We love Medellin (and not just because of its growing craft beer scene). We’ve spent many months in the city exploring, working, and soaking up the laid back vibe and great weather. However, sometimes a little eco escape from Medellin is just what the travel doctor ordered. Here are three very different ways to get a nature fix near Colombia’s second largest city.

Cascada San Francisco

Cascada San Francisco near Medellin, Colombia.

Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro

It doesn’t take long to leave hectic Medellin behind and find yourself on a mountain road. Near the tiny town of San Francisco we pulled off and headed to a nearby waterfall that’s reached via a very short trail and has a lovely swimming hole. Then we stopped for lunch at Todo Rico roadside restaurant which is spotless, has great service and serves good, cheap traditional plates (look for the boulder painted bright yellow) before continuing on to Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro.

Located about three hours from Medellin, this is a protected chunk of land where the Rio Claro has cut a deep swath through the marble bedrock creating a dramatic canyon. As the name would imply, Rio Claro is famous for crystal clear water…except during the height of the rainy season which is when we visited.

Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro

The Rio Claro (which is not so clear in the rainy season) as it runs through the Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro near Medellin, Colombia.

Even without clear water (quite the opposite, actually), the place is still gorgeous. The canyon walls are steep and there’s a lovely mostly flat trail that meanders along the river’s edge. You can go tubing or kayaking, swim in the river at various entry points including Playa de Marmol (Marble Beach) which features a huge slab of exposed marble or cross the river, and explore a cave called Boca Caiman (Caiman Mouth) which has stalagmites that look like rows of caiman teeth. Sort of.

Boca Caiman Rio Claro

In the dry season, when water levels are lower, you can cross the Rio Claro and explore the Boca Caiman (Caiman Mouth) cave which has stalagmites that resemble rows of caiman teeth.

The area is also a great place for bird watching. We heard the call of the chestnut-mandibled tucan many times while we were there but we never caught a glimpse.

The hotel run by the Reserva is called El Refugio and it offers a variety of different types of rooms in a variety of different buildings. There are hotel rooms in a building called Ecohotel Blue Morpho which is close to the entrance and the restaurant. Further down the river about 10 minutes are another group of buildings called Cabanas El Refugio, but they aren’t cabins at all–just another bunch of more remote rooms. There are a few true cabins for families or large groups.

El Refugio Hotel Rio Claro

Some of the rooms at Reserva Natural Cañón del Río Claro have (intentionally) missing walls.

All rooms (starting at 80,000 COP/about US$35 per person) are basic but clean and have private bathrooms and electricity but no TVs, Wi-Fi, or cell service. Some rooms in the Blue Morpho building have A/C. Mediocre breakfast and dinner is available for around 25,000 COP/about US$9 per person.

We were in room #11 in the Cabanas El Refugio section and our room was (intentionally) missing an entire wall to maximize the view and the feeling of being on the river. The sound of the raging water was almost too loud at night and, miraculously, we had no trouble with bugs or bats. Honestly. Our modern bathroom had a shower that was built around a boulder and a rain shower head.

If you continue a short way down the highway toward Bogotá you’ll find a turn off that takes you to a small bridge with views of the impressive Cascada el Cuba (Cuba Waterfall). It’s another worthy nature stop traveling to or from Rio Claro.

Cascada el Cuba

The lower portion of Cascada el Cuba near Medellin, Colombia.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua

Our friend Kjeld told us about Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua Hotel and we’re glad he did. Located just outside the mountain town of Corcona, about two hours in a private car or the direct bus from Medellin, this place is just the right kind of eco hippie.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua was started in 2007 when the family that owned the land finally felt that the local FARC guerrillas had been expelled and it was safe to return to their 30 acre (12 hectare) property. Instead of putting cattle on the land or farming crops their enterprising son Camilo Velasquez decided to turn the land into an eco hotel. He started small with just one building but now the place has a large building for groups or families and a honeymoon bungalow with a private Jacuzzi along with nine bungalows, each of them different.

Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua

The Moon Bungalow at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua with some of the chemical-free river-fed pools below.

The Moon bungalow, for example, is round. We stayed in the Sun bungalow which has an outdoor shower embedded with river stones. Structures are made, primarily, from guadua (a type of bamboo) and there’s truly something for everyone.

Hanging bridge Tierra de Agua hotel

This suspension bridge is part of Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Most of the bungalows and the lovely river fed plunge pools and Jacuzzis are reached via a swing bridge over there river. The pools are all flushed and cleaned daily and are chemical free, which is a treat for your skin and for the environment.

River-fed pools Tierra de Agua

A chemical-free river-fed plunge pool at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Besides enjoying the various pools and lying around in hammocks you can watch how panela is made, ride a three platform zip line, go hiking, look for birds, have a massage, go horseback riding, or even go paragliding with an outside company located nearby.

swimming cascada Tierra de Agua hotel

Hiking to this waterfall and swimming hole is one of the activities offered to guests of Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

The food is great (everything from falafel to trout) and this place also makes a fantastic break journey if you’re traveling from Medellin to Bogotá (or vice versa).

blue-necked tanager Cocorna Colombia

A blue-necked tanager spotted at Eco Hotel Tierra de Agua.

Waterfall hiking in a half day hit

We like Palenque Tours because the co-owners combine the best of their German and Colombian heritage which means their tours work efficiently and reliably, but with a free-wheeling love of all things Latin that keeps things fun.

A great way to get a nature fix in just a day trip from Medellin is to sign up for their half  day Nature Experience and Waterfall Hike (150,000 COP/about US$50 per person, but the price goes down substantially the more people are added, including English/Spanish speaking guide, transport from your hotel, insurance, water, and snacks). A 90 minute hike along a river through cloud forest delivers you to 65 foot (20 meter) Cascada La Miel (Honey Falls) for a quick hit of nature in just a half day.

Here’s more about travel in Colombia