The Forgotten City of Mompos
As far back as I can remember, rivers have always given me something that I can never give back in return. I’m like a bad friend in that sense; I hope other rivers don’t catch wind of this. Anyway, I grew up in streams, rivers, and creeks during the summer months and can’t ever really remember a time when I was further than a bike ride away from one. I think in a past life I worked on a riverboat. The scene on the banks of a river is like a moving still, where life on the edges sits idling right on the cusp of constant motion created by two essential elements of life; water and gravity. This is a big reason why I was craving the lost little city of Mompos. Mompos is situated right on the muddy banks of the mighty Magdelena River, about 6 hours southwest of Cartagena. An old town that has been “forgotten”, Mompos used to be one of the key trading ports of the past. It was built up from merchants looking to connect the coast with the Andes, and also hide their goods from seafaring pirates (damn pirates are always making things complicated). The river is a thick, brown color and carries a large volume of silt, which eventually filled in the channel and deterred it’s use as a port, leaving Mompos somewhat frozen in time.
I’d love to say our journey to Mompos went smoothly. I would be lying if I made that statement. At the time we departed from our beachside hospedaje in Tolu we were refreshed, recharged, and relatively dry. About 10 humid minutes later equipped with our land anchors with straps in tow, we found ourselves soaking wet and waiting for our non-conditioned solar heated tin can of a bus to take off. We took 5 forms of transportation that day: Bus, collectivo van, chalupa (river boat), taxi, and finally a moto taxi. The last vehicle could have been avoided had our taxi’s front wheel held strong against the brutal force of the dirt road between the dock and Mompos. I’m actually not sure that referring to it as a road would be reasonable. Let’s say it was a surface lacking vegetation that was infected with conquered by the avian pothole flu. I’ve never seen more hard lefts and rights performed to avoid the impeding doom of hitting a hole in our barely drivable faded yellow taxicab loaded to it’s maximum weight capacity. On a lighter note, the best ride award goes to the Chalupa, which carried us from the chaotically sketchy port town of Magangue up the wide, brown, Mississipi-esque Magdalena River to the dock near Mompos. The current was strong and swept away everything from small plants to entire trees while we bobbed around in the brightly colored cigar shaped vessel. Smiles were exchanged while water lapped up over the edges of the boat as we flew past fisherman in their dugout wooden canoes. When we arrived dockside, we were heckled by low season seagulls that were refusing to take us to Mompos for reasonable prices. It seemed once again that, like magic, collectivos didn’t exist, and the taxi drivers were banding together in order to get the most from our wallets. We eventually found someone who accepted 30 percent less than the rest were trying to extract and off we were. Until it broke down.
Mompos had been described to me as a river town that was stuck in the deep south of the US during the 60’s. It’s persona was enhanced by steamy, hot lazy days and the overall isolation from any main road and nearby cities. Riverside mansions of yesteryear lined the edges of the Magdelena on the city limits, facing farmland and a more rural way of life on the opposite bank. The immaculate preservation of old colonial architecture mixed with small town charm has granted this slow, almost lazy, and virtually vehicle free city UNESCO World Heritage status. Walking down the streets of Mompos was truly like stepping through a time-warped door and into the past. People tinkered about during the heat of the day going here and there and in the same breath the streets felt wide and empty.
For travelers, there aren’t many touristy things to do in Mompos. That fact, along with it’s architecture, are it’s main draws. It’s a chance to break away from being a tourist and step into that quiet town life we rarely get a chance to be a part of in this rapidly evolving world. The streets are occupied with rickshaws, tuk-tuks, horse drawn carriages, and motorcycles but never feel crowded. Barber shops, panaderias, a few restaurants, and closed for low-season discoteks stand guard on the streets of Mompos while a slower pace of life carries on around them. It wasn’t uncommon to peek through the omnipresent wrought iron window grills to see an afternoon snooze in full force. The river along the malecon is lined with a waist high wall that separates the grassy slopes of it’s banks to the streets above. In several spots steps flow from the street all the way into the muddy waters, disappearing out of existence into the depths of moving current. This proved to be a great spot to sit and watch the light shimmer across the broken surface of the constantly churning tributary. During the day it is almost unbearably hot. So hot that you find yourself wondering what the meaning of life is. I know the answer is not eating ¼ roasted chickens during said hottest part of the day with clear plastic gloves on your hand. But when in Rome, you play like a Roman. For travelers that must see it all, Mompos has a beautiful cemetery full of ornately designed mausoleums, ostentatious old merchant family headstones, and above ground coffin sections that were surprisingly touching to be amongst. I’d like to also mention there is an awesome fruit, vegetable, and meat market about 6 blocks out of the center of town away from the river that is worth checking out. A day was spent buying all accessible fruits and consuming them at a leisurely pace (highly recommended).
Like clockwork every night the square in front of the main church in town would fill up with food carts and pop-up restaurants. These mobile kitchens would serve up the most delicious (and cheap) fresh fruit smoothies, pizza dripping in mozzarella (hard to come by in this part of the world), big barbecue dishes, and Colombia’s version of hamburgers (very thin patty of interesting looking beef. There was even a 3-stool outdoor bar in the mix. Our routine would start while the sun slinked away in a blanket of saturated red and pink clouds that seemed to be seared into the sky. For us it was the only place to go for food each night, and we looked forward to it each and every time. Fresh limonadas, banano con maracuya, and fresa con leches were engulfed while laughter chased the last rays of light away. It was a local affair, and each night different characters turned up for great food and a jovial atmosphere. Homemade bikes and rickshaws of all shapes and sizes would pull and line the side of the street to join the chatter that was surrounded by the scent of delicious food emanating from the square.
After we sweated through a few afternoons worth of shirts we caved into temptation and took a riverboat ecotour. The tour consolidated all tourists who agreed to the terms and conditions into one boat, which was probably borrowed from a friend of our tour guide. As we took off upstream, Mompos faded away and the rural farm life became illuminated in that classic yellow afternoon glow. Dug out wooden boats rested up against the silt banks next to hand dug mud stairs that disappeared up into the fields above. Our boat slinked off the main river channel and into a narrow tributary on the side. Naked kids were playing in the shallow muddy waters and gave out friendly waves as we zipped past, returning the gesture with the wake of our boat. We were given glimpses of their world from vantage point of the meandering stream that was also teeming with wildlife. Our guide was constantly pointing out the hundreds of iguanas hanging out in trees, cows grazing along the waters edge, floodplain birds in the grass, and large falcons looming over the sliver of water we were floating down. Remote villages that were completely cut off from the rest of the world came and went out of our vision. Imagining what life was like living in a Colombian version of Huckleberry Finn wasn’t hard because we were peering right into it. I can still picture the tall water grass swaying in the breeze and the sound of insects swooning in the thick summer air. We eventually broke out of the stream into a wide-open bay filled with lilly pads just as the sky began to darken. Our guide killed the engine and told us all to jump in for a swim. It’s moments like these when you question the safety of being on a “tour” with a “guide” but eventually we all ended up in the water. The current was strong and instantly swept us away from the boat. Tiny, acrobatic fish were pecking at our limbs when we stopped treading water and would often leap out of the water right over our heads. I remember having the constant fear that one of these silver bullets was going to careen straight into my face. My feet sank about 6 inches into the muck on the bottom of the muddy river and that eerie feeling of not being able to see anything combined with sludge between toes flooded my veins. With dark clouds looming overhead, we boarded the boat and puttered back to where we came from, passing by fishermen punting their boats with long, thin sticks heading home for the day. I let go of the last glimpses of the simple, separate life before we pulled up to the shoreline of Mompos once again.
At night the air was crisp and the once dull empty streets and sidewalks filled up with rocking chairs. A quick glance through the open doors and windows of any home afforded views of antique furniture and usually a broad quiver of the classic and essential seats that Mompos was known for. Hand woven straw furniture was ubiquitous in local homes. I saw several professional repair men bringing chairs and bench seats back to life on the sidewalks in the shade . Tradition seemed to be alive and well here. Crowds of men and women would gently rock back and forth, dimly lit from the puddle of light pouring out from their doorways. Most doorways were wide open, letting any curious eye into their living rooms without worry. Crime felt non-existent in this town, especially at night. But nature was also prevalent at night too. One walk was interrupted by a shouts and screams from locals just ahead of us. Elissa and Brook saw something slightly askew that I didn’t. Suddenly my eyes focused on the large black serpent weaving a slithery “S” shape on the sidewalk in front of our hotel door straight in my direction. The black beast was craning it’s neck, sending out a silent warning to anyone who went in front of it’s path. At that moment, the owner of our hotel came out of his home with a large wooden club. With a few thunderous blows to the head the venomous snake was vanquished. Another night in Mompos.
It was hard to leave behind the fresh food, lazy days, and crisp nights that Mompos let us in on. Any traveler who wants to get away from the normal routine in Colombia should definitely spend the extra time and effort to get there. The rewards for hard travel are more often than not immeasurable by any standards. Mompos had that, and left us with some great new memories. I strongly recommend you to go there and see for yourself!