Caño Cristales – Colombia’s Rainbow River

All About the Rainbow River of Caño Cristales

In Colombia, you’ll find a river that looks like something out of a fairy tale.  Caño Cristales, sometimes called the “rainbow river” or a “liquid rainbow,” is one of the most beautiful natural phenomenons you can see in Colombia or anywhere in the world.  Learn all about it, including how to see this special place yourself here.

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Photo of rock in the river of Caño cristales with red and yellow colors
The Rainbow River of Caño Cristales, Colombia

Where is Caño Cristales in Colombia?

Caño Cristales is located in isolated south-central Colombia, in the upper reaches of the Amazon rainforest.  The closest town is La Macarena, just a short boat ride down the Guayabero River from Caño Cristales.

If you have seen the recent Disney film Encanto, you saw Caño Cristales.  It was the location of the emotional climax of the film as well as the saddest part of the film.  The film actually accurately alludes to the fact that this are area was once a conflict zone.

However, today it is extremely safe and welcomes many visitors every year.

Photo of falls and an area below at Caño Cristales
The falls known as Los Ocho and El Coliseo at Caño Cristales

What Gives Caño Cristales its Colors?

The rainbow effect of the river is caused by the growth of an aquatic flower known as the macarenia clavigera.  When the plant blooms, it turns bright red, pink, or even green.  The color depends on the amount of the sunlight the plant received during the year and varies in different parts of the river.

The effect creates something truly extraordinary.  In fact, the river has even been referred to as a piece of the Garden of Eden left behind.  This plant also only grows in Colombia, meaning you can’t see it anywhere else in the world.  There is one place in Colombia where you can see it in a more limited fashion, but Caño Cristales is where you can see it in all its splendor.

The other area where you can see the macarenia is Guaviare, which has a number of other great natural attractions and sights.  Read about 7 things to see in Guaviare here.

Photo of aquatic plants in Caño Cristales
The aquatic plants Macarenia Clavigera give Caño Cristales its colors

What You Can See On a Visit

There are several different trails in the park, and depending on your time and chosen package (you must have a tour guide to enter the park), there are different sections of the river you can see.  Below, you can learn about some of the highlights you can see during a visit to Caño Cristales.

Cascada de la Virgen

Photo of a waterfall at Caño Cristales
Cascada de la Virgen

This waterfall is one of the most beautiful areas of the river.  A short waterfall flows in several levels below a bridge.  You can see the red and pink of the macarenia clavigera on the rocks and at the bottom of the waterfall where you can also see a circular yellow eye hole that makes it even more beautiful.

Cascada de la Virgen can be seen on the popular trail to Los Pianos.

Los Pianos Waterfalls

Photo of two women in a waterfall
Los Pianos Falls

This series of waterfalls gets its name because each waterfall appears to have a slightly different pitch, like the keys of a piano.  It’s a pretty sight to see each fall crashing down and running into the next.  There is also a nice swimming hole at the bottom of the middle falls, perfect for a refreshing swim!

Caño Cristales is arguably Colombia’s premier eco-tourism destination, but far from its only one.  Read about some more great places for ecotourism here.

El Tapete

Photo of a calm section of the river at Caño Cristales with reds and yellows
El Tapete

Tapete literally translates from Spanish as carpet in English.  Located along the return path from Los Pianos, this area of the river may not have any falls, but it is the best area to see the “liquid” rainbow effect as the river calmly meanders over the brightly colored macarenias mixed into the yellow hues caused by the natural minerals of the rocks.

It’s really remarkable and hard to take your eyes away from as you walk alongside.

Los Ocho

Photo of Los Ocho at Caño Cristales with people around.
View from the top of Los Ocho

This series of eight circular falls is not far from the trailheads and is often visited at the conclusion of the Los Pianos trail.  It’s a remarkable sight to see how the water has carved out these holes, and at the bottom, you can see lots of macrenias in the area known as El coliseo.

La Piscina del Turista

Photo of people swimming in a river
Piscina del Turista

Not far above Los Ocho is the Piscina del Turista, a gorgeous natural swimming pool.  The clear and calm waters make for a perfect place for a refreshing swim after a long day of hiking, immersed in the beautiful natural scenery.

Los Pailones

Photo of green aquatic plants in Caño Cristales
The green macarenias of Los Pailones

Downriver from Los Ocho is an additional trail and section of the river known as Los Pailones.  This section of the river is covered by jungle and gets less sunlight.  That gives all the macarenias a green color.

While completely different from the red and pink colors of the higher sections of the river, it is beautiful in its own right.  There is another gorgeous natural swimming pool in this section of the river as well.

A man taking a photo along the edge of Caño Cristales
Another section of green along the Los Pailones trail

You’ll need to start your trip to Caño Cristales from Colombia’s capital city Bogotá.  See our tour and transportation options in Colombia’s capital here.

Planning Your Visit to Caño Cristales

A common question is how many days should you plan a trip to Caño Cristales?

A trip will require a minimum of 3 days, which will give you a complete day in the park and parts of the other two days to see more of the park or other nearby areas.  Flight times can vary, so the activities on the first and last day will depend on your arrival and departure times.

Usually, you will visit Caño Cristalitos on the first or last day.  At this smaller river, you can also see the macarenias, and it can be easily visited in a half-day.  The full day in the park on 3-day trips often includes the trail to Los Pianos, goes by the Cascada de la Virgen, and El Tapete, and culminates in a stop at Los Ocho and the Piscina del Turista.

However, extending your trip to 4 days will ensure you see Los Pailones as well.  Usually, Los Ocho is included with this trail in that case, which gives you more time to swim at the Piscina del Turista and take in the sights along the Los Pianos trail.

A visit to Caño Cristales does require good physical condition and walking 6 or more hours a day.  Many of the trails are over relatively flat terrain, but some areas are rocky and can be slippery, so it’s best to have comfortable shoes with a good grip or hiking boots.  The trail to Caño Cristalitos and some parts of the Los Pianos trails are uphill.  Groups are never larger than 8, and they are grouped together based on skill and comfort level, so be sure to let your tour organizer know if you would prefer easier routes with less difficult hikes.

With a tropical climate, it’s important to take rain gear as well as long sleeves and pants to protect from sunburn and mosquitos.  Sunscreen and insect repellant is not allowed in the park to protect the ecosystem.

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