Río Claro: A Disastrous Detour on the Road to Medellín

As we were mapping out the next phase of our Colombia travels, the host at our guesthouse in Bogotá told us that Río Claro was one of his top three favorite destinations in the country.  Since David had lived in Colombia for 13 years, this guy most definitely knew what he was talking about.  Set in the middle of the jungle of Antioquia, this crystal-clear river has etched an amazing marble canyon into the landscape – there are zip lines, hiking trails, caves and more.  This was going to be quite the adventure!  And since our next destination was Medellín this stop-off would actually work out perfectly.  The natural wonder of Río Claro just happens to be located on the main highway, halfway between Bogotá and Medellín and would serve as the perfect detour to break up what would have been a nine-hour bus ride in between the two cities.

rio claro
Photo Credit

According to David and our trusty guidebook, the bus ride from Bogotá to Río Claro would take about five hours.  From La Candelaria – in central Bogotá – we were told to take a taxi (18,000 pesos) to the bus station, which is simply referred to as Terminal. From there we were told to pick a bus company, hop on the next bus to Medellín and ask to be dropped off at Río Claro.  OK, that sounded easy enough.

We made it to the bus station, picked a company and asked if there were any buses to Río Claro. “No.”  Would it be possible for us to take a Medellín-bound bus and be dropped off at Río Claro?  “No.”  We asked a handful of attendants and received the same terse answers.

We were just about to give up on Río Claro and book it to Medellín when we saw a sign for a bus bound for Doradal, which we recognized as the city located 24 km (15 miles) from Río Claro.  We knew nothing about the town itself but with no other options we bought two tickets to Doradal (40,000 pesos with Empresa Arauca).  As we hopped on the bus we were told the journey would take seven hours, s o menos (more or less).  It was longer than expected but not too bad.

I’ve heard horror stories about bad buses in Colombia.  My sister is married to a Colombian native and she warned me that they pack all their buses to the gills and even have people ride on the rooftops.  Even our host David told us that all Colombian buses are a nightmare.  I was pretty much ready for a bus ride from hell.  But the bus was great – it had big seats, tons of legroom (always a plus since Aaron is 6’2”) and even WiFi!

So, loaded with snacks, books and music we settled into our seats for a seven-hour journey.  Bogotá is a populous place and it was no surprise that traffic was awful.  It took about an hour for us to get out of the city limits and onto the rural mountain roads.  But once we broke free of the urban gridlock we noticed that the bus was still going at a snail’s pace.  We twisted along the curvy roads for hours, never exceeding 32 km per hour (20 miles per hour).  And after a few hours we stopped altogether.  Passengers peered out of the windows to see what was going on.  Unfortunately with my mediocre Spanish I couldn’t distinguish the chatter taking place around me.  After 40 minutes the driver killed the engine, and I realized we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

Aaron and I got off the increasingly stifling bus and grabbed a drink at a tiny storefront.  (Note to self:  When asking for a Coke in Colombia do not ask for coca.  While this is the term for Coca-Cola in other Latin American countries, I’m pretty sure I asked the shopkeeper for cocaine.)  We were in surprisingly good spirits – I mean there’s no point in stressing about something you can’t control – and we just waited it out.  Roughly an hour later traffic started moving again and we were on our way.  It turns out that one of the hundreds of gas tankers that plow through this windy highway had run off the side of the road and flipped over.  It was a pretty awful sight.

We crawled toward Doradal at a steady pace of 32 km/hour.  And I’m not exaggerating; I did the math.  It took us nine hours to go 271 km (168 miles).  Our supposed five-hour journey had turned into a full-blown travel day.  We finally arrived in Doradol at 11pm.  We were starving and exhausted, so we booked a room for the night at the hotel attached to the bus station; we bought some chips and went to bed – we’d just figure out what to do in the morning.

We woke up early, rested and rejuvenated and very ready to escape the brutal heat and plunge into the cool waters of Río Claro.  We went to the bus station and asked a woman where to catch a bus to the Río Claro reserve.  We were met with a blank stare and a shake of the head.  “No.”  Really?  There are no buses to Río Claro?  Frustrated, Aaron and I had a powwow asking each other how it’s possible that there are no buses to Río Claro when it’s literally 24 km up the road.  We asked person after person how we could get to the reserve when, finally, a nice security guard informed us that there were colectivos (public cars) located in the town’s square.  Awesome!  It’s not a big town so we found the square and saw a couple of white vans parked on the street.  We asked if they were headed to Rio Claro.  “Sí.  A las dos y media.”  2:30?  That’s hours away.  Ugh.

Aaron and I took a seat on the sidewalk and had another powwow.  Not only would we have to wait hours to get to the reserve, but we would only have a few hours to enjoy the river before dark.  Given the steep entry fee we weren’t sure it was worth the cost to spend a couple of hours at the river and we definitely wouldn’t be able to partake in any of the fun activities.  But the real deterrent was that we had no guarantee that we’d have a ride back.   From everything I’d read – and as I was quickly learning – there was a good chance we could be left stranded.   I had this image of us abandoned at the entrance of Río Claro, left to trudge 24 km back on the dark, dangerously curvy roads.  And I sure as hell wasn’t going to hitch a ride back to Doradal like this blogger was forced to do.  (Though it did make for an entertaining story!)

It started to seem like Río Claro just wasn’t going to happen.  Why couldn’t we just rent a motorbike, the way we did in every city in Southeast Asia?  And why weren’t there any taxis?  And why, why did all the bus drivers so adamantly refuse to drop us off at the reserve’s entrance when they literally passed right by it?

The most we ever saw of Río Claro was the reserve’s entrance as we drove past it on our bus to Medellín.  So frustrating.  I’m not sure what we could have done differently.  Perhaps if we’d rented a car or taken a day trip from Medellín or booked a room at the reserve’s pricey hotel – all options that were pretty far out of our backpacker’s price range.  It is definitely possible to get to Río Claro.  It’s just that our method of staying in Doradal didn’t pan out.  Oh well, as any traveler knows, traveling isn’t always glamorous; mistakes are made and lessons learned.  It’s all part of the journey!

Practical Info:

El Refugio Hotel:  www.rioclaroelrefugio.com.  This is the only hotel that’s located anywhere near Rio Claro.  Note that this is an all-inclusive deal.  All prices are per person and all meals are included in the price.  Since it’s difficult to get information, this blog offers a great overview of prices and lodging options.

Have you ever had a similar experience of trying desperately to get to a travel destination only to fail miserably?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

20 thoughts on “Río Claro: A Disastrous Detour on the Road to Medellín

  1. Wow, what a long journey. I would have been beyond frustrated. I have not had the “pleasure” of this frustration but I did travel more than 1hr out of sydney to get to an animal zoo only to turn back 30mins before reaching – because I would have been left with only 30mins in the zoo to look around before closing time. I took a detour to explore another town instead. Sometimes, it’s best to just forget about it and move on…:)

    1. It was definitely frustrating. And the worst part is that I never actually made it there. It looks like a pretty amazing place so I’m bummed that, despite my best efforts, I didn’t get to experience it. Ha, that’s the worst to turn back right before making it to a destination!! But you have such a good outlook — forget about it and move on. Hopefully you had a great experience in the other town 🙂

  2. Oh no, that sucks!! Next time remember that things here are pretty informal,I would’ve just gotten on a bus to Medellin and then told the bus driver to let me off at Rio Claro (even if the company told you they don’t do that)…there’s always the possibility that he or she will say no but that has never happened to me

    1. I think I’m getting the gist of it now, but at the time everyone was so adamant about not dropping us off. Plus, my Spanish isn’t so great. If I spoke fluent Spanish I think I would have had much better luck. Lesson learned. I’ll definitely be more persistent next time 😉

  3. I wouldn’t have liked waiting that long on the coach, but shame about the tanker. Things never do seem to go according to plan when travelling. 😉 And I will certainly remember that advice about the Coke 😉

    1. Seeing that tanker flipped over was horrible. And, it’s so true, when traveling things rarely go according to plan. Ha, the Coke thing was hilarious. Instead of looking in the refrigerator the shopkeeper kept insisting that he only sold what was in the display case. Finally, when I said cola he opened the fridge and pulled one out. So embarrassing!

  4. What a bummer! My friends visited Rio Claro from Medellin and I don’t remember them having any problems arriving. I’d like to go eventually. I have never heard any complaints about Colombian buses, and having taken a number of them myself, never had any problems. My only complaint is the sometimes sub-zero temperatures that result when the AC is on full blast the entire trip. I once cuddled with my seat mate (a complete stranger) to keep warm. No joke.

    1. I think visiting Rio Claro from Medellin would have been way easier. And like Lucia commented above, I think it’s fairly easy to flag buses down. But since I didn’t have much experience in the country at that point I didn’t realize that’s the way the system works. All the buses I’ve taken so far have been great. And it always makes me happy when there’s WiFi on a long bus ride 🙂 Ha, I am not the biggest fan of AC. So I always wear long pants and carry a sweatshirt with me on buses. Why do they insist on blasting the AC? That’s hilarious that you had to cuddle with a stranger!! Another thing that annoys me is when they play music/movies at ridiculously loud volumes!

      1. I almost forgot the movies!! And not only are they LOUD AS SHIT but they are the most violent movies ever…notable in my memory are Death Race 3 and an entire marathon of Jason Statham movies. I never had wifi though!

        1. Haha, they played one of the Fast and Furious movies. Which I thought was a curious choice considering Paul Walker died in a car accident. But, yeah, it was so incredibly loud! I could barely hear my own music through my earbuds. It was crazy! The WiFi was a very pleasant surprise 🙂

      1. I think, in our circumstance, things just didn’t go according to plan. And it was frustrating that there wasn’t any reliable or frequent public transportation from Doradal. But, yes, it’s definitely possible to get to Rio Claro. Most people drive there. However, travelers who don’t want to rent a car can take day trips from Medellin. And for those who do take the bus bound for Medellin (like we did), you can totally ask the driver to drop you off at Rio Claro’s entrance. You just might not want to arrive in the middle of the night, like we did! The hotel is in the middle of nowhere and you have to hike for about 20 minutes with your luggage. And if you do stay in Doradol just ask the bus driver – not the sales person – to drop you at the reserve. However, there is definitely no reliable way to get back to Doradal. Supposedly you can flag down buses on the road but they didn’t seem to have any interest in stopping for us when we were trying to get there, which makes me wonder how easy it would have been to get back to town.

  5. It’s funny how the stories about disasterous adventures sometimes interest us the most! You’ll laugh about all of your frustrations in a few days time. The bus drivers in Colombia will always tell you the journey is just a few hours when in reality you could be driving all day long on those winding roads – snacks and beer on board are the way forward! Enjoy Medellin, the city of eternal spring!

    1. Ha, it’s so true. I was more frustrated that we didn’t make it to Rio Claro. But, that’s just the way it goes sometimes. I’ve noticed that Colombian bus drivers always say that the ride will take a certain amount of time, “mas o menos.” It’s hilarious. I’ve definitely learned to tack a few extra hours onto their estimated time 🙂 Beers and snacks are definitely key! Medellin was wonderful. Though I didn’t give myself enough time there. I’m actually in Cartagena now and loving it. But it’s definitely a world away from the city of eternal spring. So hot!

  6. How terrible!! It’s so frustrating when things don’t go the way they should, but I do like reading about the other side of travel. Did you ever talk to David again and ask him how he got there? Maybe it’s better off just not knowing… haha.

    1. Looking back it was such a funny situation. I still can’t believe we didn’t find a way to make it 10 miles down the road. Most people who go to Rio Claro are Colombians so they drive their own cars. It’s definitely a domestic tourist destination. So David always drives himself. Sometimes it’s important to remember that people have different travel styles. And while his advice seemed simple to follow, in reality it just wasn’t all that easy.

  7. I’m really sorry to hear you had a bad experience but I don’t think it’s really that difficult to go to Río Claro, it all depends on each person’s budget. Going to Río Claro is as easy as booking an US$80 full day tour with LandVenture Travel out of Medellín. Another way is just asking the bus driver to drop you off at the entrance of Río Claro, any bus driver can do that and then just walk 2 miles on a dirt road to the main restaurant of the reserve which is where all the activities are booked and coordinated.

    1. Thanks for the info Andres! Maybe this will help others who are trying to get to Rio Claro. I was on a pretty tight budget during my visit. I now realize that I could have just asked a bus driver to drop me off at the entrance to the reserve. But when I asked, all of the bus companies said that wasn’t possible…though now I’m sure if I’d asked the bus driver directly it would have been fine. It was all very confusing at the time but I would do it much differently if I were to do it again!

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