The Serranía de la Macarena – where the Caño Cristales river runs – is an isolated mountain range located on the border of three large ecosystems: the Andes, the Eastern Llanos and the Amazon rainforest. So, depending on which direction you look, you can see rainforest, dry forest, shrublands or savanna plains.
The Serranía de la Macarena was Colombia’s first natural reserve. It may also be the most biodiverse place on the planet, per hectare, which sounds exciting until you see it. The vistas are stunning, but the plains are plains, covered with a type of soft, branching grass that shares characteristics with bamboo and cacti. Yes, there may be “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”, but you’ll be lucky to see or recognise much, if any, of that. There were butterflies, bees and the plants you see in these photos. Beautiful and tranquil, but not quite epic.
After a 30 minute walk, we finally made it to the main attraction. As the photos will describe the Caño Cristales river better than I can, I’ll avoid calling it ‘beautiful’ or ‘scintillating’. I might as well call it wet. However, what you can’t see in the photos is that it’s a relatively shallow, fast river, banked by lunar-looking giant’s kettles, with multiple rapids and waterfalls churning up the water. And at gentle inclines, where the surface of the water skims less than a foot from the riverbed, carpets of red or yellow macarenia clavigera grow, giving the river its striking appearance.
Geek time. Macarenia clavigera are a species of podostemaceae (see photo above), otherwise known as ‘river weeds’, submerged when the river is high, but living a terrestrial life (i.e. breathing like normal plants) when the waters recede. In case you were wondering how they breathe underwater, they have specialised parenchymatic tissue called aerenchyma throughout the plant body, helped by the plants’ delicate, fine, feathery, wispy (choose one) sponge-like hairs, which vastly increase the plant’s surface area.
Anyway, these gorgeous yellow plants, which turn strawberry milkshake red where the sun shines, are worth their weight in tourists’ gold. And, just like how trophy hunting provides the funds needed to conserve endangered animals, the potentially damaging force of tourism may end up providing enough money to keep this park – and the stunning Caño Cristales river – protected.
We walked, we swam, and between those two things we took endless photos. Walking without suncream, next to a reflective surface on the equator, is dangerous for a guy who once burned in early-April London. Thankfully, cloud cover gave my oh-so-fair skin some (if not quite enough) protection.
With the day’s hike finished, we took the boat back to town, changed, washed, then got a moto-taxi to a barn with rows of chairs packed with tourists and locals. We were given overcooked steak and stodgy yuca, which Mum didn’t eat much of. The German couple went as far as to roll their eyes at the food and reject most of it. It made me remember that Mum’s half German.
[Note: if you think there seems to be some anti-German sentiment running through this piece, it’s probably because the Germans were both the only people we spoke to and played up to some stereotypes I find entertaining. And my Mum’s family is German.]
Soon, there was live music blasted through terrifyingly loud speakers, while kids danced at full speed on stage. The German lady already had a migraine by the time we sat down. Her husband condescendingly wagged his finger like a mocking conductor, apparently showing disdain for such a lowbrow production. Mum, who doesn’t even enjoy loud restaurants, let alone eardrum pounding concerts, looked uncomfortable.
Between songs, the MC for the night gave speeches:
We should tell everyone (aunts, cousins, bosses, friends etc etc etc – it was a long list) that this is a peaceful town, that it’s safe and that they have been doing their best to develop and organise the tourism industry for eight years. We now have the option for peace, and we all deserve to live in peace, and using tourism to grow the economy and improve lives and come together is the best way to get peace, and we should change the stereotypes and start talking about peace, reconciliation and forgiveness. Let’s leave a better country for our children.
He got a warm round of applause. This was excellent advertising. He made me feel that in coming to this town to look at plants I was somehow making a fragile peace with FARC possible. We were saviours of sorts. Our money was changing lives. Maybe Mum had every right to be so picky about the steak, considering that we were emancipators. I’d recommend that feeling to anyone.
On our way home we had to ask an old man for directions. He decided to walk us home, and was as gracious to us as the MC had been. We hope you are having a good time. We are organising everything well for you. We appreciate you coming, etc. Lily suggested that perhaps the town had gotten together and practiced these lines. It wouldn’t be the last time we heard them.