Caño Cristales: Colombia’s Rainbow River

When most people think of a river, they envision dark muddy water—or, crystal clear water with a few dull grey stones lining a fairly nondescript riverbed. From late July through November, Caño Cristales in Colombia is the most colorful river in the world. A short window between the wet and dry season is conductive to an explosion of red blooming plants which populate the river’s waters. Mineral deposits, rocks, and various plants create splashes of yellow, green, black, and blue—in addition to the stunning scarlet red which dominates the river.

For most of the year, Caño Cristales is a pale green river that is not so different from most others rivers. The water level must be just right for Caño Cristales to transform into an aquatic rainbow. If the water level is too low, the crimson colored plants cannot grow. The red plants shrivel up and turn brown. Accessing Cano Cristales requires some serious planning, since it is located in a remote region of Colombia. Political upheaval kept tourists away from Cano Cristales for several years, but now the area has stabilized and the Colombian people welcome tourists with open arms.

Caño Cristales

From June to November, the months between wet and dry seasons, river plants put on a colorful show.
Photo: Shutterstock

The best way to access Caño Cristales is to fly into the town of La Macarena. The breathtaking ecosystem of Caño Cristales is very delicate, so guided tours are the only way to get close to the water. Cano Cristales is located in a national park called Serrania de la Macarena which is located on the border of the luscious Amazon rainforest. The Amazon rainforest and the surrounding areas are home to some of the most unique plants and animals in the world. The nearby Andes and Eastern Llanos also host many distinctive species of flora and fauna. Brightly colored birds, hyperactive monkeys, and well-camouflaged reptiles make regular appearances on the shores of Cano Cristales.

Journeying from the town of La Macarena on horseback is a popular way to travel to Caño Cristales. Swimming is highly restricted, in the interest of keeping the fragile ecosystem intact. If you’re lucky, you may spot a giant’s kettle. A giant’s kettle is a circular hole that forms in the riverbed when flowing water jostles rocks and creates friction. It appears as a natural witch’s cauldron, with water wildly churning back and forth. Several giant’s kettles add to the mystique of a colorful river that looks as though it was imported from a distant planet.

Macarenia clavigera

The colors are produced during the reproductive process of aquatic plants called Macarenia clavigera, a species of riverweed.
Mario Carvajal/ProColombia

Cano Cristales

Cano Cristales

If you love bright colors, add Caño Cristales to the list of places that you must visit in your lifetime. Vibrant splotches of red, yellow, green, black and blue blanketed by crystal clear water is a unique and beautiful sight. Visiting the shores of “the river that ran away from paradise” is a wonderful opportunity to bask in the loveliness of one of the most gorgeous rivers in the world. If the Muddy Mississippi immediately comes to mind when you visualize a river, a trip to Caño Cristales will surely upgrade your vision of what a river can truly be.

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