Honda to La Dorada

Trip Start May 2006
Trip End Aug 17, 2006

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casa dorada

Flag of Colombia  ,
Friday, July 21, 2006

Calling from Puerto Wilches, a village in the department of Santander on the east bank of the Magdalena River, about 350 miles from the mouth.
The last piece ended on Honda, so that is where we will begin. Our first night there was a huge thunderstorm, and I awoke with the sensation of mist falling on my face. The next day we looked for Magdalena River museum, and some locals did not even know where it as, so no surprisingly it is a small deserted building, with a few basic but pleasant exposition on the human and natural history of the river. Almost no tourists come here, so the museum gets a handful of visitors a week. In the early afternoon, after lunch, we walked to the river bank and found an old fisherman, in hope that he could take us or new someone that could take us downriver. He suggested we to Caracoli, village a few kilometers down. Here, a few fishermen managed the rapids in their canoes, while others used nets from the bank, while children climbed along the banks, and with a black industrial looking tube, tossed and turned down the rapids, which lasted a few hundred yards. Fernando asked one fisherman to teach him something, but the old man refused. We dunked our feet and legs in the river, first time I had touched it, and it felt as dirty as it looked, made my legs itch. In Honda, it seemed except for a small percentage of the population, the river was something you had to cross over on the bridge, nothing more.
We caught a taxi to Caracoli and as we pulled up the driver asked what we were doing. When we told him, he yelled to a bunch of loafing men and as soon as we exited they surrounded us, but were friendly. One fisherman offered to take us to the next town, La Dorada for 40 dollars. The trip was an hour and he needed that much money for gasoline. At first they had no idea why we would want to take a boat, since the bus was only 2 dollars. We explained our trip, but reluctantly decided to take a bus. I considered coughing up the money, but I wanted to remain budget, not unnecessarily use resources, and travel how most people normally have to. Perhaps buying a canoe would be possible, and they suggested all this would be easier in Puerto Salgar. At the very least the taxi driver told us where we were heading to was safe, that the paramilitaries kept good order.
The little bus took 25 minutes and crossed through country scattered with skinny white cows. La Dorada was bigger than Honda and much more lively and dynamic and festive. Hordes of people surrounded the central plaza, street vendors with food and clothes, and definitely the highest per capita pool tables of any town in the world. We found the Casa Dorada with a windowless clean room, and Fernando showered for the 3rd time that day in a futile effort to wash off the heat. We walked a few blocks past another plaza with a monument of Bolívar and to the river. Found a few canoes and bars. We talked to two old men sitting around, one of them with the darkest possible contrast between facial hair and skin I have ever seen. They suggested we return in the morning to find boats. We sat down for a couple of beers and the old man brought a young fisherman. We bought them beers and the old man, drank his in about 10 seconds and left. The fisherman said he had to fish tomorrow and did not know of any available boats. Another guy came, and was not helpful, but we were hopeful we could find a ride tomorrow, though weary of the price of gas, as nobody used boats without motors. We asked about the next town, Puerto Boyaca, and they didn´t know, though they were not optimistic. I looked at the map, and decided that we might have to wait until Barrancabermeja, where road transport no longer follows the river, to find river transport. We walked around town looking for a dinner and a power outage ensued, but chaos did not reign, nobody broke into stores or fights, and a few minutes later the power resumed. I had no idea why La Dorada seemed so much better off than Honda, some mixture of history and luck I suppose. I doubted we would find such a nice town until Mompox, many hundreds of miles away. Next door to the hotel was pool, so we played Colombian rules, which is to knock in the balls numerically 1-15. This may sound like a very ordered way to play, though it creates chaos the mirrors the country, since you are only allowed to hit one ball at a time, no matter what. The floor was littered with beer caps, the tables with flies, the cues slippery with the humidity and sweat, and after your game, some guy rushed to your table to rack the balls in hope for a tip, while another man sits in his chair staring intently at your game, perhaps feigning interest to get you to buy candy or cigarettes out of his wooden briefcase. It is clear he knows the peculiarities of each table better than his own bed.
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