Bocas de Ceniza offers vistors the chance to take a tiny little train out into the ocean, almost to the very tip of a breakwater that separates the mouth of the mighty Magdalena from the crystal blue waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is a chance to see how people used to live (and still do) and to experience some important history of the region.
For some, Bocas de Ceniza is one of the most important touristic sites in the region, an historic window to the past. Many others consider it a blight on the face of the city; a waste of money; an area that should be avoided. Certainly everyone agrees there’s an opportunity to invest some money – the site is old and heavily deteriorated. That said, I had the chance to go with a friend last month and frankly, we enjoyed ourselves. The experience was certainly not what we expected but it was definitely unique and I would go again.
In stark contrast to the green-blue waters of the Caribbean Sea, Bocas de Ceniza (Spanish for ash-mouth) gets its name from the dark color of the river water pouring out from the interior of the country, washing with it the dirt and grease and silt of decades of river traffic and city waste.
The area of Bocas de Ceniza where the tour is located is a hold over to what it once was.. the breakwater of a noisy, bustling port filled with the white vapor of steam ships and the trappings of then-modern success. It once held the pilot house for the river channel. It is the barrier that separates the river channel from the Caribbean Sea, part of a series of concrete and stone embankments constructed in the 1930s to spurn transport growth with the new river channel.
To get to Bocas de Cenize, you’ll need to take an Uber or a taxi to Barrio Las Flores, a strato two barrio located at the northern-most point of the city. Most drivers know where the “station” is for the bocas train, but make sure to ask up front, because you don’t want to get stranded in that area. I recommend heading there in the morning too, well before the afternoon sun cranks up the heat. Bring some good walking shoes along with a hat, some sun-glasses and a bucket of sunscreen (and another of bug spray). Also bring a couple bottles of water for each person. You can also bring a camera if you want but don’t over-do it – remember you’ll be in a poor area of the city. As they say, “no da papaya!”
The ‘station’ is nothing more than a table on the side of the road, next to a decrepit track. The fare is currently $20,000 each (including kids), and they only take cash, so bring enough to cover the “train” and meals – there are some tasty restaurants here where you can expect to spend $20,000 per plate with a drink. There’s no real departure schedule – like everything along the coast, things happen when they happen. There are four or five “trains” and according to the woman who takes the money, they try to do five trips a day, so no matter when you arrive, you won’t have to wait long.
The train is like nothing you would ever expect – it’s a cross between one of those manual railway cars with a lever that you push up and down, and an actual car with a motor. It holds around 20 people and is anything but comfortable, rocking and shaking violently as it traverses tracks that shift all over the place. The trip isn’t for the faint at heart – the shaking and the noise are enough to pop your teeth out, and the trip lasts like that for around an hour in each direction. Moreover, the tracks dont seem to have received maintenance in the hundred years since they were built, and there are moments when you’re sure the train is going to careen off the tracks into the water alongside. In fact, at several points along the way, the train came right off the tracks and had to be re-seated by a few strong men.
These days, the section of track furthest from the shore has completely come apart and people interested in seeing the true tip of the point, where the river meets the sea, are forced to make the trip (about a kilometer) by foot. The path is strewn with jagged rocks that make casual walking both dangerous and difficult. Don’t get me wrong; it’s not treacherous – indeed there are still many people who live and work in the decrepit buildings alongside the track, but it isn’t exactly what I would call safe.
On the plus side, the trip is a chance to experience some nature and to learn a little about the history of the city. You’ll be right next to the water the whole way – the river on one side and the ocean on the other and you’ll hear the breaking waves and smell the crisp salt air. For those of you who enjoy doing something different, something you can talk about later, this is definitely it!