Meandering in Mompox

Simmering on the banks of the caramel coloured Rio Magdalena which moves at the pace of the residents here, Mompox is a colonial town forgotten by time. Here you can see what Cartagena’s old city was like before it was descended upon by millions of tourists. Somnolent, with heavy air and unforgettable heat, Mompox has pursued a languid pace through time. Hard to get to in the past, a brand new bridge has shortened the long road to Cartagena by 2 or 3 hours so things may change. Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s fictional colonial city in Love in the Time of the Cholera and One Thousand Years of Solitude lives on in Mompox. True it is uncomfortable, in fact sweltering, but the charm of the place engulfed us at once as we extricated ourselves from the small truck that brought us here (well maybe not at once, but certainly after a cold shower and a cold beer.)

The town is laid out along the river bank with a supposed pedestrian walkway along its length (apparently motor bikes driven at break neck speed are honorary pedestrians) with the colonnaded front porches of former grand mansions opening directly on to it. Doors and windows are left open here, albeit behind ornate wrought iron grills, so passers by can peer in at the rooms full of grand old colonial style caned furniture, ornate sofas rather decaying in the tropical conditions, and at the lush green interior gardens behind. All the houses are designed as our hotel, a refurbished 17th century house, is — a series of rooms opening onto an interior terrace with a sala in front and kitchen behind. Quite simple to transform into a small hotel, just insert bathrooms! Ours is called Casa Amarillo, (it’s bright yellow ie amarillo) the brainchild of a Colombian woman and her Canadian/English husband. There seems to be some thought that Mompox may be “the next big thing,” there is even a lovely boutique style hotel here in a mansion beside the river, but they may be waiting a while I think! A handful of tourists here at present, most staying at our hotel it seems. We’ve met some interesting travellers as we all eat our breakfast around a communal table in the kitchen each morning.

As we wend our way through the dusty, mostly unpaved streets we encounter a series of plazas, each with its own very elderly church. Some were built in the 1500’s, they have been repaired after natural disasters but not restored, so they are still very simple and provincial with primitivistic carved figures of the usual suspects and dark old locally done paintings of the “Virgen” in various manifestations as well as the ubiquitous stations of the cross around the walls. It seems odd that they don’t have more Masses, we expected them to be an all day occurrence as they are in Bogota and the other towns we have been visiting. But maybe it is just too hot in the middle of the day, the whole place shuts down between noon and 5 basically, the streets empty, shops and offices close, and oddly even the restaurants take a two hour break midday. As we walked back to the hotel today after our “Menu of the Day” lunch in a local comedor, Doug’s thermometer registered 42 as we crossed the last dusty plaza outside the Casa Amarillo, and there wasn’t a human or dog in sight, even mad dogs and Englishman repair for a four hour siesta each day in Mompox.

There’s not a lot to do here, except meander the streets, observing the typical busy daily life of a small Colombian town. Local hole in the wall restaurants, women juicing up fruit in all the plazas, and little filigree silver shops here and there along the way where you can watch jewellery being made and buy a piece too. Our first day we took a boat trip along with 5 other people staying at our hotel across the Rio Magdalena on one of the typical flat bottomed boats used as ferries from bank to bank. We then all got out and walked up the bank to two waiting moto-trucks, small truck bodies attached to motorcycles which they kindly placed planks in so we could sit down. One couple with us was an 82 year old man and his 80 year old sister from Medellin. He was quite unsteady on all the slippery steps up and down the river banks, and on and off the boats on slippery ramps but his sister ignored his plight so the rest of us helped him and the boat boys soon got quite enthusiastic about safely transferring him each time. The two of them were far more excited and slightly appalled by the mode of transportation than the 5 of us foreign tourists were.

We set off on a very dusty road to a near by lagoon, which normally would be accessible by boat but the river is crazily low due to the parched conditions and lack of a proper rainy season last year. The motor from the boat came with us and was transferred onto a waiting boat, we were all loaded in again (the plank seating came with us too to be used in the boat) and off we went ostensibly to spot birds of which there were thousands, but unlike any other birdwatching tour I have been on, the boat man seemed to think rushing at flocks of floating birds to make them fly up in a swarm would be what birdwatchers would desire. Very strange idea, but we saw lots and lots of birds, mostly of the same types, but the couple from Medellin were vastly impressed by their numbers. There were several sizes of ibis, cormorants, wading birds of various sorts, seahawks, many small eagles, flocks (unusual to us) of kingfishers, and some lovely herons. A fun outing.

One day, as we wandered with an English woman we met at our hotel looking at filigree shops (her project was to buy jewellery and take it home to sell), we happened upon a lane leading to an old theatre I had read about. Like in many of these odd hamlets, the gentry of the 1800’s erected a theatre and quite well known performers made the arduous journey up the lazy river to perform. Now it has fallen into complete ruins and is inhabited by a number of families who we had heard would agree to show you around for a few pesos. Sure enough as we approached the crumbling facade, the head of a small boy appeared over the top of the doorway and soon he had cracked the door open to admit us. Two or three families live inside, but currently in residence were a teenager and three younger kids. As we walked through the entry, an overwhelming scent of cat urine hit us in the face. All the seats are still there, with old mattresses balanced atop them where everyone including the cats slept. They had ducks corralled in one corner. An electrical wire was threaded over the wall to bring power in for a fridge and a TV, the toilet facilities were not in evidence though the theatre bathrooms still had their signs on them. Suitcases overflowing with old clothes held their wardrobes. Pots and dishes sat around a grease encrusted propane burner. It was a boggling sight, though perhaps less so for me as it was extremely reminiscent of Mrs Day’s house, just a lot warmer. The kids were cheerful and friendly, with a slightly feral air to them, and clearly not attending school. What a life some people are forced to lead.

Twice we have taken the local boat across the river at one end of the town and walked to the next ferry landing about 1.5 km away. The first time we were directed away from the river up a little road by the ferry man and ended up on a path leading us in the right direction but not on the bank as we had hoped to be. It was interesting anyway as we passed farmers’ houses and a small village, and watched people trying to cultivate hard parched ground with hand implements, burning off the old grass with smoky fires to clear for planting. Hence the constant smokiness in the heavy air which is evident even when we open our windows first thing in the morning hoping for a blast of fresh air. At the end of the walk we descended the bank and joined the row of waiting motor bikes, bicycles, and other pedestrians to load on to the small flat bottomed boat. One man brought two goats across, then tied them across the seat of a motorbike on the other side and off they went to the butcher I guess. We seemed to be a source of great good humour to the other passengers for some reason.

Today on our last day, we decided to do the trip in reverse, and this time we skirted the barbed wire fence at the landing, and made our way along the top of the river bank through pasture and farmland, carefully negotiating the barbed wire at the end of each field. I kept an eye out for packs of dogs — after all we were trespassing — and Doug for the huge and fearsome looking bulls we had seen accompanying the small herds of cattle on our previous outing. The river bank abounds with various sizes of iguanas too, quite startling as they are hard to see and suddenly slither away giving you quite a start. Huge ones hang out at the soccer field for some reason. Much more interesting views this time but boy were we hot! Repaired to a nearby plaza for a “limonada”.

Though we won’t be like the tourist of legend who had to be dragged weeping to his bus so sad was he to leave Mompox behind, we are really glad we came here. It has been so grand to visit a colonial town which just goes about its business, unfettered by the need to accommodate the incessant demands of hordes of tourists. The place is like the storybook lazy tropical village, where life takes its languid pace, nothing much happens, people go about their daily affairs at a rate dictated by the weather, surrounded by antique churches, plazas commemorating history with statues of the heroes of yore, gorgeous mansions are being lived or worked in, no museum pieces here, just a charming small town overhanging a chocolate coloured river proceeding slowly who knows where.

And now for something completely different, we return to Cartagena for one night, then fly to Medellin for a couple of days. Formerly (ten years ago) one of the most dangerous cities in the world, Medellin has apparently been transformed by social planning. Will be most interesting to see. There are very very rich people in this country, its economy is booming, a sizeable middle class, and an appallingly poor population. Nine million still displaced by years of drug wars, civil wars, with horrifying stories of atrocities committed by the paramilitary troops, the insurgents, and the cartels. Medellin has apparently turned itself around. Sounds like a far cry from Mompox…