Doing Nothing, Seeing Everything – Mompox, Colombia

In this age of travel itineraries packed to the gills with “experiential” and “immersive” experiences it’s easy to return home exhausted but still somehow lacking any real insight into the destination you visited. Santa Cruz de Mompox, Colombia (referred to simply as Mompox or Mompos) is the perfect place to remember the joy and value of doing nothing as a way of seeing everything and letting the culture, history and idiosyncracies of a place sink in naturally.

Diving into the Magdelena Ricver - Mompox, Colombia

Kids enjoying the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

“You don’t travel in space in Mompox, you travel in time.”

A local Momposian shared those romantic words with us and they turned out to be true. Founded by the Spanish in 1540 in the middle of the mighty Magdalena River, Mompox became an important port town and way station for traders in the 17th-19th centuries. Mompox flourished. And then the river silted up. However, the town didn’t shrivel up and die when river trade stopped. It simply took a nap.

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La Iglesia San Agustin in Mompox, Colombia was built in 1606 and is part of the Colonial heritage and architecture that have made Mompox a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mompox stirred a bit in the 1990s when it was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in recognition of its historical economic importance, remarkably unchanged Colonial center and collection of churches. The pace in town, which is also part of Colombia’s exclusive Pueblos Patrimonios group, is still best described as sleepy though it’s never boring thanks to a long list of local quirks and characters.

Mompox, Colombia UNESCO World Heritage site

The center of Mompox is filled with intact Colonial streets like this one.

Quirks and characters in Mompox

The blindingly white Mompox cemetery is located right in the center of town and is worth a roam around. You can’t miss the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato (The Cat). As the nickname would imply, he loved cats and after his death his family kept a fresh supply of cat food at his grave. There are now more than 45 cats living in the cemetery.

Mompox cemetery

The cemetery in Mompox is home to the grave of a local man nicknamed El Gato and more than 40 cats who continue to be fed by El Gato’s relatives.

The Hospital San Juan de Dios is said to be the oldest hospital in the Americas still operating in its original location. Swing by City Hall where the Act of Independence from Spain was signed in 1810, making Mompox the first Colombian city to declare freedom from Spain.

Built in 1660, the beautifully restored Municipal Palace, aka Cloister of San Carlos, was the site of the first secondary school in Mompox. In 1809 the Universal School of Saint Peter the Apostle was founded on the site which is said to be the first university established in the Caribbean.

Cloister of San Carlos - Mompox, Colombia

The beautifully restored Cloister of San Carlos is on the site of the first university in the Caribbean.

All of that sight-seeing is best done in the mornings or evenings as mid day temperatures soar in Mompox. The good news is that the streets are remarkably car-free (in part because of how hard it is to reach Mompox, more on that later). If it weren’t for a proliferation of small motorcycles, there would be more donkeys pulling carts than motorized vehicles in Mompox.

slow paced Mompox, Colombia

Donkeys are still a common sight in the streets of Mompox, Colombia.

Liberator and Latin hero Simón Bolívar first arrived in Mompox in 1812 when he recruited hundreds of local men to join him on his triumphant march to Caracas. Bolívar subsequently returned to Mompox many more times as he traveled up and down the Magdalena, spawning a local version of the “George Washington slept here” legend.

Piedra de Bolivar - Mompox, Colombia

Piedra de Bolivar records the eight visits that Simón Bolívar made to Mompox between 1812 and 1830.

Always a political town, residents reacted to decades of tensions between Colombia’s rich Conservative Party and the poor Liberal Party in a unique way. The two parties were established in 1849. The Liberal party ruled between 1861 and 1885 and established separation of church and state. In 1885 the elite Conservative Party took power and re-established the influence of the church in Colombian politics. That, in part, lead to the “War of 1,000 Days” which raged between the two partied from 1899 to 1903. More than 120,000 Colombian died.

In Mompox, these political tensions became so fierce that town was literally divided in two with proponents of the Conservative Party living on one side of town and proponents of the Liberal Party living on the other.

Those divisions have eased, though political opinions remain strong, and Mompox today seems tranquil and united, as we saw when we stumbled upon a group of Momposians practicing a traditional dance in Plaza Concepcion. Check out our video, below.

Modern Mompox is a pleasing version of Southern US bayou country as imagined by Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Colombia’s only Nobel prize winner, who was inspired by his time in Mompox. His wife was born near here and a movie version of his novel Chronicle of a Death Foretold was shot in Mompox. But that’s not surprising. In Mompox time doesn’t seem to have simply stood still, it seems to have gone backward in a feat worthy of the “magical realism” the author helped to perfect. Learn more about exploring Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia, including Mompox, in the piece we did for the Biography channel’s website.

Magdelena River Mompox, Colombia

Colonial architecture on the riverfront of the Magdalena River in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotels in Mompox

The town’s existing selection of budget to mid-range family-run guest houses, which seem to outnumber actual visitors, has been augmented in post UNESCO status times by more polished (but still under US$100) offerings. The pioneer is La Casa Amarilla which is run by British expat and journalist Richard McColl and his Colombian wife Alba. The hotel is homey and fully appointed and has an enviable location on the riverfront right next to La Iglesia Santa Barbara. Guest benefit from the owners’ local knowledge.

Iglesia Santa Barbara - Mompox, Colombia

La Iglesia Santa Barbara, built in 1630,  is right on the recently-restored waterfront and right next to La Casa Amarilla hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Richard was the only gringo in Mompox until the recent arrival of a second one who opened an Italian restaurant near the hotel and planted a nine foot tall fork in the ground in front of it.

Two boutique hotels have also recently opened in Mompox. Portales de la Marquesa opened in 2013 after a 14 month renovation of a house that dates back to 1735.  Located on the riverfront, the hotel is now a chic haven with air conditioning, WiFi, fine art, original tile floors, a small pool and a lush central courtyard. You can rent individual rooms or the whole property.

 Portales de la Marqueza Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

The enormous suite at Portales de la Marqueza boutique hotel in a restored Colonial building in Mompox, Colombia.

Bioma Boutique Hotel opened in 2011 after a year of sometimes controversial renovations which included a fair amount of demolition and hand washing the original terracotta roof tiles. New ironwork was all produced locally and the view from the roof deck is amazing. Don’t miss the small niche to the left of the front door, a remnant of the days when the building was used as a movie theater and tickets were sold through the niche.

Bioma Boutique Hotel - Mompox, Colombia

A guest room at Bioma Boutique Hotel in Mompox, Colombia.

Hotel reservations are not normally necessary except during Christmas, Semana Santa and the annual Jazz Festival in Mompox which is held every October.

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A view of Mompox rooftops from the roof deck a the Bioma Boutique Hotel.

Eating and drinking in Mompox

Head for the square in front of the Santo Domingo Church and look for the cooks and waiters wearing shirts that say Asadero Donde Chepa. Here you’ll eat the best US$4 steak you’ll ever have along with homemade chimichurri and fantastic hot sauce.

Asadero Donde Chepa - Mompox, Colombia

Head to Asadero Donde Chepa in front of the Santo Domingo church in Mompox for tasty grilled meat meals at economical prices.

Then head to Plaza Concepcion and Cafe Ti where you can claim a rocking chair out front, enjoy a cold beer and watch local boys play chess on fold-up mats as bats swoop overhead and the Magdalena slowly meanders by. Look for the saxaphone on the wall outside the front door and look forward to hearing New Orleans style jazz and ragtime as you enjoy the breeze.

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Locals play chess on fold out boards in front of Casa Ti on Plaza Concepcion in Mompox, Colombia.

A great economical lunch can be had at Comedor Costeña where around US$4 gets you a full plate of meat, salad, rice and a cold beverage right next to the river.

Things to do in Mompox

If you insist on “doing something” in Mompox you can visit the Museo de Arte Religioso (about US$2) for a guided tour of religious paintings and statues, silver pieces and portraits of Bolívar. The Casa de Cultura (about US$1) can also be visited. Keep your eyes open for original frescoes peeking through some walls. Just be aware that you may have to wake somebody up to let you.

Local crafts include delicate silver filigree jewelery and brutally sweet fruit wine but that’s about the extent of your shopping options.

You can also book a river trip on the Magdalena or to small islands within the sprawling, Mississippi-like flow.

Iglesia de la Concepcion - Mompox, Colombia

The end of another lazy day in Mompox, Colombia as the sunset lights up the sky behind La Iglesia Concepcion.

Getting to Mompox

There are several ways to get to Mompox but, at the moment, none of them are easy. That’s because Mompox sits in a giant depression in the Magdalena River and is surrounded by mile after mile of river, wetlands, swamps and flood plains.

We made the trip from Aracataca and it took seven hours of driving including more than 40 miles (65 km) over rough unpaved road and a “ferry” over the Magdalena River itself which consisted of three pontoons tied together with a platform on top for people and vehicles.

Our heavy truck made the whole contraption groan and pitch as we pulled on along with seven motorcycles and about a dozen people. Check it out in our video, below.

Our truck got stuck getting off the ferry on the other side of the river when a rear tire pushed the ferry backward, trapping the tire between the ferry ramp and the riverbank. It took four men to push us out in four-wheel drive. After another 20 miles (32 km) of bad road we finally reached Mompox.

Travel tip: If the route you choose takes you past a town called La Gloria make time for a brief visit because this is the birthplace of the Biblioburro, a mobile lending library on the back of a donkey.  We regret not stopping.

The trip to Mompox is about to get easier, however. The Colombian government is working to upgrade a 50 mile (80 km) stretch of dirt road leading to Mompox and they plan to build an eight mile (12 km) long bridge to ease access. A nearby airport is also being upgraded to be able to welcome more internal flights.

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The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, New UNESCO World Heritage Site

Everyone remembers The Alamo, but UNESCO wants us to remember far more than that. This year UNESCO bestowed World Heritage status on The Alamo and San Antonio Missions in Texas, honoring this collection of five missions, which were built by Franciscan missionaries in the 18th century, as “an example of the interweaving of Spanish and Coahuiltecan cultures, illustrated by a variety of features, including the decorative elements of churches, which combine Catholic symbols with indigenous designs inspired by nature.”

The Alamo and San Antonio Missions

The Alamo is most famous as the site where Mexican fighters trounced the “Texican” army (yes, that was the real name), a defeat which created the rallying cry “remember The Alamo” and inspired others to battle the Mexicans and ultimately take huge tracts of land for the US. But The Alamo is also a mission which is located in the center of modern-day San Antonio. The San Antonio Missions are scattered around the surrounding area. Here’s a look at The Alamo and San Antonio Missions, the newest UNESCO World Heritage Site in the US.

Alamo Mission - San Antonio Missions

The Alamo, aka the Alamo Mission.

Mission Espalda - San Antonio Missions

Mission Espalda, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission Concepcion - San Antonio Missions

Mission Concepcion, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission San Jose - San Antonio Missions

Mission San Jose, part of the San Antonio Missions group and newly inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Mission Espalda bells - San Antonio Missions

The bell tower at Mission Espalda.

Alamo Mission - San Antonio Missions

The Alamo Mission at night.

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Photo Essay: Colombia’s Caño Cristales “Liquid Rainbow” River

Located in the vast and rarely visited Los Llanos area in Colombia, Caño Cristales has been called the river of five colors and the liquid rainbow. It’s also been called the most beautiful river in the world. We’ve seen a lot of rivers on our Trans-Americas Journey and we’re inclined to agree. It’s not easy to reach and, until the mid 2000s, wasn’t even open to tourism because of FARC activity. Those who do make it to the small town of La Macarena, the gateway for Caño Cristales, between June and November are rewarded with a natural spectacle not seen anywhere else in the world as rare and delicate water plants explode with color, flooding the already lovely river with red, blue, green, orange and yellow hues. Shades of red and green are most common, as you will see in our photo essay.

Cano-Cristales_Colombia IMG_2961 Liquid-rainbow-cano-Cristales-Colombia River-of-Five-Colors_-Macarena-Colombia Cano-Cristales_Macarena-Meta-Colombia Cano-Cristales-color-river IMG_3279 Cano-Cristales-Waterfall Cano-Cristales-rainbow-river IMG_3135 cano-Cristales-multicolored-river Cano-Cristales-plants Macarenia-clavigera Colombia-colored-River_Cano-Cristales

 

Check out this feature we did for BBC Travel for more about travel to Caño Cristales including how to get there, local legends, awesome community tourism and just a touch of science.

 

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