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War-zone tourism

It's a national park “where the rainbow becomes a river.” And it's nearly empty.

Besides its bad rep, La Macarena lacks a decent road connection to Bogota and there’s just one flight per week from the Colombian capital. Hotel rooms are scarce; the high-end place is a run-down boarding house just off the town square.

Then there are the novice guides. None speaks English. One admits I’m the first foreigner she’s ever met.

Still they are an eager bunch and four of the students agree to take me to Cano Cristales. As it turns out, just getting to the park can be an adventure.

Step 1 involves boarding a leaky wooden boat with a sputtering outboard motor. The captain takes us down the Guayabero River and after about 20 minutes drops us off on the north bank.

A Jeep is supposed to carry us the rest of the way but the driver is a no-show. So, under the scorching midday sun, we begin walking down a dirt road that was built by the guerrillas during the peace talks.

After 45 minutes, the Jeep appears and takes us the rest of the way — though it conks out three times while crossing streambeds. At the entrance to Cano Cristales, a soldier writes down our names and assures us that everything’s under control.

“There’s never been any problems or guerrilla attacks,” he says. “It’s totally safe. You can even stay overnight.”

Finally, we reach the river. It’s breathtaking. But rather than a rainbow, it seems more like purple rain as the water washes over granite rocks covered with violet Macarenia clavigera plants.

In the deeper parts, the water is so clear we can see the white sand on the bottom, 15 feet down. My guides can’t resist. They strip down to their underwear and take the plunge.

Cano Cristales easily ranks as the most dazzling river I’ve ever seen. At times like this, it’s easy to believe those slick TV spots claiming that for visitors to Colombia “the only risk is wanting to stay.”

Perhaps the PR campaign will coax more people into visiting these out-of-the-way wonderlands. But for now — with the exception of a Colombian soldier and his girlfriend — we have Cano Cristales all to ourselves. And that, of course, is part of the allure.