A complete guide for visiting Caño Cristales
What is Caño Cristales?
Caño Cristales is a river in Colombia that is known as the most beautiful river in the world. It is also known as the river of five colors. It is actually not a river that flows year-round, but one that flows from the rain waters during half the year. What makes it special and famous is that it has a unique plant only found here, Macarenia Clavigera. Visiting Caño Cristales is a once-in-a-lifetime activity that should be on everyone’s bucket-list!
Pink and crimson Macarenia Clavigera plants at Caño CristalesThis aquatic plant (not algae) adheres tightly to rocks in places where the river has faster current. The plant changes colors due to the amount of sunlight it receives. It starts out green and when it receives sunlight it changes to yellow, orange, pink and dark pink (crimson).
For this reason it is also referred to as the liquid rainbow!
Is it safe to go there?
Yes! It used to be unsafe due to the conflict and had presence of armed groups there,
but for several years it has been safe and there is a military base there now and you can see
military patrols and more than half of the visitors are international visitors that don’t have problems.
Visiting Caño Cristales is absolutely safe.
Where is it?
Caño Cristales is located in Colombia, in the department of Meta, and the town closest to it is called La Macarena.
When to go?
The season begins in June and lasts until the end of November. You can go other times of year, but will not see the plants and colors of the water and the river might even be dry. Some say the ideal time for visiting Caño Cristales is September or October because it is not as rainy as other months during the season.
How do you get there?
The easiest and safest way to get there is flying directly to La Macarena. Satena is the only commercial airline that flies there. Otherwise you can get chartered flights that might be more expensive and irregular. In 2019, there were flights going on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays, but best to check directly with Satena. Tickets are usually between 450.000-700.000 COP. Since they are smaller planes you can only have a 15kg /33 pound bag, And 5kg/10 pounds for carry-on.
Note that they aren’t regular sized airplanes, but more like 32 passenger planes…like a private jet!
You can also get there by land, but it is advised against. The conditions of the roads are not always safe and subject to vehicles getting stuck in the mud in the rainy season. I met someone who got there by road and they showed me a picture of an upside-down car they passed!
Visiting Caño Cristales is already an adventure, but if you want to make it even more adventurous
you can get there by road from 3 different routes:
Through Florencia, Caquetá (10-hour bus from Bogotá).
Then you take a shared taxi 2 hours to San Vicente del Caguán.
Then a jeep that takes you to la Macarena in 4.5 hours.
Total time: Approximately 18 hours. (from Bogotá)
Through Neiva (5-hour bus from Bogotá) and then you get in a jeep that takes you to San Vincente del Caguán
in 6 hours. And then 6 hours to la Macarena.
Total time: Approximately 17 hours. (from Bogotá)
Through San José del Guaviare. You get to Villavicencio (around 2 hours from Bogotá), and 5 hours to San José del Guaviare and then 5 hours to la Macarena. Total Time: Approximately 12 hours (from Bogotá)
By Boat from San José del Guaviare
The municipality of Macarena connects with the municipality of San José del Guaviare through the Guayabero river on a route that lasts approximately eight (hours). This is usually only done one day a week (Saturdays).
Where can you stay?
There are several guesthouses, hotels and even a hostel with dorms in La Macarena for you to stay at when visiting Caño Cristales. There are also “fincas” or more rural accommodation around the town of la Macarena. Prices vary from 35,000 pesos for a bed in a hostel, to 40.000 for a room for one person, 80.000 for a room for two people, etc.
How long should you go for?
I went on a 5 day tour and that was ideal and this is why: The day we were going to fly to la Macarena the conditions weren’t good and the airport was closed and we couldn’t fly out until the next day. Also, there are actually a few things to see besides Caño Cristales, as there is beautiful nature all around and you want more than 1 day at Caño Cristales in case the weather isn’t great when you go. It is important to note that the colors of the water vary drastically if the sun is shining (when it’s raining you don´t see the colors as bright). Most people visiting Caño Cristales go for a long weekend.
What should you pack/bring?
Keep in mind that this area has a tropical climate. It is hot during the day with a strong sun.
When visiting Caño Cristales you should definitely take:
-More than one pair of shoes keeping in mind that the ones you’ll wear when visiting Caño Cristales will get wet, and that you can´t go in flip flops, but best done in sneakers or hiking boots as you have to walk up to an hour to get to the main attraction points from the entrance of the park depending on how fast you walk.
-A hat for protection from the sun as well as for long sleeves for sun protection as wearing sun block is prohibited is prohibited when visiting Caño Cristales there to avoid the chemicals that kill the colorful plants. Besides that, bring a rain jacket or poncho, and a bathing suit. Keep in mind that it is usually hot and sunny during the day, but the temperature drops in the evenings and you´ll want a sweater, jacket, etc.
-Cash in case the ATM isn’t working in town.
How much is it to go to Caño Cristales?
That depends how you do it. If you do it independently or in a tour. I usually like to do things independently, but this time chose to go on a tour where everything was included and it actually felt nice to be able to relax and have the tour take care of everything. I went with Promotora Belisario Marin
and had a wonderful experience with them and for my 5-day tour including accommodation, food, guides, entrance fees, etc. it was 1.800.000 pesos. It can definitely be done for less if you go by land. Either way, visiting Caño Cristales is a once in a lifetime thing and is worth the investment!
More than just a river
Besides the absolute beauty and main-attraction of the colors of the river, Visiting Caño Cristales is worth it alone to see the landscapes and nature in this region. This area is called the Serrania de la Macarena It is unique as it is the junction of 3 different ecosystems rich in diversity of flora and fauna: The Andes Mountains, the Amazon and the Eastern plains or Llanos Orientales.
The area is home to about 420 species of birds, 10 species of amphibians, 43 species of reptiles, and eight primates. When I went, I saw a sloth on a boat trip and the guides showed me videos on their phones of Jaguar sightings!
What to pack or bring
List with examples of the gear from Amazon
-Long sleeve shirts for sun protection: https://amzn.to/3fNzIgH
-Hat for sun protection like these: https://amzn.to/2SZCuFS
-Hiking pants (preferably with zipper to convert to shorts when warm during day), like these: https://amzn.to/3fy02Lz
-I recommend hiking sandals like these for your feet to breathe: https://amzn.to/2AqzYSy
-Waterproof outer shell, like these: https://amzn.to/2yGNtwH for when it is rainy.
-Head torch/flashlight, like this one: https://amzn.to/2WhrQMM
-Sunglasses (I recommend Polarized), like these: https://amzn.to/2zjzq0j
-Chapstick preferably with SPF sun protection (sun can be strong, especially on summit day)
-Camera or phone for pictures. I recommend compact mirrorless cameras like these: https://amzn.to/35NBbz0
-Powerbank for electronics you will want to charge when away from outlets . Like these: https://amzn.to/2YMY3NB
ATM and Banking
-Take cash with you to avoid having issues if the ATM in la Macarena is not working.
-You need a yellow fever vaccination, but they don´t always ask for it. To avoid problems, get vaccinated as it is convenient to do (and often done for free or close to it at airports and the Red Cross so and bring your proof of vaccination.
SIM Card and connectivity
-When visiting Caño Cristales, the only mobile operators that work in la Macarena are
Claro and Avantel. You can buy a SIM and data plan for around $5 USD at shops in town.
Expectations and taking care of Caño Cristales
Take care of this special place
–NEVER step on the colorful plants and avoid touching them, so as not to kill them.
– DO NOT wear mosquito repellent or sunblock when you go to Caño Cristale
-It is good to know in advance that there are MANY factors that will affect how you see the river.
The first is if you get a sunny day when you go as the colors look very different on a gray day or
a sunny day. I went 2 days to visit Caño Cristales because the first day it rained a lot and the colors looked dull, whereas on the second day the colors were vibrant when the sun was bright. The level of the water will also be a factor, as the plants will be closer or further from the surface of the water. When visiting Caño Cristales expect to see something unique and beautiful, not for it to look exactly like it did in some pictures!
Recommended Tour Agency that I did my trip to Caño Cristales with:
Promotora Belisario Marin