SERRANIA DE LA MACARENA, Colombia—Typing from my hammock, by the light of my laptop screen, long after a day of hiking through torrential rain should have put me to sleep, two questions are scratching at me. 1: Does the "most beautiful river in the world" merit its hype? And 2: Am I somehow responsible for Jerry, the bummed-out 75-year-old Las Vegas retiree tossing and turning in the next hammock over?
We've just spent the day trekking through the Serrania de la Macarena, a remote mountainous national park in central Colombia that has long been a base of operations for FARC, the country's largest group of leftist guerrillas. Our destination: the Caño Cristales, a strange little stream that has lately been having something of a Susan Boyle moment on the Internet and in Colombia's national consciousness.
Although I didn't coin the "most beautiful river" epithet, I bear at least some degree of culpability for propagating it. If you Google "Caño Cristales," the first result is a Web site called the Atlas Obscura, which I founded with my friend Dylan Thuras, who is sleeping soundlessly in the hammock to my left and whose videos and photographs will be appearing in this space over the next few weeks.
When we launched the Atlas Obscura, a year and a half ago, our idea was to create a user-generated travel guide to the world's "wondrous, curious, and esoteric places"—a Wikipedia of dusty taxidermy museums, bizarre natural phenomena, and other off-the-beaten-path spots that tend to be ignored by conventional travel books and are, by their nature, hard to find without a recommendation from someone in the know. We hoped to create a resource for ourselves, and for folks like us.
This fall, after a year of reading reports of flaming holes in the Turkmenistan desert, Icelandic penis collections, Indian root bridges, and German asparagus museums, we decided it was time for the two of us to start putting the Atlas Obscura to use in the real world. We gave ourselves a mission: Set aside a month, pick a continent, and visit as many Obscura sites as possible. South America seemed the cheapest place to start. "Thirty wonders in 30 days" was our far-too-ambitious rallying cry, before we winnowed our list down to the seven obscure sites we felt we most wanted to hit.
The Caño Cristales was where we knew our trip had to begin. It was one of the first places anyone added to the atlas that seemed so incredible we weren't entirely sure if it was real. The write-up, submitted by a user in Colombia, described an otherworldly "river of five colors" and included photographs of a blood-red stream whose floor was polka-dotted with potholes of bright yellow sand and lime-green river plants. More colorful than the river itself was the stream of hyperbole that was used to describe it: "the river that ran away from paradise," "living rainbow," and of course "the most beautiful river in the world." The write-up mentioned that the Caño Cristales bloomed in this multitude of colors for just a short period every year, during a seam between the wet and dry seasons when the water level is just right. Located deep within territory recaptured from FARC only recently, it had been almost completely inaccessible to visitors until just a couple of years ago.
At the time, there was very little English-language information to be found on the Internet about the Caño Cristales. But after the Atlas Obscura entry was published, it suddenly started to appear on all kinds of blogs. Our site was flooded with traffic—especially from Colombia, where a population that once feared leaving the big cities has begun to rediscover the wonders of the country's wilderness. A reporter from El Tiempo, Colombia's biggest newspaper, called us up to do an interview. "How do you know it's all real?" he asked. We had to admit we'd never been.
A year after that interview, we found ourselves sitting on our backpacks inside Bogotá's central bus station at 4:30 a.m., waiting to meet Thomas Doyer, a rugged Dutch expat who has been guiding visitors to the Serrania de la Macarena since before the park was officially reopened to tourists two years ago, and who regularly makes incursions into areas that are still considered unsafe. We were surprised to find that we were the first two Americans he'd taken to the park all year, and even more surprised to find out that we were going to be accompanied by the third, a chatty and self-confident 75-year-old retiree from Las Vegas, who was going to be riding the public bus with us to Villavicencio and accompanying us on our charter flight to La Macarena. Jerry, who asked that I not use his real name, is a member of the Travelers' Century Club, an exclusive association of travel junkies open only to those who have visited 100 or more countries. A few months ago, Jerry's cousin e-mailed him a link to a Web site (we can only guess which one) with pictures of the Caño Cristales, and wrote, "Bet you this one isn't on your bucket list." Jerry immediately booked a ticket to Bogotá.
In Villavicencio, we piled into a four-seat Cessna for a one-hour flight south over the gently sloping Serrania de la Macarena range to the town of La Macarena. Part of the Guyana Shield, the same geological formation that gave birth to the stunning tepuis of Venezuela and Guyana, the Macarena range is a geological and ecological anomaly. It sits directly at the convergence point of four major eco-regions—the Andes, the Amazon basin, the Orinoco basin, and the flat llanos, or savannah, of eastern Colombia—making it a biodiversity hothouse. It is home to a vast number of endemic species found nowhere else on Earth. It also happens to be home to some of the most productive coca-growing soil in the country.
In 2006, the Colombian army swept through the Serrania de la Macarena, manually burning dozens of coca plantations. Flying over the mountains, it was easy to spy the patches of second-growth forest, where underbrush has begun reclaiming the eradicated coca fields. Large swaths of the park are still in the hands of guerrillas even today. It was in these same hills that Mono Jojoy, FARC's second-in-command, was killed by the Colombian military just a month before our arrival.
We landed in La Macarena, a town of about 5,000 people, which barely existed 30 years ago and which grew up alongside the drug trade. The heavy army presence throughout town—there were nearly as many soldiers as civilians—leaves no doubt that times have changed since FARC's departure. On our way across town from the airport to the river port on the Guayabero, we passed two billboards: one announcing that La Macarena is the gateway to one of the newly declared "Seven Wonders of Colombia." The other bore a more ominous message: "FARC Guerillas: The war is over. … There is another life."
From La Macarena, we took a 15-minute ride in a motorized canoe up the Guayabero River, followed by 20 minutes in a jeep down a heavily potholed, FARC-built dirt road to the finca of David Lopez, a cattle farmer whose property stands at the entrance to the Caño Cristales. From there, it was just a short hike to the rainbow-colored river.
We approached from a rocky bank and found a shallow stream with water as clear as glass, flowing over a canvas of bright, psychedelic shades. The riverbed is carpeted with Macarenia clavigera, a species of riverweed that is found nowhere else on Earth and which is the source of the Caño Cristales' notoriety. Pale green under the shade of riverbank foliage, the Macarenia turns an intense magenta under full sun. The individual plants are each about 2 inches long, with a red stem that branches into a dozen plushy pink tips. Those that have been exposed to sunlight look like the lungs of a small animal and stand out starkly against the black rock beneath. White water coursing over cascades and the occasional crater of yellow sand complete the colorful tableau.
After a few hours passing through rock formations with colorful names like "The Tapir's Crossing" and "The Tablets of Moses," we reached a series of waterfalls from which it was possible to climb up and take in a panoramic view of the river winding through the landscape.
Thomas surveyed the scene and shared with us his anxieties about the river's prospects. As far as he is concerned, its future is all but scripted. The secret is already out. Caño Cristales will no doubt appear in the next edition of Lonely Planet's Colombia guidebook. The government will decide that the massive potholes in the old FARC dirt road need to be filled. The big tour companies will start advertising eco-adventures in the park. La Macarena airport will get a regular flight from Bogotá. "What will this place be like in 10 years?" asks Thomas, shaking his head. "There will be asphalt paths. There will be guides. It will be big."
Jerry, meanwhile, had perched himself on a nearby rock and removed his sunglasses. The look of disappointment on his face was obvious. "It's not quite what I expected," he told us. "I thought I'd see more blue and green." He asked Thomas if the rest of our hike was going to be more of the same.
"In that case, I think I'd just as soon go back," he said. He'd been to too many places, seen too many of the world's marvels, for this one to strike a chord.
The adventure-tourism industry survives by constantly churning out new itineraries of the next new thing. When the point of travel becomes ticking off places on a checklist and outdoing your friends in distance traveled and hardship endured, there always has to be a next frontier. And that frontier always has to be moving. The next new thing always becomes old news. It just usually doesn't happen this quickly. I asked Jerry how he could have traveled so far to see this singular place only to turn back after just two hours.
"Sometimes, you know, you just build things up in your imagination," he said with a shrug.
Perhaps Caño Cristales was less than the "rainbow river" of "a thousand shades" that we'd come in search of, but, of course, that had to be the case. The river that lives on the Internet, and in our imaginations—captured under the right light, through the right lens, at exactly the right time of year—was bound to be more spectacular than the river we found. Jerry's response reminded me of an anecdote—apparently apocryphal, but poignant, nevertheless—about Sigmund Freud. On his one visit to America, in 1909, he declared, "All I want to see is Niagara Falls." Freud was an inveterate snob when it came to the subject of America, a country he once pronounced "a giant mistake," but he was enthralled with the idea of a cascade bigger and more powerful than anything in Europe. The story I was told once upon a time by a good friend—and have repeated many times since—was that Freud had been in a car on the way to see the falls when he told the driver to turn around. He feared that the reality of Niagara would supplant the image he had long held in his mind. Rather than face that inevitable disappointment, he preferred to preserve the falls in all their vastness and wonder in his imagination.
Accompanied by a teenager from town, we plodded on without Jerry and Thomas and arrived at a swimming hole at the base of a 10-foot waterfall. We jumped in to cool off, but our dip didn't last long. Looking at the horizon, we could see that the sky was already turning black. Soon, a few leaves plopped over the falls onto our heads. They came first in ones and twos, and then, within minutes, were followed by a deluge of debris that had been unleashed upstream. We hopped out, put on our clothes, and started walking back downstream through a thick downpour, keenly aware that the bottom of a canyon was the last place we wanted to be. We crossed the river five times, each time against a stronger current and higher waters that soon approached our chests. Finally, sodden with rain, we stumbled back to the Lopez farm and found that Jerry and Thomas had gotten worried and gone out searching for us with a couple of soldiers.
They were relieved to see we'd made it back, albeit completely soaked. By that time, the river had lost all of its colors, save for white.
Click here to launch a slide show on Caño Cristales.
GoPro provided the travelers with some camera equipment free of charge.
For more on the world's wondrous, curious, and esoteric places, check out Atlas Obscura.