Lots of people know about Cano Cristales, Colombia’s multicolored river. Nobody knows about this place– yet. Which is part of the reason Juliana and I are going there. Only we’re flying sorta blind, sorta broke.
But determined to get to the teeny town of Guadalupe and find the secret red river. So I’m at a bus station called “Papi, I want pineapple!” while my Colombian girlfriend bargains with another bus driver. See, we missed our bus. And she’s one of about twelve hippies in a country of fake butts, fake titties and painted nails (even the guys do clear coats) and I’m an American whose ATM card keeps getting barfed out, cashless. So we’re doing this trip, you know, different. In Colombia, they call hitchhiking going “de adventura.” And we didn’t see a single other person doing it.
Regardless, we burrow into the countryside, marching along diesel-thick roadsides (sweat shaking loose with each step) and de adventura-ing. Then walking again until our resolve crumbles and pesos leak out. Into the deft fingers of another bus driver.
It doesn’t have to be this hard. We could’ve rented a car, paid a guide, taken a direct bus. But we don’t. In fits and starts, we creep towards Guadalupe. We stop in little towns for fried arepas and to ask for rides from businessmen, truck drivers and tinted windows.
In the town of Oiba, Juliana bargains our lunch down to $3 where we wait for the collectivo that will take us the last hour to Guadalupe for $2.
I am so excited to see this river, to be a pioneer of Awesome, to get there before trinkets and Don’t Leave Your Valuables and sunscreen oil slicks do. If history even bends that way. It seems unlikely, looking around at the unaware Gateway to Guadalupe: one main street of motorcycles, orphan dogs, bright fabric flapping in the wind and potable water for sale in plastic bags.
Seated in the collectivo with campesinos and children, the pavement ends and Colombia’s pillow-face emerges over the first hillside. The one she hasn’t shared with the world. And I sit the fuck up.
The road is a white dusty cloud behind us. The driver whips around gaggles of rocks in the middle of the road and we knock each other’s shoulders, seed heads in a gust. We bump over a valley bridge. Roaring water silences conversation and schoolkids swing off with grunts and half-waves.
We pass cool leafy coffee farms, under tree tunnels and honk behind cow-jams. Muscled mountains hold court in the flanks of the sky, so green they’re almost blue.
In Guadalupe, (whose welcome sign states that we are “Pretty, and Polite”) it’s late afternoon and dark clouds make it feel later. We get a room at the Hotel Bonanza and directions to Quebrada Las Gachas. I found the Bonanza through blogger Chris, who posted a hard to find, first-hand English article on the river: http://seecolombia.travel/blog/2015/10/santanders-cano-cristales-the-rivers-of-guadalupe/
Guadalupe is a place where every one asks how you are, church bells ring and local maize dries on the sidewalk.
The trail to the river is gently squared white stones that thread a greenscape. We sing Orishas and Manu Chao songs, skipping along in sandals. There are no people, no wind. Just a bruisey-blue thunderstorm.
We stop cold at a little wooden sign on a farm gate: “Cervezas.”
It’s muggy, silent, hot.
We sit plop down in the corner of someone’s yard, sweating and smiling. Juli yells towards the house, and a teenage girl high steps across the tall grass with two cold, dripping Club Colombias.
Cooled and lulled by nothing but beer, we do the excited walk-skip. Racing the sun.
By the time we see the river, the sun is so low it’s underneath the thunderheads.
And there’s nothing but a wide, paper thin layer of warm water filling the river jacuzzis. But we’ve come to far to care.
We put wild orchids in our hair.
Stare at the Andes.
At sunset, we give up and head back to the Bonanza in the dark, still singing, still walk-skipping, past the only people we encounter, two campesinos and one horse.
Hotel Bonanza is also a restaurant, which you’ll find on the corner of Guadalupe’s main square next to the church. Their menu for dinner was a verbal one, with two options. It included leche de campesino, or raw cheese, with the national dish caldo.
Jose, who runs the Bonanza, is an excellent tour guide for the whole region. He was born here and knows all the cool river spots, the epic roaring waterfalls, caves and mountaintops. Including a red waterfall called Los Caballeros, and the castle and ruins of San Jose de Suaita. He made two motorcycles appear to take us to La Llanera, a gigantic waterfall hidden in a valley down red dirt roads and over pastures.
Jose cares deeply about the gorgeous landscape he grew up in. We picked up garbage at the river and talked about the future- will locals welcome tourism? How can he share this beauty while keeping it wild, clean and respected? I recommend him with all my heart. Tours are by donation– just bring your best Spanish or prepare to speak in smiles.
You can reach him at + 57 311 835 1573, contact him through his facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Guadalupe-hostal-y-restaurante-bonanza-1015078695171144/?rf=684554175001026 or ask for him at the restaurant. Guadalupe is located in the department of Santander, near the city and airport of Bucaramanga, Colombia. You can fly or bus to Bucaramanga and take a half-day bus trip direct to Oiba, where the collectivo departs for Guadalupe until 5:30pm.