Caño Cristales is a famous river in Colombia known as the “river of five colors”, which is also considered by many to be “the most beautiful river in the world”. The river has also been called the “liquid rainbow”.
During several months each year, Caño Cristales becomes a rainbow of vibrant colors including red, green, yellow, blue and black hues in a natural display that reportedly happens nowhere else on Earth.
Several readers on the Medellín Guru website asked about Caño Cristales and when is the best time to go. So, I wrote this up-to-date guide to Caño Cristales with plenty of time to plan for the next season that starts in June this year.
Note Caño Cristales was closed on December 2018 and reopened for tourists on Jun 14, 2019.
Serranía de la Macarena National Park
Caño Cristales is located in the Serrania de la Macarena National Park, which is located in the Meta department of Colombia. In addition, Caño Cristales is a tributary of the Guayabero River.
Serranía de la Macarena is a protected national park in Colombia that covers 2,500 square miles (6,200 square kilometers). The Serranía de la Macarena park is located where three large ecosystems in Colombia meet, each of them with a high diversity of flora and fauna: the Amazon rainforest, the Andes mountain range and the savannah plains of the East Llanos.
Serranía de La Macarena is considered one of the most biodiverse areas of Colombia. It reportedly is home to over 500 species of birds, 100 species of reptiles, over 2,000 species of plants and over 1,200 species of insects.
Until the mid-2000s, nearby guerrilla activity rendered this part of Colombia almost completely inaccessible, as it was considered an area that was too dangerous. But the military took back control of the area several years ago and it’s now generally considered safe. And it has become a growing ecotourism destination.
For about six months of the year, Caño Cristales looks like any other river. But from about June to early December the river comes alive with red, green, yellow, blue and black hues.
Some people incorrectly believe that the river’s main colors come from algae or moss. However, the main reason for the colors is an endemic aquatic plant called macarenia clavigera. Most notably, this plant requires precise conditions, including the right water level and just the right amount of sunlight, to take on its bright hues.
In addition, Caño Cristales is a river with a relatively fast current along many parts with many rapids, waterfalls and several circular pits or holes.
Normally from mid-December to May, the river is closed to tourists to give the area’s ecology a break. Also, during the dry season there is not enough water to support the dazzling array of life in the river.
The season for Caño Cristales normally runs from the beginning of June to the end of November. And some years, it’s also open in early December. But it can sometimes close at other times. For example, last year, it was closed in late August for a while due to a lack of rain.
How to Get to Caño Cristales
The closest town to Caño Cristales is La Macarena, Colombia. And there is no lodging or camping available at Caño Cristales. So, you will need to stay in La Macarena.
La Macarena is a frontier town that has a noticeable military presence. And La Macarena is a relatively small town with a population of about 30,000.
It is possible to get to La Macarena by land from Neiva. But this is a long trip of about 12 hours. And 4×4 vehicles are required due to some dirt roads. So, this isn’t recommended.
It’s also possible to get to La Macarena from San José del Guaviare via the Guayabero river. But this reportedly runs only one day a week and it’s a long trip at about eight hours. So, this also isn’t recommended.
The best way to get to La Macarena is by air. And there are seasonal flights from Bogotá (1 hour) typically on Monday, Thursday and Saturday; Medellín’s Olaya Herrea Airport (1 hour and 45 minutes) typically on Monday and Friday and Villavicencio (50 minutes) normally daily. Some flights are chartered by tour companies.
Furthermore, to enter the national park where Cano Cristales is located, you must be accompanied by a guide from a tour company. Also, reportedly a maximum of 200 visitors are allowed per day.
To get to Caño Cristales from La Macarena with your tour guide is normally a combination of boat, 4×4 and walking.
Caño Cristales Tour Companies
I recommend getting a package deal from one of the tour companies when traveling to Caño Cristales. This is what I did several years ago. The packages tours normally include guided tours, lodging, airfare and most meals.
Caño Cristales has a package that doesn’t include airfare for 899,000 pesos for three days and two night’s lodging and most meals. And it has a four-day plan with airfare from Medellín with three nights that costs 2,199,000 pesos. Caño Cristales has several more plans listed on its website with airfare from Bogotá, Medellín or Villavicencio.
Ecoturismo has a package that doesn’t include airfare for 590,000 pesos for two days and includes one night’s lodging and most meals. The same two-day plan with airfare costs 1,181,000 pesos from Villavicencio.
Ecoturismo has several more plans of different day lengths listed on its website from Villavicencio, Bogotá, Medellín and Cali. For example, a four-day plan with airfare from Medellín with three nights costs 2,100,000 pesos.
Key Things to Consider When Visiting Caño Cristales
Here are seven important things to consider when traveling to Caño Cristales:
- Check to make sure it is open. For example it was closed from December 2018 to June 2019. Also, there is a limit of up to 120 visitors who can explore the Caño Escondido and Los Pailones trails each day.
- Sunscreen or insect repellent is not permitted when you swim, in order to protect the aquatic plants.
- A yellow fever vaccine is required. You may be asked for proof that you have this vaccine before you board your plane.
- There are only a few ATM machines in La Macarena. And not everywhere accepts credit cards. So, bring all the cash you will need for the trip, just in case.
- Bring waterproof shoes, as in some areas you will be walking in water.
- Bring a mask. So, you can see underwater.
- You will need to pay a tourism fee in La Macarena of 36,062 pesos for foreigners or 26,041 pesos for Colombians. This fee is typically not included in tourist packages.
- There is also an entrance fee to enter the Serrania de la Macarena National Park. This fee is also not typically included in tourist packages. The current entrance fee is reportedly as follows:
- Foreigners – 92,000 pesos
- Colombians older than 65 – free
- Colombians 25 to 65 – 60,000 pesos
- Colombians aged less than 25 – 28,300 pesos
Top Things to See and Do in Colombia
On the Medellin Guru website, we have been looking at some of the most beautiful places in Colombia in a series of top things to see and do in Colombia. This is due to many readers asking about several of these things to do in Colombia.
We have looked at 20 of the top things to see and do in Colombia, in alphabetical order:
- Caño Cristales – the most beautiful river in Colombia, which has also been called the most beautiful river in the world by some people.
- Carnival in Barranquilla – the second largest carnival in the world.
- Cartagena – Oozing history, romance and sun-drenched beaches, the allure of historical Cartagena is hard to resist.
- Ciudad Perdida – the site of an ancient city in Colombia that is older than Machu Picchu in Peru.
- Colombia’s Pacific coast – often overlooked by tourists visiting Colombia but offering untamed nature and undiscovered beauty that is off the beaten path for most foreign tourists.
- Desierto de la Tatacoa – the second largest arid zone in Colombia is Tatacoa Desert, which has surreal desert landscapes and some of the best stargazing in Colombia.
- Guatapé – a picturesque pueblo near Medellín known for its huge rock and lake. And it’s likely the most visited pueblo in Colombia by foreigners.
- La Guajira Peninsula – one of the most visually stunning places in South America, which is located on the northern tip of Colombia where the desert meets the sea.
- Las Lajas Sanctuary – the most beautiful church in Colombia, which has also been called the most beautiful church in the world.
- Medellín’s Christmas lights – Medellín’s annual world-class Christmas lights known as Alumbrados Navideños.
- Medellín’s Feria de Las Flores – Medellín’s world-famous flower festival each year.
- Parque Nacional Natural Los Nevados – a popular national park in Colombia located in the heart of the Colombian coffee region.
- Parque Tayrona – known for its beautiful beaches and the world’s highest coastal mountain range.
- Popayán – a colonial gem in Colombia best known for its white buildings and churches, it’s a city off the beaten path for foreign tourists but is definitely worth visiting.
- Rio Claro Nature Reserve – located about three hours from Medellín, Rio Claro is the perfect place to unplug from hectic daily life and enjoy a picturesque crystal-clear river, canyon and tropical rainforest.
- Salento and the Cocora Valley – Salento is a picturesque pueblo in Colombia’s coffee region and the nearby Cocora Valley is one of the most striking landscapes found in Colombia.
- San Agustín Archaeological Park – the largest group of pre-Columbian monuments and megalithic statues in South America and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- San Andrés – Colombia’s Caribbean island which is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve featuring many beaches, islets and coral reefs that are filled with flora and fauna.
- San Gil – Colombia’s adventure capital that is full of things to do including white water rafting, paragliding, caving, rappelling, hiking and much more.
- San Jose del Guaviare – a hidden gem and eco-tourism location off the beaten path and offering wildlife watching, jungle trekking and delving into Colombia’s prehistoric past.
Also, we included Caño Cristales in our list of the top 20 tourist attractions in Colombia.
The Bottom Line: Caño Cristales
Visiting Caño Cristales is more of an adventure trip, as it’s not so easily accessible. You need to get there by a combination of air, boat, 4×4 and some hiking.
But in my experience, it’s an unforgettable trip as the river is breathtakingly beautiful.
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Editors note: updated on July 15, 2019 with information that Caño Cristales was opened on June 14, 2019.