Caño Cristales river in Colombia: the liquid rainbow river of five colors

The River of Five Colors of Colombia


Direct contact


La Macarena, Meta, Colombia

GPS: 2.2802423463311, -73.803495154186

Plan my route

Also known by flattering names that people have called the river such as “the river that escaped from paradise” or “the liquid rainbow”, the colorful Caño Cristales is one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. A tributary of the sumptuous Guayabero River, it is part of La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park in its southern part, in a remote and mountainous region of Colombia. It holds the country’s oldest geological formations through its sedimentary high plateaus (tepuys) linked to the Guiana Shield. The Macarena region serves both as a biological corridor and a transition zone between three major biomes: the Amazon rainforest, the eastern savannah and the Andean mountains. In addition to La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park, two other protected areas are attached to it: the Cordillera de los Picachos Natural National Park (to the north-west) and the Tinigua Natural National Park (to the north). The Caño Cristales protected natural area thus forms the biotic convergence point of a multitude of different ecosystems on the South American continent (including the Andean, Amazonian and Orinoco basins).

This five-coloured river has earned its many nicknames for its liquid rainbow-like appearance, a natural phenomenon that can only be observed from June to December, after the rainy season. Rich in sediments and minerals, Caño Cristales produces at this time of year shades of yellow, green, blue, black and above all, predominantly red. They are generated by a rare aquatic plant whose scientific name is Macarenia Clavigera (belonging to the family Podostemaceae). This endemic plant species, assimilated to a variety of algae, is found nowhere else in the world.

The life cycle of this plant is highly dependent on the water flow of the river and changes from green to bright red, depending on the amount of sunlight and oxygen it receives. The profusion of algae and mosses accentuates this alchemy of colours and reinforces the magical character of the Caño Cristales River. Visitor access to this area has recently been regulated in order to protect the unique ecosystem of its surroundings. It is recommended that you hire a guide to take and accompany you to visit the river and get to the river and that you bring bug spray to repel mosquito attacks, use sunscreen and consider getting a yellow fever vaccine. Your tour guide will let you know the best time to visit this colorful river destination, find a waterfall, pool or natural pools, riverbed rock or tropical bird (perhaps a macaw) or other wildlife. A swim in the river in this central Colombia region of Meta will be enjoyable for the tourist or traveller who have come on a plane flight, local Colombian bus or another form of Colombia’s transport system to get access to the river. In addition to their aesthetic quality, many aquatic or endemic plants that grow in the direct surroundings of Caño Cristales have therapeutic virtues. If you go a little deeper into the steep lands of the Serranía de la Macarena isolated mountain range, you may have the chance to observe a multitude of animals in the wild or to spot traces of ancient human occupation by indigenous peoples.

Read more

  • Earth’s most magical and unique place; the landscape value of the river
  • A large biodiverse area with a fragile ecosystem
  • The numerous waterfalls, underwater caves, rock formations and natural pools formed by the Caño Cristales River
  • The great diversity of fauna (bird, amphibian, reptile, insect, primate…) and the numerous endemic species of flora, including the famous Macarenia Clavigera aquatic plant
  • The waterfalls La Piedra de la Virgen, Los Pianos, Cascada del Amor and Cascada de los Cuarzos are on the left banks of the river; the waterfalls El sillon de Buda, Pozo Cuadrado, La Escalera, Las Tablas de la Ley, La Escalara and Salto del Aguila are on the right banks of the river
  • La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park is a natural wilderness area with virgin forests, petroglyphs and ancient rock paintings
  • Walks along the banks of Caño Cristales and through the surrounding jungle (Caño Cristalitos, Pailones, Caño Escondido, Los Pianos and Intermedio trails)
  • A boat trip on the Guayabero River; the view from El Mirador (rocky spur of the park); the natural sites of Laguna del Silencio (rich in birds), Caño Piedras (swimming permitted) and Raudal de Angosturas I (numerous rocky outcrops)
  • The mountain massifs (tepuys) of the Serranía de la Macarena, the Serranía de Chiribiquete and the Serranía de Naquén as well as the richness of the Amazon rainforest
  • Until 2009, this central region of Colombia teeming with coca plants (used by drug traffickers as a raw material to produce cocaine) remained inaccessible until 2009. Prior to being recaptured by the army, the area was predominately a lawless zone because it was controlled by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) before it was recaptured by the army. In 2016, after four years of bitter negotiations, FARC and the Colombian government reached a historic peace agreement. However, dissidents estimated at around 2,300 armed men would continue to prosper thanks to drug trafficking and illegal mineral extraction.
  • In February 2020 a large fire broke out in La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park, which almost affected the banks of Caño Cristales. It was the last of a long series of fires that plagued the large forest cover in recent years. According to the Colombian government, this fire was deliberately set by FARC dissidents who rejected the peace process in order to expand on coca cultivation or develop cannabis fields in the region. Other voices mention the trail of farmers protesting against government’s anti-deforestation measures and the eviction of peasants operating in the park’s surrounding areas.
  • The region’s natural heritage is currently facing new challenges. Cattle breeders (known as campesinos) and farmers are constantly increasing the size of their pasture and cultivated land. Powerful landowners (latifundios) do not hesitate to nibble away at previously unspoilt areas of virgin forest and are greatly contributing to deforestation.
  • This huge, biodiverse area in Colombia is also threatened by large extractions projects. International oil companies have received state approval to carry out exploration operations on large deposits. The development of legal gold mines coupled with the illegal exploitation of alluvial gold is causing serious damage in Colombia’s forests.
  • Due to the high economic stakes, a dozen forest rangers have been killed between 1994 and 2020 and more than 800 people working for human rights and conservation organizations have been eliminated, in Colombia, over the past three years.
  • The best time to observe the river Caño Cristales is between September and November, a period of transition between the dry and wet seasons, during which the aquatic plants are in bloom. The rest of the year, the river returns to its typical appearance, similar to other rivers (the water’s unique colour can sometimes be observed as early as July).
  • The site is closed during the dry season, from January to May included, to preserve the river’s ecosystem. In total, there are about ten trails to explore the surroundings of Caño Cristales.
  • To get to your destination, you will need to go the city of La Macarena, which can be reached by plane from Bogota, Medellín, Cali or Villavicencio. Then, continue your adventure for a few hours on foot, by car and by boat on the Guayabero River with the help of a local guide (remember to book well in advance with an authorised operator). Alternatively, a road trip is possible via Neiva (Huila), Florencia (Caquetá) and finally San Vicente del Caguán (it takes about 12 hours to reach La Macarena from Neiva or at least 5 hours from San Vicente del Caguán with an all-terrain vehicle).
  • For safety reasons, avoid venturing into areas that are not controlled by the Colombian army (about 30 kilometres around the town of La Macarena).
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol and the use of repellents or sunscreens are strictly forbidden within the perimeter of La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park in order to preserve the environment.

Where to eat

  • Orions Comida Fusion
    (the best pizzeria in the area)
  • Hacienda la Floresta
    (very nice ranch)
  • Café de Lithos
    (wide choice of dishes)

Where to go

  • Nukak Natural Reserve
    (large biodiversity zone)
  • BioParque Los Ocarros
    (great animal park)
  • Campo Ecologico Gramalote
    (horse riding centre)

Where to stay

  • Hotel San Jose Capital
    (pleasant and well-located)
  • La Cachamera Hotel
    (excellent facilities)
  • Villas de San Sebastian
    (ideal for families)