Last light on Colombia’s ‘River of Tombs’

Colombia's Rio Magdalena, as photographed by Jorge Panchoaga.
Colombia’s Rio Magdalena, as photographed by Jorge Panchoaga.

On her waters sailed the first explorers enchanted by the wonders of an uncharted continent.

Then, a conquest with an appetite for gold and the Río Grande de la Magdalena the only navigable source in which to move slaves and traders to the plateaus of the high Andes.

The footholds of the Viceroyalty of New Granada gave birth to independence and a new Republic. This “great river of the caimans” adopted steam to fuel a nation of plantations.

From the tobacco fields of Santander bridges were constructed with Bremen steel to unite ancestral footpaths with the meandering valley. Cargo ships hauling plantain, cocoa beans and coffee connected Colombia to the world.

From Barranquilla flowed in European classics, the Ford and concert pianos. Then, gramophones with brass horns strapped to the backs of mules to entertain cachacos reading Joyce by candlelight.

Navigable from the mouth of Barranquilla to the town of Honda in the interior, the Magdalena is at the heart of Colombian identity having inspired the poetry of Candelario Obeso, the primitive paintings of Noe León, the literary landscape of Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera.

As this nation’s longest river, the Río Magdalena is hard to miss, splitting the Central cordillera from the Eastern, and a leading protagonist in contemporary novels, such as travel writer Michael Jacob’s The Robber of Memories and Tom Feiling’s Short Walks from Bogotá.

With a 2016 scholarship from the National Stimulus Program of the Ministry of Culture’s “Proyecto Magdalena” photographer Panchoaga stands at the edge of twilight.

His camera captures the crimson hues reflected on the crest of this grand waterway, once known as the Huacacayothe River of Tombs. Panchoaga’s ‘Magdalena’ exhibition runs through December at OjoRojo Fabrica Visual.

Carerra 5 No. 26C-62