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.