9 Free Things to Do in Medellin – Medellin, Colombia

We kind of fell in love with the second largest city in Colombia because of the perfect weather and the Texas-sized attitude of the local Paisas. In a previous post, we explained why we love Medellin and also acknowledged that the city is not exactly jam-packed with tourist attractions. There are, however, a variety of things that travelers can do and see for free (or damn close)–from art to dead people to butterflies. Here are our nine favorite free things to do in Medellin. After all, nothing makes a travel budget go further than free.

Free things to do in Medellin, Colombia

Real City Tours: Pablo Alvarez-Correa, 28, was born in Medellin. He trained as an engineer and traveled extensively before returning to the city where he started Real City Tours in 2013. Since then he’s been running an increasingly popular four-hour free walking tour of Medellin twice daily Monday to Friday. The all-English tour is peppered with Pablo’s entertaining explanations of complicated elements of Colombian history and illuminating personal stories which bring historic and modern Medellin to life. Please tip as generously as you can.

Real Medellin Tours

Pablo Alvarez-Correa, founder and tour leader of the free Real City Tours of Medellin.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum: Not every cemetery is also a museum. Then again, not every cemetery holds the history of a city like Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum. Founded in 1842 as a cemetery for the elite, it grew over the years. In 1970 it was opened up for use by the general public and in 1997 it was designated as a museum, in part to protect the final resting place of some of the most important figures in Medellin politics, journalism, the arts and business including three former Colombian presidents.

The vast cemetery is free to enter (open 8am to 2pm) and features some lovely carving and statues, but its real value is as a one-stop-shop of the city’s history as told through the dead. To really understand that side of the cemetery you need a guide. We were guided by David Graaf who was working for Palenque Tours.

David showed us some of the most famous graves in the cemetery, explained some of the statues and said that the cemetery is open on full moon nights when it hosts bohemian gatherings of students and artists. We noted a grave dating back to 1875, then it was time for more recent history.

San-Pedro-Cemetery-Medellin

Medellin’s San Pedro Cemetery Museum is free to enter and full of city history.

In the 1980s and 1990s drug traffickers terrorized citizens of Medellin with random and brutal acts of violence that killed cartel members, police officers, politicians and innocent bystanders. As the drug business boomed so did the burial business.

Pablo Escobar’s grave is not in the San Pedro cemetery, but some of his victims and associates are. One of the most memorable examples is mausoleum #17 marked Lilia. Here a mother has buried six of her sons. All of them were hit men (called sicarios) for Escobar’s Medellin Cartel. All of them were killed violently. The glass-fronted Munoz Mosquera mausoleum is lovingly arranged like a living room with a chandelier, side tables and an open bible. A radio used to be hooked up to an illegal electrical connection so it could play her sons’ favorite music (ranchera). Loudly.

An ironic factoid: Pablo Escobar allegedly got his criminal start by stealing marble gravestones.

Though the bad old Escobar days are in the past, gangs still exist in Medellin and the San Pedro Cemetery can be a dangerous place when gang members are being buried due to a combination of heavy drinking by mourners and the occasional attack by rival gang members. This explains why visitors to San Pedro Cemetery are wanded for weapons before being let in.

San Pedro Cemetery Museum

San Pedro Cemetery Museum in Medellin, Colombia.

Plaza Botero: When an art world heavy hitter famous for enormous bronze statues is born in your city, well, you better make some space for his work. Plaza Botero in central Medellin is a huge, free, public outdoor space jam-packed with the 23 sculptures by native son Fernando Botero.

Plaza Botero Medellin Museum of Antioquia

Fine examples of bronze sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero in Plaza Botero.

Botero sculptures - Plaza Botero Medellin

Sculptures by Medellin-born artist Fernando Botero make Plaza Botero a favorite (and free) place to hang out.

Medellin Metro: Residents of Medellin are proud of their metro system and they should be. It’s clean, civilized, safe, efficient and nearly free at just 2,000 COP (about US$0.70 per ride anywhere the lines go including the metrocables (see below). Construction of a new tram system called the Tranvia is being finished now and will service even more parts of the city. Two new metrocable lines are in the works too.

Medellin Metro

Clean, efficient and nearly free, Medellin’s Metro system is a winner in the city.

Encicla Medellin: Even cheaper than the metro is the Encicla network of city bikes at automated stands offering bikes that are free to use for up to an hour even for foreigners. Just register on the Inscribite section of the website by submitting a copy of your passport and you’re good to go. New stands of bikes and new bike paths are opening in Medellin all the time.

Escolaras de Comuna 13: In 2011 escalators that travel from the valley up through a poor community known as Comuna 13 were inaugurated in an attempt to ease the commute for more than 12,000 residents, reduce crime and beautify the run down and often dangerous area. Escolaras de Comuna 13, which were built in six sections, replaced 350 steep, dilapidated stairs that residents used to have to navigate to get up and down the hillside.

Escolaras de Comuna 13 Medellin, Colombia

Medellin’s Escolaras de Comuna 13 take residents and travelers up into a hillside community above the city for free.

About 1,000 riders a day use the free escalators and they’re mostly locals though travelers are welcome to make the journey too. Young local caretakers are stationed along the way armed with uniforms, walkie talkies and information about the escalators and the community. We talked to Jose for a while and he told us that crime in the area has gone down because of the increased traffic and attention the escalators brought to the community. Most of the walls around the escalators have been painted in bright and creative murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” by local artists.

You may be told that the escolaras are not safe, however, we spent more than an hour traveling on them, taking photos and talking to Jose and we never felt threatened.

Comuna 13 escalators - Medellin, Colombia

Murals with names like “The Wait”, “New Horizons” and “The Lovers” were commissioned from local artists to brighten up Medellin’s free Escolaras de Comuna 13.

Botanical Garden of Medellin: This is a true haven in the city. Opened in the late 19th century but expanded to more or less what you see today in 1972, the five acre Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden of Medellin is home to thousands of species of plants and flowers and is totally free for anyone who want to enjoy the open-air orchid house, a butterfly house, a cactus garden and peaceful paths and picnic areas right in the middle of the city. There’s also a very nice cafe with outdoor seating.

Butterfly Botanical garden Medellin, Colombia

Inside the butterfly house in the totally free Joaquin Antonio Uribe Botanical Garden in Medellin.

Medellin Metrocable: In 2004 the city of Medellin inaugurated a system of aerial cable cars (like a ski lift without the snow) to provide transportation for residents of some of the poor communities that cover the hillsides around Medellin. The Medellin Metrocable, considered to be the first cable-propelled transit system in South America, also provides an exciting sight seeing ride with steep ascents and descents, spectacular views of the city below and an illuminating progression from developed city up into under developed areas and it’s free to ride up through the comunas if you’ve already purchased a Metro ticket.

Right now there are two Metrocable lines (J & K) that service several comunas. A third line (L) continues beyond the K line to Parque Arvi. The total length of the three Metrocable lines is 5.8 miles (9.3 km) Two new lines that are being constructed now will ultimately connect with the new Tranvia train line in the city.

Medellin Metrocable Linea J

Take the Metrocable (free with your 70 cent Metro ticket) for the best views down on the city of Medellin.

Up above the comunas tickets are required to travel on the L line (4,600 COP or about US$1.50 each way) which climbs even more steeply over forested hillsides and small farms. Your final destination is Parque Arvi, a large mountaintop protected area that is free to enter and features free geared mountain bike rental (including helmets) through the Enciclia network that we already mentioned, hiking trails, picnic areas, babbling brooks, a handful of restaurants and even a small farmer’s market in front of the Metrocable station at the top of the line.

Check out our time-lapse video, below, of the 24 minute 4.1 mile (6.6 km) ride up to Parque Arvi.

Medellin Museum of Modern Art:  Entry is based on a donation system at the Medellin Museum of Modern Art which is really just two loft-like rooms which house rotating shows. The installations we saw were interesting enough and the museum store is your best bet for souvenirs.

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The Biggest Travel Bargain in the World Right Now: Colombia is 40% off!

Colombia has been a budget travel bargain for years with plentiful affordable guesthouses and hostels, lots of ways to eat well for less and reasonably priced internal transportation and tours. But Colombia may be the biggest travel bargain in the world right now because everything is basically 40% off for anyone with foreign currency, particularly US dollars to spend.

2 million Colombia Pesos COP

These two million Colombia pesos would have cost US$1,080 last year. Today they cost US$670.

Colombia is almost 40% cheaper right now

Twelve months ago the Colombian pesos was 1,850 per US dollar. Today? As we publish this post US$1 gets you 2,992 Colombian pesos and will most certainly surpass 3,000 any day now.  Even better? Prices within Colombia are not being jacked up to make up for the foreign currency conversion. This means that Colombia is almost 40% cheaper for travelers with US dollars than it was one year ago.

Colombia Peso v USD over past year

Here is the exchange rate for the Colombian peso (COP) versus the US dollar over the past 12 months. That steady upward curve means more bang for your US bucks. (via xe currency)

What does that mean for your travel budget? Well, that lovely pizza (25,000 COP) and glass of wine (14,000) at the excellent Julia Pizzeria in Bogota would have cost you US$19 one year ago. Today, just US$13. The legit new pastrami sandwich at La Fama Barbecue (27,000 COP) used to equate to US$13 but is just US$9 today. Go ahead and eat pure ingredients with a gourmet touch at newly-opened Hippie everyday if you want. Their already reasonable prices are downright cheap right now.

And the same goes for rates at any locally-owned boutique hotels, attractions, transportation and tours that are priced in pesos, not dollars.

No more excuses

We’ve spent more than 15 months in Colombia and have loved everything we’ve seen, done and eaten and now you can do it all for nearly 40% less than we did! Plus, we’re in the midst of rolling out nearly 40 posts about travel in Colombia right here on our Trans-Americas Journey travel blog so you’ll be getting all of the best insights and advice about travel in Colombia. In other words, there really are no more excuses for not visiting Colombia.

 

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Yeehaw – Medellin, Colombia

Travel to Antioquia province and you will soon see that it is the Texas of Colombia: sprawling, gritty, uncouth, proud and generally bigger, badder and better than the rest of the country (in its own not-to-humble opinion). Medellin, the capital of Antioquia, is all of those things times 10. Yeehaw!

View of Medellin Colombia

The city of Medellin, Colombia fills the Aburra Valley in Antioquia province.

How Antioquia and Medellin got that way

Like Texas, the people of Antioquia excel at raising cattle and crops and they’re savvy businessmen as well. One theory that we heard repeatedly says that you can blame the Spanish Inquisition for that.

During the Inquisition, Jews in the Spanish world (including Latin America) were faced with an unacceptable choice: convert or die. Jews in Colombia headed for the hills and many of them ended up in the (then) nearly inaccessible valleys of Antioquia where their business acumen (yes, it’s a stereotype) mingled with the agricultural skills of local campesinos.

Today the inhabitants of Antioquia and Medellin call themselves Paisas. You’ve all seen a Paisa. His name is Juan Valdez and even though Señor Valdez is a stereotypical fictional character created to sell Colombian coffee, you see dudes who look just like him in Medellin and all around Antioquia all the time.

Piasa Don Aristedes Medellin Santa Ana

Paisa Don Aristedes.

Colombians who live in the big, cosmopolitan capital of Bogota tend to deride Paisas as hicks (though they envy and sort of fear their business acumen). Us? We think Paisas give Medellin the feel of a country town that’s grown huge but is still just a country town at heart. You really do get the sense that if the modern amenities of Medellin disappeared tomorrow and the place reverted to its campesino roots few locals would mind and some would consider it an improvement. And we love that.

Leave your Medellin misconceptions at home

Yes, yes, yes. Not so long ago Medellin held the dubious honor of being the “murder capital of the world” (a distinction now held by San Pedro Sula, Honduras) thanks to narco terrorists like Pablo Escobar (who was killed in 1993) and other jokers including guerillas and paramilitary groups whose calling cards were random acts of violence which nearly crippled the country.

Grave of Pablo Escobar Medellin

Pablo Escobar’s grave in a cemetery in Medellin.

Over the past decade or so, violence across Colombia has been consistently falling including in Medellin where murder rates in the city dropped 34% in the first quarter of 2014. According to Insight Crime, a non-profit which monitors the threat of organized crime activity to citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean, Colombia is on track to have its least violent year in three decades.

The US State Department continues to warn about violence in Colombia and, like all cities, Medellin still has a crime problem. For example, while murder rates continue to drop, robbery is proving harder reduce. When he arrived in Medellin to shoot scenes for yet another Escobar-related movie (a film called “Mena”) actor Tom Cruise reportedly arrived with 12 body guards.

However, we’ve spent more than 16 months in Colombia – more than six months of that in Medellin – and we’ve only had one brush with crime or violence and that did not occur in Medellin but in a far-flung area near a known red zone (areas which the Colombian government concedes are under the control of FARC or other guerilla groups) where we were caught in the middle of a skirmish between FARC rebels and Colombian soldiers (more on that later).

So, pack your common sense but leave your misconceptions about Medellin at home.

Medellin vendor selling Chontaduro palm fruit

Vendor selling chontaduro palm fruit in central Medellin.

Modern Medellin

We’re not buying all the blind cheer leading by city officials who keep going on and on and on about things like the city’s 2013 ranking as “City of the Year” by the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we put our stock in our own experiences in the city. Here are a few illuminating observations.

Medellin (pronounced Med-uh-jheen) is the second largest city in Colombia with a population of nearly four million all living in the center of the large Aburra valley in the Central Andes which is about 35 miles (60 km) long 6 miles (10 km) wide at its widest. This means the city has the crowds and traffic, noise and pollution that comes with a population that big. There’s also a noticeable population of homeless people, stray dogs and other big city scourges that feel normal to New Yorkers like us.

On a more charming note, Medellin is teeming with vintage Renault Masters and we’re sort of loving their tiny, boxy, indestructible utilitarianism.

Medellin has an amazingly clean, cheap and efficient metro system. City officials spent months training locals about how to ride and respect the system before it was unveiled in 1995 and its cleanliness and civility put the New York City subway system to shame (admittedly, it carries a fraction of the passengers each day, but still).

Medellin Meto Linea B

Medellin’s Metro System is a point of pride and a clean, safe, efficient and cheap way to get around the city.

At one point we saw metro cars plastered with public service posters warning women to check out their doctor’s credentials before getting plastic surgery, which is a huge business in Medellin including boob and butt augmentations that some women seek out to get what’s been called the “Narco Beauty”.

Medellin Metrocable linea J

Medellin’s Metrocable serves the thousands of people who live in under-developed comunas on the hillsides around Medellin.

Medellin is located in a steep-walled valley with the city occupying the valley floor and the foothills and impoverished comunas creeping up and up and up the hillsides. Those poor neighborhoods have not necessarily benefited from city improvements like the metro system (which only operates in the valley) and that whole “City of the Year” thing, but the government has instituted some programs designed to improve life for comuna dwellers including an aerial tram system called the Metrocable that makes it much easier to get to and from the city and a library program that has built modern, book-filled structures in various comunas.

Biblioteca Espana Metrocable Medellin

Those ominous looking dark building is the Biblioteca Espana, one of a dozen or so libraries built in under-developed comunas that cover the hillsides around Medellin.

They call Medellin the city of eternal spring and that is one hyperbolic claim we can agree with. The city sits at an altitude of about  5,000 feet (1,525 meters) and the mountains that surrounded it rise to more than 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). This creates weather so temperate and predictable (basically a high of 80 and a low of 65 every single day) that very, very few homes have heating or air-conditioning or even fans. It’s simply not needed.

At least half of the city’s sidewalks have special ridged strips down the center leading to nubbed concrete at the corners. These are guides for the blind. They are also awesome.

There’s not much to do in Medellin, but come anyway

Medellin isn’t brimming with tourist attractions. There are no mind-blowing hotels (thought there are plenty of hostels, mid range guesthouses like 61Prado and a few hotels that manage boutique or business class status and the hotel game might be upped now that Donald Trump has spent almost US$90 million for a hotel in Medellin). We can count the truly memorable Medellin restaurants on one hand (looking at you Carmen, Humo BBQ & Grill, Bonuar and El Cielo). However, we love the city and we think you will too.

Here’s a short list of some things to do and see in Medellin including craft beer, flower parades, interactive science, art and extreme eating. And don’t miss our post about FREE things to do in Medellin.

By far the city’s biggest claim to fame is its annual Flower Festival which happens around August every year and celebrates Antioquia’s flower growing heritage, proud Paisa culture and general love of a good party. We’ve been in Medellin for two consecutive Flower Festivals and you can check out the flowers, tradition, parades and controversies in this series of Flower Festival posts.

Medellin Flower Parade

Part of the splendor of the annual Flower Festival in Medellin.

Colombian painter and sculptor Fernando Botero was born in Medellin and his art still flavors the city though the artist hasn’t lived full-time in Colombia in years. Botero donated hundreds of works of art from his personal collection, including pieces by modern masters as well as his own sculptures and paintings, to the excellent Museo de Antioquia in central Medellin (10,000 COP or about US$3.50).

Botero paintings Museum of Antioquia Medellin

Paintings by Medellin native Fernando Botero in the excellent Museo de Antioquia.

In front of the museum is Botero Plaza which is filled with the artist’s enormous, proportionately exaggerated bronze sculptures. The plaza is a free public space and the museum is well worth the entry fee both for the art collection and the chance to check out the building itself.

Plaza Botero Sculptures Medellin

Botero bronze sculptures fill Botero Plaza in front of the Museo de Antioquia.

Parque Explora (15,000 COP or about US$5) opened in 2007 and is a massive interactive science center particularly interesting to kids and geeks of all ages. There’s an aquarium (the largest in Latin America), principles of science exhibits that demonstrate ideas like gravity and perspective and rotating special exhibits with themes like “Water”.

Parque Explorer Medellin illusion

Us taking part in one of the interactive science exhibits at Parque Explora in Medellin.

If you really want to piss off the locals, go on one of the many Pablo Escobar tours of the city that take in attractions like his grave, the building where he was killed on the roof in 1992, etc. Before you book anything, learn more about the thorny issue of Escobar tourism in this award-winning piece we did for RoadsAndKingdoms.com.

ApostleBrewery tour Medellin

Craft beer at Apostle Brewery in Medellin, just one of a growing number of local microbreweries.

In recent years Medellin has seen a surge in craft brew making and craft brew drinking. Three local breweries also offer brewery tours and a variety of special party nights. Get the details about the craft brew scene in Medellin in this piece we did for TheLatinKitchen.com.

For the less fancy, there’s this option: Drinking beers in front of small tiendas which double as neighborhood bars, is a commonplace throughout Colombia. However, Medellin seems to do it best with interesting places to sit among locals and enjoy a cheap Pilsner or Aguilla beer every few blocks in the city.We found some of these spots, generally with large TVs, to be some of the best places to hang out and watch beloved local futbol teams Atlético Nacional (which just turned down a buyout offer from Donald Trump) and Independiente Medellín on game days (Wednesdays and Sundays).

Independiente Medellin Madonna mosaic Estadio Metro

Medellin’s passion for futbol (aka soccer) runs deep. This mosaic, found at the Estadio (Stadium) Metro stop depicts Madonna dressed in the colors of one of the two rival teams in the city. She’s even holding a soccer ball.

Medellin has an active nightlife scene with bars and clubs centered in several areas of the city, most famously around Parque Lleras. If you wander La Setenta (Calle 70th between the Estadio and Laureles neighborhoods) on a Saturday night you’re in for some great people watching as the city gears up to party and Paisas from all walks of life spill into the streets from a wide array of clubs, bars and restaurants.

We do not recommend that you partake in the seedy, sketchy side of the nightlife scene in Medellin. Prostitution is legal in Colombia but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t incarnations of it that are downright reprehensible.

Just like in Texas, Paisas love their meat and you really shouldn’t leave Medellin without trying the local dish. Called Bandeja Paisa, it’s a vegetarian’s nightmare and a heart surgeon’s dream. Check it out in this previous post we did, all about our first Bandeja Paisa.

Bandeja Paisa Medellin dish

Yes, this is ONE serving of Bandeja Paisa featuring beans, chicharon (fried meaty pork skin) morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, a fried egg, an arepa and a slice of avacado.

Bandeja Paisa is best washed down with a shot or two of Aguardiente Antioqueño, the local version of Colombia’s beloved aguardiente which is a distilled cane spirit spiked with anise. Every region of the country has their own version of the stuff. Here’s what happened the first time we tried aguardiente.

 

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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.

IMG_5386

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.

IMG_5518

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 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

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

 

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