The river where the rainbow drowned
olombia is Magic Realism. It was made so thanks to Garcia Marquez and to places like Caño Cristales. A heaven-on-earth bathed in quite unbelievable colours. “The most beautiful river in the world. The river where the rainbow went to die. The river that escaped from Paradise. The river of five colours”. This was how Columbian journalist, Andres Hurtado Garcia, described this most unusual river when he discovered it in the 70s. At that time it was a secret well kept from visitors. Forty years on, it has become a magnet for ecotourism, an iconic destination of Colombia and, while amed conflicts kept it isolated for several decades, 2010 it can once again be reached and enjoyed.
The river is found in the Guiana Shield rock formation. Formed 1.2 billion years ago, the Shield is one of oldest geological formations on the planet, pre-dating the Andes. It lies under Venezuela, Brazil and Columbia, and its tropical forests contain 15% of the planet’s fresh water reserves. Part of this 15% flows in the Caño Cristales (caño is the term for a short river) that runs through the Serrania de la Macarena province of the Meta Department of Colombia.
The Serranía de la Macarena can take pride in having one of the most varied selections of flora and fauna in the world, with 1,500 plant and 800 animal species found here. Primitive birds, ant-eating bears, jaguars, but no fish as they cannot live in waters that have no sediments.
None of the stretches of the 100-kilometre long Caño Cristales is more 20 metres in width, modest measurements indeed for a river. So the question is, what is so special about it? Well, quite simply, for approximately six months of the year, there is an explosion of colour underneath its waters that have put it on the list of “places to be seen before you die”. At the end of the rainy season in July, the water level drops, creating the best conditions for the aquatic plant macarenia clavigera to flower.
Its red and fuchsia tones reach their greatest splendour between September and November, and last until the reproductive phase begins.The park is open from July to November, though access is limited to 20 visitors per day under the policy of responsible tourism of Cormacarena (the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of AMEM – the Sierra de Macarena Special Reserve), which will also be responsible for preserving rock art in the region, which as yet has not been studied.
Caño Cristales forms part of the Sierra de la Macarena National Natural Park which was established in 1971 and which the Colombian government committed itself to protect and promote. “The river is the environmental symbol of the nation”, the Ministery of the Environment stated, “a place where the Orinoco, the Amazon rain forest and the Andean forests converge, in one of the oldest ecological places of interest in South America”.
Located 150 kilometres to the south of Bogota, there are a range of two-to-six-day excursions available to visit the coloured waters of Caño Paquetes, with departures from Villavicencio, Bogota or Medellin. Accommodation is available in Macarena though getting from there to the caño, is a real adventure: first, 20 minutes by launch on the river Guayabero, then a 50-minute horse ride along the Los Llanos grasslands, and finally an hour’s walk to the entry to the caño. The pay-off is an open air paradise, so hidden away that not even Google Maps is able to pinpoint it accurately.