Villages Along the Magdalena – Exploring Colombia’s Interior
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The town of Honda on the Magdalena River

The Magdalena River is the 5th largest river in South America and the longest in Colombia stretching  1,528 km (950 miles) through the heart of the country. 

It begins in south Colombia near San Agustin and flows north emptying into the  Caribbean Sea near Barranquilla, the port of entry to Colombia’s interior. Since pre-colombian times, the river has served as an important transportation route.  The Spaniards mounted massive expeditions down the Magdalena hoping it would lead them to fat lands of gold and riches.  The river has always been used to move merchandise in and out of the country’s interior.  

Today trains and trucks have replaced the  barges and steamship thereby reducing the river’s importance. Still, the land along Magdalena’s drainage basin continues to support 32 million people touching 11 different departments encompassing  24% of the Colombia’s land mass.   

Colombia’s Magdalena River

The climate along the river is hot and steamy in the afternoons. The towns Honda, Mompox, Puerto Berrio, Puerto Boyaca, Barancabermeja, Magangue and  La Dorada are all historical places with bustling river fronts, flavors and cultures.

Tourists unceremoniously crisscross the river at least once in their journey. There are a lot of rivers in Colombia  but few travelers follow their paths. The Magdalena has been the principal entry point to the interior of the country for centuries. Not only does it connect communities, the river is the  culture and soul of the country. 

Colombia’s  Nobel prize winning writer, Gabriele Garcia Marquez, who grew up on the river, made it a main character in two of his novels: ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’ and ‘The General and his Labyrinth’. Journeys down the river continue to open up a world of adventure healing wounded spirits and mending broken hearts. 

The route up or down the Magdalena has no fixed itinerary. There are no tours, fancy resorts or streets swarming with tourists.  This is destined to change as more tourists will soon be coming. But more on that later. For now, you must break your own trail.   There are hundreds of towns to stop at along the way and so much to be discovered. 

Below are the villages I visited.  And now I’m hooked.  Next year I plan to travel down the river again.  I want to visit Puerto Boyaca, Puerto Triunfo, Guamal and I will always be more than willing to revisit  San Agustin, Honda and Mompox.

Must See Towns Along the Magdalena Riving

Shamanic statues carved in the rock in the cliffs above the river
El Estrecho
Head waters of the Magdalena river near San Agustin

Here the country’s most important rivers form:  Caqueta, Putamayo, Cauca and Guaviare – they all originate where the Andes mountains, of northern South America, split into two subranges –   the Cordillera Central and the Cordillera Oriental cutting right through the center of Colombia.   

The Magdalena river meanders north through a valley between the two mountain chains. It passes  beneath volcanoes, snow capped peaks, through forests and rainforests, wetlands and swampy flood plains, past farms, pasture lands and  river towns. The river supports 2,700 different species of animals.  It is rich with  hundreds of fish, turtles, manatees, caiman, iguanas, crocodiles, hippos and pelicans.

San Agustin – the Upper Magdalena

The journey down the river starts at the archeological town of San Agustin in the department of Huila. While not a river town, from here visitors can visit the tributary of the Magdalena 9 km outside of San Agustin where Colombia’s finest archaeological patrimony is immersed in some of the country’s most beautiful rural landscape. 

A few thousand years ago the indigenous adorned their tombs with statues of god heads, animals and devilish images. Incredible statues were brought to guard the tombs of kings and warriors.  Today these statues and tombs are scattered around  several archaeological parks located outside the  village.

In town one can hire a jeep or a horse to get to a river gorge called El Estrecho. A sacred place, it  overlooks the waters of the Magdalena cutting through granite rocks below.   A number of shamanic statues are carved into the mountain cliffs above as if to stand guard over the ancient river. 

For more on the archeological wonder of San Agustin see these articles:

Tower of Mohan
motor boats moving cargo and passengers on the Magdalena
La Gaitana statue in Neiva

Neiva, founded in 1612 became the capital of the department of Huila and an  important city in south/central Colombia due to its strategic location between Peru, Bogota and Caracas.

A few hours journey north of San Agustin, the Magdalena  is navigable here. Back in the day piraguas and shallow-draft steamboats  cruised between the cities of Neiva and Honda. Today the only way to get to a lot of the smaller river villages is by way of public boats known as chalupas. Between Neiva and Honda the river is straight, the current fast and the fishing excellent. The river is hindered by rapids north of Honda. The big boats from the coast stop at Honda.   Goods from the coast had been unloaded and transferred  to continue the journey overland to Bogota or down river. 

Neiva is an agricultural center for cotton, cocoa, coffee, rice, corn and sesame. It is a hot and sweaty town. The town sees a few tourists who come for overnight stays on their way to the nearby  Tatacoa Desert .

There are natural thermal pools just outside the town at  Termales de Rivera  where there is a hotel and waterpark, with hot and cold thermal water pools. 

Parque Santander is the heart of the city. It’s a large park where and screeching parrots come to rest at sunset in the Cathedral of Neiva

The  boardwalk along the Magdalena river on the west end of the city is called the Malecon. It’s  a park running from the Tower of Mohan at the north end  of the park to the La Gaitana  monument at  the south end with a lot of fish markets, restaurants and bars in between.  A climb up the Tower of Mohan offers a 360 degree view of the city, river and surrounding mountains.  La Gaitana is a monument commemorating an indigenous tribal chief who rose up against the Spanish conquistadores. 

Walk down the river bank here and find men selling passage on  small boats which run up and down the  river.  

Neiva fails somewhat on hygiene though. Considering the Malecon is the city jewel, the  garbage strewn along the river banks was disappointing. A lot of homeless people camp on the river banks and hopefully the town will find a better way to help the homeless, clear the debris and spruce up the center a bit. 

Giradot is another torrid town in the department of Cundinamarca situated on the Magdalena river in south-central Colombia. 

The main economy of Giradot is tourism. Only a  three hour drive from the capital city of Bogota, Giradot has always been a popular tourist destination where the wealthy Bogotanos would come  for some weekend and holiday fun in the sun.  In the early 1900s, the era of  steamboats,  the city boasted over 150 hotels and resorts and was the transportation hub of the region.   

There are waterparks like Piscilago Giradot and  big resorts and hotels with large swimming pools. The town is also popular for its night life.

 

Streets of Honda
Honda on the Magdalena

Honda, La Dorada – Middle Magdalena

Honda and Mompox are the most visited villages on the Magdalena. Both are  sister cities of the 17 historical, heritage villages of Colombia, highlighting the culture, history and architecture of Colombia’s finest  Spanish colonial pueblos.  

Honda was founded  in 1539.  It’s  a small city on the banks of the lower Magdalena in the department of Tolima.  But the town’s golden age was between 1850 and 1910 when the Magdalena river was the only means of transportation between the Caribbean coast and the inland city of Bogota. Large cargo boats called champans went up and down the river propelled by men pushing and pulling on long poles. Honda was the main river port through which all imported goods arrived in Bogota.  Today Honda’s  main occupation is tourism, fishing and cattle farming. 

La Dorada port at the market

Honda is a diamond in the rough.  A quaint, beautiful colonial town everyone dreams of stumbling upon.

The colorful buildings of the historical center spill down a sloped hill overlooking the river and steep cobblestone  streets tug  you downhill to the river.  Honda was once a prosperous site of vast economic power demonstrated by its stunning architecture and wealthy past.

It’s called the city of bridges. The first iron bridge, Puente Navarro, built in 1898 by the San Francisco Bridge Company, is oldest iron bridge in South America. Honda is the last navigable point on the Magdalena going south. From Honda the trip is 950 miles north to the coast. 

There are plenty of restaurants and boutique hotels in town and lots of ice cream parlors offering a break  to the town’s  sticky heat.

The main market is in the center of town.  Get up at dawn and catch the local fishermen selling their  catch in the streets in front of the predawn market.

A bit of a disappointment, the river front (malecon)  has been  neglected  over the years. But judging by the  infrastructure along the river, it  had once been a place of importance.  

La Dorada – for a better river front experience take a collectivo taxi 30 minutes north to the pueblo of La Dorada. This  busy, little town isn’t much to look at but the riverfront here is  a delight. 

There are clubs and restaurants along the riverfront  where people eat fresh water fish, enjoy cold beer and a constant breeze. 

Further down the river there is a large market where the fishermen dock and sell their catch to the fish mongers and the public.

A  docked ferry boat, named the Suma,  will take people up and down the river for 25,000 cop ($6) per person but there has to be at least 10 paying customers before it will leave.  Next to the ferry, there small  boats or launchas offering river trips to smaller groups when  the Suma isn’t sailing. 

The Cristo Petrolero statue stands outside Ecopetrol an oil refinery in Barrancabermeja
hand carved wooden at port of Barranca

Puerto Berrio and Barrancabermeja – Middle Magdalena

Following the river north one enters the province of Antioquia. The river town of Puerto Berrio  is  174 km (108 miles) from the city of Medellin.  Founded in 1875, the town was an important port and epicenter for regional commerce and passenger transit. But starting in 1961 Colombia’s nationalized railroads stole most of the river’s traffic. 

Across the river and further north lies the town of Barrancabermeja in the province of Santander. It is located just 115 km. east of Bucaramanga. Difficult to pronounce, most people just call the town Barranca.  Like the other towns on the Magdalena the heat is stifling. 

The city is known as the oil capital of Colombia.  Once an important cattle town, they shipped cattle from the mountain farms to the cities on the coast. Oil wells were found nearby in 1921 changing the town forever.

The city is still dependent on oil. The state owned oil company Ecopetrol drill and refine all  the oil.  The town blossomed during the oil boom which lasted until 2015 when the oil fields started drying up. Meanwhile, the intensification of the Colombia’s armed conflict in the region further isolated the town, punishing its economy.

The best thing to do in Barranca is go to the Muelle Barrancabermeja. A commercial dock, it is open in the afternoons. This stretch of  river is the most entertaining part of the city where  a row of open air restaurants serve up fresh river fish and cold beer. Have lunch and watch the action.  At the end of the end of the dock there is a large fish market. And in front of the restaurants there are passenger docks where the chalupas, or small boats, load and unload passengers and supplies coming from the river’s nearby villages.

Mompox, El Banco and Maganague – Lower Magdalena

El Banco is a small port town in the Magdalena Department a five hour trip north from Barrancabermeja. Passing north through the arid deserts of north Santander one comes into the Magdalena river valley where everything changes from barren mountains to lush, green wetlands.  Water buffalos wade through the flooded plains next to the road. Men on horses drudge through the muddy fields where rice is planted. Live turtles are sold by the side of the road – an illegal delicacy, the locals like their turtle meat stewed in tomato sauce.

Street of El Banco
The market at El Banco

The town is dirty and crowed.  There are no taxis –  just motorcycles offering a lift behind them on  their banana seats. The heat, you guessed it, is stifling.  There’s an open stall  market down by the river where small passenger boats (chalupas) tie up to makeshift  floating docks. Outdoor restaurants and bars line the river. A restored historical center runs along the river. And there is a major cumbia festival here in June. 

From the town of El Banco following the river north, the entire landscape becomes a vast wetland. A two hour trip north is the town of Mompox. Formally called Santa Cruz de Mompox (also spelled Mompos), it was an important port city for cargo and travelers during the colonial era. 

Here the Magdalena River splits in two. Back in the late 1800s the river branch, on which the town sits, filled with silt and mud becoming unnavigable for the big boats. Traffic was diverted down another branch of the river and Mompox became a languid, sleepy back-water town. 

The town was always considered a Colombian jewel. Luckily, Colombian and foreign tourist re-discovered this gem of a town and  gave it a new lease on life. The town organized for tourism, capitalized on its colonial  historical center and  riverfront becoming one of the hottest tourist destinations of Colombia. Of all the towns up and down the river – Mompox is the most well known and sees the most tourism.

Mompox by night
An old port landing at Mompox

The historical center of Mompox is one of the best in Colombia.  The heat is oppressive and  the architecture is fascinating.  All the buildings face the river with large doors and wide windows.  Traffic in the center is regulated to a minimum. There are lots of boutique hotels and restaurants.  Mompox is famous for its silver and gold filigree wire jewelry. A lot of the larger colonial houses in town have been converted into boutique hotels and restaurants. Cheaper accommodations  can be found back on the highway which is still within walking distance of the center. The historical  city is  like a large museum site –  clean and well preserved.

A street in Mompox
Small boats ferrying passengers across the river

Magangue is a modern port city  in the department of Bolivar. Originally an indigenous village called Maganguey, it was discovered by Spanish explorers in 1532. Down river, when shifting sands made the Mompox unnavigable for big boats, all the river traffic started coming to Magangue.  

Today the city is busy with  grain processing mills, a fishing industry, and a refrigerator plant. It is also a port for tropical fruits, corn, coffee and dairy products grown in the interior. 

Statue on the boardwalk near mouth of the Magdalena
The Magdalena at its mouth in Barranquilla
Barranquila skyline

Barranquilla and the ‘mouth of ashes’

From Magangue the Magdalena flows out to the Atlantic.  A three  hour bus ride and one is in the port city of Barranquilla.    It’s a windy city with a population of 1.2 million. One enters and is quickly stuck in rush hour traffic. Barranquilla is known for it’s colorful, Caribbean carnival featuring the music, dance and culture of the Magdalena river.

The city built a nice boardwalk for the people to enjoy. It runs  along a breaker wall following the river out to sea.  The Magdalena river slides by.

The river has run its course.  The water is creamy brown with mud bleeding from Colombia’s veins, fertile soils and desert sands.  You can walk, bike or drive along the Magdalena boardwalk  right out to sea past the lighthouse and a statue of the Virgin Mary. Here the big waves and blue water of the Atlantic churn  the muddy river water creating a cafe y leche effect.

They have a name here for the mouth of the Magdalena. They call it Boca de Cenizas or ‘the mouth of ashes’. 

Carnival in Barranquilla

If you have never been to Colombia and want to see the heart of the country, a trip along the Magdalena is the route to go.  That’s what they’ve been telling me the last 50 years I’ve been coming to Colombia. And tourists will one day soon discover the Magdalena just like the explorers, seamen and merchants did before them.

River Cruises on the Magdalena are Coming

The  luxury European river cruise company, Amawaterways and  South America’s Metropolitan Touring have partnered and are planning to provide a  luxury cruise experience  up the Magdalena starting in December of 2023.  It will be the first luxury river cruise line to sail the Magdalena. Amawaterways has been doing luxury river cruises in Europe for two decades and  Metropolitan Touring has been  running cruising expeditions to the Galapagos. 

The boat, to be called AmaMagdalena, will carry no more  than 100 passengers in all-balcony suites on seven-day eco-friendly cruises. The vessel is being custom built in Colombia.  The cruise is being called:  “A River of a Thousand Rhythms”.

The owners think the time is ripe for tourism on the Magdalena. They believe tourists will come from around the world to discover Colombia’s interior.  Guests will immerse themselves in unique experiences both on and off the ship. They will enjoy in-depth connections with local nature, wildlife, history, culture, cuisine and Colombia’s rich musical traditions. There will be nature programs like  hiking, bird watching and  kayaking teaching the people first hand  about Colombia’s biodiversity, vibrant culture and natural heritage. 

But the Magdalena river is not without its share of  problems. The river is in crisis.

Sediments from industrial pollution and agricultural runoff  have been getting steadily worse.  Raw sewage is still being pumped into the river by virtually every municipality with drainage to the Magdalena basin.  Some Colombians say the Magdalena has become an open sewer as some 32 million Colombians flush their waste directly into the river. 

The  fish population has been reduced by 50% in the last 30 years. Some blame this decline on the numerous dams the Colombian government has built on the river in an effort to reduce their energy dependence on fossil fuel. Just two dams on the river, the Betania and the Quimbo produce 70% of Colombia’s hydroelectric energy and 90% of its thermo-electric power. But the river’s dams also have major negative impacts on wildlife and fisheries. 

Many other big rivers around the world were as polluted as the Magdalena in the 1960s and 70s. But they were successfully cleaned up over the years.  If Colombia were to devote  a small quota of their energy and capital to the revitalization of the Magdalena – the river could quickly turn around.

Perhaps a healthy shot of tourism is  what the river needs. The river  and its towns may get cleaned up and better organized to work in the tourist industry. And maybe, one day soon,  will become the next Honda and Mompox of Colombia’s interior. 

 

Bagra - catfish local catch
Net fishing the river
Fishermen show fresh catch at market in Honda

Jon McInnes

Jon McInnes is a journalist who has been traveling to Colombia since 1972. He travels to Colombia and other parts of South America yearly and writes for newspapers, food, wine and travel publications. He currently lives between Colombia and Detroit. You can also follow him on facebook and contact him via email at: jonmcinnesjon@gmail.com

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