Mompox may sound like something you need to inoculate your children against, but in fact it’s a stunningly humid and attractive old town that sits on the bank of the Rio Magdalena in Colombia. It’s one of those languid country places left behind by history and modernity, a victim of progress, as railways and river transport become a thing of the past.
I wanted to come 18 years ago on my first trip to Colombia. For centuries Mompox acted as a midway staging post for pirogues and sampans ferrying people and goods from the port city of Cartagena to Honda, from where the journey up to Bogotá in the mountains would be completed on mules.
Back in 1999 it seemed that there was still river transport from Honda to Mompox. Before I ever set foot in Latin America, I’d read “One Hundred Years Of Solitude” and “Love In The Time Of Cholera” by Gabriel García Márquez and dreamed of journeying down the Rio Magdalena. However, that was a time before so much information was available at a click of Google, so I was a little unprepared. I hadn’t realised that so much of the country was off limits due to guerilla activity, in particular huge stretches of the river.
Almost two decades on travel is safe, but sadly river transport has virtually died out, so I had to catch a bus from Bucamaranga. The journey took about eight hours and the scenery was impressive as we descended from the low mountains of the Andes to the steaming hot plains and farmlands surrounding the river. The sun was setting, casting glorious shades of red, as we crossed over what looked like a new bridge on our way into Mompox and I got my first sighting of the river.
There’s not a huge amount to do apart from wander the cobbled streets, admiring the colonial buildings and churches, many of which have been restored. It’s oppressively hot and the streets empty during the heat of the day. In the evening locals eschew television in favour of moving their chairs out onto the street in front of their homes. They talk to passersby and listen to old ballads from the 50s.
I was keen to get out onto the river and luckily there are boat trips organised every day leaving at 3pm which take you along the Magdalena and then into the narrow channels of the Ciénaga de Pijiño. This is a kind of wetlands where you can see hundreds of herons and white egrets as well as huge lizards and local fishermen casting their nets.
For years Mompox has been stuck in a time warp, but things are changing. Restaurants are opening and there are some good places to stay, but it remains a laid back place that hasn’t yet succumbed to mass tourism. It’s a good idea to come now, before it becomes too overdeveloped.