The Rainbow River of Colombia – Caño Cristales in La Macarena, Colombia

Ever wanted to visit a Rainbow River? Colombia has one. The Caño Cristales River of Colombia is one of the country’s most amazing natural places and arguably its most unique adventure travel destination. Visiting La Macarena and seeing the Rainbow River of Colombia Caño Cristales in person was a true privilege. If you’d like to see it yourself, read on. Here, I’ll share our experience and give you the lowdown on how to plan your own visit to Caño Cristales, Colombia.

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Photo of a girl overlooking the Rainbow River Colombia.
Caño Cristales is one of Colombia’s most beautiful natural destinations.

Caño Cristales, Colombia Travel Guide – Contents

  • Why Visit the Caño Cristales River of Colombia?
  • Where is the Rainbow River in Colombia
  • When to Visit to see the Rainbow River in Effect
  • What to See at Caño Cristales, Colombia
  • Other Things to See near La Macarena
  • Packing List for Caño Cristales
  • Planning your visit:
    • How Many Days to Visit?
    • Go with a Caño Cristales Tour or On Your Own?
    • Getting to Caño Cristales
  • Where to Stay in La Macarena, Colombia
  • Is Visiting Caño Cristales Safe?
  • Practical Tips for Enjoying the Rainbow River of Colombia

Want some expert help to plan your trip to Caño Cristales? I’m excited to be working with BnB Colombia Tours to help you plan your Colombia trip! If you’re interested in planning a trip with us, fill out this form (be sure to indicate you want to visit Caño Cristales), and I’ll get back to you with an initial proposal and work with you to perfect it!

Photo of a rock in the middle of the Caño Cristales river, surrounded by different colors.
Caño Cristales is gorgeous and well worth a visit. Read on to learn all about it.

Introduction – Why Visit Caño Cristales, Colombia?

Caño Cristales had long been a place that I had heard of and seen in travel and nature documentaries like Magia Salvaje. As we started making plans to move from Colombia to the US, it was one of the places I knew I wanted to visit before we left. It was more or less at the top of my Colombia bucket list destinations, so to speak.

We planned our trip in November 2021, and we were not the least disappointed. Not only is the Rainbow River of Caño Cristales absolutely beautiful, but the entire area makes you feel immersed in largely unspoiled nature.

In fact, we saw more wildlife here than we did on either of our visits to Leticia in the Amazon (we saw even more in Guaviare and Casanare, both also highly recommended!). I feel confident in saying it will remain one of the most memorable trips we ever do.

View of the Caño Cristales River passing through trees with rocks and colors in the water.
You can see all sorts of colors in the Rainbow River of Caño Cristales.

So, in short, why visit Caño Cristales? Because it is stunningly beautiful. It is also quite the adventurous destination, up there with the desert of Punta Gallinas, the Cerros de Mavecure, and whale watching in Nuquí. It is also one of the most unique places in world, and would make an incredible addition to any trip in Colombia or backpacking South America.

The rainbow color of the river is caused by the growth of an aquatic plant known as the Macarenia clavigera, which only grows here (its named after the nearby town of La Macarena) and in Guaviare, Colombia. The plant literally does not grow anywhere else in the world, and the colors it gives to the river is natural beauty at its finest.

The plant’s unique biology combined with the minerals of the rocks and river combine with sunlight to give the Rainbow River of Colombia its pretty colors. The colors of the plants in Caño Cristales vary depending on how much sunlight the plants get throughout the year.

View of the flower that gives the Rainbow River Colombia its colors.
Areas that get the most light appear bright red and pink.
Photo of lighter colored flowers in the Caño Cristales River Colombia.
Areas that get less light get pastel pink and even white colors.
Photo of green flowers in the Caño Cristales River
Finally, the areas that get the least sunlight remain green.

The effect is so pretty that, in addition to being known as Colombia’s rainbow river or the river of 5 colors, or river of seven colors, depending on who you ask, it is sometimes also called the river left behind by paradise or a relic of the Garden of Eden.

National Geographic named it was one of the 10 most colorful scenes in the world. It was also featured in the recent Disney animated film Encanto, set in Colombia as the scene of the films dramatic climax. Disney’s animation when the river lights up is almost as beautiful as the real thing.

If you like nature, hiking, seeing wildlife, adventure, or just want to see a beautiful natural phenomenon that can’t be seen anywhere else in the world, you will love a trip to Caño Cristales.

Convinced? Then read on as here I will share everything you need to know about planning your own trip to La Macarena, Colombia and seeing the beautiful Rainbow River of Colombia known as Caño Cristales.

View of the rainbow river Colombia from above with red flowers and trees surrounding it.
This is one of the first views we got of the Caño Cristales River after hiking into the park. It was far from the last though!

Where is Caño Cristales?

Caño Cristales is located in the Serranía de la Macarena, also known as the Sierra de la Macarena, in the rocky highlands above the Guayabero River, near the town of La Macarena in the Department of Meta. It is located almost directly south of Bogotá in the roots of the Andes.

The entire surrounding area is a national park known as Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de la Macarena. The area is almost completely wild expect for the nearby small town from which the park gets its name.

The Rainbow river of Colombia passing over rocks with red and yellow colors.
Caño Cristales is located in the highlands of the Serranía de la Macarena in south-central Colombia.

When is the Best Time to Visit Caño Cristales?

The best time to visit Caño Cristales is from July to November. This is the season when the aquatic plants bloom and the river has its color.

The rest of the year, you cannot see the colors as the plant regenerates and absorbs the sunlight that gives it its color before blooming and becoming the Rainbow River of Colombia again next year.

While I imagine the hiking is still great and you can see some of the other nearby sites the rest of the year, really you should plan your visit in season from July to November.

Do note, that the effect should last until the end of November, and some years it can even stretch into early December. We went during the first week or November, and it was beautiful.

However, the park was then closed due to lack of rain on November 22, so don’t worry if you can only make it towards the end of the season, but after mid-November you will be subject to the whims of mother nature.

Photo of flowers in the river of Caño Cristales Colombia
It’s in the July to November period of the year when you can see the colorful flowers that make Caño Cristales the Rainbow River of Colombia.

What to See at Caño Cristales

Well, the Rainbow River, of course!

Ok, obviously that’s the case. The Caño Cristales river itself is actually quite long, although the plants and their pretty colors do not grow along all of it. There are a number of trails inside the park that lead not only to different parts of the river, but also to different waterfalls, swimming holes, and look out points.

We unfortunately, did not have a chance to see them all, but we did see the main highlights with 2 full days in the park. Below, I’ll share the areas we saw and what to expect on each.

I debated the best way to organize this section, by the days of our tour, by the trails in the park, or by places to see.

I’ve decided to organize it with a short introduction here on the different trails we took, then highlight the different sites we saw along the way, and finally, discuss some other sites nearby you can visit from La Macarena (some of which we visited, some we hope to on a return trip one day!).

A rock in the middle of the Rainbow River of Colombia with yellow blending into red.
The main thing to see at Caño Cristales is the gorgeous colors of the river itself.

The Trails in the Park

We had two days in the main section of the park, and took a different trail each day.

The first we took the Los Pianos Trail, which took us past Cascada de la Virgen and several sections of river where we could see the Macarenia clavigeras before arriving at the Los Pianos Waterfalls. We then headed down the other side of the trail to the Los Cuarzos Waterfall before continuing on to the section of the river known as El Tapete, and stopping at the Piscina del Turista, located just above Los Ocho.

If you only are in the park for one day, you will most likely do this trail, and you’ll want to make sure you see Los Ocho.

The second day, we did the Pailones trail. I’m not entirely clear if we did the entire trial as the distance didn’t seem longer than the day before although signs indicate it is.

Nonetheless, we started by hiking down along Los Ocho, where there is another swimming area then heading down river (and down slope) to the section of the river known as Pailones.

We almost opted to do Laguna del Silencio instead of this trek, but I’m glad we did it, as it was really pretty and a different view of the river.

Photo of signs showing the distance of different trails in the Serranía de la Macarena.
Signs at the trail heads once in the Caño Cristales park.

There is at least one other trail in the park called Salto del Aguila.

There’s not a lot of great info online about the different trails, but what I understand it is very similar to the Los Pianos trail but goes a bit higher up to a look out point farther up river and passes a few more waterfalls.

Although this description seems to contradict that and suggests it doesn’t visit all the same places. It is supposedly a bit tougher of a hike as well, so it’s recommended for those that want a more extreme hike and that have at least 1 other day in the park to be able to enjoy a swim or two as this hike is longer and won’t allow as much time for stops.

It’s probably worth noting as well that depending on your group, your timing, and the day, your guide may take you on some combination of these trails that take you to the main highlights.

My understanding is there are limits to how many groups can go on each trail each day, and you do need to be accompanied by a guide at all times, so if there is a particular trail or things you want to see, it’s worth reaching out ahead of time to your agency.

For what it’s worth, we had no idea the different trails before hand and just went along with where our guide Javier took us, and we couldn’t have been happier. Javier was a great guide!

Now on to covering the sights we saw along the Caño Cristales Rainbow River of Colombia during our 2 days in the park themselves!

A girl giving a peace sign at a sign showing the distance traveled on trails near Caño Cristales Colombia.
Many of the trails around Caño Cristales River share sections.

Caño Escondido

As noted above, the first day we took the Los Pianos Trail.

After about a 45 minute walk from the entrance to the park (itself a half hour or so truck ride from the river bank), we arrived to where the different trails split off. Our trail took us off to the west and up river.

I remember crossing a bridge not all that far along the trail where there is a little bit of Macarenia clavigera growing. This is the area known as Caño Escondido, and is the first section of the river with the colorful effect.

I remember everyone in our group being super excited and we were all taking lots of pictures, while our guide Javier looked on before finally saying, there are much better sections, let’s get going.

Photo of a group standing next to the Rainbow River of Colombia.
Our group with the hidden fall of Caño Escondido in the background.

Cascada de la Virgen

The first really impressive spot we came to was Cascada de la Virgen.

This waterfall isn’t that impressive itself in that it isn’t all that high and is more like a series of short falls.

However, the effect of the colors of the Macarenia clavigeras at the foot of the falls is really gorgeous, especially with the hole with a yellow hue that looks like an eye. It’s otherworldly looking, and is the first really awe inspiring sight along the river.

Don’t worry, though, it’s far from the last.

Photo of a waterfall under a bridge in Caño Cristales River.
Unfortunately, it was a bit cloudy and threatening to rain when we went by Cascada de la Virgen, but I was able to touch this up a bit to come close to capturing the magic of this spot on the Rainbow River in Colombia.

The Path to Los Pianos

To be honest, I’m not sure if this section of the river actually has a certain name. If it does, I didn’t make a note of it.

However, it’s on the path past Cascada de la Virgen on the way to Los Pianos. It’s a long stretch of the river exposed with rocky banks, perfect for catching lots of sunlight and creating the beautiful red color.

There’s a relatively long walk along this section with several good spots for taking photos and just taking in the pretty colors of the Caño Cristales Rainbow River.

The rainbow river of Colombia passing over rocks with yellow, circular sections amongst the red of the river.
The little yellow spots are one of the cooler effects in the Caño Cristales River.

Los Pianos Waterfalls

Eventually, we headed up into the forest.

After a short hike, we arrived to the Los Pianos Waterfalls. Here, there is a section at the bottom where you climb up and get to the foot of the bottom of the main falls, where you can swim or bathe in the falls.

These waterfalls fall like tall zigzagged steps and get their names because each has a distinct sound or pitch, hence the name Los Pianos, like the keys of a piano. It’s a neat sight, and we stopped here for a short rest, swim, and photos.

This is the highest point on the Los Pianos trail and the rest was more or less downhill.

Photo of a several leveled waterfall.
Los Pianos seen from a distance.
Close photo of a waterfall.
The largest falls (the top at the photo above).
Photo of several women standing and swimming in front of a waterfall.
Susana and some of the others in our group enjoying a swim in the falls.

Los Cuarzos Waterfall

Ok, I have to be honest, my memory is failing me and I didn’t take good notes on what was first, Los Cuarzos or the section of the river known as El Tapete, but I’m fairly sure the waterfall was first.

Los Cuarzos is a tall falls with a small watering hole in front. The falls land on a big rock, where you can go under them in a little cave, before the water falls into the little swimming hole.

We actually stopped here to have lunch (normally, you will carry your lunch in wrapped in a plantain leaf). Afterwards, we had a dip in the water to cool off and enjoy some time relaxing before hiking to see more of Colombia’s Rainbow River.

Photo of a waterfall with a small pond in front.
A view of Los Cuarzos Waterfall.

El Tapete

This area of the river is known as El Tapete, or the carpet in English, because the way the Macarenia clavigera grows so thick and the relative calmness of the river, giving the impression the river itself is a carpet.

It’s one of the neater sections of Colombia’s Rainbow River.

While there aren’t any falls here, this section is really, really pretty.

The little yellow sections of rocks and minerals add a neat effect to the appearance. Walking along it, it’s hard to take your eyes off of it, and I found myself stopping constantly to stare and/or take photos.

Photo of a calm area of Caño Cristales with yellow and red colors.
While there aren’t any waterfalls near El Tapete, it is one of the coolest looking areas of Caño Cristales.
A close up of red and yellow colors in the Cano Cristales River.
A close up view of the multicolored Tapete.

Piscina del Turista

Our (sort of) last stop of the first day was at the Piscina del Turista.

This is a large, open area almost like a small lake that the river passes through. It has pretty, almost crystal clear, and calm waters. That makes it a popular spot to take a swim.

Javier actually left the rest of our group here to go for a swim while he took Susana and I a bit further down the trail to see Los Ocho, since we were debating whether to do Laguna del Silencio or a second trek in the park the next day. Since the rest of the group was definitely coming back and would see Los Ocho tomorrow, they got to enjoy a swim. Although, we also got in a quick swim when we came back!

It is without a doubt an obligatory stop on a visit to Caño Cristales, Colombia for sure.

View from a distance of a lake with people swimming.
A bird’s eye view of the Piscina del Turista.
Close view of the lake in Caño Cristales.
A closer view where you can see how clear and unspoiled the water is.
Photo of a coupe in the Piscina del Turista.
Susana and I enjoying a swim.

Los Ocho

This is a really neat sight, probably one of the neatest along the entire Rainbow River of Caño Cristales!

It’s a series of waterfalls that are circular or conical shaped. It’s really remarkable the formations water can carve, and this is one of the neatest I’ve ever seen. It’s like a labyrinth, and the water rushes over lots of Macarenia clavigeras before falling down into the formation.

Photo of the circular waterfalls of Caño Cristales known as Los Ocho with some people in the background.
View of Los Ocho, a neat set of falls on the Caño Cristales River.
Photo of a girl overlooking a waterfall.
Susana overlooking the neat, circular falls of Los Ocho.
Photo of a man overlooking Caño Cristales as it passes through rocks below.
You get a sense of scale in this picture of me overlooking Los Ocho and the Coliseo below.

It’s important to note to be very careful here as there was a death a number of years back when a child fell in. So, while you can get pretty close to the falls, it’s best to not actually wade in the water itself or get too close.

The first day we went quickly with Javier, we went down the closer bank, which has good views. However, the far bank is prettier and there are some better angles for pictures, especially once you get down past the falls themselves.

Photo of the Los Ocho waterfalls from the left.
View from the near bank.
Photo of the Los Ocho waterfalls from the right.
View from the far bank, which do you think is better?

After passing down past the falls, you come to the section known as El Coliseo, where the water rushes over glowing red Macarenia clavigeras and yellow holes.

This was one of the prettiest parts of the river in my opinion. Regardless of how many days you have at the park, you absolutely have to make sure you see Los Ocho and the Coliseo.

In fact, I would say it and Cascada de la Virgen are the top two must see places on the Rainbow River of Colombia.

Beyond the Coliseo, there is another nice looking swimming hole. We stopped here for just a minute to take a look and snap some photos but didn’t swim. For those with more time though, a dip here looks like it’d be nice.

View of a small waterfall and the Rainbow River Colombia colors of red and yellow.
A view further down the Coliseo.
Photo of a large calm area of Caño Cristales with people swimming and the forest around them.
The swimming hole past El Coliseo. Look closely and you can see Los Ocho in the background.

There is actually a small hostel nearby. It is owned by one of the few campesino families who have long been in the area and has a special permission to operate a small shop where you can buy beers or other drinks.

They also have some basic cabin style accommodations if you want to stay in the park itself. I imagine it must be amazing to get up early and enjoy these swimming areas all to yourself.

Alas, we weren’t staying there, but we did enjoy a beer on the way in as well as on the way back out.

A couple sitting on rocks above the El Coliseo section of Caño Cristales.
Susana and I by the Coliseo with Los Ocho in the background.

Los Pailones

After our beers, we headed over some pasture land before entering the denser forest that surrounds this lower section of Caño Cristales.

Here, because the area doesn’t get as much sunlight, the Macarenia clavigeras don’t appear red, but green.

It is actually really, really neat looking.

This part of the river is a bit lesser visited as obviously the red sections are more well known. As I said above, we almost opted to do the Laguna del Silencio instead of this section.

I’m very glad we didn’t follow through on that though. This section was terrific and absolutely worth seeing!

The green is almost eery looking, and actually looks really cool in photos. There are a number of sections where it grows in abundance along the trail as well as a few smaller and larger falls along this mostly green section of the Rainbow River in Colombia.

Green plants growing in the Caño Cristales river.
Los Pailones has a greenish hue, due to the area getting less sunlight. It looks really neat and is lesser visited than the upper parts of the river.
Close up of green plants in the river of Caño Cristales.
The green plants look almost like a something out of an Alien movie.
View of a section of river flowing through the forest.
Maybe it’s how it blends in with the forest or how it picks up on the camera, but the green of Los Pailones is otherworldly looking.

Eventually, we reached a wide crystal clear section of the river just past a small waterfall. Here we had lunch and took a swim.

The view of the rocks below the crystal clear water is really amazing, and the water is much deeper than it looks. If you happen to have a pair of goggles, you can see fish swimming in the crystal clear waters here.

Swim over the little falls and you can see as some of the green Macarenia clavigeras growing in the falls. It’s a bit a bizarre scene to see it waving in the water up close. I felt like I was in some alien womb or something.

I’m not entirely clear if there is more to this trail as the markers say this trail is longer than Los Pianos, but I definitely felt like we did less walking. We did have an elderly lady in our group so it may be that Javier didn’t take us down the whole trail.

Anyways, we more than enjoyed some extra relax time swimming and having another round ofbeers on the way out.

Photo of a calm area of the river where you can see rocks under the water.
The swimming hole at Los Pailones.
Photo of two girls swimming at the Pailones section of the Rainbow River of Colombia.
The water is crystal clear (and deeper than it looks).
Photo of a girl in the water at Los Pailones of Caño Cristales.
Susana having a swim at Los Pailones.

Other Things to See in the Park

As noted above, there is at least one other trail known as Salto del Aguila.

This takes you to the waterfall known as Cascada Negra as well as another farther up known as Cascada Salto del Aguila and some rock formations known as Tablas de la Ley. This is the toughest trail in the park.

I’ve seen other sites online that suggest there are several other trails, and I imagine there are lots of hidden little spots as well.

I thought the two routes we took were perfect for two days in the park, and had we had been able to do a 5 day trip and had a 3rd full day, I think we would have opted for one of the other nearby sites mentioned below.

However, if you have more than 5 days, including more than 2 in the park, or want a more challenging day, you could include Salto del Aguila or try to fit in another trail one of your days.

Photo of a couple standing on a rock next to a green section of the Caño Cristales River.
Doing a 2nd day in the park and seeing the green colors of Los Pailones is absolutely worth it! If you have even more time you can check out Salto del Aguila or other trails.

Other Things to See Near Caño Cristales and La Macarena

While the Rainbow River of Colombia itself is the main attraction here, there are some other things to see nearby, at least two of which are common inclusions on tour packages to Caño Cristales.

Caño Cristalitos

We did this our first day.

After arriving, checking into our hotel and having lunch, we set out for Caño Cristalitos.

That’s a common approach on package tours as Caño Cristalitos can be done in a few hours and doesn’t require the same permission and entrance fee as the main park, where you’ll want to have a full day.

Some packages may also have this on the last day the morning before flying out as well.

Photo of Caño Cristalistos with red flowers growing below the water between exposed rocks.
Caño Cristalistos isn’t too shabby as an introduction to the sites you’ll see at Caño Cristales proper.

Caño Cristalitos is a smaller river where the Macarenia clavigera also grows. It’s a bit further upriver from the landing where the main park is located, about a half hour or so by boat from La Macarena.

Once disembarking, you enter a trail where you pass by a waterfall before heading upwards into the highlands above the Guayabero River.

This was by far the hardest hike we did during this trip! The incline isn’t all that horrible but the trail is pretty much always constantly up.

It’s well worth it though!

When you get to the top, take a moment to get your breath, because there is a breathtaking view of the Guayabero winding through the forest below with green stretching everywhere.

The view here was simply spectacular!

Photo of a waterfall surrounded by forest.
The waterfall near the start of the Caño Cristalitos trail. It will take you up to the top of it and is the hardest hike we did.
Photo of a couple on a large rock overlooking a river below.
The view at the top of the trail is pretty amazing though!

Once at the top of the plateau, it’s a short walk to Caño Cristalitos where we got our first glimpses of the Macarenia clavigera and their pretty colors.

A bit down river, there is a nice little watering hole with a couple small waterfalls, perfect for cooling down and doing a bit of relaxing after the tough hike in.

All together, it took about 3 hours to hike in, take in the views, go for a swim, and hike out.

On the way out, we came to a small house where a group of monkeys were hanging out just along the creek. There were also several toucans here who actually let us get pretty close to them.

Obviously, Caño Cristalitos pales in comparison to Caño Cristales itself, but the view from the mirador alone makes this worth it, and it’s a great first day activity. (I will say, I appreciated doing this the first day as it was the hardest hike).

Photo of a couple overlooking a rainbow river in Colombia.
And the river, although not nearly as long as Caño Cristales is worth seeing as well.

Laguna del Silencio

The Laguna del Silencio is located in the Serranía de la Macarena east of Caño Cristales.

The main attraction of this lake is the chance to see wildlife, especially birds, and take in the reflective water of the lake and the trees that surround it. It looks really gorgeous.

It is a relatively new sight to be opened up to tourism, one only made possible due to the peace agreement.

As I’ve mentioned before, we didn’t go here. It is however the most common additional activity included in 5 day tour packages. It is reached by a combination of boat then horseback riding.

It is also possible to do this on your own.

You can get a boat from the port in La Macarena. Susana was quoted $180,000 COP (Colombian Pesos) for this, although you also have to pay for the horses, which we were unable to find out the price for. Still, it seems like it’s cheaper to do this on your own than the $360,000 COP per person we were quoted by a travel agency.

In fact, had we known that our flight wouldn’t leave until 3 instead of 12 the day we left, we would probably have tried to do this our final day.

Anyways, it didn’t work out that way, but it gives us an excuse to come back!

Photo of a lake with palm trees reflected in it.
Great photo of Laguna del Silencio by @dauphoto who was kind enough to let me use it.

Caño Canoas (not officially open)

Another excuse to come back will be a visit to Caño Canoas.

There are a series of waterfalls here, stretching for over 200 meters wide and of 70 meters high. It is located farther up in the Serranía de la Macarena and is one of the more undiscovered places in Colombia.

Photos of it kind of remind me of a much smaller version of the Igauzu Falls in Argentina.

My understanding is that technically Caño Canoas has not been fully opened to tourism, at least in the sense that the park has not sanctioned organized visits.

However, you can hire guides in La Macarena that will take you. Clearly people are going there as there are more and more photos popping up on Instagram with the gorgeous falls.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a lot more info on Caño Canoas, but I would expect it to cost upwards of $150,000 COP to hire a guide and boat to take you.

For those with extra time (5 days or more) in La Macarena who are adventurous, have a good handle of Spanish, and want a unique experience, this would be a great place to include during your visit to La Macarena.

I know I want to go back and see this place for sure!

Photo of a big waterfall on the left with 3 thinner falls on the right.
This awesome photo of Caño Canoas is courtesy of Mario Carvajal @mariocarvajal.

Caño Piedra

This is what we did the morning of our last day.

We got up early to see sunrise over the grasslands outside of La Macarena, and then our motorcycle Tuk-Tuk driver took us here. It’s a small creek with a few areas where you can swim.

Because it’s open to the public, it’s popular with locals. It’s OK, but pales in comparison to the sights of Caño Cristales we enjoyed the other days. The truth is the other sites just spoil you.

Again, if we had known our flight left later, we would have tried to do the Laguna on our own rather than this.

Still, it’s not a bad way to spend a couple hours and see a bit of the countryside outside of La Macarena, especially if you’re worn out from hiking in the park or just have a few hours to fill the morning of your flight.

Photo of a small pond surrounded by the forest.
Caño Piedra is honestly pretty, but after 3 days being spoiled by Caño Cristalitos and Caño Cristales, it’s honestly a bit of a let down

Sunset Over the River

The first day, we got back from Caño Cristalitos right at sunset time.

The sunset is absolutely gorgeous, with the sky lit up blood orange and red!

Right next to the port, there is a little floating bar. We snapped a photo here and told ourselves we’d come back for a beer one afternoon, although we either arrived too late or too worn our for sunset our other days.

It is a good spot though, and I’d definitely recommend checking it out if you have more energy than we did!

Photo of sunset over the Guayabero River with a boat to the left hand side.
The sunset over the Guayabero River is gorgeous.

See Petroglyphs at El Raudal de Angosturas

This is another activity we didn’t do.

Located further up river from Caño Cristales, El Raudal de Angostas I is located northwest of La Macarena, far up the Guayabero River in a section of the river that narrows. Here you can see petroglyphs from an ancient indigenous culture.

Very lightly visited, it also allows for a lot of wildlife sighting.

Visit a Ciudad de Piedra

Not far from the Raudal de Angostura, set up in the Serranía de la Macarena is a group of rock formations known as Ciudad de Piedra, or city of stone.

Wind and rain have eroded the rocks to give the impression they are buildings, similar to the place of the same name in Guaviare. For those with lots of time or visiting La Macarena in the Caño Cristales offseason, a visit to the raudal and here would definitely be interesting.

See all the Wildlife

As I said in the introduction, we saw lots of wildlife on our visit to Caño Cristales.

We saw monkeys, small caimans, and lots of birds on the boat rides up and down the river. In the park, we also saw monkeys, lots of birds, and some cool looking lizards.

Photo of a monkey in a tree.
We saw some capuchin monkeys near the house and shop on the way down from Caño Cristalistos.
Photo of 3 monkeys in a tree.
Managed to get a mostly clear shot of this little family!
Photo of a toucan in a tree.
There were also some toucans around this house that are semi-domesticated (they were pets who were rescued and brought here) and will let you get fairly close.

The coolest thing we saw though was a small puma!

On our way hiking out of Caño Cristales, we saw what looked like a very large pet cat cross the path about 50 meters in front of us.

It took a quick look at us before scampering off into the brush off to the side of the trail. It happened so quick, I barely had time to register what it was we were seeing, much less snap a photo.

Luckily, either mama puma wasn’t around or didn’t see us a threat.

So keep your eyes peeled everywhere, as there is a ton of wildlife to be seen all around the Serranía de la Macarena and Caño Cristales, Colombia!

Photo of a small monkey in a tree.
We also caught a glimpse of some titi monkeys in trees along the river bank.
Photo of turtles on a rock in a river.
And we saw lots and lots of turtles. Turns out they like to have a nice tan too.
Photo of a small crocodile on a river bank.
Don’t worry, this guy was only a couple feet long, although there are larger crocodiles in the Guayabero too.

Enjoy a Parrandón Llanero

Our first night, our tour group went to a special dinner and cultural presentation.

It was a Parrandón, a grand version of a Parranda or party. There were lots of other agencies there as well, so it seems like this is a common activity the agencies include in their itineraries.

We enjoyed a great plate of the traditional mamona, a tender piece of veal or beef from a young cow.

There was also a band and singer that played some traditional llanero music, including some wicked harp playing.

There was also a presentation of the dance known as the joropo, which involves lots of quick foot movements. Don’t worry (or if you’re a gringo with bad rhythm like me do worry), you will likely get invited for an impromptu lesson by one of the dancers. Susana and I both were.

If you come on your own and not with a tour package, you could ask the agency you book your trips to the park with if they offer this, as it was a fun way to see a bit more of the local culture.

Of course, if you make friends with some locals, you may just get invited to a true Parrandón!

Photo of a band on stage with people watching.
Hearing some of the llanero music was good fun, especially the impressive harp player.

What to Pack for Caño Cristales

You are going to want good, comfortable clothes for hiking, that you don’t mind getting dirty, muddy, or wet and that also give you good protection from the sun.

Note that you are not allowed to enter the park with sunscreen or bug spray as they can damage the ecosystem, so long sleeves and long pants are good ideas to protect from both the sun and bug bites.

Below you can find some suggested things to give you ideas for what to take to Caño Cristales.

If you need to pick up any outdoor gear in country, Decathlon stores are great. There are several in Bogotá and their Quechua brand is a solid quality, budget outdoor option. After we were ill equipped for Guaviare, we actually went there and stocked up ourselves before our trip to Caño Cristales a week later.

*Caño Cristales is a remote destination, with lots of hiking over slippery rocks, and having good travel insurance is always a good idea, especially as recent events have shown us. World Nomads is a leader in travel health insurance. Get a quote here.

General Travel Gear to Take to Caño Cristales

  • Susana and I both have the Osprey Porter 46 backpack. It’s just small enough to fit in most overhead carryon compartments and can hold quite a bit. For something a bit smaller that is more comfortable for carrying long periods, check out the Osprey Farpoint 40, or for something larger for an extended backpacking trip, check out the Farpoint 70 (Farview 40 or 70 for the ladies).
  • A good daypack is a necessity. I love my Roam Backpack. It easily folds up and can be taken in a larger bag and carried as a day pack. I was able to carry my camera bag, a jacket, bathing suit, water, towel, and snacks into the park in it. (Read my review of it here). Taking along a rain cover for it or any other backpack you take is also a good idea.
  • You cannot take single use plastic bottles into the park. While we were able to pick up a couple cheap water bottles in town, if you want something larger, Takeya’s bottles are great (I actually own one of these and didn’t take it). For something easy to pack, you could take along a collapsable water bottle or combine the last recommendation with this one, take along a Camelback. While clean water was available at our hotel for free, if you want something with a filter, a Grayl water filter bottle can be useful. Finally, a Steripen can also be useful in much of Colombia.
  • You will also want a good travel towel for drying off after dips in the waterfalls and swimming holes of Caño Cristales. They also double well as a coverup from the sun! A Rainleaf microfiber is a great choice.
  • A good portable first aid kit would come in handy if you suffer any cuts or scrapes hiking in Caño Cristales. Some Pepto Bismol is never a bad idea when traveling in rural areas either.
  • Finally, no visit to Caño Cristales, Colombia is complete without some great photos to remember it. Most of the photos on this page were taken by me with the FujiFilm X-S10 with the XF-16-80 lens. This was a great first time “real” camera for me. I had never had more than a simple point and shoot, and it is easy to pickup and use and good enough to allow room to grow. So if you’re thinking about a camera upgrade and haven’t had a nice one before, it’s a good choice.

Clothes to Pack for Her

  • Comfortable clothes that hold up well to sweat, dry quick if it rains, and protect you from the sun are what you need. Colombia’s outdoor shirts are perfect. For something more casual, long sleeve athletic shirts work well too.
  • Quick dry long pants or hiking pants are a good idea as well, since they will protect your legs from any underbrush and bugs while hiking. Not to mention, you’d be surprised how quick your calves burn in the sun in open areas of the hikes.
  • Good walking shoes are a must, and it’s better if they will prevent you from slipping and are waterproof. Therefore, a good pair of hiking boots is well worth taking.
  • A comfortable swimsuit that wears underneath your hiking clothes is also a necessity to enjoy the waterfalls and swimming holes. Also, a pair of easy to carry water shoes isn’t a horrible idea for the rocky waterfalls and watering holes where you can swim.
  • A lightweight rain jacket that is easy to carry is also all but a must, given the tropical climate. If it does rain, you’ll be glad you had it. A packable poncho is a good, cheaper alternative.
  • Finally, you will want to take along a good hat for the sun. An athletic cap or a bucket hat work well.

Clothes to Pack for Him

Photo of the Rainbow River of Colombia seen through some brush on the bank of Caño Cristales.
You’ll want to take along lots of comfortable clothes for hiking through the forest.
Photo of people walking through a grassland near Caño Cristales
There are open sections of the trails too, so long sleeves to protect from the sun is a good idea (remember, you can’t bring sunscreen into the park).

Planning Your Trip to Caño Cristales, Colombia

How Many Days Should You Spend in Caño Cristales

Generally, you will see Caño Cristales tour packages from 3-5 days.

We went 4 days, which meant we had a half day to visit Caño Cristalitos, two days in the park, and enough time to see sunrise and Caño Piedra our last day. We actually probably could have done Laguna del Silencio the last day as well if our flight time had been clearer.

So, I recommend 4 or more days.

3 days is just super whistle stop, and it will only give you one day in the park itself. Keep in mind that depending on flight times 3 days is really more like 1 full day and 2 half days.

If you can’t make it work for 4 or more days, don’t let that stop you from doing a 3 day trip, but if you can make it work time off and budget wise, go for 4 or more.

Photo of Caño Cristales passing through a rocky section of the Serranía de la Macarena.
Four or more days will make sure you have 2 days in the park and can see the more famous red parts of Caño Cristales as well as the neat, lesser known Pailones of the Rainbow River in Colombia.

If you want to explore some of the other lesser traveled trails in the park, Caño Canoas, and/or Laguna del Silencio, I recommend doing 5 to 7 days.

5 day tour packages will usually include Caño Cristalitos, two days in the park, the lagoon, and Caño Piedra, so you may have to plan to stay a few extra days on your own or negotiate a tailored package with a tour agency if you want to do more than 2 days in the park and do Caño Canoas (which you will have to do on your own).

*Book a 3 day tour package or 4 day tour package ahead of time via Viator. Or fill out this form to get some help from me and my partners at BnB Colombia Tours to plan a custom trip for you.

Photo of a couple on a boat on the river.
Given the remoteness of La Macarena and the fact you’ll need both a guide as well as a boat ride to the park, for most travelers, a package to Caño Cristales is the best choice.

Should I Go to Caño Cristales with a Tour or Go on My Own?

I think for the overwhelming majority of travelers, going with a Caño Cristales tour package is the best idea.

That is coming from someone who generally never uses a travel agency or buys tour packages. The reality is, La Macarena is extremely remote with limited transportation options.

To enter the national park where the Caño Cristales River is located, you also have to go with an approved guide, who all work with tour agencies.

Each guide has to have registered the people they bring in before hand.

So, long story short, you can go on your own, but you will still need to go through an agency to enter the park and see the river itself.

That makes it easier to just book an all inclusive tour. We booked through Awake Travel, which works with local agency Macarenia Travel. Our package included our flights, our hotel, our food, and our guides for our 4 days. We were pleased with the service we got from both of them.

Let me help you book your trip to the Rainbow River of Colombia!

I’m pleased to announce that through our partnership with BnB Colombia Tours, I can also help you organize a trip to Caño Cristales. If you’re interested in that, fill out this form and I’ll get back to you with an initial proposal and work with you to make a great experience!

Photo of a group sitting on a rock at Caño Cristalitos.
You also get the added benefit of meeting some fellow travelers if you go with a group. Groups do stay small as park regulations limit the number of people that can be with any one guide.

How to Get to Caño Cristales

If you’re going with a tour that includes airfare, you can skip this section.

However, if you may want to stay a couple days extra to see Caño Canoas or want to try to book your own flights or come by bus, or if you are the adventurous sort who wants to travel to Caño Cristales on your own, read on.

The easiest way by far to get to La Macarena is by air. If you do in fact book a tour package, you shouldn’t have to worry about transportation, since it will likely include your flights.

In the event you have to book your flights yourself, the airlines Satena and some charter airlines like Grupo San German also operate flights there. From Bogotá, the flight takes a little over an hour.

Flights, I believe, are also available from Medellín and Villavicencio.

Photo of a small prop plane on grass with pilots standing outside.
The plane that brought us to La Macarena from Bogotá.

It is also possible to get to Caño Cristales overland.

From Bogotá you can travel by bus to La Florencia and then to San Vicente del Caguán, then over unpaved roads or trochas to La Macarena in 4x4s. This is a long trip. It is possible, but generally not recommended except for the adventurous who have good Spanish and are comfortable navigating Colombia and public transportation.

Florencia is located in Western Colombia, so if you happen to already be in that area, it is a shorter trip than from Bogotá. We met a Polish girl who had come from San Agustín, who said the trip wasn’t the most comfortable but was an interesting experience.

In other words this is doable, but will take time and is a bit of an adventure of its own.

Photo of a sign that says La Macarena
It’s also possible to get to La Macarena over land, but it is an adventure in and of itself.

La Macarena can also be reached by land from San José del Guaviare, a great destination in its own right.

It is an 8 hour bus ride from Bogotá to Guaviare and then it is about 4 hours more to La Macarena in 4×4 colectivos, according to one of our guides in Guaviare. If we had known this before hand, we may have just done it that way. So if you would like to visit both Guaviare and Caño Cristales, this is a good option.

You can read about some more routes over land to La Macarena here (in Spanish).

Do keep in mind that if you go on your own or stay for additional days, you will need to coordinator your entrance to the park with a local agency.

While you can wait until you are in La Macarena, it may be worth contacting them before hand to make sure you get one of the limited spots to enter the park during your days. This is especially true if you have limited time.

Photo of a church in La Macarena, Colombia.
The church in La Macarena. There isn’t a whole lot more to see in town, although the main park is kind of pretty.

Where to Stay in La Macarena

Again, if you book a tour package, you can probably skip this part as it almost certainly will include your lodging.

If not, there are a number of decent hotels in La Macarena, and most of them are pretty reasonably priced and honestly nicer than what I expected.

However, there are only a few that can be booked ahead of time online, perhaps another good reason to do a package, although you may be able to reach out to them directly.

We stayed at Hotel Casa Real, located just off the main plaza. The room was nice and there was even a good sized pool. We looked into changing our flight and staying a night or two longer, and their nightly rate was cheaper than I expected (I want to say it was $50 or $60,000 pesos, but didn’t make a note other than being surprised it was so cheap).

We ate most of our meals at the nearby Punto Verde Hotel, which also looked nice and seemed to be a popular option.

Two places I found you can book online ahead of time are Hotel La Fuente, located in town and also with a pool, and La Manigua Lodge, located upriver a bit and a good choice for those who want to be immersed in nature.

I think if you come on your own, you may be able to find a hotel once in town given the lack of options to book online ahead of time. It isn’t the worst idea to book at least one night ahead of time and then look around to compare once there though, as agencies may book them all up for packages.

Photo of a few boats and a floating building in the river.
The port of La Macarena. The floating building is where we saw the sunset the first night.

Is Visiting Caño Cristales Safe?

Yes. Caño Cristales is very safe to visit today and for about the last decade despite a history of conflict in the region.

If you did see Caño Cristales featured in Disney’s Encanto, you might have noticed the violence that displaces the grandmother and her husband happened nearby. While understandably Disney doesn’t exactly give a nuanced view of Colombia’s conflict, the fact is the area around Caño Cristales and was long considered a zona roja or conflict zone.

In fact, the park was under the control of leftist guerillas FARC for a long time.

It is perhaps worth pointing out that even under FARC control, a limited number of tourists were permitted to visit Caño Cristales. Our guide told us that guides basically paid a sort of tax, known as la vacuna, to be able to take visitors into the park and local agencies paid a fee to them for each visitor.

Obviously it’s not ideal to indirectly support an armed group while visiting a tourist attraction, however.

Fortunately, the majority of the FARC demobilized and are reintegrating into normal society, and the park is now under the control of Colombian authorities.

While Colombia’s 2017 peace agreement has always stood on shaky ground, I don’t believe you should be worried about safety when visiting Caño Cristales, at least barring a major change.

Photo of Caño Cristales River with rocks and palm trees in it.
Fortunately the security situation at Caño Cristales has improved dramatically since the peace agreement in 2017.

Some Extra Practical Tips for Enjoying Caño Cristales

  • According to Google Maps, there are two ATMs in La Macarena, but I would advise trying to take cash to the extent possible. The ATMs may run out of money. Hotels and travel agencies may be able to take cards, but most restaurants and the like probably still do not.
  • As noted above, you are not meant to use sunscreen or bug spray in the park as they can damage the plants that give the river its beautiful color. They also discourage the use of deodorants and other chemical based products. single use plastics like bottle water or soda is also not allowed. They checked our bags the second day (it appears this is random). I also noticed they took cigarettes away from another couple.
  • It’s worth keeping in mind this was a conflict area. My experience with this is some guides and locals will talk about it and some would prefer not to, so just keep in mind it can be a delicate topic if you curious about learning more about the history and what’s changed or not since the peace accords.
  • Cell phone and internet service is spotty in most of La Macarena (in fact, we sometimes got better service at high points hiking out in the wild than in town). Our hotel did have WiFi, but it was down for most of the time we were there. So, you’re best to go with the intention of disconnecting for a few days.
  • While there are small corner stores where you can get most basic needs, if you have any special snacks you like I would recommend bringing them.
  • There are also a few pharmacies, but if you take any medications, I would also strongly recommend you bring them.
Photo of a woman sitting on a rock in front of Caño Cristales.
I really cant’ recommend a visit to Caño Cristales enough!

Caño Cristales Conclusion

There you have it a complete travel guide to Caño Cristales, aka Colombia’s Rainbow River. It really is a remarkable destination, and if you’re thinking about going, I encourage you to do so! If you do go, I hope this guide was useful for your planning, and, more importantly, that you enjoy it as much as we did.

Cheers and Happy Exploring!

Did you like this post?

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Travel Guide to the San Bernardo Islands
Travel Guide to Barichara, Colombia’s Prettiest Town
Travel Guide to Salento
Travel Guide to Punta Gallinas, the Most Northern Point in S. America
Guide to Whale Watching in Nuquí

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