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.
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, más 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!
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?