From San Agustin to Barranquilla, the Magdalena River divides Colombia in half all the while passing some of this nation’s most interesting sights.
The Magdalena river is the Route 66 of Colombian rivers, passing through vast swathes of this country’s territory, she is the source of legends, a historical backdrop to everything that has taken place here, an environmental Geiger, and witness to the changing landscapes of as many as 11 Colombian departments. For the visitor interested in learning about Colombia’s history, culture and geography, you are recommended to study the Magdalena River as 80 per cent of all of Colombia’s population live within reach of her.
History along the Magdalena River
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 he led his troops to victory in Boyacá and Caracas.
San Agustin: the Source of the Magdalena
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.
Neiva and the Tatacoa 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. This is an ideal spot for star gazing, bird-watching and desert hikes.
Melgar and Girardot
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.
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.
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, offering you a change from the ubiquitous bus journeys. 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.
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, better known for its Carnaval celebrations than its culinary and cultural offerings. 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.