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up the river

Colombia’s Caribbean coastal area and the wide upper reaches and swampy marshes of the mighty River Magdalena is a familiar world to anyone that has read the works of Garbriel Garcia Marquez, and as one of the most widely read of all South American writers that includes quite a few people. When asked why all his stories take place in this one relatively small area, Marquez responded that everything conceivable took place in the Colombian Caribbean and so there was no need to look further afield. It’s a slow moving, dreamy place tightly gripped by tradition and in thrall to its own history where the unexpected and inexplicable are quotidian.

Leaving Cartagena, I ride north along the coast for a short ten kilometres on highway before turning inland to explore an area on the map where there is as much blue to be seen as green – I’m heading for Mompox, a colonial town which sits on an island in the middle of the Great Mompox Depression, a huge area of swamp between the River Magdalena and the River Cauca. This area is pretty much impassable by anything other water transport in the wet but, luckily for me, Colombia’s two years of heavy rains have ceased and things are bone dry.

Blue and green - it's a watery world.

The Magdalena River Basin is the economic heartland of Colombia with 86% of the GDP generated there, but sadly, the environmental impact of this economic activity has been severe. The area has been almost entirely deforested in large part by the steamboats that historically transported goods up and down the waterways to the coast.

The River Magdalena is as important character in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera as any other. Florentino Ariza, the novel’s ardent lover, becomes the director of the (fictional) River Company of the Caribbean and its small fleet of paddle-wheel steamboats. Over the fifty years of his unrequited love for Fermina Daza, while Florentino Ariza distracts himself with both building the company’s fortunes and a multitude of other lovers, the steamship company devours the valley’s timber. In the book’s final chapter,  Florentino and Fermina are finally united on a river cruise that takes them through the devastated landscape on barely navigable waterways and in the course of this journey both Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza experience less than romantic revelations:

“With his mind clouded by his passion for Fermina Daza he never took the trouble to think about it, and by the time he realized the truth, there was nothing anyone could do except bring in a new river.”*

“La navegación se hizo más difícil, y se dio cuenta de que el rio padre de la Magdalena, uno de los grandes del mundo, era solo una ilusión de la memoria…” **

The river was once home to crocodile, manatee and tortoise which are now almost entirely extinct. In a surreal (or should that be a magical realist…?) modern twist, one of the latest threats to the River Magdalena ecosystem is posed by invasive hippopotami introduced to Colombia by Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug lord of the 80s, as part of the exotic wildlife menagerie on his hacienda. Since his death in 1993, the animals have been left untended and the herd has grown with the animals starting to roam further afield and forage for food in the river.

However, despite the environmental catastrophe. water birds still abound in the region and a large number of local people continue to make their living through fishing for a variety of freshwater fish and the Magdalena River Basin seems to be inhabited by some of the friendliest, most generous, most hospitable people I have ever come across.

Within 10 kilometres of Cartagena I'm on a track shared by only a very occasional man with a mule.

Things are dry but there is plenty of evidence that it get pretty muddy around here.

True wild camping has proved challenging in Colombia, so far. I’ve been passing through well-settled cattle country with strong fences and locked gates and the only areas where it is possible to get off the road are inhabited, so, as often as not, I end up asking people if I can camp next to their houses.

This man welcomed me into the busy family compound. I put my tent up in the a shelter amongst parked motorbikes, dogs, turkeys, chickens and a horde of curious children and teenagers.

My every move is closely observed and I am overwhelmed by kindness: nobody will hear of me cooking my own meals.

A litter of puppies shelter behind my bicycle wheel.

The land is mostly flat and it's hot and dusty. In areas where the traffic is mules and other bikes the dust is manageable but where there are motobikes and worse still cars or buses choking blinding clouds of the stuff envelope me.

Small boys on mules are ubiquitous.

This young man has modified a tiny child's bicycle to accommodate him.

All those blue areas on the map need to be negotiated by boat. Canoes ferry people, motorbikes and the occasional cycle tourist across stretches of water,...

...a state of affairs...

...which mostly limits motorised traffic to motor cycles since cars, trucks and buses are unable to make the crossings. Almost perfect!

The day unfolds slowly but as soon as the sun is over the horizon it’s almost unbearably hot and where the roads take me away from the river banks the land starts to undulate and there are some steep-ish climbs.

Dairy is clearly one of the major local industries - everywhere people are transporting milk churns on mules.

People are intensely curious about me. One question that I am constantly asked in Colombia, that has never come up in the countries I've travelled through so far, is what kind of visas I need to travel.

This guy had seen me the previous day on a canoe during a river crossing. He turned around and insisted that I accompany him to the next village where his mother had a shop. They plied me with coffee and cold water and would have been much more satisfied if I had accepted breakfast as well. Colombian generosity is overwhelming and extremely humbling.

A couple of curious kids ask me questions and argue about where Australia is and what might be found there.

The whole area is seething with water birds. Sadly, in an effort to not be laughed at by all my more minimalist cycling friends, I have abandoned my bird ID book but among the water birds I can identify I count white and black ibis, cattle egrets, great egrets, at least five types of heron and jacana. Most curiously I see what look like giant deformed ducks with huge red scaly non-webbed feet stalking across weedy water surfaces. I later identify these as northern screamers, a weird bird endemic to the region, famous for its strangled gargling cry which is one of the loudest of all bird calls.

A shady moment by the side of the road.

Green and blue.

The heat is enervating and ice cold fresh fruit juices an all important revitaliser.

Another village store brings more kindness and curiousity. This woman provides me with...

...a bowl of soup and a plate of rice that I was far too hungry to take a photo of before I scoffed it.

As always a crowd of people quickly gathers around my bike. I met one of the young men pictured earlier on the road with a friend. They were both very concerned that I was too exposed to the sun and insist on giving me a long sleeved shirt.

The short hour between first light and unbearable heat, dust already rising from the road.

More smiling faces. Another roadside encounter results in yet another warm welcome at a finca where everybody gathers to feed me, question me and take photos of my bike. This local guy is a seismologist, working on oil exploration in the area.


Dogs and chickens are always part of the crowd.

A mysterious road kill?

Another dusty dawn.

A group of men milk cows... hand.




*This carelessness of Florentino Ariza’s can also be seen in fate of some of his numerous lovers – notably the woman who is murdered by her husband when he sees the amorous message Ariza has written in red on her body and the unfortunate end of his young ward, who he does not hesitate to seduce and then abandon.

**I’m not going to attempt a translation but essentially Fermina muses, as the steamboat struggles up the silted waterway, that the River Magdalena is now nothing but an illusion of memory.

{ 5 } Comments

  1. Sarah | January 29, 2013 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

    Good to hear that you are enjoying Colombian hospitality. We found them about the most generous people on the planet. And: I always thought it awesome that you carry a bird book, I’m just far too wussy to do likewise! Sarah

  2. anna | January 29, 2013 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

    Well, now I’m carrying a hefty Spanish grammar book!

  3. Cass | February 4, 2013 at 1:00 am | Permalink

    Great portraits.

    Ah… Colombia…

  4. MARIA EUGENIA | February 23, 2013 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

    Anna es muy agradable saber que visitas nuestro territorio colombiano,haber compartido un par de noches tus experiencias, ya sabes cuando regreses mi esposo Carlos Mario y yo, estamos a la orden , esperamos compartir más tiempo, el trabajo es duro y no dejó , gracias por las flores y la nota, un abraso!!! cuidate mucho!!! que todo vaya muy bien en tu camino!!

  5. Taryn Hartle | September 27, 2013 at 2:36 am | Permalink

    Stumbled onto your blog when I googled the phrase “waterbird by the river strangled cry.” I still haven’t gotten any closer to IDing the bird that I hear calling near my river camp here in SE Indiana, but I am grateful that I found your words and photos. Your work has reminded me of the power of imagery and observation. Thank you.

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