited at this point that once the river was in sight, I started shooting pictures immediately.
I guess when someone describes a river to you as having a bunch of red algae (actually a plant called Macarenia clavígera) in it, it doesn’t sound that impressive, but once I saw it for myself I understood why we’d gone to such pains to get there. This whole river was red. It was like we’d come out of the jungle and suddenly discovered an alien planet where this sort of thing was possible, half expecting to turn around and see three-eyed monkeys hanging upside-down from purple and orange talking trees. We took a number of photos there in the shallowest, most easily accessible area of the river, and while I was bugging the guides to take photos of me crouching awkwardly on a tiny island, I eventually noticed that everyone else had moved along.
After we hiked along the river, which became progressively more beautiful the more we saw, we came to a spot where we stopped for lunch, which was chicken and rice wrapped in banana leaves. The food was accompanied, somewhat incongruously, by some kind of pink cream soda served in little plastic cups. More importantly, the site where we ate was a large natural swimming pool, complete with a waterfall and a rock to jump off of. After our long journey, this swim was so refreshing that it felt like the water washed away not only the mud from the hike, but the hours on the plane, bus, and boats. This was cool, refreshing water, and when we got too cold from swimming, we could climb out and stretch out on the rocks, or even scout back downriver a bit to get a better look at the incredible pools swiss-cheesed through the rocks.
So here’s one of the spots that Caño Cristales is famous for, but it really doesn’t do the location justice. What you miss in the photo is that these big round holes carved beautifully into the rock just keep going. You can stick your head carefully down into the holes, or even jump into a few of them (but only the ones your guide points out), and down inside there are more perfectly round holes cut by the river right through the rock. The river, meanwhile, continues to splash and whip through, so you get the feeling that you’re in some kind of cold natural jacuzzi.
After checking out some of the more terrifying whirlpools, I headed back to the swimming hole to swim a few little laps through a tiny underwater cave, wishing I’d brought a waterproof camera.
Eventually, we moved on after lunch and started hiking again, to find waterfall after striking waterfall until we had to call it a day and make our way back to the hotel.
This was only day one of our trip, there was more and more to see.
DAYS 2 and 3
Well, day 2 was almost entirely rained out. We’re talking serious torrential downpours. Even with all our rain gear, we were totally soaked, and little streams so small we didn’t even think of them were now big enough that we had to wade across them, waste deep, with cameras and dry clothes on our heads. One larger stream was so high, in fact, that we couldn’t get the jeeps across it, so we had to wade through it using a rope for stability. This was made a bit more harrowing by the fact that we had just seen a stray dog step out into the water and get swept away by the currents, pulled in seconds fifty feet downstream and out of view around the corner. I still don’t know what happened to the dog.
That was a rough, wet, and tiring day.
Day 3, however, made up for it. We moved something around to free up more time for the river, and today the focus would be on waterfalls. We went well up river, past our original lunch spot, to hang out at a nice wide waterfall with some little pools where we all stripped down to our bikinis and pretended we were in a jacuzzi. After that little break, our trek continued until we reached a spot with three waterfalls in a row, where you could crawl around behind one and see the little red plants growing in little cracks in the ceiling.
We also got some pretty beautiful views of the river cutting through the jungle, and finally ended our visit wading down the river itself on the way back to the jeeps.
LA MACARENA: HANGING OUT WITH THE LOCALS
At night, though exhausted from our day’s adventures, we somehow found enough energy to go for a few beers or shots of aguardiente in the town where we were staying. This place is kind of magical, and as such a bit of a microcosm for Colombia. The community had lived at the mercy of the FARC for years, cut off from the rest of Colombia, and the people were incredibly friendly despite their struggles, as are most Colombians, despite the difficulties in the country as a whole. There were a number of bars in the town, and as we were practically the only patrons, it felt a bit odd choosing which particular set of tables we would sit at, considering that we would give that bar more business than the rest of them combined. During our search, we found that there was some kind of teenage sports tournament in progress, which we watched from the sidelines. I also snuck away at one point to go hang out with locals in an arcade, which boiled down to playing old Playstation games with teenagers on CRT televisions for a few pennies an hour.
On our second night, we were invited by our guides to a Vallenato music festival. Vallenato is a bit difficult to describe, but it’s essentially Colombian country music with the improvisational qualities of rap. Comfortingly, every song was on the same theme: heartbreak. And it seemed that mere jilted lover stories weren’t enough; from what I gathered, most of the singers lost their women, their jobs, their houses, and their dogs before their songs were over.
At any rate, it was fun to dance to, and the locals were extremely obliging. Even the competition-winning newly-crowned local dance royalty happily spinned and twirled around me while I tried not to step on their feet.