Cano Cristales is one of the worlds most beautiful rivers. Located in the inhospitable Meta region of Central Colombia, Cano Cristales, depending on when you visit it is a multicoloured river with Red, Orange, Blue Reflections, Yellow, Green, White and Black.
There are a few ways to get to Cano Cristales and we hummed and hawed about which method to take. The easiest but most expensive is a tour from Bogota; or you can take the bus from Bogota to Villavicencio and fly from there; or alternatively you can try a minimum 18 hour bus journey from Neiva which is about 7 hours south of Bogota. We met one guy who took the bus and he said it was awful, the ultimate chicken bus with constant army stops and worries about your luggage going awol. We decided to take the middle option from Villavicencio.
We started at Terminal de Transportes in Bogota and took the Expresso Boliviarno bus to Villavicencio. This was a spectacular three hour bus journey on asphalted but very windy roads. There are beautiful lush green valleys with regular waterfalls. Depending on your outlook the huge amount of tanks and soldiers along the road could give you some sense of security from potential guerilla attacks!
Villavicencio is a modern, wealthy city of 500,000, a ‘former’ drug and currently a cattle and oil hub. If you can get here early enough you can catch a flight direct to La Macarena the same day. We decided to hang on for a day, there are three decent shopping malls, some good restaurants and a nice walk in the hills around town. If you need any gear for the Cano Cristales treks, this is a good place to stock up although there are plenty of shops with waterproof shoes, hats etc in La Macarena and it will probably be cheaper for basics that you can leave behind there too.
We stayed at Mochilero’s Hostel it was about 28 dollars a night with really friendly owners and decent information on Cano Cristales and the Meta region. We had an en-suite room with TV, air-con and cold water, worryingly at the time our room didn’t have a key but the building was safe. As our Spanish was pretty awful the hostel helped us to book a flight to La Macarena – they would also have booked a tour if we wanted one. It took a while to get through to the airline-tour operator – which had us a little concerned as it was a Saturday afternoon and everything was starting to close for the weekend.
I spent the rest of the afternoon doing the Veredera El Carmen walk that takes you up into the countryside, there were plenty of beautiful birds, butterflies, ants, amazing vegetation and a few youthful drinkers! With the heat it is worth stocking up on water and a few snacks, there is a little snack shop in a tiny village just past the graffiti painted bridge at the start of the walk and randomly a restaurant after a few kilometers. Up to the restaurant the path is good offering great views back to Villavicencio, continuing on it gets a lot quieter with few people, a little steeper and also tougher on the ankles. You cross a few small waterfalls, this is a really beautiful walk but I recommend going with company, I was a little unnerved by the drinkers who seemed to take an unhealthy interest in me – could have been the gringo novelty.
We ate in the Burger House restaurant where we had a couple of really good burgers, we also ate in Rodizio an expensive but really tasty all you can eat Brazilian restaurant, the waiters come round and empty skewers of every meat you could want onto your plate – this includes prime cuts to all kinds of guts!
We took the morning flight to La Macarena, Villavicencio has a small airport mainly for charter flights and oil workers, there is a shop and real South American security who thankfully didn’t take our full drinks bottles. Our bags were weighed carefully at check-in. Then we waited for 3 hours as our plane was delayed inbound. The weather was bad in La Macarena and the plane could not take off. When it arrived a fair few green faces could be seen entering the terminal. Our plane was a British Aerospace Sarpa Air Ambulance Jetstream 32 carrying 19 passengers, we were really nervous beforehand as we thought we may end up in a tiny 3 or 4 seater or a cargo plane and the weather is notoriously stormy in the Meta region. The plane smelt fairly pukey and the seats were tiny. They also seated people based on size. We didn’t have a hostess and the door to the cabin didn’t close which is strange when you are used to flying in Europe. The take-off was smoothish and we only really experienced turbulence when we hit the clouds. As we approached La Macarena the weather cleared up nicely and there were spectacular views of green forest with a snaking river out of the tiny window. The landing was smooth with only a few bounces.
The heat really hits you when you get out of the plane. We were also greeted by a dog, a cowboy baggage handler with a donkey and cart, which would embarrass Ryanair or Easyjets low fare business model.
La Macarena airport is an open shed with a registration office, guides information office, snack bar, a few chairs and some toilets.
Across the road was a tour office which sold tours to Cano Cristales for $80 per day per person – they didn’t exactly do the hard sell or offer group discount. We decided to check out the guides office at the airport – the guys spoke rapid Spanish which we found hard to understand – but offered us a guide for $120 dollars total for the day for up to 6 people. We met another couple who signed up to do a couple of days with us. This made a lot more sense than $80 each with the tour company. We then went searching for our bags, which had disappeared along with the donkey on arrival, they turned up in a building near to the airport.
We then set our sights on finding accommodation. There are plenty of places and it is pretty hard to prebook as there is limited access to the internet. Everyone who is not on an organised tour seemed to turn up and knock on doors until they found a room to suit them. Prices seemed to range from about 15 to 40 dollars a night. We found an en-suite room with air-con and TV at La Cascada for $30 a night. The hotel was very clean compared to the cheaper ones. It didn’t offer food but there are plenty of eateries nearby. During our stay we only saw one giant cockroach in our room, it seemed pretty stoned so was an easy kill.
That afternoon we went to explore the little town of La Macarena, on the ground it is pretty whacky, there are lots of random souvenir shops, a few restaurants, bars, multiple amounts of pool halls, a disco and some general store type places.
In one of the souvenir shops we picked up a couple of pairs of wellies for the next day, you can also get rain ponchos and other useful stuff.
We visited the square where ten years ago, the locals used to process coca leaves into cocaine, now there are a lot of horses and dogs, a playground and some concrete pingpong tables.
On the opposite side of the square the church which looks ordinary from the outside, inside is fantastic, decorated with colourful paintings of Latin American Jesus, Mary and the Apostles. The Last Supper painting has a dog, gauchos, barbed wire fence and what looks like traditional Colombian skewered pork as the main course – it is well worth a quick visit.
We also visited the various river docks on the edge of town and took a look at some of the pool halls, the locals are more than happy to play/beat you depending on your level and their sobriety. As it was very hot and humid we decided to stop on the main street and have a few beers, the locals were really friendly and happy to help us enhance our Spanish and drinking skills.
It is a great spot for watching the world go buy, horses, dogs, multiple children on motor bikes, town drunks/characters and the odd tourist.
You don’t need to bring too much to Cano Cristales from La Macarena, plenty of water, lunch, snacks, camera, swimming gear, unfortunately you can’t wear sun-cream or insect repellent due to the delicate ecosystem, so it is important to cover up fully as the sun can be strong when it appears and though there weren’t too many mosquitos, there are a few biting creepy crawlies – it did however get quite uncomfortable in the heat so light clothes are important. Some people ignored the sun-cream rule– one pale redhead seemed very comfortable displaying his skin, spending a day in shorts and a tee-shirt. I wouldn’t recommend buying wellies unless you have leather feet, you are going to get wet over the knees within a couple of hours and they will be uncomfortable to walk in and full of water most of the time. We gave up on the wellies after the first day and wore our trainers and just filled them with paper in the evening, the heat eventually dries them out.
The next morning we eventually met our guide after waiting for an hour at the information office at the airport, the highlight of the wait was seeing a giant toad which is apparently poisonous.
When he arrived he took us to another information office on the outskirts of town to register our route and to watch a Cano Cristales video in Spanish – you only have to do this once. You are also timed in and out of the park. There are a limited number of tourists allowed into the park each day and they are allowed enter for only 6 hours. It is worth keeping this in mind if the weather is very dull in the mornings and clears in the afternoons as it did when we were there.
After registering we walked back to town, the muddy walk was interesting taking you past the army barracks and a college with a football match, again this was heavily patrolled by soldiers.
We organised a packed lunch for about 3 dollars from a local restaurant and then headed to the dock. Lunch turned out to be very tasty – chicken and rice wrapped in the banana leaf it was cooked in.
Getting to Cano Cristales from La Macarena is quite an adventure. At the dock our guide organised a motorboat taxi to take us upstream. The boats are long and very narrow, quite scary and especially rocky going cross current.
The captain took us across the river where we were stopped by a group of soldiers. One was loading what I think is an automatic machine gun, they were friendly and we had to sign in as we were crossing to the dangerous side of the river. The rest of the boat journey was uneventful apart from a few monkeys, turtles and birds.
The boat stopped at a muddy port, here there was a small shop, cowboys and jeeps waiting for us.
We were then driven in the back of the jeep along a mud road for about 30 minutes to a starting point for all walks – the drive takes you through some amazing countryside and the flatness often offers spectacular cloud formations in the background.
Depending on your wishes/abilities you can pick a long hike of about 12km through to a shorter 5km hike (this is prearranged as you need to register your hike in the information center).
For the first couple of kms we crossed one small stream and walked through spectacular vegetation and rock formations in a mixed but often swampy landscape. The start of the walk wasn’t tough though we worked hard to keep our feet dry.
We reached our first proper patch of river which was quite impressive, though the weather was pretty poor so the vibrant red colour didn’t really come out.
We then walked through similar landscapes for another couple of kilometers and reached the main river – it was spectacular there were a lot more flowers and river was bright red with colourful rocks and pools. We also saw our first waterfall.
Crossing the river we all got our feet wet, my new ill-fitting wellies filled up with water giving a bit of relief from the fast forming blisters. Our guide helped me down the waterfall to take photographs. We continued to a swimming spot and enjoyed a dip close to another waterfall. The rain started here so as well as our feet we got fully soaked. It is pretty pointless wearing a raincoat unless you have a really posh lightweight breathable one, we just got sweaty on the inside and wet on the outside.
After our swim we kept walking, generally hugging the river, we got to see some really spectacular yellow green flowers in the river.
We scrambled downhill through some thick vegetation and stopped beside a good sized waterfall for some lunch. We then walked down river through amazing river formed rock formations, in the mini gorges the flowers and colours were really vibrant.
As we continued downstream the river widened and the colours deepened.
We eventually reached a very rocky area with about 40 people, some swimming in deep flowerless pools – it was quite a surprise after seeing barely a soul all day.
This area is where all tours of the river finish before the walk back to the jeeps. There is plaque for a 25 year old soldier Tor London Juan Carlos who was washed away after falling in to the river, we nervously crossed a none to sturdy plank at the same point. The swimming area is pretty cool, there is deep water which is quite safe to swim in, also in places the rocks formed natural jacuzzis. Further down stream from are some even more spectacular rock formations, stronger current and more colourful flowers.
Finally there is a walk of a couple of kms back to the jeep which can be pretty tough with the sun beating down especially if you have welly blisters. It does give your clothes a chance to dry out though. We returned for 3 more days doing different walks – you get different waterfalls, you get to see flowers at different colour stages. We had some pretty severe rain during our stay both at night and when walking, we had to cross a few really difficult rapids, on one occasion, I slipped in to over my waist and the guide had to drag me out, luckily the camera stayed dryish. We also had the opportunity to walk across a deep stream, pretty much up to the neck, holding the bags over our heads – which was fun when you are trying to carry a nice non waterproof camera!
La Macarena and Cano Cristales are a photographers paradise especially when the sun comes out. I would recommend bringing a water proof camera, my attempts at photographing through a freezer bag which leaked were mixed and probably not worth the risk or effort.
It was a bit sad to leave, everyone was very friendly and welcoming. I would love to have spent more time around La Macarena, maybe visiting some towns down river. The return journey to La Macarena was more interesting than the inbound journey.
We had to de-register from La Macarena at the airport and then checked in at a random desk it all seems very informal. We weren’t assigned seats for the flight and were told to head out to the runway. There were zero security checks, which was quite refreshing! There were a couple of planes so we decided to hang around the nicest looking one! One looked like an Air Colombia cargo plane, two guys were loading a motorbike on it quite awkwardly they were struggling to lift it up the steps and through the double doors.
We took sun shelter under the wings of this plane. After the motorbike, live chickens, a dog and various other bits and bobs were loaded on, we were then motioned to get on the plane. It was a bit of a mess, the motorbike was tied upright to some webbing in the middle of the plane.
The dog and chickens were hanging around the tail with all the other luggage. We found a seat in the middle as it had a window, about 24 more people got on, the seats were fold out army style, facing inwards. There was female pilot and co-pilot and an engineer on board. Before take-off, the guys who checked us in got on the plane and kicked a child off apparently whoever booked the 11 children on had only actually booked 10. With this kerfuffle over – the plane started taxiing down the runway for take-off, when suddenly the engineer started running through plane, it seemed nobody had bothered to shut the door and we were a third of the way down the runway before the pilot stopped and the door was secured.
The flight was really smooth and we didn’t need the seatbelts, I would recommend flying cargo. We had to fill in a page with our names and details, something that probably should have been done at the airport. We flew for an hour and were sure that we had flown over Villavicencio, the plane kept going and some of the others on the plane seemed to think that we had missed our stop or got on the wrong plane – we didn’t have hostesses to ask, so we just sat tight and hoped that we wouldn’t end up in the backend of nowhere. We eventually approached a city and could tell from the surrounding mountains that we had come to the right place – the pilot landed the plane more smoothly than any landing that I have ever experienced. The airport security was easy, there really wasn’t any. It is fairly easy to get a taxi to the bus station from the airport.
Overall I would recommend the DIY method from Villavicencio ahead of the organised tour from Bogota. The bus journey to Villavicencio is spectacular and the city is interesting enough for a day while your organise the rest of the trip, also the flights were cool with great views. We spent 6 days at La Macarena and this was much cheaper than the 2-3 day tour from Bogota. It can cost even less if you meet up with a few people and split the costs. You can negotiate your own routes with a guide choose your own hotel and restaurants and have much more control and say in what you do. As we were not on a tour we had to pay for the boat and the jeep in cash on top of the fee paid to the guide and entry to the park, but divided between 4 of us this was not very much.
You can head straight to the airport from the bus and try get on a flight or book a flight for the next day. When returning to Villavicencio, confirm your return in advance! It is worth spending a day in Villavicencio. We stayed Mochilleros Hostel in the center, it is not the best or cheapest but they organised flights for us.
You can show up in Cano Cristales and find a cheaper place to stay easily enough.