EFEBy Irene Escudero La Macarena, Colombia

The so-called "world's most beautiful river" was off-limits to visitors for a half-century due to Colombia's longstanding armed conflict, while coronavirus-triggered restrictions last year briefly interrupted its emergence as a budding tourist destination.

But small groups of tourists have been returning to Caño Cristales in recent weeks to marvel at its striking colors between the months of June and December, when water levels are lower and an endemic aquatic plant takes on various bright-colored hues upon receiving the right amount of sunlight.

Also known as the "River of Five Colors" due to the different shades of red, green and sometimes blue, yellow and orange of the macarenia clavigera plant, that tributary of the Guayabero River runs through the Sierra de La Macarena Natural National Park, a wildlife haven in the central department of Meta that was closed at the start of the pandemic and did not welcome a single visitor in 2020.

"Since there was no tourism, there was no employment. The restaurants the canoes, hotels ... everything was empty," said Leidy Aguilar, a guide who has worked at the park for the past five years and once again is showing Colombian and foreign visitors alike one of her homeland's hidden treasures.

Because of the river's remote location and the danger posed by frequent guerrilla activity in the area, as recently as a decade ago even Meta's residents were unaware of its existence.

But since 2012, when authorities began allowing visitors into the park, annual tourism numbers have gradually grown and reached highs of around 15,000 following the signing of a 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrilla group, which once exercised control over Meta.

The security situation in that area remains challenging, however, evidenced by the strong presence of soldiers who carry out constant patrols on land, in the air and on the Guayabero River.

"There was an illegal economy in La Macarena for many years and now the communities have become organized, particularly the community enterprises. And when Caño Cristales - this region's flagship attraction - closed down for a year and a half people were unable to earn any income," Meta Gov. Juan Guillermo Zuluaga told Efe.