Tatacoa Desert & Caño Cristales, COL

October 6, 2017, Trip: Colombia
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October 6th, 2017

We drove through the city of Neiva enroute to Tatacoa, stopped for groceries and continued on. We next stopped just inside the desert at the Observatory to check out times for the night viewing of the stars and got to the camping area where we met an Austrian couple, Anton & Charlotte (they had spent one night at Al Bosque before we went home but we didn’t get a chance to chat with them as she was ill). Shortly afterwards, Joe & Josée arrived, got parked and we caught up with them enjoying some cold beer in the 41C/106F desert!

Note: Technically, the Tatacoa Desert is not a desert at all, but a semi-arid dry tropical forest. You do not see sweeping sandscapes or dunes here, but, surprisingly, you can expect some rain especially at night. In fact, there’s an average of 1070mm (about 40”) of rain here each year. The name Tatacoa is taken from a reptilian creature, similar to a snake, which used to live in the area when the Spanish discovered the place. Sadly, it is now extinct but you can find scorpions, snakes, cacti, and up to 72 different species of birds in the area.

We are parked right on the edge of the hiking trails to wander down inside the hoodoos but as it so hot, we are leaving that fun for the early morning! The section we stayed in was like a mini Bryce Canyon called El Cusco but not quite as orange in colour and nowhere near as spectacular.

A little while later, Simon, (whom we’d met at Al Bosque and Salento) showed up and he joined our little catch up session. He will now begin travelling faster as he is meeting his mother in Quito, Ecuador Friday, next week. But we may meet up after his visit as he too will be heading down to Argentina. We had hoped to check out the observatory that night but the sky clouded over before sunset and it would not be worth the entry fee into the observatory not to see stars. Too bad!

So Monday morning we were up with the sun and spent an hour hiking in the maze of hoodoos. By the end of that hour, we are sweating pretty heavily.

We shut down and drove another 17 km into the desert to a place called Valle de las Constelaciones (valley of the constellations). There is camping here with a huge swimming pool with water from an underground spring. The pool was actually quite cool but oh so welcome. We got here mid-morning, the owner Saul, welcomed us and we spent the day in and out of the pool.

this part of the desert is not red at all

A nice Colombian man arrived midafternoon with a few young boys who joined us in the pool and we chatted with Daniel about our future travels in his country. We are still inquiring about road conditions to Caño Cristales which is our next destination. We have been FBing with a Greek man and he arrived there today so we hope to hear that it’s worth the one way 140km of dirt/mud road. That night was cloudy too with lots of lightning and threatening clouds but we stayed dry which was welcome because rain would have meant having to close our windows to what little breeze there was!

Tuesday we left Tatacoa and began the trip south to Caño Cristales with Joe and Josée. We drove only about 100km before stopping at noonish at a cheap hotel outside of Hobo with AC and Wi-Fi. We all needed a good night’s sleep after two nights in the desert with no power to keep us cool. That night Colombia was playing Peru in world cup contention and we watched the game from Joe’s room and ordered pizza. After a few hiccups, the pizza did finally arrive – it was terrible! We’d ordered one cheese and one vegetarian then were forced to change the latter to Hawaiian which was acceptable but what arrived were one with cheese and pineapple and one with cheese and ham which was not so bad in theory but the crust was terrible – more like a tortilla than pizza dough. And weirdly it came not in a box with full pizzas but each slice was individual wrapped! Hilarious!

Colombia and Peru tied their game and we later learned that Panama won its game and the next day became a national holiday there! – only in Latin America! We’d heard of similar situations in other South American countries over the years.

Sidebar: Colombia does not have provinces or states but rather “departments”. There are 32 of them and one capital district – we will hit well over half on this journey. We are currently in the department of “Huila” and are now around 2 degrees above the equator.

After getting our super clean,  folded laundry back (we all were so impressed – best any of us had ever had done!) we hit the road and drove south then east to the city of Florencia – about 190 kms/120 m. We are now the furthest south we’ve been in Colombia: 1.6° above the equator! Roads were good for the most part, some pot holey sections but nothing challenging. It rained for a few minutes are one point; we went through three short tunnels, climbed up to over 2300m/7500′ where we stopped at a lookout and enjoyed some sugar cane juice called and then back down to about 500m here.

Fran standing beside the sugar cane press – it was very yummy juice

We were looking for a place to spend the night as there was nothing in iOverlander in Florencia and on the other side of town we found an event holding place with a pool and both pulled in and they said we could park in the grassy lot on the side of the building, have power, use the pool, bathrooms and there was Wi-Fi that worked near the pool but not at the camper.

Both couples had a few errands to run so Joe hung behind while Josée, Doug and Fran caught a cab into El Centro to run them. Luc (pronounced “loose”), the owner, had arranged for the cab to take us to a big mall where we were able to get it all done and right outside, there was a line of taxis to get us back. While sitting at a table upstairs at the food court, a bunch of pre-teen kids passed us by giggling at the English speakers; then one of the girls approached us asking where we were from and what languages we spoke. That brought the other eight or so kids over and a conversation began; some of the kids take English at school and were keen to try it out and also when they learned we were travelling in “mobile houses”, they were curious to see photos of them.

We returned to the campers, went for a swim and spoke to the owners about our upcoming drive to Caño Cristales. We will drive tomorrow about another 160km/100m to the end of the paved road at San Vicente del Caguán before attempting the last 140 km/86m to La Macarena on a dirt/mud road to spend at least two nights taking in the day tour to the “River of Five (or 7 depending who you talk to!) Colours”. The majority of tourists going to the river fly in from Bogotá or Medellin at a cost of $5-700 per person (this does include hotel and meals). A little rich for our blood considering we have 4×4 vehicles to drive ourselves.

We spent a quiet comfortable night (we ran our AC) and Thursday morning we shut down and headed north east San Vicente where we found a hotel with great AC and some internet. It was $25 a night for a double room and there’s a pool but it was closed today. Later in the afternoon Yani & Rochelle (he’s the Greek we’ve been FBing with and she’s his Australian wife) arrived and we arranged to meet up in the lobby at four to go out for happy hour and dinner,

We sat in a disco/bar on the square enjoying some cold ones learning of their experiences coming north and we shared ours of heading south. They are going to return south after hitting the northern part of Colombia so chances are we will meet again. We then went for some street food around the corner and returned to the hotel around 8.

We awoke Friday to cloudy skies and some rain; did not bode well for travelling a dirt road with many small wooden bridges. But it petered off after eight and after topping off our fuel tanks we began the drive.

This area of Colombia has been “controlled” by guerilla forces known as FARC for many years and has only been opened for tourists since 2009 and then only for flights into La Macarena (the closest town to Caño Cristales). The roads opened for people to cross through to get there in the past two years – there was a peace agreement signed earlier this year making it even safer. The town we stayed in last night was actually the capital of the FARC forces. We had heard of some overlanding motorcycles doing the route and then Yani and Rochelle so we knew it was possible albeit, slow going and to allow a day to drive it.

First thing you come across when leaving San Vicente, is the Colombia military check point where you have to hand over your passports/identity documents so they know you are entering the area. When asked where we were heading, they did not look surprised and pointed down the road in front of us. Now Yani did tell there is a second road that goes to La Macarena but that it was for construction and large vehicles and somewhat longer; he gave us the impression it was better to take this route.

military check point as viewed in the rain

The road is mostly dirt/rocks with small sections of pavements in front of homes or in small villages. We had no cell reception but at certain points along the road, we’d see a small cell tower with an internet service advertised nearby. In order to be able to stay in touch, we are using a set of walkie talkies.

Around the 35km mark, we encountered a “toll” – just a little shack with a guy holding up a rope where you pay 7000 Colombian pesos (just over $2USD) to pass over the little wooden bridge.   The tolls are supposed to pay for the maintenance of the two dozen or so bridges we passed over – some of which were definitely in need of some TLC.

The first 50km/30m took us 2.5 hours – slow going.

Now the road got muddier and it began to rain again. Then one of the weirdest encounters ever: we came across a small caterpillar (yes caterpillar!) train trying to make its way up a hill than we were heading down!

We were in the lead and as we tried to get around it on the left, Tigger’s back end began to slip right and despite the train backing up some, we never got enough traction to allow us not to keep slipping and hit it.

Joe and Josée were right behind us at the top of the small hill and as it began to rain harder, out came Joe’s winch, his extra towline, one of our spare tow lines and two D clips and Joe was able to pull us back up the hill. (you can hear the rain drops in this longish video)

Now we secured the “train” to the winch with one extra line and got it up the hill too. As the train was being pulled up, a pick up decided it couldn’t wait any longer and he began making his way up the hill too! It began to get stuck but worked did manage to make it to the top.  This is why you travel these roads with another vehicle!

 

Video courtesy of Josée who was warm and dry in Silver:

Along this road are some tiny villages with tiendas and a few restaurants and homes but most of the land is fincas (farms) doing cattle ranching as we are on the western edge of the Los Lllanos region (the plains). Often at the end of a driveway you see milk cans that have been dropped off for filling (we assume).

We stopped around the half way point in the village of El Jardin to look for coffee and to have lunch but this time did not seem to offer these services so we just pulled over and had lunch in our rigs.

The rain had stopped about an hour after the train incident and the road began to dry a bit; we crossed about two dozen of these little bridges and went through a creek once instead of trusting the bridge (forgot to get pics!) and one where we had to build up the bridge in order to cross it more safely.

Luckily it never got super-hot today; high was about 27C/81F so the rain and clouds were making it more bearable. We came upon another “toll” which cost 10,000 COP (just over $3). Each of these tolls gave us a receipt which we understand we can show on the return trip to avoid paying the toll again.

About 20kms from La Macarena, we heard a plea on the walkie talkie “Doug, come help me, I’m stuck!” So we backed us up to a point we could turn around (more of a three point turn) and we drove to see Joe stuck in the mud at a wicked angle.

So out now our winch came and it took some time as he was in the mud darn good and his camper (an XP) is even heavier than ours but we got him out.

Another video courtesy of a very relieved Josée:

About 5km before the town, we encountered another military base but were just waved on through and we arrived at La Macarena just before 5pm. So it took us about 8.25 hours to get here with a few periods of excitement.

Upon arriving in La Macarena we wanted to see about arranging the tour of Caño Cristales for the next day as it looked like the best day in the forecast.   After asking a man in the town square’s internet café, he gave us directions and we drove over to the CorMacarena  office and learned the office had closed at four but there were plenty of people around and inside. A man helped us by calling someone and a man named Misael arrived and took down our names and document numbers and told us to come back in the morning at 7:15 for the obligatory presentation and we’d we placed in a tour group. We did not pay at this time as we did not want to come back and discover “we had not paid”.

We then drove to the camping spot Yani & Rochelle had stayed at (nothing else on iOverlander but a closed hotel) and José welcomed us with a friendly smile and got us set up with power and his daughter gave us the wifi password to their slow internet. This is really just a large spongy grassy field in front of his house and we were able to use their bathrooms and showers (they had two of each in a separate building beside the house) and a huge kitchen area with seating for several tables – all under cover. We were all quite bushed from the day and just wanted cold beer and something quick for dinner so we pulled out our hot air popcorn popper and Fran melted butter in the truck while Doug made popcorn in the kitchen area and we shared with José and his family. Doug made balloon animals for the kids and we watched the videos we’d take throughout the day.  A bit later we were called over to the other side of the property line by Jose, the owner and lo and behold there was sloth!

So Saturday morning was the big day; the point of this entire side trip: Caño Cristales also known as:

  • The river of five colours (or sometimes they say seven)
  • The river that ran away from paradise
  • The most beautiful river in the world and/or
  • The liquid rainbow.

It is located in the Serrania de le Macarena national park in the province of Meta. It is on a tributary of the Guayabero River. The park is quite large and consists of three parts and this section is only open from mid-May to early December. Most visitors come from July to November and it’s supposed to be best during the driest time from mid-September to early November as the water cannot be too high as the plant (called macarenia clavigera) needs sunshine to produce the red colour. If you are lucky and get the right amount of sunlight, you are able to see green, blue, black, yellow and of course, red. The three middle colours are not caused by the plant itself but by the sun shining on various other things like the water, sand and rocks. The parts of the plant that are not exposed to the light are various shades of green.

There are three different trails you can take in the park of varying lengths. We had hoped to do the middle one but it seems it’s a sort of lottery, which trail you get.

We arrived at the office at 7:25 (a bit of a slow start) and watched the video presentation about the park at 7:30 and its rules as well as a talk afterwards, all in Spanish (and it was difficult to hear over the traffic noises, people talking and the fact that the speaker kept directing himself at the other half of the room!). The gist seemed to be what you can and cannot take into the park and how the guides have schedules which must be adhered to and to always stay with your guide. The majority of the people then left with their guides (max ten per group) and we were left behind trying to figure out who our guide was. We finally find Misael who took our money (250,000 COP each – approximately $85USD) and then seemed to frantically be calling around for a guide and when he seemed to have one, took us to a restaurant where we picked up our included packed lunches.

We were then lead to the dock where six more people appeared as well as two guides, Yuliana and Alejandro. We were placed on two different canoes and down the river we went for about fifteen minutes to a landing spot on the other side where we were met by police and our knapsacks were inspected for “contraband”. Turns out Fran had a small plastic jar of Vaseline in one of our bags (which she had totally forgotten about) and it was confiscated although we were told we could pick it up later at the office.

Next our group of ten was corralled into a Toyota pickup and taken for a ride down a dirt road for about twenty minutes. On the ride we learned that we were going to be on the Aguila (eagle) trail which was not the one we wanted as it was the longest one but at this point we had no choice. Misael knew what we wanted but that, of course, did not happen. Ah, Latin America; it is what it is!

Now the walking began – supposedly 12km/7m and shortly after we began, we were told to walk in single file and faster as we only had so much time in the park for the tour. There was not a great deal of explanation on the tour but there was some and if you asked a question, they would attempt to answer it. We went to four different tributaries of what comprises Caño Cristales and two different waterfalls where we could swim, as well as a couple of pools to do the same. As the sun was not out in full force, we did not get the full colour experience but the red colour was visible in varying shades and in some places we saw the green, black and yellow (and purple!) but never really saw blue and never saw all the colours in one place.

The reason for the tour was the colours and we were a little annoyed by the rushing to the next stop all the time and would rather have skipped some of the swimming spots in favour of more time with the colours but that’s the way they run the “show”.

(Lots more pics in the galleries)

The final section of the river is the best section for colour and the part you see on all the marketing material and online so we felt that they could have offered a tour that was shorter and only to this section that would allow you to hang out and catch the light at different times; too bad. The river does have some lovely water falls, potholes, cool rocks and makes for beautiful scenery and we were glad it did not rain other than a few sprinkles in the middle of the afternoon. The swimming spots were very welcome by late morning though as the beaming sun is sure hot. You are not allowed to wear sunscreen or bug spray (they contaminate the water) so you want to wear long sleeves and pant and a good sunhat. You can drink this crystal clear water if you choose but unless your system is used to the lack of electrolytes, it is not recommended.

 

The tour ended back at the trucks and we did the truck ride and canoe trip back to the town – we got there around five. It was a long day and after the day before we all just wanted to relax so we are staying here an extra day to veg some.

the entire group of ten with two guides

Sunday, we awoke to rain and it rained pretty much all morning and sometimes darn hard – the grass around us become a shallow lake! Doug was happy in one respect as he could test all the leaks he’d been plugging and the only one that refused to cooperate was the bathroom vent. Joe’s truck got a leak in their ceiling fan today. Once the sun came out around two, we were able to get a few things taken care of including drying items that had been left out all night including wet shoes and tow lines, among others.

After three we took a walk into town to check it out, buy a couple of souvenirs, enjoy a drink/snack and we met a couple boon docking on the village square; Diego is Colombian and his wife is German and they have been in La Macarena for over a month! They make and sell jewelry to pay their way.

a high end hotel in La Macarena

Monday morning we awoke to somewhat grey skies but no rain so we decided to go for it and take the alternate route back that locals had told us about; this is the “truck route” and supposedly has no bridges or tolls but is about 20km longer and is good unless it’s raining out. Jose, the campground owner confirmed this information and gave Josée the names of the towns we’d go through to keep us on track.

a pair of carricarris

we did encounter a few trucks on the way back but no CATERPILLARS!

We found our way, asking a few locals enroute and did find it easier going but could see how in rain it could be a slippery mess! We stopped once for a drink/snack at a roadside tienda run but a sweet family and as often happens, had to give tours of our rigs.

Still took us about eight hours to get back to San Vicente but it went smoothly with no releasing of any winches!

Rio Caugan at San Vicente

We returned to the same hotel as we’d stayed at four nights ago and today the pool was open so we went for a swim, had a late snack at the poolside restaurant. Then we went into town looking for a place to eat but didn’t find much so we bought some veggies in a supermarket and prepared them raw with sandwiches and watermelon for dinner.

Hotel Amazonia Real’s parking lot

entrance to San Vicente

Tuesday morning after a good night’s sleep and showers we hit the road after brekkie separately as Joe wanted to get his taillights looked at. We were heading back to Florencia to the same place for at least one night.

Enroute Tigger began to experience some sputtering and loss of power; at first we thought it was the transmission but we think it was some bad gas as after we filled up, all went well (for now). We arrived at Villa Isabel midday and after some lunch sat by the pool until Joe and Josée arrived and they joined us for our last night together.

The owner, Gentil, told us he could take us into town the next morning to have our outside cubby reinforced as it keep popping open and we have lost a few cans of fuel additives but despite saying hed take us at 7:30 in the morning he was nowhere near ready to go at that time so we just left with Joe & Josée more or less. They are headed south to San Agustin and we are headed west. As they are flying home next month for ten weeks it will be a while before we meet up again.

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