‘Charm’ is Disney’s latest hit. In the film, inspired by Colombia, magic arises in a river of colors. But beyond fiction, between May and November, Caño Cristales sees how its waters turn colors due to the macarenia clavijera plant. A unique phenomenon in the world, almost impossible to contemplate before the 2016 peace agreement between the State and the extinct FARC guerrilla. A new life where threats such as deforestation persist.
A small plane with 19 passengers descends into the clouds of Colombia after a 50-minute flight from Bogotá. Through the window you can glimpse the brown waters of a great river, the Guayabero. Around him, a jungle of trees that, at times —too many—, is interrupted by patches of grass cut geometrically.
It is the preview before landing at La Macarena airport. On the ground, a welcome sign with two messages: “The Colombian military forces watch over your safety” and “Victory belongs to everyone.”
A military environment, with omnipresent soldiers, guarding tourists, in the words of a lieutenant colonel, “in every corner by land, sea and air.”
The municipality of 35,000 people is located south of the central department of Meta, within the Sierra de la Macarena. Founded 70 years ago, it was a destination for displaced people from all over the country who took advantage of its fertile land to settle.
Nestor Hernandez is one of them. In the urban center of La Macarena he runs a bar. When his legs allow him, he serves customers. When pain weakens his strength, he delegates to his daughters, sits in a chair and tells stories to the parishioners.
He has a courtesy for any visitor, but the emptiness of absence can be read in his gaze. He stopped playing chess, he says, because of his age, but in reality it was because of the death of his best friend, with whom he appears in a painting, along with a medal given by the governor of the department of Meta for his work as a social leader.
He hides the sadness in his sense of humor: just like Francia Márquez, elected vice president of Colombia, he wants to “live tasty.” Words that she proclaims just before turning serious and speaking from the experience of decades: they need “more efforts for peace.”
For decades, the FARC guerrillas were the authority in La Macarena. The urban center was pacified after the agreements between the State and the guerrillas. Tourism occupied the space of weapons and its natural wealth was opened to the world.
Leydy Aguilar has one foot on every beat. She is a victim of the armed conflict: she lost her father and her older brother at the hands of the paramilitaries. She is now a tour guide and she feels the peace that the ceasefire brought.
He wants to start a tourist company: peace has also been hope; the bonanza stopped coming from coca, now it comes from travelers from all over the world.
Every day, Leydy gets on a boat on the Guayabero River, shows the corn monkeys, the turkeys, the turtles and, if lucky, the river dolphins. Later, in a 4×4 she heads to the beginning of the trail, where she will begin a 9-kilometer walk.
It is the previous one, before reaching the precious destination.
Caño Cristales is the natural wonder of the moment: the rainbow that melted, the most beautiful river in the world and where the Madrigal family meets magic, in the Disney movie ‘Encanto’, a box office hit in 2021. One one of those places that anyone can ‘like’ from an armchair thousands of kilometers away, with the dream of being able to visit it one day.
The secret of Caño Cristales is a plant: the macarenia clavigera, which obtains greenish and reddish colors due to the effect of sunlight and water. A beauty reserved for the months between May and November, during the rainy season.
This 2022, Caño Cristales expects more than 14 thousand visitors. In 2012, just over 3,800 entered. Leydy remembers that until 2016 they were in a red zone: they called it the Mono Jojoy spa, one of the main commanders of the extinct FARC.
Despite tourism, camouflage has not disappeared. The Army guards the entire trail. At the end of the road, a man dries himself with a towel after taking a bath and, next to him, a young man, rifle in hand, remains attentive to ensure the enjoyment of the tourist. Government data indicates that there are more than 7,000 soldiers deployed in the region.
Beyond the urban center and the tourist spots, illegal armed groups, such as the FARC dissidents, still control the towns of La Macarena. Anonymous sources say that, in remote populated areas, when entering, one still finds the FARC legislation. Among their rules, shown in pamphlets, they have made it clear that they will not interfere with tourism.
The economy, in the center. Even to the detriment of the environment. With the 2016 peace agreement, the areas controlled by the FARC were freed. It didn’t take long for new illegal armed groups to appear to occupy the desert space and deforestation skyrocketed. From 2015 to 2018, deforestation increased by nearly 92% in the Sierra de la Macarena National Natural Park.
Livestock is the main economic activity in the area, concentrating 46% of work. Coca also occupies an important role since, in 2018, this was, according to the UN, the National Natural Park with the most crops in Colombia.
Carlos Garzón is 27 years old and works for the Colombian National Natural Parks state entity. He is a ranger in a high-risk area, fighting fires and deforestation, protecting fauna and flora. The dissidents declared this group a military objective.
In the nearby Tinigua National Natural Park, the National Natural Parks authority cannot enter. Outside the parks, environmental responsibility falls on Cormacarena, a departmental entity. One of his coordinators, Javier Francisco Parra, was assassinated in 2020, due to his strong opposition to deforestation.
In ascent to Mirador Cristalitos, Carlos Garzón shows a perfectly calculated rectangle of grass. It was set on fire months ago, destroying more than 3,800 hectares of forest.
Cows now graze on that farm. According to Fedesarrollo, extensive cattle ranching accounts for almost 60% of Colombia’s deforestation. This, according to Carlos, has a significant impact on the climate crisis: “The loss of forest causes temperatures to rise and this has an impact on ecosystems. On the one hand, fires are more likely and, on the other, rivers they dry”.
La Macarena is a place of hyper mega biodiversity: the Andes, the Amazon, the Orinoquía and the Guiana Shield coincide at this point. Hence, the variety of fauna and flora and the possibility of seeing the colors of the macarenia clavijera. Plant that depends on water, so droughts threaten a global attraction, which has allowed an economic alternative after the end of the conflict. According to the Government, tourism generates 2,500 jobs in La Macarena.
Karol Álvarez and Sergio Cruz move around the municipality by motorcycle. They used to do it by bicycle: when they finished their studies in Bogotá, they returned on a 5-day trip to reinstall themselves in the municipality. Now they are youth leaders, committed to social and environmental matters, participating in different community organizations.
Data from the OECD show that Colombia is the country of that organization with the highest number of young people who neither study nor work, with 29.8%. Taking advantage of the gaze of tourism, the youth of La Macarena make claims for the lack of opportunities. In the letters of the municipality, they have placed a banner over the first ‘A’ and it says in English that “when you are born poor, studying is the greatest revelation”. Later, between the second ‘A’ and the ‘R’, a simple “SOS Macarena”.
For Karol and Sergio, the economic impact of tourism falls on a few, despite the Development Programs with a Territorial Approach (PDET), which emerged after the Peace Agreements, and the enormous influx of international resources. Sergio Cruz considers that the State has difficulties in making a presence in the territory, especially in rural areas: “We would like the State not to show itself with the Army and Police, but with education and health.”
Karol Álvarez has been a witness to different operations of the Colombian Army within the La Macarena National Natural Park. ‘Operation Artemis’ was a military strategy promoted in 2019 to protect Colombia from deforestation and to fight for the protection of the oceans and biodiversity.
He denounces that many of those affected by military operations have been peasants, who live inside the parks. Also, the organization Dejusticia does: “There have been multiple arrests against peasants, who have inhabited these areas for decades, while the financiers behind the phenomenon of deforestation and hoarding would be being omitted.”
The stigmatization against the peasant is one of the historical dynamics of the conflict in Colombia, perpetuating it in a municipality like La Macarena. There, tourism seeks to silence the weapons from a river of colors, which, like the rest of the planet, is not exempt from the threat of the climate crisis or acceleration factors, such as deforestation.