Practically, the answer was by a combination of 4×4, lancha (fast canoe) and bus. Investigations into using the Rio Magdalena as a form of transport had revealed that it was pretty straightforward to go downriver towards Mopox and Baranquilla (Shakira’s hometown – easy to see why she left) but less easy to go up the river. Alas, up the river was where I needed to go. With this map as my guide…
…there was nothing for it. I needed a wing, a prayer, and the Wonderwoman pants.
One rainy morning at 5.30am, I trudged with heavy heart along Vegachi’s high street to meet the collectivo Landrover (buses are infrequent save for on the main routes to the big smokes) on its way to Puerto Berrio, the nearest port. This being friendly Vegachi, Oscar accompanied me to the stop and a gent taking his morning coffee at the café insisted on buying me pastries for breakfast.
Slid along the muddy road with driver Tener chatting merrily for most of the three-hour journey. Upon arrival, he saw me safely to the port and helped in my boat investigations. Just as well for I would have been lost without him. The Rio Magdalena is a wide, muddy, fast-flowing river and was swollen with the recent rains. Formerly it was used as an arterial trade route and is navigable as far as Honda (much further beyond than where I wanted to get, but ho hum) towards Bogota. Steamboats navigated the river for passengers, trade and post purposes from 1825 to 1961 and giving GGM inspiration for his literature.
“Is there a boat for Puerto Triunfo today?” I asked. “No, there are no boats for Puerto Triunfo. You have to go by land.” “Can I get a boat to Puerto Nare and then another to Triunfo?” “No.” “Could I go to Nare and take a bus from there to Puerto Triunfo?” “NO! You might be able to take a bus from Sierra, but definitely not from Puerto Nare.” Decided to risk it anyway.
Hopped on the boat and made friends with my fellow passengers including a six-year old and a nine-year old who spent an hour shouting questions in my face and giggling. They earned some foreign coins and ‘I love London’ patches for their entertainment value.
Upon arrival in Sierra: “You can’t get a bus from here. You have to go to Puerto Nare.” FFS. Fiver says that you can get a boat all the way to Triunfo. Just as well I was wearing the Wonder Woman pants.
Another passenger and newfound friend was a middle-aged lady who made and sold handicrafts at the local tourist hotspots. She was going up to Nare too so bundled me along with her. She showed me pictures of her children, one son who she had not heard from for three years, and told me about her first husband, a policeman who had been killed by the Paramilitarios in the Escobar drug wars. She wanted me to come back to her house for a visit but it was a couple of hours away and the afternoon was wearing on. A lovely lady, she showed me from the port to the bus station. I bought her lunch while we waited for our respective buses and she gave me a bracelet memento.
I was enamoured with the Magdalena, in scenery and spirit, and would certainly do a river tour on a return visit. Thorntree forum has some useful tips (only how to go downstream; you have to work upstream out for yourself) here on how to do so in case you too are keen.
Near Puerto Triunfo you may find some invasive hippos wallowing in the waters. Why? That’s right! We’re near Escobar’s old hacienda. Although it’s now an amusement park for the masses, they’ve preserved the old gateway to ‘Hacienda Napoli’, complete with the airplane adornment from Escobar’s very first drug run. I passed it on the way to my final destination: the Rio Claro reserve.
‘Claro’ is a misnomer. Maybe in the summer it runs clear but in the winter its very much cloudy. Regardless, it’s a very beautiful landscape of tropical rainforest, caves and wildlife with the river slashing through the middle. Canopying, caving, hiking and white water rafting are available at rock bottom prices for visitors. Think £7 to take you down the river for a few hours. It is a private enterprise dedicated to eco-tourism and preservation; a sign in the refuge encourages people to ‘watch the ants at work instead of bothering them’.
I took one of the rustic rooms and washed away all the sweaty river grime. They are not enclosed (the rooms; the bathrooms have four full walls) so you can peer directly out into the rainforest through the picture window along one wall. Check out my 6am dawn view of forest rain. Sheer contentment to watch and listen to it.
Up early in the morning I skipped up the path that runs alongside the river for as far as I could go. Fa la leee! Discovered bright blue butterflies, thorny trees and that if a path looks too steep and slippery to be the right way, it probably is. Should have learnt that back on the GR10 in the Pyrenees. Ho hum.
Later I got a different perspective by whizzing through the canopy on zip wires. Fun! I would show you a video but I look like such a gimp in it that WordPress refused to load it. The software is saving me from myself.