Traveling the length of Colombia’s Magdalena River—from the Andes to the Caribbean Sea—Juan Arredondo saw many quiet scenes of daily life like this one, in which locals cross the river on a ferry. At the end of his trip, Arredondo flew over the delta and saw for the first time the complex river system. “I had pictured it as this little stream and that’s it,” he says. “But no, it’s an ecosystem of small marshlands, whole little rivers, and lagoons that feed it.” Photo © Juan Arredondo

Outtakes: Riding the Magdalena

A photographer travels the length of South America’s Magdalena River to capture the source of so many people’s livelihoods.

Summer 2017

Colombian photographer Juan Arredondo grew up fishing his home country’s rivers, but as a kid he knew not to swim the Magdalena. The muddy waters of Colombia’s largest river flow northward for nearly 1,000 miles from the Andes Mountains to the Caribbean Sea—at times so peaceful boats like the one above can carry cattle and motorcycles without fear of capsizing, at other times so swift children grow up learning not to test the river’s currents.

In February, Arredondo traveled the length of the river for two and a half weeks to document life in and along its borders for a story on the world’s great rivers in Nature Conservancy magazine. What he found was not so much a scary river but a complicated one in the midst of change.

“It was this relationship with the river that I found fascinating—people with the river,” Arredondo says. “I don’t mean that because it gives them food or even transportation or work, but it’s this relationship with the river: When the river rises, it will invade their houses, but they wouldn’t move even though they know it would happen almost every year.”

At one point on his trip as Arredondo rode in a boat with a guide, a hole opened in the boat. The photographer’s guide was so comfortable and familiar with the river, he suggested Arredondo simply cover the hole with his foot till they arrived on shore.

But that familiarity hasn’t always helped the river, which Arredondo says has been treated in some ways like the “gutter” of Colombia. “People just pour waste into the river, and we’re not conscious enough of taking care of it. They take it for granted.”

Groups like The Nature Conservancy are working with locals to change some of that. The Conservancy has helped restore floodplains for bird and fish habitat, and has provided a simulation software tool for developers that integrates data about ecologically and culturally important areas.

As Arredondo ended his trip with a short flight over part of the river, the complexity of how it all worked together—the river, the people, the wildlife and industries—became clearer to him for the first time, he says. “Overall you understand that there’s this ecosystem that works beautifully with people even though we do a lot of damage to the river.”

Below are a few of Arredondo’s photos that didn’t make it into the magazine story.

“This is early in the morning where they’re making their way to the marshlands to go fishing,” Arredondo says. The fishermen must use poles to navigate through the Barbacoas marshland, where The Nature Conservancy has been working to help locals restore the marsh. “The problem is over night, [weeds] can close the entrance to the marshland. This type of weed is growing out of proportion [to everything else] because of all the fertilizers that the cattle raisers are dumping into the marshland. Fishermen travel in the morning to the Barbacoas marshland. Sometimes they just have to go in with a machete and cut through.” Photo © Juan Arredondo
This year a particularly large migration of fish upriver* led locals to build small shacks along the river. “They built them so they could stay up all night fishing,” Arredondo says. In the quick waters of the Magdalena, local lore holds that fish navigate the river at its borders rather than in the center to conserve energy. “The fish cut through the water more easily because they go from rock to rock,” he says. This means many fishers, like the man in this photo carrying caught fish in a bucket in the city of Honda, catch fish from the banks. Photo © Juan Arredondo
Honda—seen here from the other side of the river from the previous photo—is called the “town of the river,” Arredondo says. The origin of the town dates to the independence of Colombia, when ships would navigate up river to deliver food here. “Navigation now is very difficult this far upstream,” he says. “There’s a lot of rock. The levels of the river are now somewhat low so it’s difficult to bring a ship of that size.” Photo © Juan Arredondo
Traveling the length of the river, Arredondo saw from the water the ways the shorelines have been modified over time with cattle fences, refineries, and construction along the banks. The city of Barrancabermeja, Santander (above), is known as the oil capital of Colombia because it is home to the country’s largest oil refinery. More development for the river may be afoot. Talking to Colombians along his route, Arredondo says, locals are often torn between wanting to protect the river and the source of their fishing income while also wanting more development. “People want the companies to come in because they believe they’ll bring jobs and money.” Photo © Juan Arredondo
“This is another way of people benefiting or making money out of the river,” Arredondo says. Here a man scoops sand out of the famously muddy Magdalena, which he’ll later sell to be used in construction. It’s incredibly labor-intensive work, Arredondo says. Photo © Juan Arredondo
“You find along the river these small niches of what was back in time,” Arredondo says. The historic core of Santa Cruz de Mompox became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1995. Here the colonial architecture’s blend of Spanish and Indian styles has been largely preserved for tourism and history’s sake. “This is where the Colombian version of George Washington, Simon Bolivar, started his campaign for independence,” Arredondo says. With seven churches in the vicinity, the area is historically very Catholic—a fact reflected in the Spanish naming the river after Mary Magdalene. Photo © Juan Arredondo
Elsewhere in Santa Cruz de Mompox, architecture and the Magdalena River collide in this mural. In the background, kids play at a school. The Magdalena has gained fame through the arts: Gabriel Garcia Marquez set some of his novels on the river. “I grew up reading his stories,” Arredondo says. “And there’s a part [along the river] where you start to see what he describes. There’s a Caribbean culture that is very rich. It’s full of myths, people are very relaxed and very friendly and so all these things start to click.” Photo © Juan Arredondo
Fishermen who live along the river often live in homes like this one, and they come to know the water intimately. “They learn how to read the river,” Arredondo says. “They know when it’s going to overflow, when something’s happening.” Photo © Juan Arredondo
Each year the city of Honda hosts a celebration in honor of the fish migration up the Magdalena River, complete with fireworks, a beauty pageant, and fishing and cooking competitions. This year, Arredondo says, the celebration was muted after heavy rain in the Andes caused avalanches. “What that does is bring down all this mud and that suffocates the fish,” he says. Still, “people in this town were very passionate about the celebration,” even as changes throughout the country slowly fade some of the culture around fishing that led to celebrations like this in the first place, Arredondo says. Photo © Juan Arredondo


Join the Discussion

Please note that all comments are moderated and may take some time to appear.

1 comment