Friday, 14 November 2014

To the end of the earth: Bocas de Ceniza

Barranquilla is a little-known tourist city. In fact, in the Lonely Planet guide to South America it states that 'there's little to detain the traveller here'. While this may be partly true - it is a mainly industrial city - there are still hidden delights to be found for those who look hard enough. And one of these is the ride out to where the Magdalena River meets with the Atlantic Ocean: Bocas de Ceniza.

Ocean to the left, river to the right:
the contrasting colours of Bocas de Ceniza
Mojarra frita: a coastal speciality
The Magdalena River runs all the way through Colombia, from the Andes in the south up to the Caribbean coast, where it meets with the sea and, in a roaring spray of saltwater, the two become one. As recommended by locals, we headed to Las Flores to start our exploration, profiting from the abundance of water in the area to enjoy a delicious mojarra frita (fried sea bream), and a cool Club Colombia beer, both excellent examples of the Colombian gastronomical experience. Outside, you could look out onto the muddy waters of the river and watch the occasional cargo ship make its slow journey to the port. Inside, families were settling down for a relaxed bank holiday lunch. It was nigh on perfect.

Bike, then train: a regular commute
Upon finishing our chilled-out Caribbean lunch, we headed out into the beating sun to make our way towards the main attraction. The journey there was not for the faint-hearted: first, we took a rickshaw ride five minutes up the road (walking in the midday heat is not fun), then we bumped about for about forty-five minutes in a little cart on tracks, and, finally, stumbled along a rocky path of varying degrees of wetness, to finally arrive at the end of the earth and see the river meet the sea.

Watch out for those lizards!
But it was not in the arrival, rather in the journey that the experience was made. Bocas de Ceniza, which literally means 'mouths of ash', was named after the grey colour of the Magdalena River - the shade of which contrasts sharply with the green vegetation, yellow sand, light blue sky and more opaque blue of the sea below. As we were being rattled around on the rather rudimentary single track (more than once we had to derail the train to let a returning vehicle pass), there was plenty to feast the eyes on - we passed a whole horde of  abandoned cargo ships, munching ponies, men fishing and even huge signs, warning us of the presence of lizards.

A Ceniza home - the ultimate fishing shack
When we finally stepped down from the bone-shaking ride onto the narrow strip of land that juts out about a mile into the water, we were greeted with the sight of various ramshackle huts, each adorned with signs telling the viewer the name of the occupant and why they enjoyed living there. It was quite something to imagine the type of lives the people must lead living here, surrounded - as one sign read - by 'the peace that you breathe here, fishing and dreaming to the sound of the waves'.

Sebastian has found himself some dinner
We also encountered other signs of life - namely, crabs! These little creatures tended to scuttle away rather rapidly when approached, but if you caught one off guard you got a glimpse of beautiful iridescent blue-green shells, and sometimes also a tidbit of fish that the lucky crustacean had found along the way.

All in all, this place enchanted me - with the roaring of the waves and the smell of salt in the air, the pure nature of the scene was truly liberating. Which made the shock more profound when a friend told me that the government has plans to tear down the whole lot in order to make a 'super port'. Quite aside from destroying one of the only decent tourist attractions in the city, the lives of these people - some of whom have lived there for thirty years or more - will be turned completely upside-down, and in a country where internal displacement already affects 4.7 million people, adding to that number seems like putting salt on a wound. Now, I understand that a port brings commerce, and commerce brings much-needed wealth, but that wealth seems irrelevant to those for whom 'the sea is my life and the means of sustaining my family'. It seems such a shame that the source of such a lifestyle should be ripped apart for something that could surely be built somewhere further along the road - we are on the coast, after all.
A fishing rod and a hammock - what more do you need?

So what can we do? Well, I am no politician, but I think it's important to raise awareness of what's happening - the only article I managed to find on this topic was a small piece in the local newspaper written in June that you can read here (if you read Spanish, that is). If you are interested, I would also encourage you to write to the local government at Finally, and most sadly, accept that none of this is probably going to make any difference. I am only one foreigner, who, really, has no idea about the issues that are at stake here. But I read the messages these people put on their walls, and my heart goes out to them. They at least deserve to be listened to.

"My name is Gilberto Hernandez.
What I like about this place is the peace
you breathe here, fishing and dreaming
to the sound of the waves."
"I find myself here, on the Bocas de Ceniza
causeway, because the sea is my life and the
means of supporting my family, through fishing.
This is why I never want to leave this place
that I love more and more every day.

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