It is difficult to explain this experience with words, so I will only use one: magical.
I am actually using a few more words, in case you want to experience this for yourself. Scroll down to the bottom for the best pictures or check out the full album on Facebook.
When I began planning my trip, I knew I would start in Colombia – mainly because it was the cheapest flight from Toronto. I talked to a friend from Bogotá to get some ideas and supplement what I had read on blog and in guide books, and he told me about Caño Cristales. It is a surprisingly unknown tourist destination, possibly because of the effort and expense required to get there. It wasn’t even listed in Lonely Planet, nor is it in the first three pages of Trip Advisor results. I am glad my friend told me about it, as soon as I saw the photos I decided it was something I needed to see. So I added it to the top of my list:
- Caño Cristales, Colombia
- Salar de Uyuni (Salt Flats), Bolivia
- Iguazu Falls, Argentina/Brazil
- Cuevas de Mármol, Chile
- Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile
I spent several days trying to figure out how to do it in a way that was affordable, but it could not be done. I decided to go with a tour company, www.cano-cristales.com. It was the least expensive, but it was a great experience and I recommend working with them. The website isn’t easy to understand in terms of pricing, but as soon as I emailed them I got a response in perfect English that broke down all of the prices and options for me. They were very responsive as I planned my trip, and had no problem with me making a few changes at the last minute.
I paid just under COP 1,000,000 (CAD $450; USD $340) for two days and one night, with travel to/from Villavicencio. Needless to say, this, like the caves, was way outside my budget but something I deemed necessary. This is becoming a theme, and will likely result in me cutting my trip short before November. I am okay with that.
In hindsight, I would have paid more money and gone straight there from Bogotá. I saved about $150 by going through Villavicencio but it was the third worst city I have been to (behind Cleveland, Ohio and Lille, France). I won’t go into detail, just take my word for it.
I went to the tiny airport in Villavicencio early in the morning to catch a charter flight to La Macarena. I was worried about whether they would let me take full size liquids in my carry on, until I saw my boarding pass.
We landed in La Macarena less than an hour later, at an even smaller airport with even more sophisticated technology.
La Macarena is now on my list of favourite cities – probably somewhere in the top 10 next to Oviedo, Spain.
There are only a few dirt roads in La Macarena but they are lined with shops and restaurants, two pool halls and several other businesses that appear to be doing well.
My tour guide, Pablo, picked me up at the airport and saw me to my hotel. I had a late breakfast and we set out for Cristalitos. Not before picking up this stylish hat, though. You can’t wear sunscreen in the river, hence my look.
We took a boat less than 10 minutes and arrived at the bottom of the trail to Cristalitos (another colourful river, but not the main one). There is a little shop next to a turtle sanctuary. They hatch them and let them grow big enough, then release them into the river. They also have a pet monkey. It shat on me.
We hiked up a short hill to Cristalitos. It was a bright and sunny day so the red algae was beautiful. We only saw two other tours (groups of only two) and could have easily waited a few minutes and had the whole area to ourselves
We had brought along a tasty lunch in environmentally friendly packaging.
I didn’t swim on the first day, I was too afraid of the sun and swimming isn’t really my thing anyway.
After lunch, we headed back to La Macarena. I hung out for an hour or so in the park in the middle of town. There is free Wifi, which draws everyone there as a gathering point.
I made a friend named Santiago who is learning English. We practiced speaking and I promised I would go to Alaska with him in two years.
Next, I met Pablo to walk to the traditional Colombian dinner and program. They had singing and dancing, the kids were adorable and incredibly talented.
It was all fun and games until the little one asked me to dance. My teacher was patient and forgiving of my two left feet and severe lack of rhythm.
The next day, we got up early for the main event: Caño Cristales. Another short boat ride, followed by a seemingly long ride in the back of a 4×4, and we were there. We arrived at about the same time as 20 other people, but didn’t see them again once we set out. There are several trails and since many in the other group were older and/or mobility impaired I think they took a different trail.
Caño Cristales is much bigger and more spectacular than it’s little brother Cristalitos, but since it was an overcast day the colours were not as bright.
I actually went swimming. That is twice in one week, a record for this aquaphobe.
In my third week in Colombia, I managed to:
- Cross two things off of my must-do list (this and the caves)
- Confront my fears of swimming (twice) and birds so that I could have some great experiences
- Break in my hiking shoes
- Completely destroy any hope of sticking to my budget
- Speak only Spanish for several days (with the exception of my friend Santiago, with whom I practiced some English in exchange for his help with my Spanish
Do I recommend Caño Cristales? Well, once I decided I had to see it, I had to see it. It was expensive, and it took me more than a day of travel on each side, but I am glad I went.
I do not recommend it for solo travellers, as the tours are private. I had imagined being in a group, but I got my own guide. This would have been wonderful if I were with friends or a partner, but was a little bit awkward. I went for two days (the minimum) to try and keep the cost down. There are at least five more things in the area that I could have seen if I stayed longer, and I could have readjusted my visit to the river for a sunnier day. I would go again, if only to spend more time in La Macarena.