Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

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La Macarena doesn’t ring a bell? Maybe Caño Cristales will. This is where you can observe the famous “rainbow river”, one of Colombia’s natural wonders. We spent 8 days in La Macarena to finally visit this well-known yet mysterious region of Colombia.

But if La Macarena is best known for its rainbow river, it wasn’t until we spent a week there that we realized there was much more to this destination than just Caño Cristales. In fact, this region is influenced by three of the country’s most important ecosystems: the plains (llanos), the Amazon rainforest and the Andes mountains, all concentrated around the Serrania de la Macarena National Park.

Here, tourism is also a source of hope for this territory, long affected by the armed conflict in Colombia, that one day it will be able to live in peace and security.

Disclaimer: we apologize in advance for any grammatical or syntactic errors, as our native language is not English (we're a Colombian-French couple), so we hope you'll forgive us and still enjoy the information we share with you! Please note that all the information on our blog is based on our own experience, and is checked and updated regularly.

A week in La Macarena

Because there’s more to life than Caño Cristales

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

Most travellers only come here to see Caño Cristales for a short 2 or 3-day stay. So you might be wondering why we decided to stay in La Macarena for so long.

Quite simply because La Macarena is more than just Caño Cristales.

We arrived on a flight from Bogotá and, as is often the case in the lower regions of Colombia, the heat hit us as we stepped off the plane. We are greeted by a huge sign in honor of the Colombian army. The region is a historic guerrilla stronghold, and home to the country’s largest battalion of soldiers.

We are welcomed by Alejandra, our local partner here in La Macarena, who has organized our entire stay here. Aleja’s agency is located just opposite the airport and offers a welcoming space where tourists are greeted, educational information on the region is provided and a small store selling local crafts is set up.

Most travellers, like us, arrive mid/late morning. So it’s never possible to go straight to Caño Cristales, which requires a full day’s visit.

Alejandra introduces us to our guide, who will accompany us for the duration of our stay here: Yuli! A special character, a strong and funny woman, a native of La Macarena whose life story sums up the difficulties this territory has experienced over the last few decades.

To go through an agency or not?

Some of you have asked us if it’s better to use a local agency to organize your trip in La Macarena and Caño Cristales or if it’s better to organize everything on your own. After spending a week there, we can assure you that : It’s better to go with local tour operator, it saves you time (and so money).

There are a number of administrative formalities to complete before arriving in La Macarena. Among them, the payment of a tourist tax to obtain the bracelet that will allow you to enter the natural park and the mandatory viewing of an educational video. This procedure is only done by the local operators. So if you have not contracted with an agency before, you will have to spend your first day looking for one and taking care of these administrative steps.

Therefore, our recommendation is that you organize your trip in advance, so that you can enjoy the experience without worries from the moment you arrive in Macarena. Alejandra, our local partner, will be able to help you organize a great trip.

With Yuli, we hit it off immediately, and so we head for a place called “Cristalitos”, a small private natural reserve a few minutes away by lancha on the Rio Guayabero, where we’ll have a good lunch and discover for the first time the unique ecosystem that is the Serrania de la Macarena.

During lunch, Yuli tells us her story… Coming to this region means being ready to listen to the realities that people had to live through during the armed conflict, the hard stories of life. And this way of telling things with a light touch, and this strength to find a way to rise above the horror, forces admiration.

We climb up to an arid plateau where only a few species of plant are able to withstand the heat and sandy soil, notably the “Vellozia Tubiflora”, the Macarena’s “frailejon of the plains“, capable of storing water to the point of being able to withstand fires.

We finally arrive at “Cristalitos”, where for the first time here we can admire the famous Macarenia Clavigera, the aquatic plant (no, it’s not algae) that gives the region’s waterways their characteristic colors (yes, these colors can also be seen outside Caño Cristales).

Although it’s forbidden to bathe in the midst of these fragile plants, the crystal-clear pools further up the river offer a well-deserved break from the heat. Here, the sun beats down hard! Hats and long clothes are highly recommended here (and will save us during our stay), as it’s generally forbidden to use sunscreen to avoid contaminating the ecosystems of the natural park.

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

This first short hike serves, among other things, as an acclimatization and personal test to adjust our equipment (clothing, water quantity, sun resistance, etc.) for the other days’ hikes.

In the evening, we head off to one of the most beautiful lodgings in La Macarena, the project of a crazy young biologist who decided a few years ago to buy a piece of land to transform it into a conservation area and build a “hotel” entirely designed to provide a comfortable experience in the middle of the jungle while being respectful of the environment: La Manigua Lodge.

Contact Alejandra, local agency in La Macarena

La Manigua

What to do in La Macarena

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

And the result is there! Manigua Lodge was built as an organic network of cabins on stilts to minimize the footprint on the ground. Each site was designed to avoid having to cut down trees.

As a result, we find ourselves surrounded by a dense forest where wildlife has its rightful place: we’ll be lucky enough to be able to observe red-backed squirrel monkeys and howler monkeys from our room, and a large number of birds, including the impressive Ornate Coracine, a typical Amazonian bird and further proof of the crossroads of geographical influences to be found here in La Macarena.

The La Manigua team offers a host of on-site activities, including a sunset outing to llanera music on the Guayabero River, a cocoa-growing experience and night-time jungle walks around the hotel.

Raudal de Angosturas

What to do in La Macarena

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

The next morning we set off for the Raudal de Angosturas on the border of the Sierra de la Macarena and Tinigua national parks. This particular geological formation forms a sudden narrowing of the Rio Guayabero, creating a strong current that is difficult to cross in wet weather. In the dry season, the raudal can rise again and, above all, it reveals petroglyphs at the base of the cliffs, telling the story of the indigenous Tinigua people.

This territory has only been opened up to tourism for a few years now , following the retreat of the guerrillas. Most of the guides trained to welcome tourists in the La Macarena area are former coca growers… This territory is still on a fragile frontier where tourism has a major role to play in offering local populations an alternative.

After a short stroll along a canal adjacent to the rio Guayabero, then a plunge into a tropical forest leading to yet another example of a river covered in a red carpet of Macarena Clavigera (no, it’s still not Caño Cristales for the moment), where again we take a well-deserved dip, we head for the place where we’ll have lunch. A spectacular spot with a breathtaking view of the Raudal de Angosturas.

Here there’s the possibility of another, much more demanding hike because of the sun, to a place called “Ciudad de piedra” City of Stone. Where the plains are dotted with impressive rock formations. We didn’t choose this option.

In this rainy season, the power of the Rio Guayabero (about which more later in this post) becomes clear. After lunch, we set off for a walk that will take us as close as possible to the raudal.

Here, a “fishing prohibited” sign installed by FARCS dissidents to prevent the local population from taking fish from this raudal, so ecologically important for the reproduction of many species, is a reminder of the complexity of the territory. For 50 years, the guerrillas ruled the territory around La Macarena. And strange as it may seem, the guerrillas have always imposed, through fear (reprisals for breaking the rules), a form of public order (delinquency prohibited) and environmental protection on their territories.

On our way back to the finca, the skies threaten, thunder rumbles, we pass a waterfall that flows into the river, and then it’s the downpour. We arrive just in time to avoid getting completely soaked, and enjoy the spectacle of nature under cover.

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

Time for a chat with the owners of the finca, who explain how difficult the Covid period was here, so isolated from everything, where we had to invent a form of self-sufficiency to survive the months of confinement due to lack of access to food.

The Raudal de Angosturas is one of the visits that can be made outside the official Caño Cristales season (the months when the colors are visible). It is therefore a local attraction that could enable La Macarena to receive tourists all year round (which is far from being the case today).

Once the storm has passed, we return to La Macarena to spend the night in the village. The evening will be marked by a “parrando llanero”.

Contact Alejandra, local agency in La Macarena

Llanera culture

What to do in La Macarena

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

The people of La Macarena proudly call themselves “llanero“. And being “llanero” means embracing a culture where music, gastronomy, dance and poetry occupy a special place.

The “Parrando Llanero” is a tradition established by the municipality of La Macarena in conjunction with all local agencies to welcome newcomers to the region.

The evening’s program includes a typical dish of “carne a la llanera” (remember that the “llanos” are traditionally cattle-breeding lands) and a demonstration of “Joropo”, the traditional music and dance of this region. Here, several generations take to the dance floor, from the youngest to the most expert, and a live band plays the best-known songs (vocals, harp, maracas…).

And despite its folkloric appeal to tourists, the Parrando Llanero is a very special moment . For this moment is a way of welcoming visitors and thanking them for being here, in this territory that has suffered so much from the armed conflict. Several times during the evening, we’ll hear the presenter thank us for being here, explaining why La Macarena is a land of peace, and all the benefits that community tourism has brought to the village’s 600-plus families.

We feel both the pride of presenting a culture, its gastronomy, its music and its dance, and the still-vibrant emotion of being able to think that a territory at peace is possible thanks to tourism.

This “Parrando Llanero” is organized twice a week, in two different places and with two different groups of musicians and dancers. It’s a truly beautiful and moving experience, and one of the highlights of a visit to La Macarena.

Laguna del silencio

What to do in La Macarena

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

We got up early this morning to head for the Laguna del Silencio, the idea being to eat in the heart of the nature reserve at the home of one of the members of the peasant community living there. Here, as elsewhere in La Macarena, all tourism is designed to benefit as many people as possible.

After a few minutes on the lancha on the rio Guayabero (as you’ll have gathered, almost all transport here is by river ), we disembark for a several-hour ride through the savannah. The sun is still shining brightly today, and we start with a horseback ride. Along the way, we meet hundreds of butterflies flying off as we pass, against a backdrop of savannah landscapes. A magical sight!

We arrive at our first finca for a swim in a small river bordering the property. The surprise here is that the owners feed the fish, so the idea is to swim surrounded by them, waiting for their little treat. While the swim is really refreshing and feels good in this heat, we still have a problem with the concept of feeding animals, whatever they may be, and tourism shouldn’t encourage this kind of practice – on the contrary.

We continue our journey through a flooded forest, where makeshift footbridges have been erected to make passage possible. The atmosphere is truly magical! We reach the banks of the Laguna del silencio, where members of the community are waiting to take us by boat to the house where we’ll have lunch.

The atmosphere is calm and peaceful. Around us, the morichales (giant palms growing around freshwater springs in Orinoquia) rise majestically. We’re lucky enough to spot the Great Ibijau or “ghost bird”, a rather incredible specimen of bird with a distinctive song that camouflages itself quite well.

When we arrived at our destination, hundreds of yellow butterflies greeted us in an atmosphere worthy of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s greatest novels. The local family cheerfully welcomes us and we enjoy a delicious meal prepared with love.

A siesta and some bird-watching later, it’s time to head back. The sky takes on dark and colorful hues, but this time the rain doesn’t appear.

Contact Alejandra, local agency in La Macarena

Caño Cristales

What to do in La Macarena

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

It’s finally D-day ! We’re finally getting to know the natural wonder that has been bringing tourists to this remote corner of Colombia for so many years. After a short ride in a lancha, we set off in a 4×4 on the track leading to the entrance of the Sierra de la Macarena Natural Park. The landscapes are magnificent, reminding us of those around San José del Guaviare and its Serrania de la Lindosa.

We arrive at the park entrance and begin a long day’s walk along the marked trails surrounding Caño Cristales. Several trails have been established by the natural park authorities. They vary in length and difficulty, depending on your physical condition. You can’t pick and choose; the national parks office assigns the trail that suits each group and agency (yes, a guide is compulsory). This also means that people can be spread out over the whole site, so they can enjoy it even more.

Each trail allows you to see part of the park’s natural sites, each more exceptional than the last, and to admire the Macarena Clavigera from every angle. But rest assured, all the trails pass by the most beautiful and emblematic points in the park.

Multiple colorful rivers, rock formations, crystal-clear waterholes, waterfalls and magical bathing basins to cool off in – much-needed moments that do us good, because not only are the places magnificent, but as we’ve already said, the heat is overwhelming.

Yuli, our guide, takes us to some of the most beautiful spots in the park, and we return from our day in Caño Cristales tired but with our eyes full of stars. After being there, we understand why this place has the status of “Natural Wonder” in Colombia and why it must be protected.

As you know from reading our blog, we often make the connection between Caño Cristales here in La Macarena and the small Caño Sabana (Tranquilandia) in San José del Guaviare (where it’s also possible to spot the Macarania Clavigera). Of course, Caño Cristales is nothing like the river at San José del Guaviare.

And it has to be said, the sites we visit on this day are spectacular!

Wildlife observation

What to do in La Macarena

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia

As we’ve already explained.La Macarena is an ecological crossroads influenced by the ecosystems of the Andes, Orinoquia and Amazon. So, naturally, it’s an area of incredible biodiversity. And where there’s biodiversity, there’s wildlife!

During our week there, we were able to observe a huge number of species. Particularly during our daily trips along the Rio Guayabero, where a great deal of the local fauna is concentrated: we were able to observe caimans, turtles, iguanas and no less than 5 different species of monkey (howler monkey, squirrel sign, woolly monkey, tamarin and sapajou)!

The Río Guayabero rises in the Andes, continues through the Serrania de la Macarena and then flows into the Guaviare River, which in turn joins the Orinoco River.

But apart from the visit to Caño Cristales, where the absence of tall vegetation is not conducive to the presence of wildlife, each day in La Macarena offered us its share of impromptu encounters. In the forests, near rivers, lakes or the places where we had lunch, and often around the accommodations where we stayed… in short, everywhere in La Macarena, nature offered us beautiful gifts. Among other things, this destination is a great spot for birdwatching!

Discovering Cano Cristales, the rainbow river of Colombia
Savannah flycatcher (Tyrannus savana) – La Macarena, Meta

With more than 700 bird species recorded in the conservation area around La Macarena, this is one of the richest bird areas in Colombia.

In other words, a paradise for birdwatchers! In fact, Alejandra, our local partner in La Macarena, is a keen birdwatcher herself, and has helped to compile a book listing all the species found in the area! If you like this activity, don’t hesitate to talk to her.

Contact Alejandra, local agency in La Macarena