Caño Cristales, the Rainbow River

Elizabeth Borneman


Colombia has a unique feature that has been dubbed ‘the most beautiful river in the world.’ This river, called the Caño Cristales, is also known as the river of five colors for the vibrant path it winds through the Colombian landscape. The Caño Cristales is a unique biological wonder that, for most of the year, looks like a completely normal river. However, during the short period between the wet and dry seasons, the river explodes with life and color.

At any other point of time during the year the riverbed of the Caño Cristales is like any other: clean, cool, mossy, green, and rocky. When the water levels are at a certain point, a plant called Macarenia clavigera blooms. The Macarenia clavigera plant is bright red and creates a river of bright colors and shades.

The Macarenia clavigera plant needs sunlight to bloom, which is why it remains dormant during the wet season when the river is too high to allow adequate sunshine to get to the plant. During the dry season there isn’t enough water flowing through the river to sustain the majority of the plant life in the river, so the plant shrinks back to await the influx of water during the rainy season.

The Macarenia clavigera plant gives the Caño Crystals its red hues. Photo: Mario Carvajal, Caño Crystals Project.
The Macarenia clavigera plant gives the Caño Crystales its red hues. Photo: Mario Carvajal, Caño Crystals Project.

Blue water, colorful sand, and other plants of varying hues in addition to the red Macarenia clavigera plant have given the Caño Cristales the reputation it has for being Colombia’s most beautiful river, and certainly one of the most beautiful rivers in the world. The best time to see the Caño Cristales in all of its glory is the period between September and November, when the water is at the right depth to catch the river in its rainbow of colors.

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Caño Cristales is in a very isolated area of Colombia that hasn’t traditionally been accessible by most visitors. Now tourists can fly into the town of La Macarena which is near to the national part where the river flows through.

The Caño Cristales up close. Photo: Mario Carvajal, Caño Crystals Project.
The Caño Cristales up close. Photo: Mario Carvajal, Caño Crystals Project.

La Macarena was closed to outside tourism for a few years because of instability in the region. The national park reopened in 2009 and there are a few tour agencies that currently operate to bring tourists into the Caño Cristales area. In addition to the river, visitors can expect beautiful Colombian rainforests, hiking opportunities, and the chance to see an extraordinary natural area unknown to much of the outside world.


Colombia’s Liquid Rainbow.  Karen Catchpole, BBC Travel.

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About the author
Elizabeth Borneman
My name is Elizabeth Borneman and I am a freelance writer, reader, and coffee drinker. I live on a small island in Alaska, which gives me plenty of time to fish, hike, kayak, and be inspired by nature. I enjoy writing about the natural world and find lots of ways to flex my creative muscles on the beach, in the forest, or down at the local coffee shop.