Be aware, before you start dreaming of a visit to the most beautiful river in the world, that the red algae that gives the river its famous colours only flowers at certain times of the year. Most agencies suggest that you can see the river in its amazing red state between late May and late November, but the peak time is between July and October. So if you want to see Caño Cristales in all its glory, make sure to book a tour at this time.
In spite of that, there is a lot more to see and do on a tour to Caño Cristales than just seeing the red river. The river itself is located alongside the huge La Macarena National Park, which is a vast area home to savannahs, incredible rock formations, jungles and bird and mammal watching. Most tours last three to four days and take in a variety of sights.
While the majority of people travel to Caño Cristales with a tour agency on a package trip, some make the journey independently. You can book flights to La Macarena from either Bogotá or Villavicencio (or take the little-used overland route via San Vicente del Caguan, if you’re feeling adventurous), and there are several basic hotels in the town which you can use as your base for visiting the river.
Having said that you can visit the area independently (without an agency go-between), it is also important to note that you cannot visit the river itself without being accompanied by a licensed tour guide. There are guides to be found in the town, but you will need to apply for a permit to visit the park from the National Parks Office in advance, and there are limited numbers per day and they are mostly granted to agencies. Visiting Caño Cristales independently is possible, but it’s a bit of a hassle.
There is only one ATM in La Macarena, and it’s entirely possible that it will be out of commission during the time you spend in the tiny jungle town. So bring all the cash you need with you just to be sure that you can pay your guides and hotel bills, and pick up any souvenirs you might want.
Be warned: if you are planning to visit the rivers around Caño Cristales and wish to swim in any of the designated swimming areas (you are not allowed to swim in areas with algae, in order to conserve the delicate species), you are not permitted to apply sun cream or bug spray before doing so. Why? The algae is incredibly sensitive and the chemicals contained in these products could damage it. If you are sensitive to the sun, pack a T-shirt to swim in.
Opinion is divided on whether you need a yellow fever vaccination certificate in order to fly into La Macarena airport (the entry point for a visit to the park). Some people claim they were not asked to show it, while some claim they were. It’s better to be safe than sorry, so get the jab and pack your certificate. And who wants to have yellow fever anyway?
La Macarena National Park is a stunningly biodiverse place, so make sure you are prepared for that. Pack binoculars if you have them (the park is home to well over 400 bird species), and a good camera for photographing wildlife (another warning: trying to snap a photo of a pink river dolphin is really hard!). Also include good hiking shoes and comfy outdoor clothing in your suitcase.
While we wouldn’t want to suggest that Caño Cristales is anything other than beautiful, it’s important to be aware that the beauty of the red river is strongly impacted by weather and climate conditions. Drought is common and can kill off parts of the algae, making the river appear less red, while cloudy days tend to dull the brilliance of the colours.
Having said that, Caño Cristales is a truly unbelievable place, and one which seems to confirm Colombia’s reputation as the land of magical realism. You may never see a more beautiful river in your life, and the experience of visiting the rainbow river and its surroundings is something you will never forget.