Gushing, unstoppable and intrinsically linked to the creation of this country, the Rio Magdalena, Colombia’s most famous river essentially divides the country in half and makes for a varied itinerary along a course cut through its Andean spine. I guess if I could I would pen my fluvial inspired version and compilation of stories in homage to Kerouac’s “On the Road”.
Why the Kerouac reference? Well, I consider the Magdalena River to be the Route 66 of Colombian rivers, passing through vast swathes of this country’s territory, the source of legends, a historical backdrop to everything that has taken place here, an environmental Geiger, and witness to the changing landscapes in as many as 11 Colombian departments. For the visitor who is like me interested in learning about Colombia’s history and geography, I strongly recommend studying the Magdalena River as 80 per cent of all of Colombia’s population live within reach of her.
The pre-Columbian civilizations that inhabited the regions of the Magdalena Medio, roughly around the area that is now Barrancabermeja, referred to the river as “Yuma”. Obviously the Spanish conquistadores saw this river as a major connection from them from North to South on the continent and it was then named after Mary Magdalene. This would then become Colombia’s highway from the colonial period until into the early 20th century. The liberator of northern South America, Simon Bolivar would pass through the town of Mompós on many occasions as an obligatory stop on the Magdalena highway as he led his troops to victory in Boyacá and Caracas.
San Agustin really represents a vast area of terrain that is essentially a massive pre-Columbian burial ground. Most tours that take in the archeological parks in San Agustin to see the pre-Columbian anthropomorphic statues also take in the source of the Magdalena River. Here, where an effigy of the Virgin Mary has been placed, it is considered to be good luck to jump from one side of the river to the other. It is possible, but rest assured, some have perished.
Verdant to Desert
While Neiva and the Tatacoa desert are located in Huila, the same department as San Agustin, the geography couldn’t change more. From lush verdant rolling hills, Neiva is a hot lowland city that ushers in the Tatacoa desert near to the town of Villavieja. An ideal spot for star gazing, bird-watching and desert hikes.
Tierra Caliente near to Bogota
Located reasonably close to Bogota, Girardot and Melgar were formerly where the well-healed Bogotano would head for some sun. Now, fallen on less lucrative times and in the advent of cheaper air fares, these two destinations have become less attractive. Whitewater rafting and other pursuits are available.
City of Bridges
Colonial Honda is a remnant of a time past and is undergoing some much need restorations. For history buffs this city is an exciting point as this is the last navigable point on the Magdalena River as if flows from here some 950 miles north. In addition to the colonial and republican architecture there is also the Festival of the Subienda worth looking out for. Be sure to visit the Museo del Rio.
Colombia’s oil refinery, Barrancabermeja is an important hub along the river and an important source of commerce. From here you can catch boats known as chalupas from the Muelle El Yuma that will take you the five and a half hours to El Banco, Magadalena. I readily take advantage of this stretch on the river that offers a respite from endless bus journeys over poor roads. While on the subject of El Banco, the town isn’t much to look at but the Cumbia festival in June is considered a major event.
Tierra de Dios
Just an hour and a half by road from El Banco is one of Colombia’s best preserved most forgotten colonial towns. Recognized by UNESCO, Mompós is a must see destination for anyone remotely interested in the writings of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the history of the independence of Colombia. Now a backwater offering fine silver jewelry and ecotourism Mompós’ colonial streets are most inviting.
Barranquilla is the industrial powerhouse on the Caribbean coast, best known for its Carnaval celebrations. It is here, at the Bocas de Ceniza that the Magdalena reaches its estuary on the Caribbean ocean finishing her journey and passing through an unimaginable quantity of Colombian territory all the while defining her.
And so, I invite you to take a look at the map of Colombia and not only enjoy the varied geography and landscapes, but, like Kerouac crossing the United States, take in the change in attitudes and let it all roll by.
“And then we’ll all go off to sweet life, ‘cause now is the time and we all know time!”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road