Caño Cristales, Colombia: Interesting Facts about this Incredible River

Caño Cristales Colombia

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Caño Cristales is a Colombian river known for its incredibly unique and vivid colors, giving it the nickname: “the river of five colors”. Located in Serrania de la Macarena National Park, this river rainbow boasts colors of black, blue, red, green and yellow which all come to their fullest expression in the months of May to November. Many regard this river as the world’s most beautiful. 

Caño Cristales Colombia

Why is Caño Cristales Called: “The River of Five Colors”?

Every year, during the short window between the wet and dry seasons, Caño Cristales transforms from what seems like your average looking river into a biological wonderland. How does this river change color you might ask? Well, a unique water plant called Macarenia clavigera is responsible for this change.   This water plant (not to be confused with algae) turns a vivid red color. It then mixes with sand, water and other plants to produce this kaleidoscope of color. Macarenia clavigera needs a certain amount of sunlight to flourish, which is why during the wet season it becomes harder to see, as the river becomes higher and the flow of water hides the plant which grows on the riverbed. 

How Long is Caño Cristales?

The total length of Caño Cristales is 62 miles (100 kilometres) but the river doesn’t exceed more than 20 meters wide. The river isn’t the widest or heaviest flowing river in the world, however it’s easily one of the most unique.   Caño Cristales is divided into two main sections. One section is home to the beautiful Los Hoyos waterfalls, Cascada de la Virgen and Cascada de los Cuarzos. While the other arm of the river boasts the epic El Salto del Aguila. 

Where is Caño Cristales Located?

Serrania de la Macarena National Park, in the Meta province of central Colombia, is where you will find the magical Caño Cristales. The closest town is a place called La Macarena, so the best way to visit is to take a flight. From La Macarena you will be able to find an accredited guide to take you into the national park or link up with your tour operator for a fully guided experience.

How do I Reach Caño Cristales?

The best way to reach Caño Cristales is by booking a tour and leaving from the town of La Macarena. There is actually a rule in Colombia that tourists aren’t allowed to enter the national park without a licensed tour guide. Flights to La Macarena can be booked from Bogota, Medellin or Villavicencio. Some tour operators (like us at Osprey Expeditions) include flights in the package. 

When is the Best Time to Visit Caño Cristales?

The official advised window for visiting the river is between the months of May and November. However, if you want to see “the river of five colors” in all its colorful glory then you should plan to visit in September or October.

During these months the red color is more intense and makes for a more unique experience. Everything depends on having the right amount of rainfall, so the river is not too dry but not overflowing as well – providing the perfect conditions for the Macarenia clavigera water plant to be seen. 

That being said, September and October are the peak months and there will be more tourists around during this time. Therefore, you might want to visit the river at the start of the season (May) if you want to avoid the influx of tourists. The choice is yours and there are no right or wrong answers. 

Do I Need to Join a Tour to Visit Caño Cristales?

The short answer is yes. However, it’s still possible to visit independently but you will need to be accompanied by a licensed guide and apply for a permit to enter the national park. The permits are limited in number and normally get snapped up by agencies. Our recommendation is to book with a tour agency to have a smoother and more enjoyable experience at the river. 

Our Caño Cristales tour at Osprey Expeditions gives you the opportunity to spend three wonderful days in and around the river. Day 1 sees you take an enthralling boat ride on the winding Guayabero River. Amazing wildlife can  be seen on this journey such as monkeys, macaws and even crocodiles! Then it’s a 4×4 drive to Cajuche Spring to begin hiking to majestic natural pools. 

The following day involves an adventure to the Brazo Pianos side of Caño Cristales with its stunning colors, pools and waterfalls. After a full day of fun activities in the river, it’s back to La Macarena for a delicious dinner and a cultural show. Day 3 (the final day) sees you visiting Los Ochos, Piscina del Turista and Piscina Karol Cristal – all beautiful spots especially when it’s sunny! 

Our tours are just great! Check them out!

Top 5 Attractions & Sights of Caño Cristales

The highlight of Caño Cristales is of course the river itself! But the river is long and it can be hard to know where to start on your exploration. There are a number of trails in the park that take you to different sections of the river – not only that but to epic waterfalls, natural pools and beautiful viewpoints. Below are some of the top attractions and sights of Caño Cristales to add to your list:

  1. Cascada de la Virgen 
  2. Los Pianos Waterfalls 
  3. Los Ochos 
  4. Cascada de los Cuarzos 
  5. Piscina del Turista 

Cascada de la Virgen presents a series of waterfalls with gorgeous colors accentuated by the red of the Macarenia clavigera. There is one hole at the waterfall which boasts a bright yellow color – it almost resembles a yellow colored eye! It’s very impressive and a place that photographers will love. 

Los Pianos Waterfalls has a section where you climb up and enter the bottom of the main falls. This is where you can bathe and soak in the energy of the water. The reason why it’s called “Los Pianos” is because the falls tumble down zigzagging steps, with each drop producing a unique sound. 

One of the biggest highlights of Caño Cristales is certainly Los Ochos, a true visual spectacle! Each small waterfall here falls through these gaps into naturally formed tunnels/holes. The holes differ in size, from teeny-tiny ones to massive holes with a lot of water flow. It can be dangerous if you step too close to the deeper holes, so just proceed with caution at this destination. 

Another fantastic waterfall along the river is Cascada de los Cuarzos. The falls here tumble onto a massive rock and there is a small cave which you can explore under the waterfall. Before arriving at Cascada de los Cuarzos, be sure to locate the swimming hole for another chance to cool down on a hot day. 

The final recommendation is Piscina del Turista: an open area that resembles a small lake with a river passing through it. You can go swimming, relax and have lunch, and take plenty of photos of this unique spot in Caño Cristales. 

How to Experience the River in a Eco-Friendly Way

Don’t touch the Macarenia clavigera water plant, as this plant is the reason why Caño Cristales is so special. Don’t mess around with it. Don’t use sunscreen, mosquito repellent or any other creams while swimming in the river or falls, it can damage the fragile ecosystem.

  • To protect yourself from mosquitos and the sun, long sleeve shirts and long pants are recommended. Make sure they are light and breathable. Bring a hut and sunglasses too for even more sun protection. Leave no trace, pack out what you pack in, and if you see any rubbish collect it and place it in the bin. Leave the river better than you found it. Don’t smoke, vape or drink alcohol at the river. 
  • Wear a decent pair of hiking shoes or boots – you will need them. Bring an extra change of clothes if you plan on swimming. Use a refillable, eco-friendly water bottle. Plastic bottles are prohibited. Make sure the tour agency you book upholds eco-friendly principles. 

Need to Know Before you Go

A Yellow Fever vaccine is highly recommended. Bring records of this to La Macarena just in case you need to show proof of vaccination. Be careful when walking around Los Ochos. Some of the waterholes there are deep and you could severely hurt yourself if you fall down. Book your tour with our team at Osprey Expeditions. You will love it. Take plenty of photos and just enjoy the moment at this paradise!

Caño Cristales Colombia

Serranía de la Macarena is an isolated mountain range located in the Meta Department, Colombia. It was named after the Virgin of Hope of Macarena. The mountains are separated by about 40 km (25 mi) at their northern extreme from the East Andes. The range is orientated from north to south and is 120 km (75 mi) in length and 30 km (19 mi) wide. The highest peak (“El Gobernador”, the governor) reaches 2,615 m (8,579 ft) and is the highest point of the Orinoquía Region. The first national reserve in Colombia was established in the central part of the mountain range in accordance with a Congressional Law promulgated in 1948. The status of National Natural Park was designated in 1971 and the protected area encompasses 6,200 km2 (2,400 sq mi).

Flora and Fauna around La Macarena National Park (Wikipedia)

The national park encompasses the ecologically unique meeting point for the flora and fauna of the AmazonOrinoco and Andes regions. The area is of tropical climate and temperatures range from 42 °F (5.5 °C) to 88 °F (31 °C). These aspects help to maintain a high level of biodiversity with numerous endemic and rare species.

The ecosystems found within the park include rainforestdry forest, shrublands and savanna. The mountains are home to around 50 known species of orchids, and botanists studying the area have identified more than 2,400 other species of plants. Of those, over 400 can also be found in the Orinoquía subregions. The plants in the Macarena have even less overlap with the 8,000 species in the Amazon subregions.

The ecosystem’s fauna includes anteaters, jaguars, cougars, deer, 8 species of monkeys, 500 species of birds including the gray-legged tinamou, 1,200 species of insects and 100 species of reptiles.