La Macarena is a little Colombian pueblo in the southernmost part of El Meta. A remote outpost in the vast plains of the Orinoquía, it is best known as a base for visiting Caño Cristales, the so-called Most Beautiful River in the World, the Liquid Rainbow, the River of Seven Colors.
There isn't a whole lot to say about the town. The municipality, which includes an enormous amount of countryside, has less than 4,000 inhabitants, and only a fraction of them are in the town itself. It serves as the regional center for the surrounding campesinos, who mostly raise cattle. Because the campesinos come into town for goods on the weekends, Sunday cannot be the local day of rest—so they arbitrarily chose Wednesday. You'll notice this right away when you see that 90% of the businesses are shuttered!
While the region was inhabited by indigenous Guayaberos since prehistoric times, an actual settlement in the area dates back to the 1950s, when colonos arrived from Caquetá, founding the town initially under the name El Refugio. From 1999-2002, the town and surroundings became part of El Caguán DMZ, the zone of the country granted to the FARC as sole authority during peace talks. The locals who volunteer opinions, at least, speak of that time as being quite scary, and for that matter, the time before and afterwards when the national military didn't have full control of the area.
The Serranía de la Macarena is quite possibly the single most biodiverse spot on earth measured per hectare, and for this reason was Colombia's first natural reserve (and is now a national park). It is the only mountain region (more of a plateau, really) south of Colombia's Andino region, and is the highest point in Los Llanos. Covered with natural environments ranging from scrub grasslands to dense jungle to borderline Andean—owing to its varying altitudes, the temperatures here span 12-25°C, but are constant year round due to the proximity to the Equator! It is home to anteaters, jaguars, cougars, deer, eight species of monkeys, 550 species of birds, 1,200 species of insects, and 100 species of reptiles, in addition to about 50 identified species of orchids and thousands of other identified plant species.
Alas, the all too familiar problem of slash and burn agriculture plagues the park. The Colonos (which is a word that quite closely approximates "pioneers" in the sense of United States history) who are doing the shifting cultivation are mainly poor people trying to eke a better life as efficiently as they can in Los Llanos. The conflict with guerrillas and narcotraffickers (who have grown coca in the remote and inaccessible sections of the park) keeps the national military from effectively policing the park to stop the destruction, and indeed the government's own efforts at coca eradication via fumigation contribute to the ecological degradation.
For adventurous ecotourists, though, the Serranía de la Macarena holds one of the world's most unusual and beautiful natural wonders: Caño Cristales. This river flows through the southern section of the park, and is readily accessible with a guide from La Macarena.
The Macarenia clavígera "blossoms" only in the months between the dry and rainy seasons, so try to visit in the months of July through October. You can probably see them in November too, but it would be a shame to come all this way and find the river of only four colors! Expect temperatures year-round of lows averaging 22–24°C and highs 32-34°C.
Bring shoes that can get wet, a bathing suit, probably two liters of water per person, long light pants that are water-resistant, a long-sleeved light shirt, and optionally a hat (you can easily buy good ones for just $10,000 in town). Bring malaria medications too, as the world's most deadly disease is a real risk in rural, lowland Colombia. Don't bother bringing sunblock or insect repellent, as they are banned in the park to protect the aquatic plants! You'll want those long sleeves and pants to ward off sun burn. Don't worry too much about your shoes, as "crossing the river" really just entails stepping in some puddles. You usually won't need a raincoat during the months when the river blooms, but have one on hand and ask your guide at the start of the day if you'll need one, since the torrential rains are spectacular when they get going.
You will want at the very minimum two full days to visit Caño Cristales, although a third day can be more comfortable, albeit more expensive. Accordingly, plan a trip for four to five days, with your flights on the first and last days (unless you arrange a private charter, which can give you a bit more flexibility to depart late on a tour day). This also will give you at least a little cushion in case the flight gets postponed due to weather or general Satena incompetence.
There is only one practical way to get to La Macarena, and it's by plane. Satena Airlines is the one regular commercial operator to La Macarena Airport (IATA: LMC), with two flights from Bogotá per week via Villavicencio on Sunday and Friday. Note both that it is substantially cheaper to take a bus to Villavicencio from Bogotá and then take the flight from there, and that Satena Airlines' English language site somehow shows no availability for flights to La Macarena, ever—book in Spanish. They also process on-line payments through pagosonline.com, a frustrating service that requires that you have a phone number where they can call you back some 5-10 hours later to confirm your identity, and be prepared to use your Spanish. (Not to beat a dead horse, but it should be noted that this serves no useful purpose, since someone who already stole all your personal information could just give their own number.)
There are also several private operators who fly from Villavicencio's airport, most often chartered through a tour company, but they'll be happy to do a private charter for you if you contact them. You can even just go to the airport and talk to them, but you may then be setting yourself up to overnight in Villavo. They are considerably more expensive than Satena, but they are more convenient, and you don't have to adapt to Satena's schedule. There are a very small number of hostels in Bogotá who will set you up with a private flight and all other arrangements. Confirmed ones are Hostal Martinik in La Candelaria and Hostal La Pinta in Chapinero Central.
When you arrive at the airport, which looks a bit more like a backyard, you can make your official arrangements for a guide to take you into the park at the tourist desk. None speak English (and, as of 2012, don't expect anyone in the town to speak English ).
By anything else
It's theoretically possible to get to La Macarena via jeep/truck from San Vicente del Caguán (the former FARC capital), or to arrive via boat along the Guaviare River from San José del Guaviare, but both routes go through FARC territory, and both those cities also have very high levels of guerrilla presence. It's just not safe to come here any way other than by plane, and the military will do their best to prevent you from trying these methods—the last thing they need is some international incident requiring dangerous rescue efforts.
The town is tiny, despite being a "regional center," and you can walk to any local hotel from the airport in less than five minutes. To get out to Serranía de la Macarena and Caño Cristales, you will need to go with a guide (it's mandatory, in no small part because they want to protect the river, but also to keep an eye on you to make sure you don't wander off the beaten path). With your guide, you will cross the river by boat, and then take a jeep, bicycle, motorcycle, or even horse for most of the way to Caño Cristales.
Being a Colombian town, the street layout is an orderly, numbered grid, but the town is so small, you probably won't ever bother to learn the numbers. The "port" is a little hidden (down the little road at the far side of the park), but your guide will take you there anyway.
In town? Not much. There is usually a cool military plane or two over at the airport. The one park is a nice place to sit in the shade by the church. When you sign up for a guide to Caño Cristales, you'll also get a short tour of the pueblo, mostly just to get you oriented and to point out a couple favorite restaurants (or hotels, if you don't have one).
Serranía de la Macarena
Now we get to the fun stuff. This National Park is arguably the single most biodiverse spot on earth counting species per hectare. Endemic flora and fauna galore, and your guide should be a good source of knowledge along the way. The landscape is savanna with plenty of brush and small trees. But the main attraction is of course Caño Cristales.
Is it the River of Seven Colors? Or a more prosaic five? Guides toe the party line du jour of five: black, green, white, yellow, and bold ruby red. The plants (yes, plants, not algae) supply the red or green depending on the time of year, and the rocks and sand fill the whole spectrum. More investigative/imaginative/trifling travelers will find six or seven, though. The walk along/through the river is simply spectacular. With all the interesting rock formations, natural pools, rapids, and waterfalls, it would be a truly beautiful river even without the crazy red plants.
Photography and gawking will keep you pretty busy during the hike, but some of the most memorable parts of the trip will be the swims in the natural pools, which are breathtakingly beautiful, and have the perfect temperature—cool enough to be refreshing, but warm enough to be comfortable for as long as you like. Most are at the bottom of waterfalls, and the water is almost clean enough to drink (but don't do that). When in the river, you can gently touch the plants, but be careful with them—they will eventually be the town's own gold mine when the tourists really start arriving in numbers, and they are fragile and unique.
If you are doing the Satena Airlines gig, you'll have a bunch of extra time on your hands. Because of the security situation, you'll always want to check with locals before heading out somewhere other than Caño Cristales, but hey, you have to talk to locals about trips anyway, since you'll need to get a lift!
- Caño de Piedras. A reasonably short moto-taxi ride out of town, this river has a really popular natural pool with the townsfolk, who more or less all go here on Wednesdays. A nice river to swim in, have a picnic and hang out without spending a hundred dollars.
There is actually a ton of touristy stuff for sale in the shops that eat up about a third of real estate on the main streets, with the most useful item being a hat with neck cover in the back to keep you from burning. If you somehow have trouble finding these, check Miscelanea Traslevina, Variedades Rey, and Wilyani, which are all next to each other on Calle 5, opposite Hotel La Cascada.
Seeing Caño Cristales isn't cheap. For the guide and transport each day plan on $200,000–220,000 for a solo traveler, and a bit less if you are sharing costs. If you are a solo traveler feeling sneaky, and if your guide is cool, you can slip around the back way on a moto-taxi and ferry yourselves across along with the motorcycle in a canoe (but you can't let the military see you riding three to a bike); this will save some $50,000 compared to the standard boat plus jeep option. There is no ATM in La Macarena, nor is there a money wire transfer service. If you run out of cash, talk to the police, who can take you onto the military base, which does have one ATM (pray it works). Better yet, just go clean out a few ATMs before you fly (note that there is also no ATM in the Villavicencio airport—if stuck, charter a taxi to the park to the east to hit up the ATM in the parking lot and return, negotiating a reasonable rate in advance). La Macarena is a very safe small town, so it's not a problem to have a lot of cash on hand as long as you take the most basic anywhere-in-the-world precautions against theft.
There are plenty of restaurants in town, mostly pretty cheap and of OK quality, along with a notably large number of panaderías. For the expeditions, you'll probably want to bring a lunch, which could be just some arepas from a panadería, or a more satisfying meal prepared by a restaurant and wrapped in banana leaves (your guide can help you get that set up).
Be forewarned, foreigners, that this town uses exclusively the skunky variety of Colombian cheeses that gringos don't tend to like. Blame the folks in the blue house going down the little road to the port—they're the ones making it.
- La Casa del Pan, Calle 5, 7-66. There are plenty of panaderías in town, but this is one of the friendliest, and pretty conveniently located. And they won't randomly try to gouge you on soda prices! $500-2,500.
- Pan Unicrema, Carrera 7, 7-08. Well hidden in a town where things are hard to hide, this is the busiest, or at least has the appearance of the busiest, panadería in town (it's possible the locals just like to hang out here and drink coffee). $500-2,500.
- (Restaurante anonymous, white) (On the park just north of the church). Seemingly scornful of customers, this spot eschews any sort of signage (you'll know it because everything is white), and the lady will try to scare you off with tales of how long it will take to prepare the meal. Intrepid traveler, forge ahead! The portions are large and tasty, with more meat on your plate than you'll get anywhere else. The park provides a nice atmosphere at night, too, with Bar Papparazzi providing the background music. $7,000-10,000.
- Restaurante Brisas del Guayabero, Carrera 8, 3-71 (On the park opposite the church). A friendly option with probably the best value in town for a restaurant. Hearty soups and decent meats. Again, it's nice to be on the park at night. $6,000-8,000.
- Restaurante y Heladería Fondo Azul, Calle 5, 6-69. The one ice cream place in town! If only this were located on the park, it would be a gold mine, but now that you know where it is, go get your fingers sticky. $3,500-8,000.
- Restaurante el Llanero, Calle 7, 7-18. Pretty well hidden from tourists on Calle 7 is the pueblo's friendliest restaurant by far, run by a lovely lady who likes to chat with travelers. Even the patrons seem more friendly here. Food is hearty, simple, and tasty. $7,000-11,000.
- Restaurante la Turista, Calle 5, 7-55. It's not clear whether the name is a cynical ploy or just an ironic misnomer, but this place always has the same locals hanging out. While locals hanging out is usually a good sign, this restaurant suffers a bit from the fact that they overcharge tourists (go figure). The food is above average, though. $8,000-12,000.
Take your pick—there's an open-air, dimly lit spot with Aguila and Poker on every other corner. There are several pool halls, with the big ones on the main road by Calles 6 and 7. They are always busy, but not too busy to prevent you from nabbing a table after a couple beers.
- Boomerang Discobar, Carrera 8, 4-07 (On the park, opposite the church). High marks for the name alone! Of the two bars on the park, this one is more low key, a little quieter in terms of music, and less anonymous.
- Licoreria-Bar Papparazzi, Calle 4, 8-26 (North end of the park). OK, this name is just pretentious. The sign is kind of cool, though. They play good music here, albeit kind of loud, and the outdoor seats spill right into the park, which is great if you just want to sit, drink, and people-watch.
There are a bunch of hotels/guesthouses in town, mostly clustered around the park and on calle 5 (the street just off the park with the prominent sign for Hotel la Cascada). There really is no reason to book these in advance, as there almost certainly will be tons of spare capacity, and you can give yourself a little tour of the rooms and find a good price. All lodgings will have a private bath plus TV option (and sometimes A/C) and a shared bath no-TV option. Keep in mind that power usually cuts off in the evenings, so that TV and A/C might not be waiting for you! Showers are all cold, and you'll never want anything else.
It is not possible to camp in the National Park, so you will have to stay in town and "commute" each day.
- Casa Hotel Real (Next to the church), ☎ +57 313 292-9925. A nice sunny, breezy option with friendly staff. Sort of in the mid-range of things here. Optional A/C. $25,000/35,000.
- Hotel la Cascada, Calle 5, 7-35, ☎ +57 8 560-3132. Despite the very unassuming exterior, this is probably the nicest hotel in town, with an immaculately clean and somewhat cavernous interior, comfy beds, and lots of A/C. The prices are a bit on the high side for the better rooms, though. $25,000/45,000.
- Hospedaje los Cristales, Calle 5, 7-21. A bottom budget option. It's a little loud at night, no A/C—just fans, and the rooms aren't as aesthetically pleasing as those at some other hotels, but the family that runs the outfit is nice, and the price is certainly right. $10,000/20,000.
- Hotel San Nicolas, Calle 9, 5-54 (Arriving at the airport in La Macarena, you must walk straight 2 blocks in the hospital direction through the police station, then turn right 1 block and 10 meters to the left. The hotel is located right in front of the high school.), ☎ +57- 32 13 00 08 02, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check-in: 13:30, check-out: 11:00. A family-run property with standard private rooms or dormitories. All rooms are spacious and airy, have their own bathroom with a shower and toilet, and are equipped with a TV set. 40.000$.
There are two internet cafes, prominently signed "Internet," one at Calle 5, 7-70 and the other just opposite the airport at Calle 8, 7-76. Both are slow. The former is a bit faster, and hence more crowded with youngsters, but the computers are infested with malware. The latter is s-l-o-w... sometimes nearly to the point of being unusable, but the people who run it are easily some of the nicest, friendliest people you'll meet in this occasionally kind of stand-offish town—you'll feel good spending your money there. Both are expensive at 2,500 per hour, and are open only in the afternoon, with power cutting out usually around dinner time. Neither sells beverages, so BYO.
La Macarena is more or less surrounded by legitimately dangerous, scary regions, but the military is in firm control of the town, river, and has all sorts of patrols out around the areas where you will be walking. The real dangers would be slipping on a rock, sun burn, or more seriously malaria. While the risk is quite low of contracting malaria on your trip, the price of skimping on medicine is potentially your life. Doxycicline (doxiciclina) is inexpensive in Bogotá and Villavicencio: just go to any droguería and ask for 30 plus the number of days in La Macarena tablets at a dosage of 100 mg. Aside from that, just be sure to bring a good two liters or so of water each day to avoid heat exhaustion.
If you are interested in exploring Serranía de la Macarena more and seeing more wildlife, you might have better luck doing so from the north side. The closest town you can get to easily would be San Martín, but it would be best to check with a tour agency in Villavicencio first to double check whether this will be possible at all.