Caño Cristales, the river of 5 colors, is located in La Macarena, Colombia. It is beautiful but difficult to get to, especially with a backpacker’s budget. But it can be done! And here’s how:
Getting To La Macarena
Bogota ⇒ Villavicencia: We took a bus from Bogota to Villavicencia. There are plenty of bus options. We took a Boliviara bus. The bus was very comfortable and had a TV which played a movie. We stopped at 2 rests stops for about 5 minutes each
Bus Cost: 22,000 Colombian pesos
Bus Length: 3.5 hrs (although we were told it would take 2.5 hrs)
Villavicencia: Technically you can go by motorcycle or horse on the trail created by the Fark but it will take a while and isn’t safe. So the best option is to fly. There are a couple of plane companies that fly to La Macarena from Villavicencia. They all fly out around 7AM so you may want to plan on staying a night in Villavicencia. Unfortunately there are no hostels here and hotels aren’t the most affordable. We stayed at a budget hotel called Vaguardia or something that cost 80,000/person for a room and included breakfast but we explained that we would be leaving too early for breakfast. They brought down the price to 50,000/ person as a result. There was a funny party going on at the hotel when we arrived.
Be aware that Villavicencia isn’t the safest city so be careful. We went to dinner at a Brazilian restaurant (that I wouldn’t recommend) and were fine but our server told us not to walk around the city. I heard many stories of robberies here.
Hotel cost: 50,000 pesos
Villavicencia ⇒ La Macarena: Our plane left at 7:30 the next morning although we didn’t end up boarding until 8:15 AM. We flew on a 20 seater airplane.
Flight cost: 480,000 round trip
Flight length: 35 minutes
La Macarena: There are no hostels here but the hotels are extremely affordable. It was about 20,000 per person. There is pretty much 1 bar in town and 1 restaurant. There is wifi in the park. The town pretty much revolves around Caño Cristales.
Finding a Guide: It is illegal to go to Caño Cristales without a guide. If you speak decent Spanish, you can join a group tour when you get there. We were terrible Spanish speakers and needed an English speaking guide. There were 2 in town, an older man and a 19 year old named Johnny. The older man was out of town so Johnny it was.
Johnny: Johnny’s uncle is an official guide but I’m not so sure Johnny is. He was a cool kid that speaks English really well and wanted to go to Ultra Music Festival in Miami. He didn’t seem to know too much information on Caño Cristales but he was really helpful in terms of trying to help us save money.
La Macarena ⇒ Caño Cristales: First you have to either take a taxi to a barge or take a boat. The boat is nicer but can cost more depending on your group size. Johnny tried to find us groups to join so we could take a boat for cheap or free but we took a taxi the 1st time because we couldn’t find a group. After the boat, you need to take a Jeep. If you don’t have a group with you, it isn’t cheap. We couldn’t find a group on the 1st day so it cost us 80,000/person round trip. The second day we left earlier and were able to find a group to join.
Day 1: We arrived to La Macarena in the afternoon and by the time we found Johnny and were ready to go, the tours had all left. So we had to pay full price for everything. We took a taxi to a barge.
We also got caught in a flash flood which was actually a lot of fun!
But we couldn’t go to the waterfall and it was harder to see the colors of the river. We had to cross this river with a rope because the current was so strong!
I put mine and Tommy’s phones in plastic bags but Tommy’s phone didn’t make it and mine got some water damage. On the way back, we joined up with a group on the boat so we didn’t have to pay for the boat ride.
Day 2: Day 2 was much sunnier. 2 other English speakers joined Johnny’s group making everything more affordable. They definitely slowed down our pace a bit but they were nice. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see the green plant portion of the river because we had a flight to catch and ran out of time. If they’re hadn’t been a flash flood, 2 days would have been enough time but because we couldn’t see to much of the red portion the 1st time, we wanted to try again.