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La Macarena, Meta, Colombia

GPS: 2.2799009865231, -73.803908706628

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Also known by the flattering names of “the river that escaped from Paradise” or “the Liquid Rainbow”, 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 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. 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.

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  • A magical and unique place on Earth; the landscape value of the river
  • A large area of biodiversity 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 on the left bank of the river; the waterfalls El sillon de Buda, Pozo Cuadrado, La Escalera, Las Tablas de la Ley, La Escalara and Salto del Aguila on the right bank of the river
  • La Macarena National and Ecological Reserve Park, 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 possible) 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 for a long time. It was 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 and was close to reaching the banks of Caño Cristales. It is the last of a long series of fires that have struck this 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 coca cultivation or develop cannabis fields in the region. Other voices mention the trail of farmers protesting against government anti-deforestation measures and procedures for evicting peasants operating in the area around the park.
  • The region’s natural heritage is currently facing new challenges. Cattle breeders (known as campesinos) and farmers are constantly increasing their area of 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 area of biodiversity 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.
  • As a result of the economic stakes, a dozen forest rangers have been killed between 1994 and 2020 and more than 800 people working in the defence of the environment or human rights have been eliminated in Colombia in the last 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. During the rest of the year, the river returns to its normal appearance, common to other rivers (the colouring of the water 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 your safety, do not venture beyond the area controlled by the Colombian army (about 30 kilometres around the town of La Macarena).
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol, 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

  • Leoni Pizzeria
    (the best pizzeria in the area)
  • Hacienda la Floresta
    (very nice ranch)
  • Rodizio Brazon Brazileiro
    (wide choice of dishes)

Where to go out

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

Where to sleep

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

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