Photo essay: Peeling back the layers in Mompox, Colombia
Santa Cruz de Mompox, or simply Mompox (spelled also Mompos/j), could certainly be considered one of the roads less traveled and one that contains many treasures for those willing to seek it out. This historic city, which lies on the Rio Magdalena, is far removed from main roads, making getting here an adventure in itself. The 16th century colonial architecture is extremely well preserved and earned the city a nod from UNESCO back in 1995.
We visited Mompox way back in May, which already feels like ages ago, as I write this now. Why the delay you may ask? I’ve gotten so far behind in writing for this blog that it now feels like I have a literal mountain of posts that keep stacking up. It feels a bit overwhelming and for whatever reason, that makes me procrastinate writing even more! But I just have to dive into that mountain and start at the bottom! Here it is, we are in August (on the precipice of September already-Yikes!!) and I’m just getting started on May events. Such is life. Those who have a blog will probably know exactly what I am talking about!
Anyway, I digress. We met a German lady who had advised us to visit this sleepy, less-traveled town and I was immediately intrigued. No bridge to get there? Isolated by water, only can get in by boat? I was hooked. For some reason, I’m always attracted to the isolated, far-flung places. For example, the end of the Americas in Patagonia, Iceland- which is far from both Europe and the Americas, the wide open Yukon north of Whitehorse or Antarctica-these are all appealing places to me precisely because they are so isolated. I love that shit! Mompox isn’t quite that estranged from the rest of Colombia but far enough away that I was interested.
We were pleasantly surprised by Mompox. The town has a charm that gets under your skin and even makes you even forget the heat for a little while (okay, that was limited mostly to when the sun went down!). From the grand, almost opulent colonial architecture to the little old men rocking in the unique rocking chairs of the area, to the guys earning their living collecting pineapples along the river Magdalena in the dugout canoes, Mompox is a small town that slowly reveals itself as you pull back its layers.
Come along on our photo essay as we show you some of the highlights.
As I mentioned earlier, Mompox is isolated from the rest of Colombia. The history behind Mompox is fascinating. In colonial times, this town was an important trading post thanks to its strategic place on the Magdalena river. It was far enough away from the Caribbean Sea to remain protected from pirates and pillagers and in addition, it joined up to more inland routes making it an important link between sea and mountains.
Colonial architecture and wrought iron work characterized many of the buildings. Artisan filigree work thrived. The city flourished. But the very river that gave Mompox the ability to blossom also became its downfall. Inexplicably, the river shifted its course and silted up, making it difficult to gain access to the town. The trading decreased and Mompox became something of a forgotten city, holding onto glory from a bygone era.
Nowadays, a paved road will take you to Magangue and there you can take just under an hour long ferry ride that takes you to a place where you can take a taxi here. From Cartagena it took us a total of 8 hours to reach Mompox.
Upon first arrival, I was dismayed at all the moto’s hurtling down the dusty streets. Between the swampy heat and the sound of moto-taxis and regular motorcycles clogging the streets, I was initially disappointed. These motorcycles buzzed passed me blowing dust that stuck to the beads of sweat on my forehead.
I was to quickly learn that this is not the city to dazzle you upon arrival. Mompox requires the visitor to slowly peel back its layers and discover each treasure that lies within. With just over 25,000 inhabitants, it maintains a sleepy atmosphere, mostly due to the weather. The day is best to be passed just sitting in one of the rocking chairs Mompox is famous for.
By the second day, I was able to discover the peaceful life. Apart from one of the two main streets where the motos buzz, the remainder of streets were peaceful and isolated allowing the visitor to stroll and enjoy the laid-back vibe.
All along the river, life and work depend on it. The riverbanks are studded with small farms where people raise animals like pigs and cattle to help earn a living. Others gather fruits like pineapples or bananas, while still more are dependent on fish from it. This very river which once made Mompox a prosperous town until it decided to change its course, is still an important life force in the area.
All over Colombia you can see amazingly, detailed colonial architecture. Mompox seems to have some of the most glorious I had yet to witness. Wrought iron balconies (the town was very famous for wrought iron in its heyday) are found everywhere and the bright colors and old-style are rich and opulent. Due to its compact size, you can easily walk the streets and if you are like photography, you will find it difficult to put your camera down.
Colombia is a Catholic country with intricately detailed churches found throughout. Mompox was no exception and the small town is home to seven beautiful churches. The architecture both inside and outside was truly stunning.
In the middle of town sits this open air plaza. It’s the perfect place to go once the intense sun has died down for the day. Grab a seat on a nearby bench and enjoy the slight breeze. Teenagers gather for a game of chess as classical music wafts through the warm night air. Old ladies whisper the daily gossip over ice cream sundaes at the nearby crepe place and the church opens its doors in anticipation of the nightly mass.
Unfortunately, a large part of the town was under construction when we visited. Every September, a Jazz festival descends upon the town bringing with it hordes of visitors.
There are two times of the year when Mompox hosts big events like this-one in April for the Semana Santa, which also draws visitors from all over Colombia for the elaborate processions and the other is in September for this festival.
Since there is only a small window between these months to make necessary reparations, workers must rebuild the streets during long, hot hours each day.
Like much of this low lying part of Colombia (including the north on the Caribbean coast), the climate is hot. Like, insanely hot and humid. How do the good people of Mompox deal with this? They constructed wooden rocking chairs and backed them with wicker, which the town is now famous for. Then they place one of these oversized beauties in the shade and from 12-4 in the afternoon, when the sun is the most intense, this is where you will find them. A highly effective way for passing a day and beating the heat!
Simon Bolivar was an important leader in Latin America’s struggle for independence from Spanish rule. It was in Mompox that he fought his last battle against the Spainards. They honor this influential man with a statue and the quote ‘If to Caracas (where he was born) I owe my life, it is to Mompox that I owe my glory”. There is also a piedra (rock) outlining a timeline of events in his life.
We knew Mompox would be a sleepy town full of fantastic colonial architecture but what we weren’t expecting was all the food specialties! We stayed at the wonderfully warm Hostal La Casa del Viajero Mompox, with its enthusiastic host, Juan Manuel. This is a much more homier and friendlier option than La Casa Amarilla (we know because we stayed at both places).
When we told Juan Manuel that we were interested in food, he wasted no time in showing us the best that Mompox has to offer. It was because of him that we got a chance to discover amazing handmade artisanal products found throughout the city.
We found things like in the first photo, a delicious confection known as dulce de limon-which is basically like candied limon (limons are called key limes in the states). They also turn it into a fantastic jam. The best in town is definitely at Doña Ada, right around the corner from the Casa del Viajero.
Sweet wines made from local fruits including mango biche (green mango) and tamarind make ideal and refreshing aperitifs when chilled.
In Peru, butifarra often refers to a pork sandwich, but here in Mompox, Colombia, it was all about the humble meatball. But not just any meatball. No sir. These handmade creations, which take about 5 hours to make, are prepared by Luis Enrique directly in his home.
He grinds the pork by hand and adds garlic and salt for flavor. He stresses that you shouldn’t embellish the meat too much, just simply enhance it. After grinding, the pork is placed in cow casing (tripe) and it gets boiled for about 5 minutes. The real flavor comes by slowly smoking the butifarra by hanging it on top of a parrilla (BBQ).
The butifarra are put into large metal bowls which Luis attaches a special sling to. He then can walk around town, banging his knife against the bowl, which is the secret signal to everyone that he is ready to sell his creations. A squeeze of lime and it’s ready to eat. To contact Luis call (Tel: 313 550 31 31)
Another homemade wonder. This was perhaps one of the most surprising things I have ever eaten. It’s a folded pastry filled with sugar, coconut and anise. What makes it so unique is the dough. It’s made purely from pounded cassava root. No added fat like butter to make this pastry!
We got a chance, again thanks to Juan Manuel, to visit the house of Ramon Ponton Navarro (Tel: 310 654 62 88) where, with his family, he makes the casavitos daily. Each one is painstakingly made by hand.
First, the family has to dry out the cassava root, literally wringing the liquid out by hand. Next, Ramon pounds the root into a fine powder and sifts out any large pieces. Finally, the casavito is ready to be cooked.
He places the powder on the hot stove top and almost as if by magic, it forms together to make a delicate binding. Carefully he fills it with the sugar mixture and folds it gently over. It blew my mind that such a flavorful and delicious pastry could be made purely from this root–no butter or other fat was used! And naturally gluten-free!
Do not miss a visit to Ramon’s house if you are visiting Mompox to witness (and taste) this incredible process! We graciously ate these small works of art that could hold their own in some of the best bakeries in the world.
Sold everywhere in the streets here, it is made in much the same way as mozzarella except they heat the cheese and roll it out, akin to a large sheet of pasta. And like mozzarella, it has an equally addictive quality to it! Don’t miss the ‘bocadillo’ version, which has a large chunk of guava paste stuffed inside. Yum!
So much depends upon the river but locals here know how to enjoy it too. While the men are working transporting animals, children love to take a refreshing evening swim while the elders sit back in their rocking chairs enjoying the stunning nature and sunsets.
Whether you are a foodie, a photographer, a religious pilgrim, a history or literature lover (it was here in Mompox where Gabriel Garcia Marquez was said to have drawn inspiration for many of his characters and places for his magical realism style of writing) or just someone who wants an offbeat destination to relax in, Mompox is guaranteed to entice just a little bit more of your time than you probably originally planned.