Caño Cristales: “The River of Five Colors”

Caño Cristales

Some days I just can’t help smiling. I’d awoken early, excited about my adventure to Caño Cristales, one of Colombia’s natural treasures, it is known as the “River of Five Colors” or “The Liquid Rainbow.”

I solicited an Uber and we headed to the airport stopping on the way to get some delicious orange juice that was freshly squeezed for me then and there on the side of the road.

Approaching our charter flight

At the airport a small bus collected a motley crew of travellers and took us to the private charter area. Surprisingly we evaded the standard rigmarole of passport and baggage checks and directly boarded a tiny propeller plane.

On take off we were blessed with beautiful sunshine and I spent the whole journey gazing out over the sun soaked green mountainous landscape as we glided through the clouds.

The flight was made even more enjoyable by the delicious ham and cheese croissants, that were left on each seat. I even got to eat the one from the empty seat in front of me.

We touched down in a tiny village called Macarena; it was basically a Colombian military base with some civilian houses dotted around. Getting out of the plane I was greeted by an Apache attack helicopter refueling on the runway.

Macarena was a dusty frontier style colonial town, that would not have looked all that out-of-place in a western movie.

As we set off to the river, our group was accosted by a camera crew filming a promotional tourism commercial. I wondered how different the sleepy little town would be in five years time.

4x4 transport
Our 4×4 transport

We took a high-speed motorboat down river and then jumped into a 4×4 and set out along a rutted, bumpy track.

This stretch of the journey took about half an hour, but the driver confessed to us that when he doesn’t have passengers he can make it in seven minutes. That ride would have been an experience in and of itself.

On the road we passed a collection of large concrete pillars. It turned out that these were the start of a raised motorway that a prominent drug lord had begun constructing through the region, however when he was assassinated the project died with him.

On the walk to the river I got chatting with the rest of the tour group. We were four in total, two vets that had come together and an English teacher who was also living in Medellín, the same city that I was based.

Conservation of the river is taken very seriously. We had been given clear instructions that we were not allowed to wear sunscreen or mosquito repellant, as when we swam in the water, it would damage the plants.

Emerald green waters
Emerald green waters

When we got to the river, I understood why they were so strict about protecting it. We stood as a group at the top of a rocky outcrop looking down on Caño Cristales.

It was truly a breath-taking sight. The sunshine glistened, reflecting the colors of the water.

Some parts were a deep blue while others an electric green. In the shallows, the yellow rock glowed like gold. Above all, the most astounding color was the blood-red of the aquatic plants that thrived in this unique habitat.

Eagerly, I rushed down to the side of the bank keen to get in to the cool water. On my way down I passed a flock of butterflies that gamely fluttered around me. I paused to wonder weather or not I was actually in a dream.

The water felt silky and cool. As I slid under its surface, I was welcomed by a shoal of fresh water fish that bravely swam up to greet me.

Under the water, I could see beautiful rock formations. Over the decades, nature had carved near perfect cylindrical holes deep into the rock.

The author at Caño Cristales
The author at Caño Cristales

The river was otherworldly in its beauty. It was as if I had been transported to another dimension where beauty became an entire new concept with a multitude of new possibilities.

The water was so fresh and clean that we were able to drink it. It tasted sweet and refreshing. I marvel at how I had put up with London’s putrid water for so long!

Later, we journeyed upriver meeting a friendly monkey, a very poisonous snake, lots of lizards and termites and a couple of shy fresh water turtles.

We explored waterfalls and caves festooned with bats, before the ominous oncoming rain clouds dictated our retreat.

While Macarena was lacking in size it did not lack in nightlife.

As a group we watched a local football match while eating home-made ice lollies, saw some traditional local dancing and later in the discoteca were photographed by the locals on account of some very bad, untraditional European dancing.

Flying out from Macarena was a charming experience. The flight was delayed because the pilots had decided they wanted a long lunch break.

It was suggested we visit them in the restaurant to discuss when we would leave. After a persuasive and slightly heated discussion from the Colombian vet in our group, the pilots decided to skip dessert.

One looked at his watch and said that if we were going to go, we would have to run to the plane otherwise we would miss our landing slot in Bogotá and have to wait until the next day.

A mad dash ensued, with two pilots, myself and the two vets from my group running across the military airfield and jumping on the plane.

Five minutes later we were in the sky. A whole plane being flown just for the three of us! It was a journey I would never forget.

The Details

I booked my tour through Caño Cristales, which offers clean accommodation and has a tourist to guide ratio of 4:1. The cost was 1.2 million pesos ($504), including flights and food.
Remember to take good goggles for seeing underwater!
Like the story? Take a second to support Medellin Living on Patreon!



  1. I enjoyed reading your post; it seems like you had a lot of fun, the river looks marvelous and enchanting. I will definitely cross out Caño Cristales in my bucket list this year. I’m crossing my fingers!
    As for your pilots, you could have suggested to them to just bring their desserts with them while running the plane haha!