Mompox (full name Santa Cruz de Mompox) may not actually be the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s fictional town of Macondo, made famous in his surrealist masterpiece One Hundred Years of Solitude, but it has all the ingredients of the Macondo that he paints such a vivid picture of in his best known work. Plus, Mompox isn’t too far from where García Márquez grew up.
Mompox was virtually unheard of until the Spanish built a canal between Cartagena and the Rio Magdalena. Based at a strategic point on the river, Mompox suddenly found itself at the epicentre of Spanish trade in Colombia and flourished. In the late nineteenth century trade switched to a different branch of the Rio Magdalena, and Mompox’s rapid decline back to a sleepy backwater barely acknowledged by the outside world was complete.
The parallels with Macondo are all there.
A trip to Mompox today is a fascinating peak back in time. The town sits on the slow-flowing Rio Magdalena, which alone gives it a timeless air, and nothing seems to happen with much urgency, either on the river or in the town. It isn’t quite as isolated today as it used to be, and tourism is slowly making inroads into the town’s historic detachment from the rest of the world.
Mind you, it can still be a struggle to get there. We arrived from Barichara, changing buses in San Gill and again in Bucaramanga. The final bus between Bucaramanga and El Banco (where we would pick up a share taxi to Mompox) was supposed to take 9 – 12 hours. Regardless, we’d be arriving in El Banco in the wee hours of the morning and would have to wait for the share taxis to start running.
As it turned out, the bus to El Banco took 6 hours and we arrived just after 10pm. Something of a dilemma: wait 6 hours through the night in a town with nothing to entertain us until the first share taxi left at 4am, or try to find a hotel? We found a hotel. For the princely sum of US$18 we spent the night in a dirty room, full of mosquitoes, that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a prison. Not a great night’s sleep.
Mompox was far more delightful when we finally arrived the next day. Founded in 1537, the town’s importance as a centre for trade between the Caribbean and the interior of Colombia meant it grew wealthy. At one time the town minted coins for the Spanish colony. Today that means you can find magnificent colonial churches dating from the sixteenth century, streets lined with colonial mansions and, a hangover from the days of the mint, silver work in the form of filigree.
Mompox is surrounded by wetlands and being low lying is extremely hot and humid. Made worse when we visited by the onset of the rainy season. It is the sort of heat and humidity that literally sucks the life out of you and leaves you feeling vaguely hopeless. Even though it sits on the banks of a wide river, there was no breeze at all. Is it any wonder that a lot of residents seem to spend their days sitting in the shade drinking cold beer?
The town’s history extends beyond the Spanish colony. It is proud of the role it played in the liberation of Colombia from colonial rule. Simón Bolívar recruited a large number of men from Mompox to fight for Colombia’s independence from Spain, and they formed the core of his victorious armies. Today there are numerous statues, plazas and shops dotted around town that are named after Latin America’s most famous independence hero.
While Mompox isn’t quite as isolated and insular as our guidebook suggested, it is an extraordinary place to wash up and really has to be seen to be believed. While it is much easier to reach it from the Caribbean coast than from the south, the effort is definitely worth it.