The BookBrowse Review

Published September 16, 2020

ISSN: 1930-0018

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River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia
by Wade Davis

Hardcover (14 Sep 2020), 432 pages.
Publisher: Knopf
ISBN-13: 9780375410994

A captivating new book from Wade Davis--award-winning, best-selling author and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence for more than a decade--that brings vividly to life the story of the great Río Magdalena, illuminating Colombia's complex past, present, and future.

Travelers often become enchanted with the first country that captures their hearts and gives them license to be free. For Wade Davis, it was Colombia. Now in a masterly new book, Davis tells of his travels on the mighty Magdalena, the river that made possible the nation. Along the way, he finds a people who have overcome years of conflict precisely because of their character, informed by an enduring spirit of place, and a deep love of a land that is home to the greatest ecological and geographical diversity on the planet. Only in Colombia can a traveler wash ashore in a coastal desert, follow waterways through wetlands as wide as the sky, ascend narrow tracks through dense tropical forests, and reach verdant Andean valleys rising to soaring ice-clad summits. This rugged and impossible geography finds its perfect coefficient in the topography of the Colombian spirit: restive, potent, at times placid and calm, in moments explosive and wild.

Both a corridor of commerce and a fountain of culture, the wellspring of Colombian music, literature, poetry, and prayer, the Magdalena has served in dark times as the graveyard of the nation. And yet, always, it returns as a river of life.

At once an absorbing adventure and an inspiring tale of hope and redemption, Magdalena gives us a rare, kaleidoscopic picture of a nation on the verge of a new period of peace. Braiding together memoir, history, and journalism, Wade Davis tells the story of the country's most magnificent river, and in doing so, tells the epic story of Colombia.


Colombia is said to be the land of a thousand rhythms. Ethnomusicologists have in fact identified 1025.

Cumbia is a rhythm, a beat, a dance—a choreography of seduction that ignites the spirit and shakes the soul, infusing one's entire physical being with a sensual promise as innocent and perfect as a prayer. The dance movements of the male recall the desires of the lone cimarrón: passionate, powerful, yearning. Those of the woman, the coy resistance of the native maiden, bright candles in hand, spinning in a whirlwind of indifference. The music builds through the night, an alchemy of spirit and sensation that with every performance enhances its authority and power, laying claim to its rightful place as the progenitor of all musical forms in a nation nursed on rhythm, inspired from birth by song.

A scholar who truly understands the essence and roots of Cumbia is Carlos Vives, Colombia's beloved musical icon, an international star who arguably has done more to popularize the traditional genre than any living artist. Carlos is a child of Santa Marta, a product of the sun and the sea. The city lies in the shadow of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, homeland of the Arhuaco, Wiwa, and Kogi, whose children Carlos played with as a boy. He grew up in the presence of multiple cultural realities, at ease in a town that never rests. Music was the backdrop of his youth, a cacophony of sound that greeted every dawn and heralded each night the growing radiance of the stars. Along the waterfront and in the neighborhoods, in hidden doorways and brightly lit bars, he absorbed the rhythms of an ever- changing and expanding repertoire of musical forms, each the out- come of a new passion—a fusion of unexpected and unanticipated possibilities, envisioned by men and women who were themselves the products of a melding of blood and culture so complete that to this day fully 85 percent of Colombians in a recent national census describe themselves as having no particular ethnic origins.

Carlos began his career as an actor, playing the lead in a series based on the life of Rafael Escalona, the father of vallenato, a musical genre that, as the word implies, was "born in the valley," along the dry riverbeds and dusty draws reaching north and south of Valledupar and the headwaters of the Río Cesar on the far side of the Sierra Nevada. As a boy, Carlos became enchanted by the sound: the plaintive notes of the accordion, the beat laid down by the caja drum of Africa, the rhythm of the guacharaca, an instrument clearly of indigenous origins. He was equally moved by the spirit of the songs, each a story of nature, freedom, and love; the birth of a child, a wedding gone wrong, the mysterious flight of a magical bird, the delicate movements of deer in the evening as the sun softens on the horizon.

As an actor, Carlos covered Escalona's songs much as the composer intended them to be sung. But as a musician with a passion for his country and a heart as expansive and all-embracing as the land he so clearly loves, Carlos in time completely reinterpreted the genre, fusing traditional vallenato with rock and pop and other Caribbean sounds in a manner that scandalized purists but electrified the world. Beginning in 1993 with Clásicos de la Provincia, Carlos and his band produced a string of massive international hit albums recognized today as timeless classics, with songs that in Colombia's darkest days served as antidotes to despair, even as they distilled all that was decent and good in the country. Songs that told the truth. Anthems of joy and redemption. Melodies of loss. A musical repertoire of love and belonging rooted in a spirit of place that perhaps only a Colombian can fully understand, one who has suffered, which today implies nearly everyone in the country.

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Magdalena by Wade Davis. Copyright © 2020 by Wade Davis. Excerpted by permission of Knopf. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

A vivid and evocative journey along Colombia's most revered natural feature, the mighty Magdalena, exploring the river's significance to the nation forever tied to its life-giving waters.

Print Article Publisher's View   

Love affairs come in many guises. For Wade Davis, bestselling author and anthropologist, one of his abiding loves is a land and its inhabitants whose charms he cannot shake, thoughts of which course through his blood like the waters of its untamable rivers. Of all the countless countries Davis has explored throughout his peripatetic career, nothing comes close to the yen he has for Colombia. It is a passion that flows long and deep, as the title of his enthralling book, Magdalena: River of Dreams eloquently proclaims.

First visiting the country in 1968 as a 14-year-old boy on a school language-learning trip and then returning in his early 20s as a botany student, Davis fell in love with the stunning biodiversity of Colombia and the welcoming warmth of its residents. In Magdalena, Davis pens a compendium of several trips to Colombia over the course of five years beginning in 2014, charting the history, myths and romance of its most enigmatic natural treasure, the Magdalena River. Davis's narrative has a rich rhythm that mirrors the country's energy and flows much like the river itself: brimming with twists and turns that linger on various towns along the way and the many people with stories to share about their Colombia. And what stories! Some are painful, some are hopeful, but all ultimately bind themselves in some way to the muddy river that sustains an often-contradictory country.

Journeying from the source to the mouth of the Magdalena, Davis populates his travelogue with the many people he has met over the years, locals and beyond, who guide him through the towns along the river's banks, each with its own history and lessons to impart. The people he travels with and meets share their personal memories and speak romantically of the river, named for a saint who began as a sinner. It is a fitting reflection of a nation that has experienced dark times but also the promise of hope. Providing an engaging overview of the political and cultural history of Colombia, a country that is best known by many for the violence of its drug wars, Davis excels at balancing the dark and macabre with the brilliant and ethereal. There is an insightful summary of Pablo Escobar and his regrettably oversized impact that readers will appreciate for its brevity and succinctness. Interviewing those who lived through the most nightmarish moments of Colombia's recent past, a catharsis of sorts emerges as the Colombian people reckon with the fallout of years of warfare between Marxist guerrilla groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and far-right paramilitaries sworn to eradicate them. Indeed, the river is also a player in the violence: in the 1980s, the Magdalena was known as "the graveyard of Colombia," where the bodies of innocent civilians caught in the literal and figurative crossfire were unceremoniously disposed of.

But the indomitable spirit of Colombians seeking peace and stability took shape in the urbanismo social movement in the 1990s that saw planners and architects transform Medellín—the city most associated with Escobar and rampant violence—into a beautiful and safe place for all its citizens. They "liberated museums, flung open the gates of gardens long the exclusive preserve of the wealthy, [and] built elegant and aesthetically impactful libraries in the most vulnerable neighborhoods … with free books to all." Davis's narrative is filled with many stories of courageous and talented individuals working to create a brighter future for Colombia.

Written like a lovestruck prayer, Magdalena: River of Dreams brings readers deep into the heart of Colombia for an unforgettable journey through its ecology, culture and often beguiling mystery. Far more than a travelogue, it is a moving evocation of the interconnected skeins that people weave with the natural world around them.

Reviewed by Peggy Kurkowski

Christian Science Monitor
Magdalena is a devotee’s pilgrimage... Like the very nature of the journey itself, the narrative swings back and forth and side to side, allowing the serendipity of the moment to fill in the adventure with compelling human interest stories and representative anecdotes, and of course histories... Davis’ desire to revitalize the river of his dreams is rendered poignantly in Magdalena – a vivid portrait of his hopes and fears for the region.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Davis is a natural, engaging storyteller, and while he makes his way through Colombia's history...the book is also an affecting account of on-the-ground exploration...An elegant narrative masterfully combining fine reporting and a moving personal journey.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
Davis stocks his lively narrative with piquant characters, dramatic historical set pieces, and lyrical nature writing ('The mouth of the Rio Magdalena is the color of the earth'). The result is a rich, fascinating study of how nature and a people shape each other.

Author Blurb Hector Abad, author of Oblivion
After all our agonies, Wade Davis, through the evocative power of his writing, and the clarity of his understanding, gives us all reason to once again love Colombia. That is the wonder of his book, which in many ways reads as a love letter to a nation.

Author Blurb Juan Gabriel Vásquez, author of The Sound of Things Falling
Few people can interpret Colombia, this most complicated of countries, as Wade Davis does; fewer people still can write about it with such empathy, knowledge and grace. Magdalena is the ultimate proof that Colombia's present and past are inextricably linked to the larger fate of the American continent. To say that the book deserves to be read is perhaps inaccurate; I'd rather say that anyone who wishes to understand this mysterious corner of the world deserves Magdalena. It is a capacious, generous and illuminating book.

Print Article Publisher's View  

Colombia's Biodiversity

Magdalena River at sunset with tree-lined banks and mountains in the distanceColombia is a nation with a supremely rich diversity of natural wonders. Its geography alone encompasses a dizzying array of ecosystems, such as coastal deserts, wetlands, dense tropical forests, verdant valleys and snowy mountain tops. But perhaps most impressive is the biological and botanical abundance of this South American country. According to the World Wildlife Fund, Colombia is the second most biodiverse country in the world, closely following Brazil. Furthermore, they note that "per square kilometer, it is the most biodiverse country, with more bird, amphibian, butterfly, and frog species … than anywhere else in the world."

The source of Colombia's stunning diversity of animals and fauna is its unique location in South America along the equator with coastlines on both the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and three mountain systems. The country features a variety of climates and ecosystems and is naturally split into five distinct regions: Andes, Pacific, Caribbean, Amazon and the Llanos (plains). It is this varying topography that accounts for 51,330 species registered in the country, with more than 1,920 bird species, 528 types of mammals and 1,521 species of fish, according to the 2019 Biodiversity Information System in Colombia.

Conservation is a necessary part of maintaining the ecosystem for this and future generations. When humans interact with their ecosystem, it's often the ecosystem that loses something not easily regained. In the case of Colombia, people damage the ecosystem by altering land for agricultural purposes. According to the Convention on Biological Diversity, it's estimated "that almost 95% of the country's dry forests have been reduced from their original cover, including close to 70% of typically Andean forests." While this is sobering, there are many active measures Colombia is taking to protect its precious organic resources.

Protecting water sources is a key endeavor for conservation groups, both local and global. The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a global environmental nonprofit association active in 79 countries and territories across six continents, has identified "rampant agricultural fields and cattle ranching" as factors that threaten pristine forests, which are necessary for natural water purification. Trees act like natural sponges, cleaning rainfall and filtering out pollutants before releasing the water slowly back into rivers and streams.

Rather than seeking costly industrial filtration solutions, TNC advocates for a more holistic approach to keeping Colombia's water sources clean. Providing financial assistance to upstream landowners who use "sustainable farming practices and conserve/restore natural areas," ensures water is safeguarded as it moves on its way to supply Colombian cities.

Colombia is a breathtakingly beautiful and bountiful country, drawing more tourists every year. Its biological and ecological wonders are a source of pride for residents, and the need to conserve and preserve its natural treasures is increasingly urgent.

Magdalena River, courtesy of The Culture Trip

Filed under Nature and the Environment

By Peggy Kurkowski

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