Mooching around Mompós

By Huw Hennessy

August 2017

Greetings from Mompós, the loveliest, most languid town in Colombia. When we asked the owner of our hotel here what are the best things to do, he told us: “Nothing!” Or rather, that whatever we do, to do it slowly. We should take it easy and get into the pace of this isolated historic town on the banks of the northern Magdalena, one of South America’s most iconic rivers. Mompós grew rich hundreds of years ago, as a major port for produce en route from the interior of Colombia, to the Caribbean. In the early 20th century, however, the river silted up too much for large ships, quicker roads were built to Barranquilla and, as an island surrounded by the river, it soon became effectively frozen in the past. This might have meant a death sentence to the town at first, but its architecture and special place in Colombian history brought recognition from UNESCO, who gave Mompós World Heritage status. And more recently, its famous timeless atmosphere has brought more curious travellers, undeterred or more likely inspired by its isolation.

So, following what might seem strange advice to visitors keen to explore, discover and do all the usual tourist stuff, we came, saw, and did lots of nothing. The riverfront ‘Albarrada’ promenade is lined with beautiful old mansions, churches, and plaza, shaded by huge trees. If you do as the locals do and just sit here, watching the world go by, you can also see and hear lots of birds chattering in the branches overhead, as well as iguanas. Some of these prehistoric-looking reptiles are over a metre long, but can scuttle quickly up the trees if disturbed, and are also superbly camouflaged in green and brown, their long, thin tails easily mistaken for the strands of creepers hanging from the branches.

The other good reason to relax in Mompós is that, like the rest of this low-lying tropical region, it can get very hot, all year round. We were lucky on our visit though as the weather was cooled by a couple of spectacular overnight thunderstorms (the Austrian owner of one of the town’s best restaurants, El Fuerte de San Anselmo, described the “kugelblitz” – “fireball” lightning that woke him one night, with a deafening blast right overhead).

Eventually, after yet another lazy siesta we summoned up the energy to take a boat trip out on the river; meandering up a side creek to one of the huge cienagas – marsh lagoons – that are dotted all around the river valley. As the sun began to sink, hundreds of birds appeared: swallows swooping low over the water to scoop up insects, kingfishers flashing from bare branches, and white, grey and black herons standing elegantly on the treetops like guardians of the waterways. With the sun still hot, we moored in shallows of the lagoon and bolder members of our party jumped in for a swim, while we watched on enviously, dripping with sweat. Returning to Mompós at sunset, however, brought ample consolation. Golden streetlamps lit up the riverside boulevard, and reflections of floodlit church-towers shimmered in the silky waters, like a miniature Venice. The huge tropical sky overhead turned subtle shades of pink and blue in the fading light. Lulled by the soothing trill of crickets and frogs, the town seemed to glow in a haze of tranquility.

On our last day in Mompós, we were treated to a couple of surprises. One of the town’s oldest schools, the Colegio Pinilla, was celebrating its 208th anniversary, with various festivities. The climax was a grand parade with marching bands and strutting majorettes. The costumed procession included a tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, whose classic One Hundred Years of Solitude was written 50 years ago this year, and was also made into a film shot here. Children and adults paraded as key characters, from the mysterious Melquiades, to members of the central family, the Buendias. The band even played a song dedicated to Macondo, the fictitious town in the story, and organizers distributed special fans depicting their hero, Gabo. At dinner that evening, in one of the bigger restaurants, a local band Asoabundio performed for a tour group from Medellín. With massive conga drums, flute and led by the tireless Samuel belting Afro-Caribbean songs, the musicians whipped the Paisas onto their feet, gyrating to the pounding beat, evoking memories of Totó la Momposina y Sus Tambores, the town’s most famous musical stars.

So, sleepy on the surface but, perhaps like the Magdalena itself, Mompós flows with a powerful current. Regrettably though, now we had to say goodbye to magical Mompós. Easy to do nothing here, but very hard to leave.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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