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

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