He was born in the town of San Mateo (now called Rivera after him), near the city of Neiva, south of Bogotá, to a rural family of modest means. He went to several schools in his youth years, and obtained a scholarship to attend the Normal School for Teachers (Escuela Normal de Instructores). After graduating in 1908, in 1909 he started a job as a school inspector in the city of Ibague.
In 1910 he traveled to Bogotá, the capital city of Colombia, and enrolled in Law School at the National University in 1912. He graduated in 1917 and started a career in public office. After a failed attempt to be elected for the senate, he worked in the Colombian delegation to determine the limits with Venezuela, traveling to the Casanare region in 1922.
Disappointed with the lack of resources offered by his government for his trip, he abandoned the comission and continued traveling on his own. He would later rejoin the comission, but before that he went to Brazil, where he became acquainted with the work of important Brazilian writers of his time, particularly Euclides da Cunha.
In this trip he became familiar with life in the Colombian plains and with problems related to the extraction of rubber in the Amazon jungle, a matter that would be central in his major work, La vorágine (1924) (translated as The Vortex), now considered one of the most important novels in Latin American literary history. To write this novel he read extensively about the situation of rubber workers in the Amazon basin.
Besides La vorágine, he published a book of sonets, Tierra de promision, to wide praise, in 1921.
He also held diplomatic posts in México (1921), Perú (1924), and Cuba (1928).
After the succes of his novel, he was elected, in 1925, as a member for the Investigative Comission for Exterior Relations and Colonization. He also published several articles in newspapers in Colombia. In this pieces, he criticized irregularities in government contracts, and denounced the abandonment of the rubber areas of Colombia and the mistreatment of workers. He also publicly defended his novel, which had been criticized by some Colombian literary critics as being too poetic. This criticism would be largely silenced by the wide praise the novel was receiving everywhere else.
In 1928 he traveled to New York, where he was to negotiate the translation of La voragine and a film adaptation that was never undertaken. He also gave a series of lectures in Columbia University. He became seriously ill in this city, and was taken to the Policlinic Hospital, where he would die alone and away from his homeland in 1928, at the age of 40.