A lazy day on the Rio Magdalena

A visit to Mompox wouldn’t be complete without spending some time exploring the Rio Magdalena, the river that made Mompox rich and famous and, later, reduced it to a sleepy backwater. Luckily, finding a small motor boat and a willing captain isn’t too difficult in a town this size. We also found some other tourists wanting to do the trip which meant the price was very reasonable.

As you set off from the bank of the river you get excellent views of the waterfront in Mompox before motoring slowly down the river spotting birds and iguanas as you go. If you had the inclination and time, it would be possible to float all the way down the Rio Magdalena to the Caribbean. You’d finally emerge somewhere near the industrial city of Barranquilla on the coast.

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

This section of the river seems to flow very slowly, at times is doesn’t seem to move at all. An optical illusion that lends weight to the timeless nature of the river and the communities that lie along its banks. Much of the surrounding countryside is farmland so the chances of seeing a lot of wildlife aren’t great, but the landscapes and waterscapes are really beautiful.

Canoe on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Canoe on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Heron on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Heron on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Tributary of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Tributary of the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Iguana, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Iguana, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

The Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Eagle on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Eagle on the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

After motoring up the main river we forked off down a smaller tributary towards a couple of huge inland lakes that form part of the vast waterway system of this region. Eventually we stopped at a small village on one of the lakes and had a walk around the streets much to the amusement of the many small children living there. Gringos are still a rare commodity here.

As we made our way back to the boat the sun started to set and the combination of vast sky and still water created magnificent, luminous reflections. It was truly beautiful, especially viewed from the boat in the middle of the lake. We motored back towards Mompox and rejoined the Rio Magdalena in time to enjoy a spectacular river sunset.

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset and reflections in a lake, Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Sunset over the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Arriving back in Mompox after dark we were greeted by a town vividly illuminated and reflected in the sleepy river – truly beautiful.

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

Mompox by night from the Rio Magdalena, Colombia

An improbable town called Mompox

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.

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Street and church in Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

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.

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Rio Magdalena, Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

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.

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Street in Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Fruit seller, Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

Church in Mompox, Colombia

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?

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

Mompox cemetery, Colombia

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.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox, Colombia