The Liquid Rainbow

The Andes dominate the western portion of South America, forming a continent-long spine of gnarly mountains.

In Colombia, near the northern reaches of the Andes, another range sits just 25 miles to the east. The Serranía de la Macarena run for 75 miles north-to-south and stretch just 20 miles in width. The tallest peak is called El Gobernador, or the Governor, which rises 8,579 feet above sea level. This chain lacks breadth compared to its gargantuan cousin, but it boasts another attribute that makes it memorable.

The Serranía de la Macarena resides at a confluence of three major biomes. There, the Andes, the Amazon, and the Orinoco zones meet in a tripoint of uniqueness. The national park that comprises the mountains features a slew of disparate ecosystems, including rainforest, regular forest, shrublands, and savanna. This conglomeration, unsurprisingly, created some incredible individual components, none more enthralling than a river that emerges from the mountains, called Caño Cristales.

Geographic areas of Colombia; Andes outlined in blue; Serranía de la Macarena in red - graphic by Milenioscuro; expert drawing by Kyle Stout

Translated from Spanish, Caño Cristales means “Crystal Channel.”

More often than not, however, we refer to this river as the Liquid Rainbow or the River of Five Colors.

If one were to trace the Orinoco River – the fourth largest in the world by discharge volume – from its Atlantic mouth in Venezuela, back into Colombia, to the Guayabero River, one would find a curious fork. According to local lore, the source of this fork, Caño Cristales, springs directly from paradise. This metaphor might seem apt, as gorgeous waterfalls punctuate a kaleidoscope for more than 60 miles.

Between July and November each year, the Crystal Channel becomes a fauvist painting with bright hues of yellow, green, blue, and black, though its main component is vibrant red.

Caño Cristales - phot by Dylan Baddour
A waterfall on Caño Cristales - photo by Dylan Baddour

The culprit is an endemic riverweed, named Macarenia clavigera.

During much of the year, this plant almost looks like a typical river moss, clinging to rocks in a verdant green:

The green phase of Macarenia clavigera - photo by Dylan Baddour

During the dry season, not enough water flows over the plant for its fireworks show. During the rainy season, too much water atop Macarenia clavigera does not allow the proper sunlight for its fireworks show. But, for a brief shoulder period between the primary seasons, the water and light levels are just right and the plant produces a unique performance. The colors arise from carotenoids, a chemical in photosynthetic plants that protects them from oxidation and ultraviolet rays. When conditions are perfect during the early South American spring, radiation activates the carotenoids and hues explode.

The coloration differs yearly, based on conditions, much like the color change we experience in the autumn.

Carotenoids exploding in Macarenia clavigera - photo by Oliver Grunewald

Like Pico da Neblina – the High Point of Brazil – this region’s remoteness led to an extraordinarily late discovery of the river by humans.

Some sources place the first encounter in 1969 when a group of cattle farmers stumbled upon the clear waters and colorful plants. The Liquid Rainbow remained largely a secret for decades after that, as the zone fell into the hands of Colombia’s guerrilla army, Farc, during the nation’s long-lasting war with drug traffickers. In 1989, a journalist trudged through the jungle, dodging rebels and hiding out in non-militant houses, to explore the mythical river. When Andrés Hurtado García returned, he wrote in the country’s newspaper that he had seen “the most beautiful river in the world.”

Since then, intrepid sightseers have attempted to visit the waterway. Not until 2016, when the government and Farc agreed on a peace deal did the situation allow safe exploration. Today, one can fly into nearby cities and hike into the jungle with guides to spy Caño Cristales in Sierra de La Macarena Natural National Park.

A giant's kettle in the river - photo by Oliver Grunewald
Photo by Oliver Grunewald

In addition to the many waterfalls and the one-of-a-kind coloration, this river includes a slew of giant’s kettles. Also known as giant’s cauldrons or glacial potholes, these geological features begin when water rotates a hard rock in a small cavity on the riverbed. Over time, the holes become larger and larger. The effect is quite striking.

With the combination of clear water, singular plantlife, coloration, waterfalls, and kettles, Caño Cristales just might earn the superlative noted by Andrés Hurtado García.

Video footage from above the river allows one to see the full spectrum of color and stunning rockwork. The Liquid Rainbow seems a worthy addition to one’s wanderlust bucket list.

Photo by Mario Carvajal
Photo by Mario Carvajal
A giant's kettle filled with liquid rainbow - photo by Motercolombia

Further Reading and Exploration

Caño Cristales: the river that escaped from Paradise – National Geographic Espana

Colombia’s river of five colours – BBC Travel

Caño Cristales – Atlas Obscura

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