The Most Spectacular Rivers and Waterfalls of Colombia
The water resource abounds in the Colombia rivers and waterfalls. For starters, it has two coasts that are bathed by the Pacific ocean and the Caribbean sea. On top of this, Colombia is among the privileged countries to have the páramo ecosystem, where rivers are born.
Rivers flow through the diverse landforms of the country regulating the life of those who inhabit the river banks and occasionally, when encountering a cliff, they form beautiful waterfalls.
Colombia’s aquatic wealth allows for many activities related to water tourism such as diving, surfing, rafting, kayaking, sportfishing, whale watching, diving in coral reefs.
At the same time, it provides a rich landscape for other nature tourism activities such as hiking, photography and safaris.
In this post, we will talk about the main rivers and waterfalls in Colombia.
Due to the abundant rainfall and the topography, Colombia is blessed with many rivers: it has 1,200 permanent rivers, taking into account only the ones with basins over 100 km2!
Basins of Colombia
According to the place where the basins’ waters flow into, there are 5 drainage basins in the country: Caribbean, Pacific, Orinoco, Amazon and Catatumbo.
Fluvial Stars of Colombia
Also, there are 8 “fluvial stars” (geographic zones, mostly in mountain massifs, where several rivers are born due to ice melting): Colombian Massif, Caramanta Hill, Santurbán Páramo, Sumapaz Páramo, Guachaneque Páramo, Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, Nudo de Paramillo and Nudo de Huaca.
As in any other region, rivers play a vital role in the life around them. Riverside communities subsist thanks to the water and fish the river provides them, and also plant and animal life depend on these water bodies. Read on to know the most important rivers in Colombia!
Río Grande de la Magdalena is the most important waterway and the longest river in Colombia. It is born in the Colombian Massif and runs from south to north until flowing into the Caribbean sea.
It is 1,558 km long, however only 1,290 km are navigable. The Magdalena basin is over 250,000 km2 and receives water from 500 tributaries, among which the Cauca river is the main one.
Importance of the Magdalena River
It was the protagonist of the settling in America. Caribbean canoes and European caravels entered through its mouth in search of agricultural and mining supplies, as well as places to settle and proclaim dominance.
The river connected the interior of the Andean territory with the Caribbean Sea and, since the 19th century, it became the commercial axis of the Colombian territory.
Today, the Magdalena has vast livestock and agriculture extensions in its valleys and it is a place for hydrocarbons and minerals extraction. It boasts natural beauty and continues to be key in the country’s development.
The Cauca river is the main tributary of the Magdalena river. Also born in the Colombian Massif, it is 1,350 km long and flows between the Central and the Western Andes ranges by 7 Colombian departments: Cauca, Valle, Risaralda, Caldas, Antioquia, Sucre and Bolivar, where it meets the Magdalena.
Its navigable area is about 620 km; anyway, it is the second longest river in Colombia. Along the river, productive activities such as sugar cane, cacao, corn, rice and coffee growing, farming, mining and hydroelectric activities are developed, which support the regional economy.
This mighty river, over 700 km long with 500 km navigable, is the main communication path in Choco and has a basin of 35,000 km2, which is rich in gold and wood, being a very fertile region.
It originates in Cerro Plateado, in the Western cordillera and flows northward through a humid valley into the Gulf of Urabá in the Caribbean Sea. Riosuio, Murri, Arquia and Truando are its most renowned tributaries.
The city of Quibdo in Choco, is the main port of the Atrato river.
Born in the Peruvian Andes, the Amazon river traverses 6,788 kilometers (4,211 miles) before flowing into the Atlantic Ocean.
Its 7 million km2 (2 million square miles) basin is the largest in the world and is covered by the largest tropical rainforest on the planet: the Amazon rainforest.
Out of the 6,788 km, 116 km (72 mi) belong to Colombian territory, from the mouth of the Atacuari river to the confluence of the San Antonio gorge.
If you fly to Leticia, the capital of the Colombian Amazon department, you can get to sail the river up to Puerto Nariño. Your breath will be taken away by the life surrounding the Amazon: ants, tigers, pumas, tapirs, monkeys, crocodiles, turtles, snakes, all kinds of birds and fish.
Several indigenous groups inhabit and preserve the ecosystem that is being harmed by uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources.
The Amazon river and its basin are a paradise of life and history in the South American continent. Visiting its greatness is something that every human being should do once in their lifetime.
Páramo de las Papas, in the Colombian Massif, is the source of the Caquetá river, which is 2,200 km long, but only 1,200 km traverse Colombian territory.
It flows to the east through the southern part of Colombia, where it meets the Amazon river, before reaching Brazil and adopting the name ‘Japura’. It has a great basin of nearly 200,000 km2 and its main tributaries are Apaporis, Caguan and Orteguaza rivers.
Being a main tributary of the Amazon river, the Putumayo river serves as a border with Peru and Ecuador. Its source is Nudo de los Pastos, from where it runs about 2,000 km eastwards, through Colombian territory mostly.
Since 1,650 km are navigable, the Putumayo river is used as a transportation path. Among the productive activities carried out in its basin, cattle farming and rubber trade stand out.
The Orinoco river originates in Venezuela, in Sierra Parima, and flows through 2,900 km, of which over 1,900 are navigable. This makes it one of the longest rivers in South America.
The Orinoco basin, of over 750,000 km2, is one of the greatest in America! The river drains into the Atlantic Ocean, on Venezuelan ground, with about 50 mouths.
Although most of it is in Venezuela, the Orinoco has several Colombian tributaries, among which are Arauca, Meta, Vichada and Guaviare rivers.
It houses an immense biodiversity, including the unique Orinoco crocodile.
In the Colombian LLanos Orientales, or Eastern Plains, the Meta river is the most important. Its length is 1,000 km and is navigable for the most part.
The stunning Sumapaz Páramo, in the Eastern Cordillera, is the place where the Humea, Guayuriba and Guatiquia rivers get together to originate the Meta river.
It runs towards the northeast of Colombia until its mouth at the Orinoco river. Also, it is useful for commerce in the region. Cravo Sur, Casanare, Cusiana, Upia and Manacacias are some of its tributary rivers.
1,350 km in length make the Guaviare river the longest in the Orinoco region in Colombia. Its basin has an area of over 160,000 km2 and small vessels can navigate through 620 km.
It originates from the junction of the Ariari and Guayabero rivers, which come from the Eastern Cordillera, and then flows into the Orinoco river.
The plains and the jungle are delimited by the Guaviare river, whose main tributary is the Inirida river, a 1,300 km long river with black waters that bathe the Guainia department.
San Juan river
In the Pacific drainage basin, the San Juan river basin is the most important one, with 15,000 km2.
The river originates in the department of Antioquia, in the Cerro de Caramanta, and runs 380 km through Risaralda, Choco and Valle del Cauca before flowing into the Pacific Ocean.
We know the rivers themselves might not be that appealing to all tourists. However, the waterfalls that originate from them are! Here are 5 waterfalls you should visit in Colombia.
The highest tiered waterfall in Colombia and the 6th highest in South America, with a 590 mt fall, is called La Chorrera and is located in the municipality of Choachí, Cundinamarca. This is about 1 hour from Bogota by road, at 2,500 MASL approximately.
To get there, you can take a bus to Choachi for COP$8,000 and get off at La Victoria, where you will see a banner of the adventure park La Chorrera.
There you will find locals that offer to take you to the entrance for COP$25,000 (if more than 5 people, each one will pay COP$5,000), but that is not all. From the point where the car leaves you to the actual entrance, there is a steep path you walk in about 10 minutes.
The facilities are simple but cozy, in the ticket office you can buy different packages that can include extreme activities such as the zip line, rappel, Tibetan bridge or an Indiana Jones-like bridge.
Hiking to La Chorrera waterfall is a must, evidently. The round trip takes 3 to 4 hours, depending on your rhythm.
It is an amazing hike, a bit demanding by the way, in which you will witness an ancient royal road that connected Villavicencio with Bogota, a cloud forest ecosystem with high trees and several bird species, a smaller waterfall of 55 m called El Chiflon, a cave with hanging stone formations called Cueva de los Monos and finally, after several ups and downs, the majestic La Chorrera appears in the landscape.
The sight from the viewpoint rock is amazing and the water splashes on your face. However, take into account there is a dry season, from late November to March, more or less, so you might get disappointed if you visit and don’t find the mighty waters running down the mountain.
You can still go hiking and enjoy the other activities in the park anyway.Salto de Bordones
In the department of Huila, the Purace National Natural Park hosts this marvelous 400 meter waterfall, ranked as the highest uninterrupted fall of Colombia.
Salto de Bordones originates from the Bordones river, in the border of Isnos and Saladoblanco municipalities. Its name is due to the bordones (Spanish for staffs) used by former settlers to cross the river from one shore to the other.
You can walk down a road to the base of the waterfall in the village Alto Medianias, to enjoy the view and the water splashing. There is a namesake hotel where you can spend the night.
Salto de Mortiño
A nearby waterfall you can also visit is Salto de Mortiño, located in the municipality of Isnos too. Born in the Colombian Massif, La Chorrera gorge forms this Salto, with a 170 m fall. The landscape is amazing: a huge cliff, topped with green, which emanates pure water.
Huila is so rich that it has another touristic waterfall between Bordones and Mortiño: El Duende. Although it is smaller, you will be amazed when you get to see the 22 meter cascade surrounded by lush vegetation and hanging nests from the Yellow-rumped Cacique (Cacicus cela).
Salto del Tequendama
Some Muisca tales say that the Salto del Tequendama was created by divine action to drain the water that once flooded the Bogota savanna. Who knows?
This famous waterfall is located in the municipality of Soacha, Cundinamarca, about 30 km southeast of Bogotá. Its 157 meter fall, fed by the Bogotá river, is known to have been traversed by Gonzalo Jiménez the Quesada (founder of the capital), José Celestino Mutis during his Botanical Expedition and even the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt.
The other attraction of the place is the spooky abandoned hotel that lies on the roadside, opened in 1928 and now turned into a museum.
Salto del Tequendama has had bad times, since its flow has decreased over the years and the pollution of the river has caused unpleasant odors in the area.
However, tourists keep visiting this waterfall, perhaps because they are interested in the stories of indigenous mythology, the many suicides that happened in the past century right there or perhaps because they just want to appreciate the natural beauty of this place.
Fin del Mundo Waterfalls
In the Amazonian department of Putumayo, of pristine jungles and biologic wealth, the Fin del Mundo waterfalls impress everyone who travels to the region.
This land of humid tropical climate is home to 12 indigenous communities and many natural treasures, such as this fall of 75 meters that flows between the mountains that separate Mocoa from Villagarzon towns.
To get there, you must cross a wooden suspension bridge over the Mocoa river that leads to the Huaca family house, owners of the territory.
There you hear a 20 minute talk about the history of the community tourism system of the area and you can rent horses and rubber boots.
The road amid the jungle goes up and down, but the highest point is only at 800 MASL. After one hour hiking, a natural pool announces the proximity of the waterfall.
The pozo negro is 8.5 meters deep and you can bathe in it. Then, a natural stone bridge helps you cross over the Dantayaco gorge, after passing by the Almorzadero cascade.
The 4 km journey ends where the mountain ends, this is the end of the world: the water has no alternative but to fall from 75 meters into the void. The peace you feel on the edge of the mountain is indescribable and the violence that once afflicted these lands is gone.
Salto del Indio
13 kilometers south, Salto del Indio receives adventurous tourists that want to dive into the cold water pool that is formed after falling for 35 meters. The indigenous settlements around give the waterfall its name.
Now, 27 km north of Fin del Mundo, you will find the stunning Mandiyaco canyon, whose rock formations have animal and human shapes with mythological background.
These were just some of the most representative rivers and waterfalls you find in Colombia. If we were to talk about all of them, we would probably have to publish an entire book. Anyway, we hope this post has left you eager to visit the gorgeous rivers and waterfalls of Colombia!
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- Nuestro Patrimonio: 100 tesoros de Colombia. Casa Editorial EL TIEMPO.
About the author
Ana María Parra
Modern Languages professional with emphasis on business translation. Interested in cultural adaptation of written and audiovisual content. Passionate about knowing new cultures and languages, tourism and sustainable living.