‘Magdalena’ meanders enjoyably down Colombia’s largest river

Wade Davis narrates his fascinating, beautiful, and dangerous journey down the Río Magdalena – the heart of Colombia.

Courtesy of Penguin Random House
“Magdalena: River of Dreams” by Wade Davis, Alfred A. Knopf, 403 pp.

You can’t read Wade Davis without thinking of Joseph Conrad’s fictional narrator, Charles Marlow, as the two men share the same fascination for adventure into terra incognita. “Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration,” reminisces Marlow in Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” 

But that’s where their commonality ends. Where Marlow describes the wild and remote places and peoples of the planet in terms that denigrate them as savage, primitive, and superstitious, Davis does the opposite – extolling the virtues of these outlier regions and cultures as vital realms chock-full of exotic biota, majestic geography, extraordinary art, and empirical wisdom, all of which is essential for the health of the planet. 

This is the central theme of many of Davis’s works, including “The Serpent and the Rainbow: A Harvard Scientist's Astonishing Journey into the Secret Societies of Haitian Voodoo, Zombies, and Magic,” “One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest,” and “The Wayfinders: Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.” In his most recent effort, “Magdalena: River of Dreams,” Davis takes his reader on an epic journey down the remote reaches of the Río Magdalena, Colombia’s Mississippi. 

He does this not only by traveling on and along the river – through the Alto, Medio, and Bajo provinces – but also through stories, “living narratives strung together with historical accounts deliberately selected to reveal and celebrate the true wonder of a country that has long been overlooked and misunderstood.” However, it would be a gross understatement to call this book a river journey. It is far more than that. “Magdalena” is a devotee’s pilgrimage.

Davis first visited Colombia when he was 14, spending the summer with a Colombian family in the mountains above the city of Cali. He fell in love with the nation and its people, finding them “charged with a strange intensity, a passion for life, and a quiet acceptance of the frailty of the human spirit.” Six years later he returned on a one-way ticket “and no plans save a promise not to return to the United States until Richard Nixon was no longer president.”

It was his travels throughout Colombia during this period that inevitably led him to Richard Evans Schultes, the famed explorer and ethnobotanist, and a Colombia devotee himself.  Davis would go on to study under Schultes at Harvard (and later wrote about him in “One River”). A few years ago, Davis was invited back to Colombia to help promote an illustrated book series called “Savia Botánica.” It was during discussions about this series that he offhandedly proposed a journey down the Río Magdalena. The project was immediately embraced, and off he set.

Led intermittently by a handful of talented and passionate Colombians in a kind of expeditionary tag-team of journalists, professors, artists, Davis makes his way from one end of the river to the other. Like the very nature of the journey itself, the narrative swings back and forth and side to side, allowing the serendipity of the moment to fill in the adventure with compelling human interest stories and representative anecdotes, and of course histories. Davis is a tireless raconteur, and he includes details and descriptions of many of the key moments and figures in Colombia's history, such as Sebastián de Belalcázar, Alexander von Humboldt, Simón Bolívar, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, and Gabriel García Márquez, to name but a few. He writes in a style and from a perspective that is both haunting and self-deprecating.

A word of warning: Davis does not spare his readers from the abject truth. There are stories about pogroms of native populations, slaughter of innocent townspeople, horrific environmental devastation, catastrophic natural disasters, and more. The history both near and far of Colombia is often heart-wrenching and violent.

But of course, as he writes, in Colombia, “a butterfly is just a flower that has learned how to fly. That’s why [there are] so many.” This is a magical land, despite its sometimes sordid history, and the Río Magdalena lies at its heart. There are still many wonders to behold, including river manatees, amazing creatures which still exist in the ciénegas and sloughs in the Bajo Magdalena region. Local communities believe that Colombia’s very existence is inextricably linked to the health and well-being of these fascinating creatures.

In reality, the Río Magdalena is not well. Its “drainage as a whole has lost close to 80 percent of its forest cover,” writes Davis. He notes that 32 million Colombians flush waste directly into the waterway, and avers that fish stocks have “collapsed by 50 percent in thirty years.” So what is to be done? Davis’ proposal aligns with the viewpoint of a Colombian fisherman he interviews, who says his country must “clean and bring life back to the Río Magdalena. All of it. That’s what [Colombians] want. And that’s what the country needs.” Davis’ desire to revitalize the river of his dreams is rendered poignantly in “Magdalena” – a vivid portrait of his hopes and fears for the region.

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