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Cano Crystales

No need for an alarm clock when the roosters and construction started around 6:30 am. We awoke to find the city was without power, it happens a few times a day. No problem, we opened our shutters and watched the neighbors chasing a horse out of their yard and a lady wielding a machete cutting the common area.

Life starts early in the country. We dressed in our hiking gear, filled our water bottles and headed out to find breakfast and meet our group. After only one afternoon we were already familiar with the layout of the town, so we easily made our way to the Airport and Carolina’s office. We were early so we decided to grab a table at the place across the street and get a bite to eat.

Just as we were sitting down a poor injured dog crawled beneath my chair. He had obviously been in some sort of scuffle and was licking his wounds. In less than 24 hours the dogs of La Macarena were our favorite in Colombia. They pranced around town with their big smiles and wagging tails. Wherever we went a new dog friend seemed to accompany us. We saw them in the shops, restaurants, church, and even on motorcycles.They seemed to be the inspiration for Dr. Seuss’s ‘Go Dog Go’.

We saw Carolina at her office and were soon joined by American Caroline and we were told to head to the fruit stand in the park to meet the rest of our group. We introduced ourselves and we were surprised to find that everyone spoke English, except for our guide. Most of the hikers were in their early to late 20’s with the exception of Caroline, Oliver and I. We had a nice young lady from Boston, Monica who was living in Colombia, her friend a Colombian tourism official, Edwin and a young man from Israel, Shoval, and our local guide, Edwin.

After the introductions we set off on a short walk to the river where we boarded a large canoe style boat. The ride was a short 10 minutes down the river where our driver stopped to show us birds, turtles and large iguanas along the shores and in the trees. The river was fast moving and muddy, a miniature Mississippi river. We watched as other boats were carrying drivers on motorcycles, animals, and freight.

When we pulled to shore, we navigated the muddy banks and walked to a tent set up at the end of the boat ramp. A few military and park officials greeted our guide. A roll call was made, paperwork exchanged, and we boarded a jeep with benches in the back for a ten minute drive to the trail head. We bounced over ditches, lava formations and rocks. The road was lined with beautiful flowering plants and palms. The guide explained the roads were courtesy of the guerrillas.

Soon we pulled up to a little hut with crates of soft drink and beer bottles, stacked on the side. The store was manned by two young men, a small child and a dog. The hut was the last place to get a cold drink or snacks for the trail. It was heavily guarded by smiling young military infantry toting machine guns. As we exited the jeep, they were the first ones to extend their hands and offer us warm greetings.

It appeared that another group had just departed. After adjusting packs, we set off down a dirt road. The sun was glaring at 9:30 am and it was already 90 degrees. After a few minutes we were told to stop as Monica had just had a drink of her water that she filled at the hut and it was bad. She and the guide ran back to refill the water bottle. The hut seemed to sell everything but water. We would all share.

We set off again and within a few minutes we had our first stream crossing and saw the first of the plants that give the river its color. For the next hour we hiked up lava formations, down dirt paths and through a tropical landscape. We stopped for water breaks and Oliver and I were already regretting wearing our hiking boots instead of our water sandals as the water crossings were numerous and deep.

Within an hour we were at the famed cano crystales. The river was beautiful and we were lucky we timed our trip at the right time.The water was low enough to see the plants. The only two plant colors visible were a pretty lime green and pink. Depending on the light the pink plants changed colors to different variations of red. We spent the next hour walking along the river’s edge and taking photos.

I enjoyed the foliage along the river just as much as the beautiful and rare plants in the river. We spotted rare wild orchids growing in crevices, trees and nestled among the ferns and palms.

It seemed at each bend of the river we were greeted by beautiful waterfalls and crystal clear deep swimming holes. Finally our guide told us we would stop for lunch and have time for a short swim. We were excited as we were at a large waterfall and the area was bathed in much needed shade.

Ol was glad to lose the backpack he had been carrying. Our catered lunches easily weighed a few pounds each. After unwrapping the paper wrap it was a happy surprise to see beautiful banana leaves holding our hot lunch of grilled chicken, plantains and rice. All day I was worried it was some type of sandwich that wouldn’t hold up to the heat. It was delicious. We soon discovered why the dog from the hut joined us on our hike. He quickly did the dishes. Apparently he was the smartest dog in La Macarena, or the luckiest.

The swim was delicious. The water was crystal clear and refreshing. Everyone enjoyed it very much. Ol and I discovered we were out of drinking water as was the majority of the group. Most in our group only purchased one water container which was not enough for an eight hour day and a 9 mile trek in the heat. We refilled our bottles and used our life straws to filter the water. We were told that we shouldn’t drink the water because of the volcanic minerals. Our steri-pen wasn’t helpful because it only filtered viruses and bacteria. I was thankful we had our straws. Everyone else decided to take their chances and drink the water.

After drying off and dressing we hit the trail again. Since Ol and I did not speak Spanish we were surprised discover that 10 minutes later we needed to disrobe again as we were doing a waist deep river crossing.

As the day wore on, the waterfalls and the canyon became more beautiful. We stopped for another swimming break.

It was at this point that our young guide made the mistake of telling our group that on this trail we would not see all of the colors of the river. There is a better and longer trail. We all looked at each other amazed. Did he just say that we didn't do the best hike?!. Our hike continued, but talk turned to doing the better hike tomorrow.. Everyone wanted to see all the colors. I jokingly tried to explain to our guide that he failed Tourist Guide 101.

However, by the end of the afternoon we came to a spectacular setting where the water had carved a series of concentric circles, down a deep waterfall. For me it was the prettiest part of the canyon. Unfortunately we were losing the light, but it captured the hearts of our group and we got our groove back.

Just as I thinking this really was a beautiful day and we met a great group of people, the rain started. We still had a good 15 minutes walk back to the guard shack and the cold beer. As Colombian hiking guides seem to do, ours high tailed it to dry ground. That should have given me a clue, suddenly the wind and the rain became fierce. The water we so desperately wanted earlier came down in droves. But, soon we were huddled in the snack shack as the rain came poring under the awning. I now feared the boat crossing as it was like a tropical storm.

Just as we got in the jeep the storm left as soon as it came. Once again we were all laughing, enjoying our beer and reveling in our day. As we got out of the jeep we saw the metal tent that had greeted us in the morning on its side with twisted legs.

As we got in the boat I just thanked God that we didn’t have to do the crossing in the storm. No sooner had I finished my prayer, the boat engine quit while we were in the middle of the river. The motor would start, cut out, start, cut out and suddenly we found ourselves in for another adventure as we drifted towards the trees and the riverbank.

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