Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Caño Cristales - The river of many colours

Caño cristales

Caño cristales is the name of several rivers that flow thought the Parque Nacional Serranía de la Macarena near the small town of La Macarena.

The only way to get to La Macarena is by plane from Bogota or chartered flight from Villavicencio - overland is too dangerous due to guerilla presence in the surrounding areas.

The "Airport" at La Macarena is basically an airstrip with a small shed for the terminal. Once you land you need to register with the police as you enter the airport. 

After collecting your bags from the room next to the terminal, you can find one of the many hostels available in the town. I stayed in Hostal Mariana for a very reasonable $40,000 ($A20) per night.

Next to the airport is a small tourism office run by the super efficient Carolina where you can book your trip to Caño cristales.

It is impossible to travel to the park without a guide and it is best to book at least two days in the park as it often rains and it is difficult to see the colours if there is not clear sky. In addition, you must complete a briefing before you are allowed to enter the park, so it is best to attend the day before your trek. At the briefing you are given the list of prohibited items. It is prohibited to bring (or put on):
  • Sunscreen (so wear protective clothing)
  • Deodorant
  • Perfume
  • Makeup; and
  • Insect repellent
Also you can't bring plastic bottles, so you need to buy a sports bottle or two (all shops in La Macarena sell them cheaply).

The town is very small but has a number of hostels, an ATM (despite what other travel guides say), restaurants and bars.

One thing to bear in mind is that the power is quite unreliable (it went off twice while I was there), so make sure you have a good torch and sufficient cash in case there's an extended blackout.

Most hotels don't have internet access and 3G is patchy (to say the least) but there is free WiFi in the main park.
The park at sunset
Just up from the central park towards the airport is an area with a number of street food vendors where you can get an excellent (and cheap) meal for dinner - it's better value than the restaurants in the town.

Delicious fried food

The treks in Caño cristales leave between 7 and 10 in the morning, depending on which trail the guide has chosen for you. 

The trip begins with a boat trip up the river to the trail head.

Guayabero river

Once you arrive the national park staff search bags and check for prohibited items before heading into the park.

After some "warm up" exercises, the walk begins.

The first trail I did was the 12 km "Aguilla" trail. The trail starts through a savannah of low plants which dominate the landscape around the rivers.

The vegetation around the river

However it is the Macarenia clavígera plants in the river that give the spectacular colour effect that Caño cristales is famous for.

Macarenia clavígera

A single Macarenia clavígeraplant

The Aguilla trail leads past many sections of the river where the plant grows.

Macarenia clavígera plants under the water

As well as waterfalls

A waterfall on the river

 swimming holes

one of many swimming holes

And various rock formations.

A natural rock bridge

Parts of the trail cross the river which requires wading waist deep through the water so it is important to bring bathers and shoes that can get wet (I bought reef shoes).

The trek gets back to La Macarena around 16:30 which gives enough time to change and then enjoy the sunset and internet in the central park.

Parque Principal at sunset

Another trail through Caño cristales is the "Los Pianos" trail which is a much easier 8 km trek. This trail goes past many formations in the river where the colourful plants grow.

Los Pianos

And more waterfalls

Another waterfall

The trail also leads along the ridge above the river which gives beautiful views over the water.

Los Ochos formation

The river from high on the trail

The river from the trail

For the next day I headed to a different part of the Caño cristales - Los Cristalitos. This isn't part of the park and is privately owned. However, it is easy to organise to visit through the same agency as for Caño cristales.

The first part of the tour is to visit a turtle hatchery and then have lunch at the farmhouse.

Turtles in the hatchery

During my lunch I was joined by an entertaining lunch companion who was keen to share my lunch with me.

Cheeky Monkey

After lunch the guide took me to the lookout above the farmhouse for views across the valley.

The view from the lookout

Before heading to the coloured river.


Green Macarenia clavígera

The river

To get back from Los Cristalitos I took a kayak back down the river.

Strong currents in the river

On my final day I went out to another site outside of the park - Caño Pierdas. It is easily accessible by mototaxi from La Macarena (although the army is generally not too happy about foreigners going there).

Caño Pierdas is much smaller than Caño cristales but it is lined with palm trees which don't grow anywhere else in the park.

Caño Pierdas

Palms along the river

There is a hike that follows the river up to Cerro de Conejos from which you can see accross Meta province.

The trail begins through farmland until it climbs to the top of the small hill.

The trail to Cerro Conejo

The view from Cerro Conejo

Eagles nest in the rock formations around the hill and I was lucky enough to pass by a nest.

Rock formations

An eagle's nest

While being watched by the eagles 

An eagle watching us

As a storm began to roll in


And we retreated back to the mototaxi.

There are many other treks to do around La Macarena but unfortunately they are difficult to access because if the security situation. But those treks that are easy to access are truly incredible and La Macarena was a nice little laid back country town, I was a little sad to leave.

The main Street of La Macarena

Sunday, November 13, 2016

Eje Cafetero: Salento

Salento church

Salento is a small picturesque town in the Eje Cafetero region. It is easily reached by bus from either Pereira or Armenia.

Although the town is very much set up for tourism, it still retains a traditional country town charm. As in many country towns in Colombia there us a Tejo court, and because the town has many tourists, the locals are keen to teach visitors about the traditional game.

Tejo consists of throwing metal weights at a clay filled box to try and land the weight in a metal ring embedded in the clay.

Tejo weights

To spice up the game, the metal ring has small packets of gunpowder which explode when hit by the weights (gaining the player extra points). 

The court is in Carrera 4 just outside of the town centre - just ask for "Amigos Tejo". The games are free with purchasing drinks. I started by drinking beer but the locals told me that drinking Aguardiente (the local anise-flavoured liquor) would improve my game - and after a few shots, I was rewarded with several explosions.

After a few more drinks we amped up the game by adding more explosives

The town has two lookouts in the surrounding hills that give a beautiful view of the town and the cocora valley behind the town.


The Cocora valley

The Cocora valley is famous for its tall wax Palms and there are several walking trails through the valley to see them. The best trail is the 5 1/2 hour trail through the jungle in the surrounding hills.

To get to the trail you need to take one of the jeeps from the main square for $COP3000 (about $A1.50). The best time to go is to catch the 7:30am cars before the trail gets too crowded.

The trail starts through farmland

Farms with the wax palms growing on the hills

before entering the jungle.

A bridge crossing the river

The trail leads up into the mountains until it reaches a small hummingbird sanctuary where for $COP6000 (around $A3) you can enjoy a hot chocolate and piece of the local cheese.


The trail then continues up the mountain until you reach a farmhouse at the top of the hill.

The top of the hill

The road then leads back down the hills until it passes the majestic wax palms.

Wax palms

Wax palm in the mist

Farmland with wax palms

The trail then leads past more farmland until you reach the dropoff point where you can take a jeep back to Salento.

The last stand of palms before catching the jeep

Friday, November 11, 2016

Eje Cafetero: Pereira and Santa Rosa

Parque El Largo, Pereira

The Eje Cafetero region is a famous coffee growing region in Colombia. One of the largest cities in the zone is Pereira. The city itself is a large regional hub for visiting the more tourist oriented towns in the zone which usually makes Pereira just a quick stop off.

Pereira church

The town of Florida on the outskirts of Pereira is easily reachable by local bus and contains several short walks along the river and through a nature reserve.

The trail through the nature reserve

The trail is very flat and mostly along a dirt road through pretty farmland.

Farmland in Florida

Birds on a fence

Until you reach the river.
The river

Looking upstream

Another short trip from Pereira is the little town of Santa Rosa.

Santa Rosa is famous for its natural hot springs which are easily accessible by shared taxi (you catch them from outside the main market) and are open until late in tge night. Which is perfect for relaxing after seeing Santa Rosa's other attraction - San Vicente Falls.

The trail to the falls starts just outside of town (10 mins by taxi) beside the Don Lol restaurant.

View from the top of the trail

The trail heads down a steep valley through farmland until it reaches the bottom of the valley.

The trail heading down

And crosses the river over a rickety bridge.

Sturdier than it looks

The trail then heads up the other side of the valley

Trail heading up the valley

And through a canyon

The river flowing through the canyon

Until it finally reaches the waterfall

The waterfall

Top of the falls

The pool at the bottom

And after the 3 hr round trip, it's perfect to head up to the thermal pools to relax.

Santa Rosa hot springs