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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hotel reservations are not normally necessary except during Christmas, Semana Santa and the annual Jazz Festival in Mompox which is held every October.
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.
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.
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 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.
Getting to Mompox
Getting to Mompox is tricky because the town sits in a giant depression in the Magdalena River and is surrounded by mile after mile of river, wetlands, swamps and flood plains. However, reaching Mompox has gotten easier since we were there.
When we made the trip from Aracataca 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 has recently gotten much easier. The route from Aracataca is now entirely paved and a new eight mile (12 km) long bridge is scheduled to open in December 2015 which will ease access even more. A nearby airport is also being upgraded to be able to welcome more internal flights.
Read more about travel in Colombia