January 10, 2024 | Allison Robertson

Caño Cristales: The River of Five Colors


Caño Cristales

Cano Cristales

Tourist Dreamed

Caño Cristales, which translates to “Crystal Channel” in English, is a stunning Colombian river located in Serrania de la Macarena—an isolated mountain range.

The river is famous for its “liquid rainbow” appearance.

Often dubbed, “The River of Five Colors”, Caño Cristales is one of Colombia’s most precious hidden gems. Not only is the river filled with vibrant colors, it is also filled with craters, rapids, waterfalls, caves and impressive flora unlike anywhere else in the world.

The rainbow beauty of the river is indeed naturally occurring, and a rare phenomenon found nowhere else on Earth.

What is The River of Five Colors?

Cano CristalesGeology Page

Caño Cristales is a fast-flowing river with lots of rapids and waterfalls.

It is called “The River of Five Colors” because of the numerous vibrant colors that fill the river when the yearly conditions are just right.

But where do the colors come from?

What creates the color?

Plant speciesKike Calvo, Getty Images

The colors in the river come from an endemic aquatic plant called Macarenia Clavigera. When the water level is just right, and there’s enough sunlight, the river will shine a bright, beautiful hue.

These plants are green when they are young, turn yellow as they grow, and are various shades of reddish-pink when fully grown. The shades of color also change with the brightness of sunlight.

The river is also said to change in hue and vibrancy after long periods of rainfall.

Why are there so many waterfalls?

Cano CristalesKike Calvo, Getty Images

Sizeable circular pits are formed by pebbles or chunks of harder rock. These pits are known as “Giant’s kettles”. Once the smaller rocks fall into the pits the rushing water bangs them around, which slowly carves out the walls of the pit, making it larger.

These pits among the rapids are lined with the colorful plants, as the flora sticks tightly to the rock formations where the current is stronger.

The deeper the pit gets; the more waterfalls are formed.

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What wildlife lives in the River of Five Colors?

Cano Cristales RiverKike Calvo, Getty Images

Although some reports say there is no fish in the river, there are actually several species of wildlife that call is home, including: fish, turtles, frogs, birds, and other aquatic animals.

Can you swim in the River of Five Colors?

Cano Cristales RiverKike Clavo, Getty Images

Absolutely, visitors can swim and float in the river. However, it is extremely important that you do not wear sunscreen or bug sprays on you skin when going into the water. This is to protect the fragile aquatic plants that make the river what it is.

In fact, tourist entrances actually forbid the use of sunscreens and lotions, and suggest you wear protective clothing instead.

When was the River of Five Colors discovered?

Cano Cristales RiverNur Photo, Getty Images

The river is believed to have been formed almost 2 billion years ago by other ancient rivers that were rich in minerals. However, it is said to be the only place on Earth where the plant species, Macarenia Clavigera” grows.

Although the river has been there seemingly forever, it was more recently re-discovered in 1989 when a journalist hiked the area looking for prime photography spots.

Trouble in Paradise

Cano CristalesNurPhoto, Getty Images

Shortly after its rediscovery in 1989, the area around the river was closed to the public. This was because of ongoing conflict between the Colombian government and local cartels. This went on for decades.

In 2016, a peace deal was made with the cartels, and the country was able to reopen the River of Five Colors to the locals.

In 2020, FARC guerrillas started trouble again, setting parts of the area on fire.

In May of 2023 a ceasefire agreement was made and tourists were once again safe to enter the area.

In addition to guerrilla groups, the River of Five Colors is also at risk of oil drilling and deforestation.

When is the best time to visit?

Cano Cristales RiverGeology Page

You can visit Colombia at any time of year, however the best time to visit the River of Five Colors is during the months of June to November. This is when the river turns stunning shades of red, blue, yellow, orange and green.

During these months, the temperature and water level are just right, creating the perfect environment for the plants to flourish.

The best time of day to see the most vibrant colors are when the sun is high, and bright. On gloomier days, the colors are much less vibrant and visible.

Final Thoughts

Cano Cristales RiverGeology Page

The River of Five Colors is a naturally occurring phenomenon that some even like to call the 8th wonder of the world. It’s stunning colors and intriguing geography make it a bucket list adventure for people all over the globe.

Traveling to this hidden gem may not be super easy, but for those who make the trek, it is definitely worth it.