The small town of Honda is a gem in the centre of Colombia, a Cartagena by the Río Magdalena, and a place well worth discovering. The journey from Bogotá to Honda takes three hours, on an occasionally precarious road that weaves its way through spellbindingly beautiful countryside, with mountains, valleys, infinite shades of green forest and precipitous drops. The approach to the Magdalena Valley is marked by increasing heat and the presence of bananas, oranges and coffee by the roadside. Warm breezes from the river provide scant relief.
The Spanish conquered Honda, once home to Colombia’s Ondama and Gualí indigenous peoples (as the archeological ruins and cave drawings in its surroundings attest), in 1540. By the mid-17th century, the town had become an important and prosperous part of the colonial enterprise, and an obligatory stopping point for all boats on their journey along the River Magdalena.
Honda’s barrio Alto del Rosario is a warren of cobbled, steep streets dating from this time. The houses have thick stone walls, elegant wooden window frames and balconies, and imposing doors opening onto cool interior patios with abundant vegetation. There is a Mediterranean, Moorish feel, reminiscent of Seville or Córdoba, and a pleasing mix of decrepitude and, in some cases, tasteful restoration.
Down the hill from this neighborhood towards the river, there is an elegant Republican marketplace – the Plaza de Mercado – built by an English engineer, Harry Valsint, from 1917 to 1935. The Plaza is a national monument, with its 148 green and white Doric columns housing a plethora of small clothing shops, fruit and vegetable stalls, ‘minute’ sellers and the like.
Honda is a town of some 30 bridges, of which the Puente Navarro is the finest. Built between 1894 and 1898, this was the first metallic bridge in the whole of Central and South America. Its benefactor, Bernardo Navarro Bohórquez, contracted Norman Nichols, responsible for San Francisco’s Golden Gate, to lead the construction.
A walk across the bridge as the sun sets over the surrounding hills is an uplifting, exhilarating experience. Families walk or cycle home, with parents taking care to escort their younger children over the holes in the planks through which one could easily slip into the river some hundred meters below.
Tiberio Murcia Godoy, my guide in Honda, is a local historian and professor who has written a book about the town and maintains several blogs about its history. Tiberio is a splendid guide as we walk the streets, pointing out amongst many other places, La Pilda, a brothel famous nationwide in the mid-20th century, to which it seems politicians and the wealthy from across the land would flock.
He also mentions the now defunct railway station, which was built at the turn of the 20th century by the Dorada Railway Company Limited and Cuban architect Francisco Javier Cisneros, the Museo del Río Magdalena, a simple collection housed in an old stable by the water’s edge, the Alfonso López Pumarejo museum, where Colombia’s twice former President was born, and which houses a good collection of photographs and speeches, the Spanish, French, English and American consul building, and a nineteenth-century pharmacy that continues to operate today.
We also spend a fascinating half hour in the town’s cemetery, which includes the graves of a number of the British, German, American, Lebanese, Palestinian and other foreigners who lived in Honda during the prosperous years of the mining, coffee and agricultural booms – all intimately linked to the river – of recent centuries.
Tiberio describes the Biblical scene each February in which the fishermen of the region congregate along the banks of this majestic river to celebrate and participate in the subienda, when fish nestle in the river banks to hatch their offspring, and in which the fish stocks of the Magdalena seem to recover for a short while their former abundance.
Honda is an excellent base from which to discover the surrounding towns and countryside. I went to Mariquita, home base to Bogotano Renaissance Man José Celestino Mutis’ Real Expedición Botánica in the early 19th century, that extraordinary attempt to chronicle Colombia’s biodiversity. Nearby Armero was flattened and lost following the Ruiz Volcano earthquake in 1985, and is now eerily preserved, and Ambalema, a small town by the Magdalena famous for its tobacco (said to be Churchill’s favourite) is also renowned for the intricate architecture of its houses.