Passage Note #67 Part IV: Colorful Colombia - Caño Cristales
The Most Beautiful River in the World
Our last adventure in Colombia was a dream come true for Linda. She had been sent internet photos of the River of Five Colors, also called the Liquid Rainbow, by friend Elise Lazar, purveyor of all things fantabulous, many years ago and the images of “the most beautiful river in the world” had stuck with her all this time, reaching mythical proportions.
Caño Cristales was high on our bucket list but we weren’t sure we could go.
First of all, we heard it was not safe because of its remote location in Meta province, a dangerous “Red Zone” of guerrilla activity. We read some accounts that it was closed to tourism....disappointing sigh. Upon further investigation we found that now it has been reclaimed and is actually an oasis of security with a heavily militarized presence ensuring the safety of tourists who were visiting it in increasing numbers. Yippeeee! Secondly, it is difficult to get to. It is in an isolated place, surrounded by FARC territory, and therefore you are forbidden to reach it by road in a car or bus....disappointing sigh. You can only reach it by plane. Yippeeee!!!! Thirdly, the spectacular color is created by a unique blooming aquatic plant that only flowers in certain months of the year so the park is closed a part of the year.......disappointing sigh. But the time was now!!! July to November is the season to go. Yippeeee!! So with all the stars aligned, we made our plans!
Aventura Colombia Tours arranged a three day trip for us which included a three hour car transit from Bogota to the town of Villavicencio, a flight to little La Macarena village, hotel stay at the best in town (it did have the only swimming pool), all our meals, the required local park guide, and the return travel.
Green tableland with wide gravel rivers
We arose at 5 am and were driven 3 hours through the high Andes east of Bogota through spectacular scenery and tunnels (with a quick stop for a hot roadside arepa boyancense - traditional corn cake filled with ricotta cheese and a local marmalade) until we emerged on the other side of the mountains at the Villavencio airport. The tarmac looked like an aviation show showcasing older model planes. Within 30 minutes we boarded our antique 5 seater Cessna, held together with bailing wire and bandaids, for the 1 hour flight to the Meta village, La Macarena, that would be our base for visiting Caño Cristales. Leaving the mountains behind, we flew over the flat, thick green semi-tropical landscape of the Colombian llanos (plains) - neither forest nor true jungle - punctuated by enormously wide and shallow gravel rivers.
It was a steely grey day threatening rain when our plane touched down at 11 am in hot and steamy La Macarena. Indeed, the small makeshift airport looked like a bit of a war zone with military troops in full camouflage fatigues carrying rifles milling about a runway crisscrossed by patrolling jeeps and home to a few military transport planes. The baggage claim came out to meet our plane - a man leading a mule and cart.
Looking like a war zone with the military presence. Note the "baggage claim" - a mule and wagon.
Armed military troops secure the oasis of town, surrounded by a guerrilla "Red Zone".
By 11:30 am we were in our hotel room - a cabin surrounded by tropical gardens, underneath a tree with pet parrots and across from the swimming pool. Doña Mercedes, the hospitable proprietor, loaned Linda her own sun hat (Linda had lost hers), introduced us to our guide, and off we went with no time to waste! Jhon was a tall lanky young man in his mid-twenties, born and raised in La Macarena, and certified knowledgable for the job through park service training; another couple, young Colombian tourists from Bogota, joined us.
We walked four blocks, dodging big puddles in the muddy streets, past clusters of three or four armed military guys on every corner until we reached the wide brown Guayabero River. Jhon checked documents with the military commander and we took our seats in the motorized cayuca (canoe) waiting next to the military gun boat. It began to rain on our 15 minute trip downriver to the muddy disembarkation point; there we met a 4 wheel drive vehicle to drive us another half hour down a rough deeply rutted dirt path to the walking trail.
Heavy military presence throughout the town - clusters of 3 or 4 troops on every corner. Probably more military men than town residents.
We took a motorized canoe to get to the hiking trails that led to Caño Cristales
The rain stopped and the sun was doing its best to emerge. The walking path wound through a verdant tableland of low trees and shrubs, even some flowering epiphytes. Although the land was now being used for cattle ranching, there were telltale remains of bridges and bulwarks, evidence of past FARC guerrilla activity and their coca leaf fields and cocaine production labs.
The llano tablelands that we hiked through to get to the River of Five Colors
We were walking through land that was formerly coca leaf fields and cocaine production labs.
This is the current use of the land that was formerly controlled by guerrillas
After another half hour, we could begin to hear rushing water and suddenly came upon the Rainbow River of Five Colors coursing through a rocky spillway with rapids and low waterfalls. The sun was out now and the color display was indeed riotous!
The Tablets of Law (rock formation to upper left)
The delicate feathery endemic plant Macarenia clavigera clings to the river floor in swift currents and is responsible for the unique coloration. In sunny areas it is a brilliant red, orange, pink and purple; in the shade it is a beautiful rich green.
This delicate feathery endemic plant clings to the river floor in swift currents and is responsible for the unique coloration. In sunny areas it is a brilliant red, orange, pink and purple.
In the shade it is a beautiful rich green.
The gold reflection in the water from the sandy bottom
The crystal clear water reflects shades of blue, green and purple; the sand on the bottom, often filling holes called giant’s kettles, is a dazzling bright yellow, green and gold. The colors surrounding us were bright and gaudy as we hiked high and low along the river edge for miles, sometimes scrambling across smooth exposed volcanic rock tableland and fording knee high water.
Giant's kettles are formed by swirling pebbles that scour the rocks to form pits
Chuck and Jhon scrambling across smooth exposed volcanic rock tableland above the river in the background
The day was now very hot and the pathways shadeless so thankfully there were a few swimming holes to jump into for relief. One was a large open area appropriately called Tourists’ Swimming Pool, another was at the base of high roaring Cuarzo waterfall. You are allowed to go swimming where the aquatic plants do not grow. In order not to contaminate the water quality, sunscreen and bug repellant are forbidden. After our refreshing swim, Jhon opened his pack and produced a late lunch - some delicious homemade tamales wrapped in banana leaves and a local version of lemonade.
Cooling relief on a hot day of hiking
We spent two days hiking along different arms of the river and the third morning along a smaller but no less beautiful stream called Cristalitos. It is a very biodiverse area and we saw some beautiful butterlies and flora. A fauna highlight was seeing an anteater climbing about in a tree canopy.
A part of each day was overcast with a rain shower but when the clouds cleared and the sun came out, the colors really popped and were spectacular for photographs, just like the ones that piqued Linda’s interest so many years ago....although we feel that photographs don’t quite do it justice.
The Liquid Rainbow - what an apt description - and a dream come true to see this natural wonder in person!! A special ending to our 5 week Colombian adventure.
This type of catfish is caught in the Guayabero River