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Notes from an author: Wade Davis on Colombia's Magdalena River

A journey along the Río Magdalena reveals a sacred tributary, the Río Claro — a repository of stories that paints a unique picture of the country.

By Wade Davis
Published 18 Feb 2021, 08:00 GMT
Wade Davis is an author, anthropologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. His latest book, Magdalena: River ...

Wade Davis is an author, anthropologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. His latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, is published by The Bodley Head, Vintage (£25).

Photograph by Adam Dillon

There’s a tributary in the Magdalena that runs over a bed of green marble, passing beneath tall limestone bluffs with caves that come alive at dusk as thousands of guácharos (oilbirds) emerge into the night. Spinning in the darkness, the birds quickly disappear beyond the highest reaches of the canopy. At dawn, they return, satiated and weary and there’s a brief moment of calm, soon broken by a cacophony of hoots, whistles and screams as scores of forest creatures awaken to herald the sun. Some mornings one can hear the distant sound of jungle cats, a reminder of a time, within the memory of men, when jaguars came to this secret forest to mate, seeking refuge in a river valley known only to them.

As a boy, Juan Guillermo first heard of the Río Claro from an old farmer who worked on the family ranch. Some years earlier, this man had set out to hunt a jaguar that had been killing their cattle. For two months he tracked the elusive creature, which led him deeper and deeper into the forest. By the time they reached the Río Claro, the hunter had lost all desire to kill. The creature had become his ally, and he the shadow of the cat. Emerging from the forest, like a deer at the edge of a clearing, he stood dazzled by all that he saw: a riverbed of marble, limestone cliffs covered in rare bromeliads, aroids and ferns, and, along the shore, strange palms and flowering trees with blossoms unlike anything he’d ever known. Only slowly did he realise this was the river long sacred to native peoples, a hidden valley of spirits and witches that many spoke about, but few had ever seen.

As he listened to the old man’s tale, Juan Guillermo knew his destiny would be touched by the Río Claro. In 1968, he and his brother Jorge explored the valley for the first time, only to learn that a new highway from Medellín to Bogotá would run through the forests that gave life to the river. They bought 50 acres in the heart of the canyon, with the goal of ultimately creating a nature reserve and scientific research station, along with educational facilities that would celebrate biodiversity, clean water and conservation.

“Emerging from the forest, he stood dazzled by all that he saw: a riverbed of marble, limestone cliffs covered in rare bromeliads, aroids and ferns, and, along the shore, strange palms and flowering trees with blossoms unlike anything he’d ever known.”

by Wade Davis

Nothing came easily. Their father was murdered. Jorge died in a tragic plane crash. Juan Guillermo’s beloved daughter, an ardent conservationist tormented by the unravelling of the natural world, took her own life at 18. The Río Claro itself came under siege. Juan Guillermo, long targeted for assassination by paramilitaries of the far right, was, in the end, kidnapped twice by the ELN, one of the revolutionary armies of the extreme left. Five years went by, until finally, with the demobilisation of the paramilitaries and the fading fortunes of the guerrillas, he was able to return, along with his new wife, Ximena Arosemena. Working closely with local people, they built an ecotourism resort widely heralded as both a biological and spiritual marvel, the Río Claro Natural Reserve. With the acquisition of 5,000 acres of additional land, they created a wildlife sanctuary for jaguars and ocelots, pumas and all the creatures that had once thrived in the forests of the Medio Magdalena.

Educational programmes continue to bring children and youths from Medellín into the wonder of the forest, where they learn about nature from professional scientists. Among the generous supporters of the programme is Álvaro Cogollo, the head of Medellín’s Jardín Botánico and one of Colombia’s leading botanical explorers. To date, Álvaro and his team, working with the kids from the city, have discovered no fewer than 100 new species of plants, all within reach of the river.

As Juan Guillermo continues to acquire land, he never thinks of himself as the owner of anything. To him, Río Claro is a sacred place, a temple of nature, destined to be protected and enjoyed by all people for all time. Among its guardians will be a beautiful young woman, Oriana, his daughter with Ximena. One morning as I followed the two of them along the river, I overheard Juan Guillermo explaining to Oriana why he’d never cut down a tree or knowingly cause harm to any creature in the forest. Her name, I later learned, was inspired by Greek mythology, a story of divine resilience, a new dawning, a child rising in the sky.

Wade Davis is an author, anthropologist and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence. His latest book, Magdalena: River of Dreams, is published by The Bodley Head, Vintage (£25).

Published in the March 2021 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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