This lovely introduction to the gorgeous Caribbean port of Cartagena de Indias appeared this weekend in Australia’s Sydney Morning Herald.
Colombia is a country of miraculously preserved colonial towns. I was staying in the most internationally famous of these, the vibrant and colourful Caribbean port of Cartagena de Indias, when I became obsessed by the idea of visiting the old riverside town of Mompos, some 201 kilometres to the south. It sounded like a place straight from a novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, half-forgotten on an island without (until recently) a bridge, surrounded by marshes, in the middle of the former great waterway of the Magdalena.
Mompos had flourished during the days when the Magdalena was the main thoroughfare linking Colombia’s coast with the Andes. A port for the up-river transport of goods, Mompos was also the site of a royal mint and a place where vast quantities of gold, silver and emeralds were stored, far from the reach of the Caribbean’s pirates.
In 1810, the town became the first in Colombia to declare its independence from Spain. The spectacular decline set in later in the 19th century when the Magdalena began to silt up and larger boats were diverted.
Until only a few years ago, Mompos was at the centre of an area fought over by terrorists and paramilitaries and completely out of bounds to outsiders. Safety is no longer an issue, thanks to the dramatic improvements in Colombia under the presidency of Alvaro Uribe. However, Mompos, a World Heritage Site since 1995, remains a place that requires certain degrees of determination, hardship and love of adventure to reach.
Several transport options were proposed to me in Cartagena. A tourist guide mentioned a plane, which turned out to have been suspended. Someone else was convinced that a passenger boat was operating once again along the Magdalena, even though we were in the middle of the dry season. Most people recommended I take a bus to the modern town of Magangue, from where I could continue by a combination of ferry and taxi. However, at the last moment, I learnt of a transport company – known euphemistically as “Toto Express” – that had its own special route to Mompos.
One of its drivers, Oswaldo, did the journey to Mompos every other day, squeezing into a small pick-up truck as much luggage and as many people as he could manage. I was the first passenger he collected, at 4am, and was told we would get to Mompos in about five hours. More than an hour later, we were still in Cartagena, stopping at one of its makeshift suburbs to load a wardrobe so dilapidated that I doubted it would reach our destination in one piece. The family who owned it plied me with coffee and cakes. According to Oswaldo, they and their neighbours were all refugees from the political violence that had devastated the Magdalena valley in the 1990s. He assured me I would find in Mompos people who possessed virtually nothing but would share with me all that they had.
Dawn had broken by the time we were driving through tropical grasslands sparsely dotted with trees. Occasional rises in the road allowed distant glimpses of the immensely broad but now reed-choked and heavily polluted Magdalena – a disturbing example of the ecological damage caused by deforestation. García Marquez, whose youthful journeys up and down the Magdalena marked his life, remembers the river when alligators still lay in the shallows and manatees produced haunting song-like cries when suckling their young. Today, barely the herons and ducks remain.
But some of the seductive strangeness that García Marquez found in the valley was apparent once we had left the main road to take a rough track that meandered through gently rolling scrubland scattered with adobe-walled houses roofed with thatch. The landscape became marshier and more shaded, with clusters of trees rising above the sand and reeds, until we at last reached the Magdalena’s banks, shortly after noon. An ancient-looking raft was waiting to ferry us over to Mompos, where I was confronted by a vision of the past as uncanny as anything I had been led to expect.
I could have been looking at a corner of old Andalusia that had been left untouched to decay. The uniformly whitewashed architecture, the numerous baroque churches highlighted in pastel colours and the abundance of palatial residences protected by elaborate ironwork window grilles gave an initial impression of great wealth and cleanliness. But at close quarters this was tainted by the sight of walls stained and crumbled by humidity, grass pushing through cracks in the stone pavements and rubbish lying around uncollected.
All this neglect, in combination with the sheer beauty of both the architecture and the town’s alignment along the Magdalena’s eerily still waters, lent the place an acute and endearing poignancy.
There were stylish and near-empty places to stay, built around spacious arcaded courtyards and – in the case of the Hostal Manuela Saenz – occupying one of Mompos’s grander palaces.
After opting for the remarkably friendly and cheerful Casa Amarilla, I strolled along the narrow riverside street that linked three of the town’s squares. The early afternoon temperature, high even by Mompos’s standards, had risen to more than 45 degrees and there were few signs of activity other than the odd cyclist and donkey.
I found myself staring longingly through the doorway of an old-style optician’s shop cooled by a large wooden ceiling fan. The owner, Hernando, half asleep on a rocking chair, invited me inside to sit down.
Within a few minutes he was bringing me a glass of local fruit wine and, in succession, offering me a towel to wipe my sweating brow, a snack of iguana eggs, the use of his digital camera and even the use of his battered but much-prized Jeep – one of the few vehicles I had so far seen in this town of reputedly 30,000 inhabitants.
Hernando finally decided to close his shop for the day so he could be my guide to Mompos. He took me to a workshop where youths learnt to become goldsmiths and silversmiths, trades that were established in Mompos in the 16th century and soon gained renown for the filigree jewellery still produced today. Later, we toured the splendid churches – including Santa Barbara, famous for having Colombia’s only octagonal tower.
By late afternoon we had gathered around us a group of local intellectuals – one of them a baseball-capped dentist who was one of the few remaining descendants of the town’s Spanish founders. His practice was in a tiny surgery, where most of his time was apparently spent researching his family history on an antiquated computer. He lived on his own in the family palace opposite, a dark and cavernous structure desperately in need of repair.
We ended the day in a palace belonging to the town’s historian, a man who had a hammock in his study and argued that Mompos was the best place in the world to spend a leisurely life dedicated mainly to reading. I was already in a mood to agree with him. By now we had been joined by the self-styled “Poet of Mompos”, Dagoberto Rodríguez.
Several weeks later, I would receive from this poet an email that encapsulated my impressions of his enchanting town.
Written in a style more suited to the quill than to the PC, it thanked me for making the effort to “travel to these distant lands of the American continent … lands that are full of romantic illusions, yet remain unjustly neglected”.