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.
Expect temperatures year-round of lows averaging 21–23°C and highs 26-32°C.
The Macarenia clavígera “blossoms” only in the months July through October, though you can probably see them in November too. For a spectacular play of colours, you also need sunny weather, which is most probable from September to February.