Colombia’s Liquid Rainbow

^Top image: The waters of Colombia’s Caño Cristales bloom with vibrant color each autumn. Credit: Mario Carvajal (licensed under CC BY 3.0)

In the Serranía de la Macarena mountain range of south-centra lColombia, a river sparkles and dazzles with such vivid colors that it is known alternatively as the “River of Five Colors” or the “Liquid Rainbow”—even “the river that ran away from paradise.” Officially called the Caño Cristales (Crystal Spout), the river’s iridescent waters glitter bright red, orange, yellow, green, and purple as they splash over feisty rapids and waterfalls and swirl in whirling pits.

The river’s colors come from black rocks, green algae, yellow sands, and blue waters, but the distinctive vibrant red—the key ingredient in this liquid rainbow—comes from a tropical riverweed called macarenia clavigera that has adapted to the river’s rushing waters and rocky riverbed. These aquatic plants bloom only for a couple months between the region’s wet and dry seasons, however. So for much of the year, the Caño Cristales runs the ho-hum colors of white, brown, and mossy green. Macarenia clavigera requires certain specific conditions—precise levels of water and sunlight—to thrive and take on its bright hues. From late summer into autumn, the Caño Cristales is one of the few places on Earth that meets these conditions.

Colombia lies at the northwestern tip of South America. The country has a remarkably diverse topography with deserts, jungles, snow-capped mountains, plains, and rain forests, as well as beaches on both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea. The Caño Cristales is just one of the nation’s large number of beautiful natural features. The river runs through a remote area of the Serranía de la Macarena National Park, about 125 miles (200 kilometers) south of Bogotá, the Colombian capital. No roads reach the river, and it can only be visited on foot or horseback—or, more often, donkey-back. The Caño Cristales is a tributary of the Guayabero River, which in turn is a tributary of the Orinoco.

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