Mompós: Week 254

Weathered Colonial architecture and motorcyclist in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Weathered Colonial architecture and paint detail in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Colonial architecture and main street in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

View of canoes on the Magdelena River in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Stray cats lounging the in cemetery chapel in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Detail of a memorial plaque in the town cemetery of Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Detail of Colonial architecture in Mompos. Entrance door: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Weathered Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Mustard yellow Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Patio of Colonial houses in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Iglesia de Santa Barbara in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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.

Motorcyclist riding near Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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

About: Mompós

Weathered Colonial architecture in Mompos: Mompox, Colombia

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Colonial Williamsburg: Week 251

A carriage ride in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Between 1699-1780, Williamsburg was not only the seat of power in Virginia but also the most influential city in all of the colonies. For strategic reasons, the capitol was moved north to Richmond towards the end of the Revolutionary War and the cultural and political importance of Williamsburg waned. It wasn’t until the 1920s that preservation work began on what was once the most important city in the US.

A man in period costume strolling the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg was so much more immersive and larger than I had imagined. It is 301 acres of restored and historically furnished buildings. On top of that, employees in period costume lead tours, tidy gardens, run auctions, and stroll down the streets.

A large two story brick house in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Within the historic district there are also period-specific shops, restaurants, gardens, and even private residences. There is no cost to stroll through the area, but an expensive day pass is needed for any tours.

A traditional garden in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The Brick House Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

A garden shed in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The reconstructed capitol in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Because it was about three-hour drive to get to Colonial Williamsburg, we arrived in the early afternoon and decided not to buy the day pass. Instead we picked up some hot coffee and enjoyed a long, ambling walk.

A door trimmed with Christmas decorations in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

It was New Year’s Eve and the traditional Christmas decorations were still up. I loved the doors outlined with real boughs of pine and the wreaths decorated with leaves, apples, oranges, pineapples, and cotton.

A window decorated for Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

A window decorated for Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The only thing missing in this wonderfully preserved town was snow.

A fruit-themed Christmas decoration that is located over a door: Colonial Williamsburg, VirginiaAbout: Colonial Williamsburg

Buga: Week 247

Señor de los Milagros relic: Buga, Colombia

Barret was out on the balcony with a cold glass of beer. I laid down on the double bed and listened to the motorcycles drive by on the street below. I’d heard that sound before, years ago, the echo of small engines bouncing off brick buildings and fading into a maze of narrow streets. It’s the sound of a South American vacation.

Balcony view from the Buga Hostel and Brewery: Buga, Colombia

During a four-day weekend, Barret and I had traveled three hours south of Manizales to a small town not quite on the tourist trail. Buga had a dry December heat and an influx of pilgrims visiting the Basilica del Señor de los Milagros. The plaza surrounding the church was filled with gift shops, old men selling lotto tickets and anyone else looking for a miracle.

Señor de los Milagros: Buga, Colombia

The pews were packed on a Sunday afternoon and the line to pray at the feet of the black Jesus only shortened during mass. The revered Señor de los Milagros, famous for the color of its material and its skirts, was visible through a glass panel behind the pulpit.

Leaving the basilica, we walked out onto Calle 4. It was filled with relic shopkeepers eager to usher us into their stores.

Exvoto plaques for Señor de los Milagros: Buga, Colombia

Off of Carrera 14a was a museum dedicated to the basilica. The majority of the walls were dedicated to exvotos. These are offerings that the public gives in honor of blessings received. They came in a variety of forms – from marble plaques to letters sent with military medals or baby clothes.

Parque Cabal, a few blocks over, was filled with iguanas. A booth selling cholados was set up at the southern corner of the park. Manizales is too cold for shaved ice desserts, but not Buga. The ice was sweetened with generous portions of fruit and covered in condensed milk.

Iguana in Parque Cabal: Buga, Colombia

After dinner with a friend, Barret and I spent the rest of the evening on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. The afternoon heat lingered into the evening and the lights from the Basilica shone in the distance.

My friend had told me, “now that you two are here, there are three times as many foreigners in Buga.” She was almost right about that. Buga is a small town draped in Spanish moss, but there were a few other foreigners in the hostel who had already discovered its charm.

Señor de los Milagros relic: Buga, Colombia

About: Buga Hostel & Brewery

About: Basilica del Señor de los Milagros

Villa de Leyva & Terracotta House: Week 245

Villa de Leyva cobblestone plaza: Colombia

Villa de Leyva is a colonial gem several hours north of Bogotá. It was founded in the late 1500s as a retreat for the well-to-do and high-ranking officials. Because the town was not located on important shipping routes or near significant mineral deposits, the cobblestone town escaped the pressures of modernization.

Although Villa de Leyva has certainly been ‘discovered’, there is still more foot traffic than cars in the center of town. It is also possible to see a bridled donkey on a side street and know that it’s a working animal and not a photo prop.

Donkeys on the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva: Colombia

A small courtyard in Villa de Leyva: Colombia

One of the reasons Villa de Leyva is so beloved by tourists is because of its massive main square. At 14,000 square meters, it’s quite possibly the largest cobblestone plaza in South America. The white-washed buildings and churches surrounding the plaza were also beautifully preserved.

Virgin Mary statue in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Statue in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Jesus Christ statue in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Balcony of the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

On the outskirts of town is an eccentric house named La Casa de Terracota. It was completed in 2012 by the Colombian architect Octavio Mendoza. In his own words, Casa Terracota is, “a project that transforms soil into habitable architecture, by simply using the supporting help of natural resources—e.g. the other three elements of nature (air, water and fire).”

Living room of the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Studio at the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Aside from the relatively low-cost of the construction process, there are several other benefits to using soil as a building material. The first benefit being the insulation properties of soil and the second being its harmonious relationship with nature. Imagine a house that could actually become stronger after being ‘cooked’ during a season of devastating wildfires.

Bathroom mirror at the Terracotta House: Villa De Leyva, Colombia

While no one lives in the house, the rooms were furnished, wired with electricity, and the tiled bathrooms were connected to running water. I really liked how all of the textures in the house were imperfect and organic, but perhaps the nicest design element was the number of windows and skylights in the house. The warm afternoon light made the terracotta surfaces glow.

I’m not sure how durable terracotta homes are, but if one were available, I could see myself giving it a go. Especially in the desert- how wonderful to live without an AC bill!

Work bench in the studio of the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

About: Villa de Leyva

About: La Casa de Terracota

Two Kinds of Andrés: Week 244

Rural road outside of VIlla Maria: Manizales, Colombia

We were walking through a rural town when a boy named Andrés stopped us. It was a Wednesday afternoon and he and his friends were on their way home from school.

While his friends giggled, Andrés invited us to inspect the nest he had found and the two listless birds inside. He questioned us for a few minutes, before deciding that the nest was suddenly a burden and thrust it into my hands. “Could you put it back?”

Andres holding the bird nest he found: Manizales, Colombia

I lifted up my sunglasses to get a better look at my new responsibility. Just then, Andrés saw the color of my eyes and shouted ¡Oh! ¡Tus ojos! He sounded like a chef who had just stuck his hand in something and wasn’t quite sure if he should lick his fingers.

My friends with the bird nest we were given: Manizales, Colombia

My friends and I agreed to stick the nest somewhere and said goodbye. A few minutes later we heard the pitter patter of someone running down the street. It was Andrés. He had suddenly needed to visit his godfather who happened to live in the same direction we were walking. Whatever the excuse, I was happy to talk.

Andrés’ informed us that his godfather had a 3,000 strong pig farm. Despite such an important connection to the pork industry, Andrés was adamant that he preferred chicken. He then began telling another story a little bit too quickly for me to follow.

When he finished my friend Favi turned to me with cocked eyebrow. “Did you get that?”

“No,” I replied. “What did he say?”

“He said that if the pigs get too aggressive they push them into a wall so they’ll have a heart attack because they’re so fat.”

“Oh.”

Dog on a quiet dirt road outside Villa Maria: Manizales, Colombia

Eventually we came to a fork in the road and we went right and Andrés left. We waved him goodbye and thanked him for his company. At the end of the bumpy dirt road was a B&B named the Secret Garden where our lunch was waiting for us. We ate on the patio and soaked in the peaceful rolling countryside.

Patio of the Secret Garden Hostel outside Villa Maria: Manizales, Colombia

About an hour outside of Bogotá, in Chía, is a famous restaurant-night club called Andrés Carne de Res. It’s the kind of place that’s in all the guidebooks and rounds off every Bogotá bucket list.

There is a second location in the heart of the Zona Rosa, but it’s not the original, so it’s not the most recommended. The problem was that I didn’t realize Chía was an hour away from our hostel, which had already been a nine-hour journey from Manizales. On top of that, the trip was punctuated with car sickness. The proper word for this situation is bolso!

Lucha Libre on the dance floor of Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

When the four of us eventually arrived at Andrés Carne de Res, we were feeling a bit low-key. The restaurant, on the other hand, was a massive rabbit warren of hyperactivity. Not only were the decorations a lot to take in, but the scale of the venue and the whole customer experience was not something we were quite prepared for.

Ticket for Andres Carnes de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

Because it was after 7pm on a Saturday, we each had to pay a $15,000 peso entry fee. This was in addition to the cost of the food, which by Colombian standards was pricey. After we were led to a table, we were handed a 80 page menu. It had its own index!

Once we ordered, we finally had some time to digest our surroundings. I’m not sure what the restaurant looked like when it opened in 1982, but the feeling I got when I arrived was that it was the lovechild of Etsy and Instagram. Everything just felt so curated.

Bottle of still water at Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

There were employees that performed little skits throughout the dining area. A lucha libre match was being televised from another part of the restaurant. The tap water arrived in specially made bottles with decorative string around the neck. The ice chests had murals painted on them and the cups were branded. And I haven’t even begun to describe the decor surrounding our table and the ceiling.

Ceiling decorations at Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

It took awhile for the food to come out, but when it did it was delicious. I had been a little worried because a big menu usually means there’s just a lot of average food, but thankfully this wasn’t the case. Barret’s lomo, which was beef tenderloin encrusted with black pepper, was absolutely stunning and the salad we shared was a good companion.

When we paid our bill, a mariachi quartet stopped by our table to shower us in confetti, hang sashes around our necks, and pass out little bags of candy. The whole venue was building up to a crescendo, but we were ready to wind down for the night. Andrés Carne de Res was an interesting experience, but it’s definitely somewhere you need to be ready to commit the whole night and a lot of energy.

Mural at Andres Carne de Res Chia: Bogota, Colombia

How to get to Andrés Carne de Res in Chía: From Chapinero, Bogotá the taxi costs $80,000 pesos.

How to get to The Secret Garden: Take the cable car to Villa Maria. From the park outside the terminal, catch a chiva (an old, brightly painted silver bus) and get off when the road changes from paved to gravel.

Cable car station at Villa Maria: Manizales, Colombia

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