It’s the weekend and travel articles abound. The most interesting of this weekend’s crop is this one by William Lloyd-George for London’s Guardian. A thriving trading post a century ago, sleepy Mompós, Colombia, is only now starting to be explored by tourists.
The boat zooms down the Magdalena river, water flicking up as we whiz round marshy bends, and I feel like I am travelling through a forgotten land. We pass tiny villages, where children play and women wash clothes on the shore. Fishermen in dugout canoes drift past; birds swoop down to the river surface.
My destination is Mompós, Colombia, which a growing number of visitors are “discovering”, and falling in love with. It takes a bumpy six hours in a van, from the historic city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast, followed by a two-hour boat ride, to enter this colonial time warp, but the trip is definitely worth it.
The moment you arrive at Mompós’s “port” – two riverboats tied to a bank – you feel the pace of life slow. Old auto rickshaws are the only form of public transport. There are no taxis, and very few cars.
“We are very proud to be Mompósinos,” my driver tells me, just about audible over the roaring engine. “There is no other place like it.”
The 30,000 citizens of Mompós (officially Santa Cruz de Mompox) have good historical reasons to be proud. It was here that Simón Bolívar, the liberator of much of Spanish South America, recruited an army of 400 men who played a big part in his victory at Caracas in 1918, gaining independence for Venezuela, and a new name, “El Libertador”, for Bolívar.
“If to Caracas I owe my life, to Mompox I owe my glory,” reads an inscription on a statue of Bolívar in the town square. It was also here, on 6 August 1810, that Colombia’s independence from Spain was declared.
For colonial Colombia, Mompós was a key trading town, linking Colombia’s coast with the Andes. It was also the location of a royal mint, where rich merchants deposited vast quantities of valuables, safe from the Caribbean pirates. The banks of the river would have been packed with large boats, and the streets full of workers transporting tobacco, precious metals, contraband, and slaves.
It is hard to imagine that this sleepy place was once the third most important city in Colombia. As silt and debris built up on the river, larger boats stopped taking the route past Mompós and it became a city forgotten by both Colombia, and the world.
Time may have passed Mompos by, but its beautiful colonial architecture has been preserved and the atmosphere on the streets is tranquil. There is not much to do and that’s part of the charm. Just strolling the cobbled streets and soaking up local life should be rewarding enough for any traveller. Mompós is in some ways a living exhibition of colonial architecture, and deserves its Unesco world heritage status.
Nearly all the buildings are still used for the same purpose that they were during colonial times and most are in incredibly good condition. Some of the best examples of the architecture are the churches and the palatial riverside mansions, built by rich merchants.
Noticing the potential of one of these mansions, Briton Richard McColl, having fallen in love with the town, set about renovating it in 2007. The result, La Casa Amarilla, is right on the river, and next to the Church of Santa Bárbara – arguably the most beautiful building in town. The square in front has also just undergone a stunning renovation.
The immaculate rooms are arranged around a well-kept lush courtyard, and are split into three budget tiers, from a dorm up, to accommodate every type of traveller, including a dormitory for backpackers. Richard is an excellent source of local information, and his love for the town is articulated through his rich historical knowledge.
While the architecture is the highlight of the town, the surrounding natural world is also a draw. Richard can organise an “eco-tour” in a dugout with a guide, to float down the river to observe flora and fauna, swim with locals and soak up river life.
Back in town, waterside restaurants served excellent fish for lunch, with a view of river life. At dinner, most of the town heads to the main square, Plaza Santo Domingo, to eat from food stalls – a great opportunity to chat with the very friendly locals. Then I would wander down to one of the riverside bars. The town clearly likes a party. Its Semana Santa celebrations at Easter are rated some of the best in Colombia.
Those who do brave the long trip will quickly become seduced by Mompós’s charm and probably end up staying longer than expected, reluctant to return to the modern world.
For the original report go to http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2012/sep/21/colombia-mompos-forgotten-town