The Magdalena river, which forms the centrepiece of writer and anthropologist Wade Davis’s rich and rewarding new book, is like an inverted Mississippi. Running from south to north, it rises in the Andes and crosses the length of Colombia, flowing through cloud forests, tropical jungle, mangrove swamps and wetlands before disgorging into the Caribbean Sea. Its enormous drainage basin covers a quarter of the nation, including Colombia’s largest cities, Bogotá, Medellín and Cali.
Loosely divided into three parts, one for each of the river’s three sections – the Alto, Medio and Bajo – Magdalena follows no straightforward course. It rather strings together conversations with characters Davis encountered during his exploration of the river, each of whom has a particular take on the spirit of contemporary Colombia, personal observations and episodes drawn from the rich and often tragic history of a country that has been long ‘overlooked and misunderstood’.