Bocas de Ceniza was a day trip that had been on my bucket list since I first arrived in Barranquilla last August, and it certainly didn’t disappoint.
Literally meaning ‘mouth of ashes’, this is where the mighty Magdalena River flows into the Caribbean Sea – the name reflecting the colour of the water as the dark, nutrient-rich river mixes with the brilliantly blue ocean. Friends had told me that you could take a ‘trencito’ along the canal, constructed in the 1930s, which leads you to the mouth of the river and spectacular views. However, there are often a few surprises with many things here in Barranquilla and this was no exception.
We took a taxi to Las Flores, a poor neighborhood from where the ‘trencito’ leaves, not far from the L.A.-esque Buena Vista. Whilst many locals might tell you to avoid this area, during the day it’s an excellent place to enjoy some of the best seafood Barranquilla has to offer and at very reasonable prices.
Expecting to find a small station with a rickety, old-fashioned steam train and a ticket office (us Brits have very specific ideas of what trains should be like), we were in fact greeted by something quite different – a man in a blue boiler suit, two boys casually wielding machetes, a lady knitting and an old man stumbling about clutching a bottle of aguardiente.
“Sorry, does the train leave from here?”, I asked the man in the boiler suit rather skeptically, deciding he was probably the best source of information out of this motley crew.
“Sí patrón, 12,000 pesos”, he replied firmly, pointing at some small yet colourful open carriages at the side of the road.
Realising they were in fact on a bit of track, although very low and narrow, we got on. But after sitting for about twenty minutes without any sign of the train moving, I plucked up the courage to ask the same surly man (who seemed to be in charge) what we were waiting for and if we were going to leave soon.
“We need two more people before we can leave”, he said, there being only three of us at this point. Shortly afterwards an American guy turned up and, given that it was mid-morning on a Friday and the tourists weren’t exactly arriving in their hoards, we were ready to go.
Once the chugging motor brought the drunken man blocking the track to his senses, he made several attempts to jump on the carriage with us. However, the driver’s alarmingly serious threats to run him over seemed to put him off the idea as we started moving.
The carriage was managed by two men – the one in the boiler suit controlled the speed, whilst another man was in charge of pushing the carriage back on the track every time it derailed. Yes, derailed. But don’t panic – it moves quite slowly and the track is just lacking some much needed maintenance. We didn’t feel in danger, it just kept us on our toes!
Any worries we may have had, however, were immediately eclipsed as stunning views of the Magdalena River greeted us on one side, the Caribbean Sea on the other, with the surprisingly impressive Barranquilla skyline looming behind us.
One problem became apparent rather quickly as we came head-to-head with another carriage going in the opposite direction – there was only a single track! After sadly losing what seemed to be a game of cat and mouse, our driver asked us to get off as they lifted the carriage off the track and put it to one side to let the other pass, before moving it back on. My new American friend and I tried to help with this, but I’m not convinced we actually did anything and were probably more of a hindrance than anything else. The train operators didn’t even acknowledge our rather pathetic effort as we tried to prove our masculinity to the female passengers.
When we eventually reached the end of the track, we walked for about twenty minutes down to the edge of this thin strip of land to see where the two waters meet. This rocky path is lined with fishermen and small makeshift shacks, people’s homes, with a handful desperately trying to sell anything from Coca Cola to shark oil (which apparently cures just about every ailment known to man). The people here really didn’t seem to have a lot, yet all were very friendly and welcoming as we passed by.
Sitting atop some of the huge rocks at the very end point, the sight of the murky brown river water crashing into the ocean was strangely mesmerising and something you should take a while to enjoy. Huge cargo ships approached on the horizon, an indication of Barranquilla’s commercial prominence in the Caribbean, before we headed back past the wooden huts towards the train. This was undoubtedly a very unique day trip, allowing us to see the city from a rather distinctive perspective, and definitely recommended if you want to do something a bit different. Nevertheless, it also served as a reminder of the stark inequality that still exists in Barranquilla – social cohesion being something the local authorities must prioritize as the city’s rapid development continues.