There aren’t many places that offer a jaw-dropping succession of waterfalls as well as a sense that a nation’s history is being played out around you. Welcome to Caño Cristales!
When I arrived in Colombia, La Macarena meant an annoyingly catchy Euro-pop song. Tonight, it is the small town where I am staying in the Serrania de la Macarena: a mountainous finger rising 2,500m out of the plains east of the Andean Cordillera Oriental.
It’s true that a trip here is not for everyone: it involves an uncomfortable drive, a hair-raising flight on a tiny plane (personally, I loved it), the accommodation is rudimentary and the former Farc stronghold is on the probably-best-to-avoid list of the anxious bods of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. It is also the most astonishingly beautiful and fascinating place I have been in Colombia.
It is still notorious because the Farc leader, Mono Jojoy with 21 of his colleagues were killed in the area in 2010. It should be a marker of how much the tide has turned against the Farc.
I was fortunate enough to fly in and from Bogotá’s dry altitude of 2,600m, and was hit by the sweltering humidity hit as I stepped off the small plane, while our luggage was collected by an old boy with a horse and cart.
At the end of the runway were dozens of gnarled troops. As the old fellow went about his business, the next flight landed—a mighty Hercules with 4 whopping propellers decanted endless troops with dogs onto the strip.
There is a heavy military presence in the small town, which Colombians find reassuring. In my naivety, I found the need to register with the army rather disquieting; this was easily offset by the charming girl working on the national park desk.
The town is a collection of basic one level buildings with corrugated roofs and open fronts flanking uncovered roads, where horses were already working and a man slept in a wheelbarrow.
We strolled through the brewing humidity and found a café, where I resisted the urge for a beer to counteract the heat. A soldier came in and bought a fag and croissant; he brushed past with his purchases and mortars poking out of his shirt-front pockets.
People watching, I admired an old man’s (presumably) replica1966 England shirt—his huge sombrero and decorated machete sheath would have drawn a lot of attention in London.
From the town, it is only a short trip via long wooden canoe over the river to the waterfalls. Meanwhile, army gunboats cruised up river into the thick jungle.
Without guides, no entry is allowed into the national park of the Macarena mountains, the ancient and solitary range, which predates its vast neighbours, the Andes. Our charming guides, Monica and Pedro had spent all their 18- and 17-year lives in the area, so they were experts.
The national park side of the river had been Farc controlled until 2003, when the guerrillas were beaten back, and a heavy military presence ensures they continue to be pushed further into the jungle.
We climbed into a rattling jeep and set off on the Farc-built road to the Caño Cristales, famed for its glorious waterfalls, which are home to a unique aquatic plant that turns the water extraordinary colours.
Although the jeep was held together by rust it was still in use by the army and I rested my feet on a box full of huge bullets. As we bounced along, two ladies of a certain age cruised past on the back of a motorbike. They were laughing uproariously as one, carrying a walking stick, held onto the splendidly moustachioed rider.
At the end of the basic road, we were on foot. Past the thatched roofed shop, we set out towards the eight waterfalls, which drop along 16 kilometres of river. The running water forms elaborate tunnels and burbling channels alongside the river; elsewhere it was delicious to flop into the water holes that had developed like hot tubs.
Beneath the rolling waterfalls, plunge pools had developed, surrounded by huge ferns and palm trees. Within the water, the billowing red plants startle with their otherworldly bloom. From a distance the water is turned pink or even a lurid red, but closer inspection revealed hundreds of swaying plants like candy floss with cherry-coloured stems.
A river turtle gently stroked through a pool, while dragonflies and butterflies flitted about above. Given the amount of life, it was mercifully short of mossies.
There are remarkable rock formations, with names like roca del comello (camel) and cueva de la bruja (witch’s cave).
It was so idyllic amid the rolling hills and burbling water that it was difficult to imagine this could have been a war zone, and yet heavily armed troops would file past into the unknown.
When it rained, which happened regularly, while I covered up in waterproofs and boots, Monica and Pedro would just jump into the water, where it was warmer—they were safe in the knowledge the rain would quickly pass. The charming guides have an infectious enthusiasm for the river, jumping off the waterfalls and sun bathing to dry off. It didn’t seem like such a bad gig.
Back in the town, dinner provided the job of basic sustenance—perfectly fine as fuel at the end of the day’s tramping around. Walking back to the simple and clean Hotel La Cascada (The Waterfall Hotel), I looked through the window of the Cowboys Vetenerar. The no-frills vets’ shop was well stocked with drugs, saddles and cowboys boots.
Crashed out at the heady hour of 9pm, I reflected La Macarena may not be the most sanitized place I’ve ever visited, but it’s all the better as a result.