A visit to the spectacular, privately run Reserva Natural Río Claro (Medellín office tel. 4/268-8855, cell tel. 311/354-0119) is a highlight for anyone visiting Colombia. In the steamy and remote Magdalena Medio region of Antioquia, the reserve encompasses 450 hectares (1,100 acres) along the Río Claro canyon, a babbling, crystal-clear river. This reserve is a place to enjoy the unspoiled beauty of the river and its jungle and to disconnect from the hectic pace of urban life.
The story behind the park begins with an oft-repeated tale about a pesky jaguar. It seems that the cat was blamed for killing some livestock of a campesino in the area. In a quest to track down the guilty party (the jaguar got away unharmed), the farmer followed its tracks through the jungle, over several days, and to a spectacular canyon. When Juan Guillermo Garcés heard about the astonishing discovery, he had to see this undiscovered territory for himself. Garcés immediately knew that this was a special place, and he made a commitment to purchase the land to protect it from development, including a highway that was to pass through this pristine land.
On weekends, Río Claro receives many visitors. In addition to those staying at the reserve, many day visitors spend the afternoon at Río Claro. Don’t go on a Saturday, Sunday, or holiday if you seek a peaceful commune with nature. If you visit the reserve midweek, you’ll most likely have the place practically to yourself, which is heavenly.
Guides don’t speak English, generally. There are two must-do activities at the reserve. The first is an easy rafting trip down the river (COP$20,000), during which you can see the karstic jungle, in which trees grow atop rocks. This excursion takes about two hours. The second must-do activity is a combination swim/hike trip to the Caverna de los Guácharos (COP$15,000 pp). This guided walk has its challenging moments: wading across the swiftly flowing river, making your way through the dark, dark cavern, climbing out of the cavern, and then making your way back across the river. Guácharo birds (oilbirds), living inside the cavern, act like they own the place (the cavern is, after all, named for them). They don’t like it when human intruders invade their space, and they’ll let you know that with their screeching. The cavern is made of marble; its stalactites and stalagmites are impressive. Waterproof shoes with good traction are recommended, as you’ll be wading in water most of the time. Also, it’s nice to have a headlamp so that you’ll have hands free. You can take your camera, but at a certain point it will need to be kept in a water repellent bag, which the guide will have. If you’re up for both trips, go on the cavern tour in the morning and go rafting in the late afternoon.
Other activities at the reserve include rock-climbing, a zip line, hanging out on the marble beach, self-guided nature walks, and tubing. These are all arranged by Río Claro staff.
The reserve has a variety of accommodations options. Contact the Río Claro office (tel. 4/268-8855, cell tel. 311/354-0119) for all reservations and information. The Hotel El Refugio (COP$80,000) is above the reception and dining area, and is a comfortable all-wooden lodge construction. The best and most isolated is at the far end near the canyon, a 15-minute walk from the main reception area in the Cabañas El Refugio (COP$95,000-140,000 pp), where rooms are quite spectacular and open-air. You’ll sleep well here with the sounds of the rushing water to lull you asleep. Rooms are completely open, but there are no problems with mosquitoes.
The Hotel Río Claro (COP$95,000 pp) is across the highway from the rest of the reserve but still along the river, and it has a big pool. These are small concrete bungalows. The hotel is popular with student groups. All meals are included in the room rates. Tell staff when you make your reservation if you have any dietary needs or special requests, like fresh fruit.
The reserve is easily reached by bus from Medellín. All buses between Medellín and Bogotá pass in front of the Río Claro entrance, where there is a small security booth. From Medellín, it takes around three hours, costing around COP$20,000. Be sure to tell the driver you’d like to be dropped off at the “entrada de la Reserva Río Claro.” (“the entrance to the Río Claro Reserve”).