Guerrilla warfare under the Liquid Rainbow, Caño Cristales
Caño Cristales is a river unlike any other in the world with its display of reds, pinks, whites and greens making this a natural wonder. Between June and November each year, the aquatic plant Macarenia Clavígera blooms to blanket the riverbed in colour. The best time of year to visit is August and September when the colours are at their most diverse and it rains less.
I had been hearing about this “Liquid Rainbow” for months but thought I would be long past Colombia by the time the river came into bloom. However, the vortex that is this beautiful country has kept pulling me back and three months after I first arrived in Colombia via Panama’s stunning San Blas Islands, I found myself in Bogota in late June.
Caño Cristales has survived an attempt by guerrilla group FARC to build a highway right across the river to transport drugs to Bogota, and bombing raids by the Colombian military when it took control of the park and the nearby town of La Macarana in 2001. Tourism began in 2009 and the majority of visitors are Colombians. Just 2,000 foreigners visit this river each year – something that is surely to radically change as security improves, and will bring new challenges to Caño Cristales.
About 8,000 soldiers are stationed here to control a 30km radius of the town, including the park but beyond that the territory is under the control of FARC making reaching Caño Cristales challenging. I had wanted to travel overland by boat and bus as the Colombian Government and FARC are in the process of securing a peace agreement. But I had been warned against taking the risk – and after arriving in the region I met Javier, an Environmental Engineer who was kidnapped by the guerrilla group in 2008 while working in the region and he said that despite the improved security, as a foreigner, I would almost certainly be abducted.
So, bullet avoided. With few direct flights operating until July from Bogota, I took a bus to city of Villavicencio, three hours south of Bogota, and then a very small plane (seats four or eight passengers depending on which one you take) to the town of La Macarena.
La Macarena, in Meta Department, is literally a one (well few) horse town on the Guayabero River in Meta Department. We arrived at the airport, which is a field on the edge of town, and watched as our bags were unloaded onto house and cart and brought to the terminal.
I was promptly adopted by a Bogotarian family who were on their annual family holiday. We booked a guide through the booking service at the airport but unfortunately our reservation was messed up and sadly it meant that on the only day with sun we were left waiting for our guide and ended up experiencing the river in the rain. I used three different guides during my visits to Caño Cristales and all were pretty poor unfortunately. Spanish speaking Gregorio comes well recommended and seemed passionate about the park and his job. Alejandro is the only guide who speaks very basic English. It is possible to book local English speaking foreign teachers as interpreters.
A limited number of visitors are admitted to the park each day so on weekends and during August and September it is strongly advised to book ahead.
Airlines fly to La Macarena from Medellin, Bogota and Villavicencio. They include Setana and TAC and several charters including T and A, fly from from Villavicencio. Other charters fly from both Villavicencio and Medellin. It is possible to arrive at Villavicencio airport and fly without a booking, but it is recommended to arrive early to ensure you secure a same day flight. I paid COP395,000 return with T and A but your bargaining position improves if you are a group. My Bogotarian friends paid COP200,000 per person for a family of four.
Note: The airport in La Macarena closes during heavy rain which occurs daily in June and July so be prepared to stay an extra night if the weather is unfavourable.
Tours: It is very easy to book everything independently and will save you between US$200-500 compared to booking an organised tour from Bogota or Medellin.
Guides cost COP130,000 per day, plus there is COP70,000 for the boat and COP85,000 for the car. It is possible to wait at the water taxi dock to join a group to split the cost of the boat and car.
You can book through a tour company for a three day trip including flights for US$530 or a two day package including accommodation can be booked on arrival for COP420,000.
Hotel: Hotel Mariana, COP40,000 per night for a single room with ensuite. Use of the kitchen is permitted.
Food: The cafe on the far side of the park towardS the boat dock has tasty two course meals including a drink for COP9,000.
Bar: On the edge of the park towards the boat dock is a bar that is great for watching football and Latin dancing.
Hostel in Villavicencio: Mochileros Hostel Villavicencio, COP25,000 for a dorm bed. Very helpful staff.