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Destination Colombia

Honda: The River’s Heir

In the northern part of the Colombian department of Tolima, nestled in a massif, lies Honda, a city that attracts travelers, merchants, architects, historians, and industrialists. Honda’s history is closely linked to the Magdalena River, and although it has endured many crises, the town is currently enjoying a moment of glory in which its wonderful architecture plays a key role.

Por Iván Beltrán Castillo
Fotos: Lisa Palomino

The first two months of the year, while still visited by groups of amazed vacationers, this famous Colombian town is truly spectacular. The fishermen, lazy and carefree the rest of the year, slide onto the waters of the turbulent Magdalena River to bring in generous hauls of edible fish: bocachico, catfish, pearl, acara, capaz, and cachama, shining as they jump. The fish have traveled from coastal swamps to be caught during this period of plenty known as the “subienda.” Nets and canoes fill up and taut, muscular men invade the waters like an epic poem. There are so many fish that the workday begins at sunrise and continues until night has fallen completely.

During this glorious season, the atmosphere is one of vitality, as if an era of happiness had descended. Children, their imaginations soaring, sit along the riverbanks to watch the ceremony and invent tales, leaning heavily on local myths. The elderly sit at home in shafts of sunlight, remembering the old days, their thoughts filled with monsters, heroes, and villains; young people dressed in all their finery step out in search of a partner or sit in rockers, vainly fanning themselves in doorways; restaurants offer succulent fish-laden meals, and bank accounts, long idle, are dusted off and topped up. People drink, dream, and remember the splendor and bonanza that brought the city its prestige.

The Latin American fame of this warm and beautiful city, where the temperature around midday has no trouble reaching 91° Fahrenheit in the shade, is due not only to the bountiful fishing. The city’s exemplary history, the famous people born under its diaphanous sky, and those who have landed here at one time or another, the dreamy architecture overflowing with diverse influences, the city’s growing collection of bridges, its lush flora and fauna, bewitching to scholars of nature, and its ingeniously erotic and picaresque folklore, have all made this wonder possible.

For a long time, the peacefulness of Honda, the harmonious agreeability of its inhabitants and their pact with placidity, have created a uniquely happy place. Because of the city’s geographic location in Colombia’s Middle Magdalena Valley, tragically plagued by much of the country’s internal violence, many people feared it would become the site of dramatic skirmishes. Providentially, however, due perhaps to the mediation of illustrious citizens determined to maintain the city’s proud identity, it was never contaminated by the tragedy and, on the contrary, became a stronghold of good fortune, attracting people from all over, migrants pursuing peace who found in it an oasis, where historical calamity seemed like a remote news story.

In the early 20th century, industry developed in Honda, popular culture blossomed, music was cultivated, architecture enriched, and many successful businesses were founded, some of which went on to acquire national status thanks to the quality of their products, their lively production pace, and the honesty of their business practices. For many years, a symbol of this was the thunderous, incessant production of Colombia’s most powerful brewery. But the factories in Honda have also produced textiles and furniture and processed soybeans, and the land around the city is perfect for raising livestock and crops such as wheat and rice.

Many different bloods run and converge in the veins of the people of Honda, giving the region its striking character that is not without fascination and mystery. It is worth remembering that the men and women of Honda inherited their cunning and cosmic vision from the Panches, an indigenous community belonging to the great Caribbean Ondaima family, who were present when the city was founded and christened. Archaeological excavations revealed an interesting social order among these natives, as well as keen ingenuity that they used to adapt to their natural surroundings and a worldview based on an understanding of botany, economics, science, medicine, and art.

Also present in the veins of the people of Honda is the blood of shrewd and greedy conquerors, literate and cultivated explorers, and the heirs of the Iberian aristocracy, the dignitaries of Western power, priests, inquisitors, mercenaries, philanthropists, Robesperian liberals, staunch conservatives, arrogant and tyrannical military men, stealthy merchants, and Libertarian Creoles. These influences combined make the inhabitants of the city and its surroundings religious and worldly, sacred and profane, slaves to action, but also to theological thought and passion. The Viceroyalty of Mariquita was located in Honda, founded with a royal charter from the King of Spain in the presence of Old World representatives.

Dream Houses

These days, important Latin American architects and decorators have their eyes on houses in Honda. These buildings were constructed slowly, over time, without aesthetic pretensions. They housed quaint pharmacies, where family medicine was practiced and potions for any ailment were sold; friendly hotels that welcomed tourists, especially at Easter and during the June and December holidays; theaters where the cinema arrived to herald an unreal, romantic world; and banks that prospered when the people of Honda amassed an occasional fortune or merely maintained a healthy balance.

Some of these buildings, however, fell into decline and took on a melancholy air when businesses failed or their inhabitants lacked vision. This decline lasted until certain artists began renovating these spaces. Thus began a period of aspiring aesthetic standards from which Honda has emerged as a city on par with Cartagena and Mompox. In fact, those who sing Honda’s praises have dreams of nominating the city for national or universal heritage status.

Gregory Sokoloff, a keenly aware Colombian architect, is one of the leaders of this “aesthetic crusade” to dig deep into the soul of Honda. Eleven years ago, almost by chance, he came across a house where an old and very theatrical pharmacy was operating. The owners of the house, although doubtful at first, after a few glitches, agreed to sell the house, lock stock and barrel, including the charmingly decorated pharmacy. Sokoloff devoted himself to the house, like a young and crazy lover, and in the company of his wife and partner in a large design firm, he slowly renovated, changing the colors, refining the original concept, experimenting with the rooms, and challenging his poetic imagination.

In the end, he created an authentic dream home that has played a starring role in the city’s renovation. Every year now, two or three others emulate and share in its beauty, forming a new and radiant skyline that has inherited all the wonders of the river.