Río Claro has deservedly earned it name as ‘Clear River’ as it flows through the heart of one of the richest limestone reserves in Colombia and according to the locals, has stayed pristine as a result of strict environmental laws governing the region.
Located 250 kilometers North west of Bogotá near Puerto Triunfo and along the highway which rises to Santuario and Medellín, Río Claro is a relatively recent addition to nature reserves operating in Colombia.
Founded in 1970 and blessed by emerald green forests and a temperate climate it’s an outdoor enthusiast’s paradise where one can raft, hike and ride horses.
There’s also zip-lining and caving for adrenaline-addicts; bird watching; and even a visit to a village-size zoo that once belonged to the infamous drug lord Pablo Escobar. And for those whose definition of time away is to do nothing, check into some of the quaint hotels where you wake up to the sounds of hyperactive birds.
The drive from Bogotá to Río Claro is scenic and can be done in 5 hours. Once you’ve passed Honda and the suspension bridges over the Magdalena you are surrounded by rolling hills and the river’s sunny valley, where cattle farms extend towards the horizon. Accessible only by road, you should be prepared to stall for at least an hour with public works along this well-transited Bogotá to Medellín corridor.
Once ensconced in the reserve, spend your first afternoon drifting along the jade-green river in a dingy observing Río Claro’s shallow banks and the dramatically-rugged hills where water seeps from rocks. The forest is also the lush habitat of the diminutive Titi monkey and caves which can be reached after a 30 minute climb over rocks and slippery boulders.
In what could be a natural setting for a Hitchcock movie, you will hear the raucous shrieks of the territorial Guacharos birds that inhabit the entrance of the cave.
The nocturnal fruit-eating bird inhabits the northern part of South America and is easily worked up into a frenzy when intruders enter the sinister “Cave of the Guacharos.”
Feeling vulnerable amongst them, you have to tackle the cool river that runs through this cavern, trying not to slip or miss a step, or touch the strange critters that may be crawling next to you on the brilliantly white and smooth wall surface.
Inside this sensory-deprived place feels like you’ve entered the heart of the earth and are making intimate contact with all-encompassing nature.
There are few accommodation options inside and around the reserve. The Los Colores Hotel Campestre has basic rooms fitted with beds and cold showers. The resort has beautifully manicured gardens and a swimming pool. A landscaped field and pond offers a picnic area for those in need of a break on the drive from Bogotá or Medellín.
Facing Río Claro is the Hacienda Napoles: a 3,000 hectacre farm which once belonged to drug lord Pablo Escobar. Obsessed with antique cars (including one which belonged to his “hero” Al Capone) as well as exotic animals which arrived in Colombia from Africa, Escobar’s safari park flourished during the 1980s as one of his private getaways where he entertained mafia barons and film celebrities.
One of the main roads in ‘Hacienda Napoles’ was used as the take-off and landing strip of private planes which would run cocaine between this corner of Colombia and the swamps of southern Florida. You’ll also marvel at a murky lake which housed Escoabr’s extended family of hippopotamuses, as well as his ostriches, and caged tigers.
The park makes for an interesting half-day trip into the criminal mind of one of the world’s richest men and who while enjoying the balmy outdoors with his fleet of jet skis on the Madgalena managed to terrorized Colombia for a decade.
Depending on how your organize your stay in Río Claro, there are travel agencies that provide transportation to and from Medellin and which include package deals with entry tickets to both Río Claro and Hacienda Napoles. It’s a relaxed way to escape your over-worked lifestyle without having to do much planning in advance. Plus you get to explore firsthand a very cinematic side of Colombia’s eco and “echo” destinations.