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River of Dreams: A Story of Colombia

by Wade Davis

Magdalena by Wade Davis X
Magdalena by Wade Davis
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2020, 432 pages
    Jun 2021, 448 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Peggy Kurkowski
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About this Book



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.

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

This review was originally published in The BookBrowse Review in September 2020, and has been updated for the June 2021 edition. Click here to go to this issue.

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Beyond the Book:
  Colombia's Biodiversity

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