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When I first arrived in Colombia, I heard about a river that was supposed to be breathtakingly beautiful. I also heard that it was incredible hard to get to. So, I forgot about it. But then, last fall, some coworkers and I decided to go.
Now, for most of the year, Caño Cristales, is just a normal river, but from June to November, between the wet and dry seasons, mosses and algae bloom, making this ordinary river come alive with color. It has been called "the river that ran away from paradise," "the river of five colors" and "the most beautiful river in the world." It's not an easy place to get to and one that is definitely off the beaten path; but I found out that is a place worth the effort. It easily became one of the most beautiful and surreal places I have been to, and I don't just mean in Colombia; I'm thinking more like, EVER.
To get there, you first need to travel to Villavicencio, a town a few hours from Bogota. From there, you have to charter a plane to La Macarena. After that, you need to hire a guide to take you to the river. As I said, not easy. There are two options for getting to Caño Cristales: purchase a package or arrange it all yourself.
Thinking we could do it ourselves for less than what a package would cost, five friends and I each purchased a flight to Bogota with a return ticket back to Cali from Villavicencio; the plan being that we could take a bus to Villavecencio from Bogota.
There was a slight catch to all of this, though: the only way we knew how to purchase a plane ticket to La Macarena was by just showing up at the airport in Villavicencio and we would just have to find a place to stay and a guide once in La Macarena. Friends of ours, who did it a year ago, told us it would be easy and could be done for far less than a package. We were told that we could do some bartering on the plane ticket and that no one would be there, so it would be easy to find a place to stay. Maybe a year ago this was true, but in one year’s time, things have apparently changed a bit.
After a night out in Bogota, my friends and I caught a bus to Villavicencio and once at the airport, set about to getting our flights to La Macarena. We had heard that tickets should be around 140,000 each way, so when the first place we tried said 500,000 pesos for a round trip flight and not until the next afternoon, we balked. The next office said, No hay cupo and the third office only took cargo. Things were not looking good.
More than a little defeated and realizing our only option was going to be in the 500,000 peso range, we went back to the office we had started at and made one last ditch attempt at bartering. We failed and ending up going with Jorge, who for 520,000, could take us early the next morning. At some point during our exchange, Jorge tells us we won’t be able to find a place to stay in La Macarena, because he is bringing over a 100 people on Saturday and all the places to stay are already booked. But not to worry! He knows a place we can camp.
Well, that's just super; I love camping (no, I don't). Jorge gets us in touch with the campsite owner, Anita, and we are set; Camping it is. We decide to put all our trust in Jorge (and all our pesos) and hope for the best.
Well, turns out we put our pesos in the right hands, because the next morning Jorge proved to be trustworthy, picking us up 5:45 am and taking us airport. We had to split up into two groups, since each plane only fits 5 passengers and by 10 am we are all in La Macarena. Upon arriving, we found Anita, loaded up our bags and were driven to our campsite. Once at the campsite we were each assigned our own tent, which were already set up for us with a mat and blanket inside. No pillows, but hey - beggars can't be choosers. There were also showers and a restaurant on the campsite. Now, this kind of camping, I'm okay with.
We were promptly introduced to our guide and we took our lunch to go. A short canoe trip, bumpy jeep ride, and a half-an-hour hike later, we had finally arrived at Caño Cristales. And it was - by far - one of the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.
We spent the day hiking along the river, stopping to swim and hang out under water falls, and eating our delicious lunches. We returned to the campsite for dinner and repeated it all over again on Saturday. Then, on Sunday, we flew home to Cali. While planning this trip ourselves made it much more stressful at times, we were able to do it for less than what a package would have cost, and I would definitely say that Caño Cristales was vale la pena. It was most definitely worth it.