As I walk out of the hotel in bloody hot Barraquilla, my sunglasses immediately fog up. Also on my camera, I have to wait a sloppy 20 minutes before I can look through the lens again. I get into my father-in-law’s car without air conditioning and together with Jimmy and his mother we tear along the road toward the sea. When my in-laws said we were going by train to the point where the famous Río Magdalena meets the ocean, or Bocas de Ceniza, I thought a lot of things, but definitely not this. In front of me are four wagons consisting of a few wooden planks, a roof and an engine from the year zero. And the track doesn’t look too new anymore either. Unfortunately, walking the entire stretch in the heat isn’t an option, so I’ll have to venture into that vehicle that almost falls apart anyway. You have to sacrifice something to see this special part of Colombia, shall I say. Read all about a place full of extremes: beautiful Bocas de Ceniza in carnival city Barranquilla.
Bocas de Ceniza: where the Río Magdalena flows into the Caribbean Sea
On my second visit to Barranquilla, I finally wanted to see more of the metropolis where my entire in-laws live and where Jimmy was born and raised. A little Googling learned that Bocas de Ceniza is worth a visit. Indeed, this is the place where Colombia’s most famous river, the Río Magdalena, flows into the sea. Not only does that seem to be a beautiful sensation, but the ride there is also remarkable, at least. And terrifying, we soon learned.
Bocas de Ceniza literally translated means “axis mouths” and owes this name to the dark color the water takes on where the river mixes with the sea. On April 1, 1501, Bocas de Ceniza was discovered by Rodrigo de Bastidos. In 1842 the first steamships crossed the river from the sea and in 1872 a railroad was built from Barranquilla to Salgar, making Bocas de Ceniza an important international trade destination.
A death-defying ride on the “train”
The train hobbles along on the track that is at least as rickety. The driver is more preoccupied with his phone and seems to think it is perfectly normal for the track to move merrily along as we drive over it. Meanwhile, my heart beats in my throat as we approach another point where for a moment the track has no surface and the rails seem to break through the middle.
Right next to the track are rocks and the sea, and if we tip over it will not be a very soft landing. The ancient engine thundered on and on, making a deafening noise. We drive past old huts and wooden houses where the residents continue their lives undisturbed. Which consists mainly of catching fish, preparing fish, eating fish and trying to sell fish.
After half an hour we arrive at a mini-village of wooden huts and are allowed to get off and rest from this hellish ride. The view across the sea to the skyscrapers of Barranquilla gets more and more beautiful. When we reboard, I hope we’re almost there, but the ride becomes much more exciting when we drive up the dam and the water suddenly appears on both sides of the train. When we finally arrive at the destination after just under an hour of agony, the realization hits us hard: we also have to return…. But first let’s clear our minds: we are almost at Bocas de Ceniza!
Live images from this “train” journey
With my smartphone, I took a few videos, which I made into one. Listen to the noise of the engine, enjoy the beautiful views and discover the rather unusual way in which two oncoming trains pass each other….
To the end point: a walk through trash and over large rocks
To finally get to Bocas de Ceniza, you have to cross a dam after the train ride, and that’s quite a tough stretch. Somewhere in the middle, then, my in-laws dropped out, while Jimmy and I continued walking through the heat. The route consists of rocks we have to climb up and down and lots of trash. Like walking across a landfill. The contrast between natural beauty and poverty is big. Among the rocks and garbage, large crabs clamber with us. Wonderful to see. On the high cliffs, locals stand catching their fish while the sea clatters hard against the rocks, giving the fishermen a refreshing shower. Every time I look up it seems like we are almost there, but because of the tricky road it takes forever.
So when we finally arrive at the point we are all doing this for, I am quite relieved. We climb the high rock and sit down to enjoy the scenery. Behind us trash, fishermen and ramshackle houses, to our right the Río Magdalena flowing into the sea in front of us. From the colors of the river merging with the sea, you can see very well where exactly that point is. We witness the daily fishing life that is in such a great contrast to the life of downtown Barranquilla. After ten minutes, we begin the return journey.
This is the far end, where you can see the colors of the river mixing with the sea (a little to the left of the center of the photo):
Another view of Barranquilla
Millennial city Barranquilla is particularly known for the second largest carnival in the world that is celebrated annually. But outside the city with tall apartment buildings and wide avenues, there is also another side. Bocas de Ceniza is definitely a must visit if you are in this city. Not only does it give you a different view of Barranquilla, but also the terminus of the Río Magdalena is a special destination. Hop on the train and let yourself be transported to a place that is both very beautiful, very dirty, quite special, bloody hot and historic.
How to get to Bocas de Ceniza?
Although we drove with family, you can also just get there by cab. Get dropped off at the train or, if it is not going, at the terminus where the road stops. The neighborhood you have to pass through to get there is not the safest, so make sure you get off at the right point.
What are the costs?
At the train there is a sign with the prices: 20,000 pesos per person. Bizarrely expensive, of course, for a “train” that is almost falling apart. After a little haggling, we ended up paying 50,000 pesos total for 4 people. For that, you will be on the train for about 1.5 hours.
When does the train run?
This is totally unclear. I suspect that on weekends, during puentes and high season there is service and outside of that there may not be. When we went, no one knew whether the train was running or not either, so it’s a guess.
What do you do if the train doesn’t run and you still want to get to Bocas de Ceniza?
The train takes you to a part where no cars can go, but that part is also walkable. Get dropped off at the extreme point to where cars can come and walk the rest.
- Barranquilla is hot and Bocas de Ceniza is no exception. Bring plenty of water and possibly a snack. Also, don’t forget your cap or hat, sunscreen and DEET.
- The walk to Bocas de Ceniza is dirty. There is trash everywhere that you have to walk over. It is therefore advisable to wear closed shoes.
- The hike is not suitable for people with mobility problems.
- Be careful when eating and drinking. There is a point where there are several (fish) restaurants in dilapidated cottages. Jimmy, who himself is from Barranquilla, wanted to eat absolutely nothing there, no matter how hungry he was. Whether it actually can’t be done I don’t know, but at least be careful what you order.
- As mentioned, the neighborhood you have to go through to get there is not very safe. So always take a cab. Whether the part from the train to the terminus is safe is not entirely clear. I didn’t feel unsafe there at all, but of course I was with locals, which always makes the experience different. If I had had to take the walk alone as a blond foreigner, the feeling would certainly have been different.
- From the terminus of the train to Bocas de Ceniza, it is still about a 45-minute walk and also back. Pretty tough in the heat. In case the train doesn’t go, the hike will be much longer and you will be at least about 2 hours on the go. Whether that’s what you want in the heat remains to be seen.
Where do you stay in Barranquilla?
We stayed at the fantastic Hotel Casa Colonial. I rarely experience such wonderful beds in a hotel as here. Besides, it is simply a beautiful place, very cozy decorated, the staff is super sweet, the location perfect, the temperature in the room is wonderful and there is even a hot shower. Highly recommended for a stay in Barranquilla. Note: Want to book this hotel (or any hotel in Barranquilla) during Carnival? Then book early! Around September/October, the calendar opens for during Carnival and then you have to be quick to get a room.
Bocas de Ceniza is a place of extremes, and partly because of that, very special. Venture out and enjoy what unknown Barranquilla has to offer!