Michael Jacbos on the Magdalena, one of South America’s great rivers and the lifelong obsession of Gabriel García Márquez.

For a few moments I was able to imagine myself as one of the first Westerners to have approached the New World. I was on one of the pilot boats that guide ocean-going vessels into the Colombian river port of Barranquilla. We were being buffeted by the notoriously strong winds and waves that mark the point where the blue waters of the Caribbean are met by the murky ones of the Magdalena, Colombia’s longest river, one of the great rivers of South America.

The Magdalena, Colombia’s longest river, one of the great rivers of South America

I could picture the Spanish conquistadors taking in the beauty of a scene marked in the distance by the snows and jungles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. But I could also feel their fear and curiosity when suddenly confronted by the sheer mass and force of the ominously grey waters that issued from the river’s mouth.

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