The first thing people tell you about Mompós (or Mompox), is that it’s beautiful. The second thing they tell you is that it is difficult to reach. Difficult is even the name of a little vereda you pass through on the way to Mompós.
The Magdalena River that created Mompós in the mid-1500s was also the cause of the wealthy town’s downfall. The river that once brought economy to the inland island began silting up in the 1800s and forced large boats to divert their routes. The town was forgotten and later off-limits to tourists because of narco-terrorism.
At a Brasilia bus station in Ciénaga, a small town just outside Santa Marta, we talked to the ticket agent about the best way to get to Mompós. After a few phone calls (Oye – I’ve got some foreigners…), the ticket agent passed me a slip of paper with the name Fabien written across it. “Get off the bus at Bosconia and Fabien will drive you to Mompós.”
Good on his word, Fabien rushed us off the bus in Bosconia and began the long drive deep into the country. The dry fields were periodically striped with green grass. The communities were collections of dusty one-room houses with thatched roofs. Fabien took corners like he wasn’t anticipating any other traffic.
When we arrived at the Magdalena River, Fabien repeatedly honked his horn at the ferry. The ferry was large enough for only one normal-sized vehicle, and someone else had beat us to the punch. They slowly putted across the river on a platform made from welded metal plates and powered by a motorized canoe attached to the right.
It took about 25 minutes, but we finally crossed the river alongside a motorcycle carrying a family of five. It was only ten minutes more till we reached the center of town. Mompós only receives a handful of tourists, so it very much felt like a sleepy, parched, riverine outpost forgotten by time.
In the morning, we walked along the albarradas – the brick barricades that protect the city from flooding. Men in blue canoes were in the middle of the Magdalena River, singing, calling out to each other, and bobbing in and out of the water.
I asked an older women what they were doing, and she told me they were panning for gold. She pinched her fingers together to demonstrate the size of the tiny flakes. Then she shook my hand and wished me well.
The afternoon heat was intense and sent most people indoors. Barret and I continued on in search of the Museo Cultura de Arte Religioso. It was closed, so instead we headed to the cemetery. The heat radiated off the bright surfaces and we began to wilt in the sun. The languid chapel cats had the right idea; it was time to find somewhere shady.
Mompós is a UNESCO listed site because of the preservation of the buildings and that fact that most are still used for their original purpose.
In the morning, if the shutters of the residential homes swung open, Barret and I peeked in. Through the decoratively barred windows and the cracked doors (and even the keyholes if one were so inclined) were glimpses of massive entrance rooms and sunny courtyards.
The furniture floated in the middle of the tiled room, like a dinghy lost at sea. Family portraits and religious paintings hung at eye-level and exaggerated the height of the ceiling even more.
In the evening, people moved their chairs out onto the brick sidewalks. There were lots of mosquitoes, but they seemed to only be bothering me. Bats swooped overhead and attended the evening service at Iglesia de Santa Bárbara.
Eventually the time came to leave Mompós. True to its reputation, it was a bit of a challenge. After our taxi ride ended at an unexpected picket line, we gathered all our luggage and walked around the wood, used car tires, and picketers blocking the road. We weren’t the only ones doing this, but we definitely stood out the most.
On the other side we each jumped on the back of a motorcycle and flew the rest of the way to the docks at Bodega. With the two backpacks he was carrying, Barret looked like a turtle wearing safety pads.
Of course no one had helmets, so the early morning breeze felt fantastic blowing through my hair. Even though I was wearing a dress, it never occurred to me to sit side saddle. In my attempt at modesty when getting off the bike, I burnt my calf on the exhaust.
At the dock we were handed life vests with the number 17 on the back before the little fiberglass boat jetted to Magangué. From there we boarded a collectivo door-to-door van service. These, of course, do not leave until they are full. So while we waited, I watched the busy intersection – the street touts and the horse driven carts carrying massive soda step pyramids.
Many hours later we made it to Cartagena. Our trip had been delayed by engine problems and Barret suffered the brunt of this because he was seated in the back without any AC. Along the way, the woman next to him grabbed his knee in a weird fit before passing out on her daughter’s shoulder.
I, on the other hand, sat in the passenger seat. The driver and I exchanged stories, shared snacks, and he reenacted a near collision he once had. I don’t think anyone in the van noticed the point in the story where we drove on the other side of the road.
It wasn’t the smoothest journey we’ve been on, but it was one of the most memorable and Mompós is definitely worth the trouble.
About: Mompós UNESCO inclusion