CAÑO CRISTALES – TOP 20 THINGS TO KNOW BEFORE YOU GO!
Caño Cristales is one of those magical places that you might have not heard of yet, but once you do, it is high up on your bucket list. It is a river which hosts underwater plants (yep, no algae – they are aquatic plants) in different colors. You often hear about the “River of 5 colors” , since there is a color variation of red shades, black, green, blue and yellow that is given in a certain time during the year and made this river so famous. This firework of colors is caused by a unique phenomena: the Macarenia clavigera. A red plant which is growing in the riverbed a few months per year. The other colors are created by the sunlight reflections on the water and come mostly from dark black rocks, green algae, the crystal clear blue water and the shiny yellow sand.
The river of Caño Cristales is located in the national park in the Serrania de la Macarena province of Meta, Colombia. It is known to be the most beautiful river in the world as it is such a colorful spectacle.
I went to see this phenomenal natural wonder this year and find, that any information online was either not appropriate, or very old or just not given at all. So I decided to provided you with a detailed Q&A so you can enjoy your stay to the fullest.
Caño Cristales – All you need to know before you go
1) What is the best time to go and see Caño Cristales?
The underwater plants only grow with a certain water level. These special conditions apply to a few months per year. Travel Agents say you can see the flowers from May through to November (although time frames they tell you will vary). I spoke to many locals, who confirmed the best 2 months would be around mid July until mid September. I’ve been at the beginning of October. While I was lucky to still have rich colors, I wasn’t very lucky with the weather. At the best places to see I usually had rain on my tours, while my days off were full of sun. But you can’t have it all I guess 😉
The sun indeed plays a huge role for the variety of colors of Caño Cristales as otherwise you normally see ‘only’ the red and green plants.
2) How can you get to La Macarena?
So far all agencies and travel consultants will tell you there is only one way into La Macarena: via flight. And I have to say, there was not only a good reason for it a few years back (read point 14), but also it is the most convenient and time-saving way.
There is only one Airline who serves the airport of La Macarena, the gateway to Caño Cristales. The Airline Satena flies three times per week on Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays (Status: October 2016) to as well as from La Macarena. There are 2 airports you can leave from, it’s either Bogotá with Satena or with a chartered flight from Villavicencio.
I highly recommend to book during week days, so you can skip the huge weekend groups from Colombian families who run over this place for a weekend trip. So Friday to Wednesday or Friday to Friday would be a good call to visit Caño Cristales.
There are local buses going to La Macarena but you won’t get long distance buses, as far all my information and research went. I met a traveler couple who came from Florencia by bus. The tour company Flota la Macarena has bus routes into the Meta departamento and you can check whether you will find a proper route for yourself.
Going by bus though comes with some security measures. When you are entering the departamento of Meta you have to register with the military or local police, leave your personal details, passport number etc.. so they know who is entering the region and who leaves again (so on the way back you do have to check out as well). On the way you most likely get checked again and if the Military or Police is not happy about you entering via land route they might reject you from continuing the journey (Status: October 2016). This is all about security rather than any tourist control scheme and they just want to make sure about who enters the region (see more at point 14).
3) How to organize a place to stay by yourself?
Stay at Doris for 30.000 – 40.000 pesos per night in a private room including bathroom. She owns a nice little hotel not far from the airport, but far enough from the loud bars and with comfy beds. These are very basic rooms but all of them have a TV too, in case you want to get into a Colombian TV show after a long day of trekking.
The hotel has some hammocks, you get coffee for free and you can refill your drink water as well as often as you like, which is a huge plus. As you can not take any plastic bottles into the park (see more at point 10) you can also lend a 1.5l or a 2.1l hard plastic bottle in the hotel for your hiking day for free. Doris usually waits at the airport on flight days and wears a bright green shirt with a parrot and her name printed on it. You won’t miss her. Just go and talk to her.
In case you’ll rather stay in the busy part of the town you can just head down along the main road and go to any of the hostales or hotels and ask for a room. There are too many to be booked out. Here are some names that I heard good things about:
Hotel la Cascada, Hotel Punto Verde, Hostal Santa Maria
4) Do I need a guide or book a tour to go and see Caño Cristales?
Yes you do. The National Park as well as the Cormacarena (Corporation for the Sustainable Development of La Macarena) are responsible for the regulations of Caño Cristales. For each day and each trail there are only a certain numbers of licenses which can be purchased, which means there is limited access to the National Park and its colorful sights. Without guide and tour you will not be allowed into the National Park area. Since the access is only via motor boat and Jeep you will have to go through 2 check points to verify that you are with a guide and you have a valid license.
The positive side? These regulations will hopefully keep this magical place alive for still a while so our children kid’s will be able to enjoy it, too.
5) How to get a Caño Cristales tour?
You have several options in La Macarena. Know that there is the official association which has the final decision about guides and tour bookings, so if you have special requests you might as well ask them. Here are some of your options, that I can recommend:
PRE-BOOK VIA DORIS (via e-mail)
If you stay with Doris (or even somewhere else but want to book with her) she offers to pre-organize tours via email with you (get in contact here). That’s pretty good since her travel agency can organize your license and park entrance tickets for you and you’ll be sure you can go on the Caño Cristales tour you wish . After speaking with travelers in our hotel, they liked the tour a lot and they were happy about this service. Doris seems to also offer good prices, too so it definitely won’t hurt to ask. If you pre-book make sure to mention which places you want to see, to get the most out of your visit.
BOOK A TOUR THROUGH THE OFFICIAL ASSOCIATION
If you like to have a private tour or a certain guide (e.g. because of recommendations) it is a good idea to go to the official booking association for Caño Cristales tours. It’s easy to find: just go opposite of the airport, into a shop what looks like a big open garage with two set up desks and some huge posters and information next to it. Every tour guide and company has to be registered with them, so this is the central hub where daily tours are organised and guides will be sorted out and directed to all tour companies and booked tours for the day.
Prices are usually set, so I am not sure about chances for discounts but they probably do group discounts, too. So if you find like-minded travelers on the road, pick them up and drag them to your favorite office to book.
GET TOURS FROM CAROLINA
(small office, 2 doors on the right next to airport entrance – just ask for her)
We went with Carolina the second day and were definitely happy with her prices and services after our first day was somehow chaotic and not well organised (we went with another company that was not quite great for the first day to be honest). Our guide on day 2 was definitely more prepared , too. We did stretching exercises before the walk (this was a 12 km walk to be done, so a superb idea to start with) and she kept our pace rather than her own. Definitely liked her and the day a lot and Carolina did organize a lot for us, since we only swapped to her company the day before.
If you book via arrival make sure you can join a Caño Cristales tour to places you like to go and see and ask which trail licenses are available before you book.
6) Which places should you see?
These days there are 3 main trails (in Spanish: Sendero) available. Also Caño Cristales hosts about 6 or 7 trails, those are the ones which will be offered mostly to you and are hosting beautiful places along the river. Here is a little overview about the 3 main trails:
SENDERO LOS PIANOS ~ 5-6 km
The hiking will take about 3 hours, you will see 3 to 4 different places along the river with beautiful aquatic plants, different colors and little waterfalls. For lunch break you stop at an amazing waterfall with natural pool where you will not only eat lunch but you can also swim in this lush waters. The whole day takes about 5 hours as you will have some smaller breaks on the way too and you will have to take a boat and Jeep for a total of about 45 min. to your starting point for the Caño Cristales tour.
SENDERO EL ALGUILA ~ 12 km
This is a beautiful hike, about 5.5 hours with a big waterfall you can stand underneath, a stunning place where huge water holes have been built into the rocks, the aquatic plants have bright and beautiful colors and you will see many different places on the way. It is good to know that this hike definitely is not for some Sunday stroll and has some places with tricky parts of the trail, so you want to make sure you are fit to do it.
SENDERO INTERMEDIO ~8-10 km
This is the Caño Cristales trail to take, if you want to see the beautiful colors of the river but also swim in the amazing lagunas and still having enough variety of the different kind of places that Caño Cristales has to offer. It takes a bout 4 hours walking time plus some break time at a nice spot.
7) What prices do you have to expect to see Caño Cristales ?
The 1st day is more expensive for all agencies, because you’ll pay your license and park entrance on top. You will have to join an introduction lesson before you go, where you will get 2 wrist bands, which are your license and park entrance. Do not take them off the entire time of your stay, as you will need to show them, every time you enter the National Park.
If you go with a bigger group (4 -10 other people) do not pay more than 220.000 pesos for the first day all-inclusive (Boat, Jeep, packed Lunch, Guide, Introduction, license and Park entrance fees) – you might be able to get it cheaper, but most likely only if you book ahead.
For all your following days you should not pay more than 150.000 pesos if you go with the same company & group everyday. Unless you have a private tour (then it will be more expensive for a private guide) the prices should not be higher for follow-up days. You should not only get group discount but also multiple day discount. Ask for it and don’t let them off without ,) Also remember you don’t need to pay license and entrance fees any more so this needs to be taken off your fee as well.
8) The tour – what can you expect from the day?
Before you leave on your first day tour, you will have to go to the building of the Cormacarena for an introduction lesson, to make sure you know all about the rules and do’s and don’ts and how to behave. Only after you visited this lesson you will receive your licenses and entrance ticket.
Then it depends on the trail you do, what time you leave. The day usually starts between 8-9 am, you will meet up in your group at a meeting point and walk down to the boats. After a short boat ride you will arrive at the first check point. Every one will have to step forward, show their wrist bands, confirm names and their bags will get checked for all items (more at point 10). After the check you will be brought to the start point of the trek by Jeep. This can be a bumpy ride especially if you sit on the back, so if you suffer from back injuries, make sure to sit inside of the Jeep. The ride will take about 40min and is rough but you’ll see some nice landscape of the national park already.
After you arrived the second check point you will get ready to hike. Here is when your Caño Cristales tour starts and your guide leads the way.
9) What to pack for the hiking day?
Weather is unpredictable for the hike and since you are out all day you want to be prepared. There are a few things to know and to take care of when you are heading out to Caño Cristales so make sure you don’t forget about them. Here is a packing list with all necessary items:
- Long & airy/light hiking pants
- Light long sleeve (best is white or bright colours , no black) to prevent sun burns
- Hat / Cap (to prevent heat stroke)
- Light Scarf or Shawl (to prevent sunburns)
- Minimum 3l water for the day (to keep yourself hydrated – you walk mostly in full sun!) filled in a water bladder or hard plastic bottle only (buy one for about $2 (1.5l bottle) or lend it in your hotel/hostel and fill it up)
- Water proof hiking boots or comfortable shoes that can get wet and have good grip
- Swimsuit & Towel
- Raincoat or Poncho
- Waterproof bag or rain cover for bag (to keep your valuables safe, it rains heavy, when it rains)
- Pair of change socks (in case the others get wet)
- Small first aid kit and personal medication (if needed)
10) What to leave in your hotel – and why!
Now that you know what to pack in your bag, you will want to know what you should leave in the hotel. There are rules for the National Park what you are allowed to take in, too which means that some items you will have to leave even so you might like to take or use them. Please make sure you respect the rules of the National Park. These rules have been made to safe the environment and keep this magical place as magical as possible. Any chemicals (followed in the list) are forbidden as they can be released in the water and damage the organism and kill the aquatic plants. Now here are the items that you will not allowed to take in and even not use at the days of your hike:
- Sunblock is not allowed to be applied on skin aswell you won’t be allowed to take it in
- Do not apply mosquito repellent on skin and do not pack it
- Military clothes or any camouflage patterns are not allowed
- Do not use any other shampoos, conditioner or any chemicals at the days of trek (as you most likely go to swim and they can wash out in the water)
- Don’t take any plastic bags (also no food in plastic wraps, get paper bags if needed)
- Normal plastic drink bottles which are disposable are not allowed – you can only take thermal bottles, water bladders or drink bottles like you’ll get in a fitness studio (hard plastic)
- Leave Jewellery, Expensive Watches, Money and any valuables at hotel
- Keep your Personal Documents in hotel safe
- Leave cigarettes and any burning material (or worse any other drugs) in hotel, too
11) Other rules for the national park and the visit of Caño Cristales
- Do not leave ANY trash in the national park, take it with you
- Don’t leave the trail or stay back alone
- Only swim in recreational pools when allowed
- Don’t touch the plants, don’t collect or take anything, even not a small stone
12) What & Where to eat in La Macarena
Every evening you will find a small food market near the park. Go and see Angelica & Maria from “Mona’s Rica Empanadas” right next to the street. The empanadas and patatas rallenas are super tasty and good value and their natural juice drinks are yummy, too! Say hello from me and practise some English with them 😉
Just opposite of the park you’ll find a big panaderia. This bakery serves nice coffee, a great variety on buns and sweets. You also receive the parks wifi here so enjoy a little chat with friends while sipping your coffee.
Walking towards the end of the main road (ends in a super small petrol station for the boats at the river), you will find a little restaurant just besides a hotel. It serves local food for a good price, such as nice fish with mixed rice. You can also ask for any other things on the menu and they are happy to apply some extras for you, too.
If that’s not for you, there are still plenty of options, local food, bakeries or some more “western” food (other side of park on ride side of church). No worries, you don’t have to stay hungry.
13) How to pack your own food for the Caño Cristales tour?
If you like to take some more food (like fruit or some breads for example) on your hike, please remember to not pack them into any plastic bags (or you will have to leave them at the check point). You can get paper bags easily for some cents at Mona’s Ricas Empanadas, they are happy to sell them to you. The bags are perfect to pack your food and take it on the hike as well as collect any trash you might create.
14) General things to know about La Macarena
La Macarena has an own military base just next to the airport. You’ll find many military officers and guards throughout the town, carrying rifles and other weapons. For many years now, the national park and surrounded areas have been a “home” and business place for the Colombian FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, know as guerilla group). Once a ‘red zone’ , La Macarena is now totally safe to travel to, not only because the military has its base there and is present 24/7. The guerilla groups have not been active for some years now in this areas and have only used some very remote, for tourists not accessible, areas of the national park for their business. If you are concerned about the FARC being a danger, you might rather be concerned about breaking your ankle while walking the trails 😉 Hence, it is for sure safe to go to La Macarena.
15) Is there an ATM in town?
Yes. Yeah! The town does have an ATM now, other than one or two years ago. Keep in mind it is new and not yet regularly serviced. I would therefore recommend to bring enough cash (Colombian Pesos) from wherever you come from. We had 2.5 out of 4 days without electricity (yep, happens here most likely again) – and that also means the cash machine won’t work. So even though there is an ATM (BTW. with high fees, about 10.500 pesos) I’d highly recommend not to rely on it. You’ll still find it in the road that leads back into town opposite of the park. Don’t believe Google Maps, there is so far only the Banco Agrario ATM available. The Bancolombia Branch is just an entry but I was not able to locate it nor did the locals know about it.
16) What else is to do in La Macarena?
If you are having a day off from the Caño Cristales you can still go and enjoy a nice day out. You can either book a tour, for example to Cristalitos. This is another river, with beautiful aquatic plants, not as popular but still nice to visit. Agencies also offer a sunrise tour to a nearby farm, with horseback riding to the nearby Caño Piedra. This can be booked as well in a combined tour with a visit on a turtle hatch farm (aaaaw!). Or you just save some dollars and go by yourself. From town it’s a 2hr walk (or a 30-40min motor taxi drive). But the place itself is beautiful, has an amazing laguna where you can swim, and if you follow it you’ll find a bigger part of the river with beautiful plants, too. And we had it all to ourselves!
17) Where can I find wifi?
Literally – only in the parque principal (the main park). I have not found any hotel or hostal to offer wifi, as well no restaurants who offer them. Their are about 3 internet shops that you can try, but they seem to be just as slow as the public wifi in the park. Your phone will most likely not receive enough service for 2G or any higher internet connection, so you might as well just take a few days off-line 😉
18) What mobile network works in La Macarena?
There is only one mobile network which you can use in La Macarena: Claro. Although reception is very low, you can receive some 2G internet in some places nearby the airport or public park. Everything a bit further back will cut you off or slow you down immensely. When I tried to send a message on whats app (about 10 words) it sometimes took an hour to send.
19) How to get around?
That’s the easiest part – just walk 😉 It won’t take you longer than 10-15 Min. across all of La Macarena, if you are a slow-walker. If you like to go any further than that, you can hire a motor taxi (similar to a tuk tuk) to get you out of town.
20) What else should you know?
Just some miscellaneous quick facts for you, so you can totally enjoy your journey to Caño Cristales:
- Satena allows a little hand luggage of 5kg as well as one checked-in luggage with 15kg – they fly small planes with only up to 46 seats so make sure you stick to the measurements
- Did I mention you’ll fly in a small plane with only up to 46 seats? Alright 😉
- Have a water proof phone case with you, you never know
- You need to proof that you have a yellow fever vaccination to the airline and it needs to be older than 10 days before your day of travel
- As mosquito repellents are not allowed, it is a good idea to have Malaria pills with you. As I personally do not like to take them for prevention (as they are strong medication and can have massive side effects) my doctor in the tropical institute recommended to take a package of Malarone (atovaquone/proguanil hydrochlorid) with me. That can be taken as soon you have any symptoms that could relate to Malaria. Make sure to take full dose for the full lengths of time that is described on package and to go to a doctor asap.
That should be all. Now go and enjoy this beautiful, stunning natural wonder that you won’t find anywhere else in the world!
Did I miss anything that you would like to add? Do you have another question I can answer for you? Let me know in the comments!