A little tempted by the dreamy images on Instagram I decided to visit the colourful river Caño Cristales, located in national park Serranía La Macarena. It is challenging to pay this area a visit without an organised tour. But to be honest, I enjoy the struggles of self-organised trips. In this post you will find information about Caño Cristales, other special rivers in this area, the village La Macarena and practical information to plan your trip.
I would like to start this post with a disclaimer. Caño Cristales is a beautiful river. However, only 2 to 3 days a year the river will resemble the (often edited) images on the internet. You have to be lucky. The pictures in this post were taken on ‘bad days’ (when I visited La Macarena it rained every day – all day). The rain was a bummer. Nonetheless, I had a great time exploring this astonishing area. Visiting La Macarena is a unique experience and definitely worth 3 to 4 days on your travel itinerary.
Caño Cristales is the name of the river that flows through national park Serranía de La Macarena. The rivier is famous for its colourful algae that grows in July, August, September and October. The other months the river stream is too fast and there is not enough sun for the algae to grow. The algae named Macarenia Clavijera are native to the area and you cannot find them anywhere else in the world. You will also find bizar rock formations, waterfalls and other special rivers in this area. Besides, it is an experience in itself to stay in the village La Macarena.
What I experienced in the village La Macarena I have not experienced in any of the other villages I visited in Colombia. Firstly, I was very impressed with the measures that the inhabitants of the village took to preserve the health of the algae in the river Caño Cristales. Visitors are obliged to pay an ‘eco-tax’ by purchasing a bracelet before they can enter the village or the national park. Moreover, visitors must attend a compulsory information session about Caño Cristales before they can enter the national park.
Another thing I loved about La Macarena was the vibe. Wi-Fi is scarce. To get online you can score a bar or two in the main square of the village, which then became a meeting place for villagers. La Macarena region was unsafe for a long time. Because of this there were a lot of soldiers and at some point I felt like the majority of the villagers were soldiers. The area is safe now but the soldiers are still around and they mostly focus on protecting the national park. As it turned out they are also up for a nice chat with tourists.
I was infatuated with the stray dogs in La Macarena. These happy creatures did not have an owner or a home. But, the inhabitants of La Macarena treated the stray dogs very well and regularly gave the dogs food or water. I felt like the stray dogs formed a bond between the people in La Macarena, and the village was also the dogs home.
CAÑO CRISTALES, CRISTALITOS AND PIEDRA
Caño Cristales is a famous river that flows through La Macarena. What a lot of people don’t know is that Caño Cristales has a sibling: Caño Cristalitos. This river is smaller but features the same famous algae and therefore is just as colourful. It is a very nice hike to this river where you will pass kings (or queens?) rock. You will also pass special rock formations which are sometimes covered in the colourful algae. If you want to switch your trip up you can also visit Caño Piedra. This is a crystal blue rivier about an hour away from La Macarena by TukTuk.
To my knowledge there are two ways to reach La Macarena: by air or or by land. You can book your flight from Bogotá with airline Satena. To travel to this village by land is a little more complicated. Reason for this is that you can take a jeep to travel to La Macarena, however it is unclear from where and when these jeeps depart. The jeep that departs from the busstation in Neiva to La Macarena is the only route I am familiar with. But, I know for a fact that there are more jeep routes, but I have not been able to discover them. However, Neiva can be on your route if you visit the Tatacoa dessert in the south of Colombia.
Online there are a few accommodations you can book. If you travel on a smaller budget I recommend you not to book in advance and roam around the village to look for accommodation. Within 15 minutes you can pass through the entire village and there are plenty of hostales and recidencias where you can stay for a good price including breakfast.
PLAN YOUR TOUR
There is no possibility to enter national park La Macarena without a guide. You are allowed to enter the national park when wearing the tourist bracelet you are obliged to purchase upon arrival in La Macarena. Book your tour to Caño Cristales, Cristalitos or Piedra at the airport. Please be aware that there is a slight chance the tours to Caño Cristales are completely booked and you might need to wait a few days. These days you can visit Caño Cristalitos or Piedra.
GOOD TO KNOW
Make sure you bring enough cash. There are rarely any ATM's in the area.
Make sure you are vaccinated for yellow fever. There is a slight chance you need to present a proof of vaccination for yellow fever at the airport.
Bring clothes that cover your skin, including a cap or hat. You are not allowed to bring insect repellent or suncream into the national park La Macarena. Don't try to sneak in any forbidden substances because you have to go through 'customs' before you enter the park. They will deny you access to the park if you try to smuggle prohibited substances in.
You are not allowed to bring plastic or plastic bottles into the park. A reusable plastic bottle such as a Dopper is also considered plastic. Wrappers of for instance food cannot be plastic either. All tours include a lunch packed in banana leaves and you can take fruit as a snack into the park. The bottles that are allowed in the park are available for purchase in the village. You can also ask travellers that have already visited to area to take their bottle.
Because of the changing climate the lifespan of the colourful algae can be shorter or longer. From to July to October it is most likely you can spot the colourful algae. However, if there is too much or too little rain there is a slight chance you will not encounter the algae on your trip to La Macarena. Always check with a local tour operator what the status of the algae is so you don't get disappointed.
A visit to La Macarena is definitely worth at least three or four days on your busy travel itinerary for your trip to Colombia. Even if the weather is rainy and cloudy you’ll have an awesome time. The area is Instagrammable, but don’t let your expectations run too high after looking at the (often edited) photos on the internet.