For half of the year, Caño Cristales looks like a rather normal river. However, the other half of the year (between the dry and wet seasons - ie. late June to November), the river comes to life with a dazzling multi-coloured rainbow-like display. Under the right seasonal conditions, the river's mosses and algaes bloom into a huge variety of shades of blue, yellow, green, red and orange (see photos to the right). Caño Cristales is, without doubt, unlike any other river - and a real privelege to visit.
Practicalities & Getting There
Caño Cristales is found in the Sierra de la Macarena in Colombia's Meta department, in the Serrania de Macarena National Park.
The Colombian airline Satena has return flights from Bogota to La Macarena for about 290,000 pesos (US $150) return. Travelling to the region overland/by boat is complicated (involving various buses, taking over 30 hours, starting in Villavicencio/ San Jose de Guaviare) and not very safe. You can also fly in tiny 4 seater planes from Villavicencio (priced similar to Satena flights from Bogota). It's simplest (and safest) to fly from Bogota with Satena.
For many years, Macarena used to be a base for guerrillas and Colombian drug traffickers, and somewhat beyond the reach of the law. That's all changed now and the village is regarded as safe to visit. There's a few simple, small hotels in La Macarena, where you'll need to spend a night before travelling onwards to Caño Cristales. From La Macarena, it's a 10 minute boat ride plus a scenic 4 hour walk (or 2 hours by horse, if there are any around), to the actual river. Plan to spend 2 or 3 nights in the area.
All visits are made by organized groups of up to 20 people led by local tour guides. It's fine to arrive and sort out your tour locally. To pre-book, try contacting Caminantes del Retorno (website in Spanish only) or see the page on Colombian travel agencies (NB. I know De Una Colombia Tours offer these group tours to Caño Cristales).
Is Caño Cristales safe?
Many areas of Colombia that were no-go areas during the 90's and early 00's are now considered safe to visit - Caño Cristales is one of them. Small numbers of tourists have been visiting since the site re-opened to tourists in 2009 (it had been closed to visitors for 3 years). There is now a large military presence in the area, who act as a deterrent for those bad guys/ terrorists. The FARC No.2 leader was killed not far from here in September 2010. At the moment, the UK FCO website advises against travel to this region of Colombia though....Is it safe then? The answer erring on the side of caution is - probably.....
When to Visit
Late June to November sees the mosses and algae spectacularly bloom. The colours are at there most amazing during the months of July to September inclusive. The rest of the year, you will almost certainly be disappointed.