The Mouths of Ash

By Rob Packer

The “mouths of ash” (Bocas de Ceniza) sound more like part of a volcano than the mouth of the Río Magdalena, Colombia’s most important river system. According to Wikipedia, the name comes from the ashen colour of the river at that point and is actually a reasonably accurate description.

I visited the mouths of ash on my first day in Barranquilla with Ronny, Lorena and Delvis, a group of three barranquilleros from Couchsurfing. The plan had been to go for lunch at one of the fish restaurants along the Magdalena at Las Flores, and when we looked back on it, none of us were sure exactly how we stepped out of the taxi looking for a restaurant and ended up on a trencito hurtling towards the end of the breakwater separating the river from the sea. It certainly wasn’t because we weren’t hungry.

All aboard the trencito!

Happily travelling to the end of the breakwater.

What do you do if you find a trencito coming the other way? You get the passengers off and push it to one side so you can get past.

The trencito, a tram with no walls and packed full of people, runs from Las Flores to the end of a surprisingly long breakwater that demarcates the last stretch of the Magdalena and at some points, its tracks are barely wider than the distance between the river and the sea. About a kilometre from the end of the breakwater, the trencito arrives at a group of huts selling drinks, fruit and fish, and you have to walk over a kilometre of rocks past groups of fishermen to get the end. Obviously the rocky terrain wasn’t ideal for the flip flops that most of us were wearing, and it took longer than our allotted hour to get back to the trencito stop.

To the end of the breakwater. The Caribbean on the left, the Magdalena on the right.

The end of the breakwater looking back towards Barranquilla.

Fishermen fishing in the Caribbean.

Me at the end of the breakwater. Badly shod and concentrating more on not being blown off by the wind than having my photo taken.

We sat down with ice creams to hide from the sun that had already taken its toll on all of us, and on me most, and to wait out the hour for the trencito to come back, which we’d been told would take us back towards Barranquilla. What we hadn’t been told was that when the trencito arrives, you need to fight your way on and people with blunter elbows have to wait for the next train. While this was happening, we were in one of the huts buying something to drink and turned round to see a mass of people trying to fighting to get onto the trencito. We didn’t fight.

A happier moment: we thought it was nearly lunchtime.

Posing at the end of the breakwater.

Fighting to get onto the carro.

Left at what was coming to feel like the middle of nowhere, we sat again and got to know a neighbouring family’s conspiracy theories that what were now called carros (cars), rather than the too cutesy-sounding trencito, were stopping at the beach about five kilometres away, picking up new passengers there and heading back to Las Flores laughing over their dishonest gains – and leaving us high and dry at the end of a breakwater.

A ship coming into Barranquilla.

After a failed attempt to walk to the beach, the carro arrived again and this time we knew we had a fight on our hands: from the moment the carro came to a stop, my hand wasn’t letting go of it. And we were on our way with cries of “¡Ladrones!” and “¡Rateros!” (“Thieves!”) from our conspiracy theorist friends. Just as the sun was setting, we were heading off to lunch.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fishermen at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fishermen at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fisherman at the Bocas de Ceniza.

Fishermen at the Bocas de Ceniza taking a break with domino.

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