Mompox had intrigued me for a while: I’d read about it before we came travelling and was interested in this backwater inland from the coast.
Mompox is on an island in the wetlands of the Rio Magdalena. It used to be a lynchpin for trade in the area, from coastal Cartagena to the interior of Colombia. It was a prosperous and important city and then, one day, the silt-heavy river changed its course and Mompox was marooned and left to languish. It’s a backwater, and I like backwaters, and the word “backwater” so was keen to visit. Moz took a little more persuasion especially when we were faced with the 3am bus out of Santa Marta.
It was a long and bumpy journey, chilly as well with the air con on full. We slept as much as possible and woke to waterlogged fields and lush greenery. There were cows beside the road with their huge floppy ears, and the driver stops to flush piglets and a baby chick off the dirt road. We cross a wide brown river on a small ferry: a wooden platform not much bigger than the bus itself then drive on towards Mompox.
When we arrive, sleep deprived, we can’t find our hostel thought find another place run by, as it turns out, the mother of our original hostel owner. We’re not even quite sure the place we booked into even exists but here there is strong black coffee and pancakes and jazz music and, to be honest after our journey, we don’t care that much. Moz spots a huge iguana in the tree that dashes down towards the river.
After a nap we wander down the quiet streets, stopping to glimpse the inner courtyards of these colonial buildings, look through the wrought-iron grills and at the wooden rocking chairs that the towns residents pull out onto the street to watch the world go by. Mompox was made a World Heritage Site and it’s polite, clean streets are quiet and empty of many other travellers, it makes a nice change from the other places we’ve been to. We have a beer and watch a fisherman reel out his line into the river water; above him, a cat watches too, its tail twitching. An old man in green trousers and loafers cycles carefully past us on a street.
We stumble across a football tournament and watch Real Mompox, a team of slightly aged looking men and a fair number of beer bellies. I try out some Spanish from my phrasebook: “what’s the score”. It’s 0-0 then (excitingly, messily) 1-1.
One morning we walk along the street where there is a market going on: metal bowls of silver fish are on display as well as piles of cassava, live chickens with their wings and legs tied together, meat hung on hooks and a man flicks at it with a tasseled cane to keep the flies off. We wander into a municipal building in the centre of the town, a beautiful colonial building filled with dusty paperwork and tired looking computers. The heat is thick and energy-sapping and we drink Coke to get our sugar levels back up.
In the afternoon we head out on a river tour, down the river and into the many channels and waterways of this archipelago. Children run to the water edge to wave at us and we spot blue flashes of kingfishers, lots of graceful white storks and fishing eagles like crotchets in the trees. The narrow waterways open out into a huge lake and take a deep breath before we jump into the warm water.
That night we plan our journey for the next day and struggle a little to work out our plans. There’s been an eclipse and it felt as if it’s sent the town a bit loopy: the quiet streets feel unsettling and there bats out in the evening air. We can’t find the hostel owner and everything is locked up shut with the lights off by 8pm. We were going to travel to the coast with a contact of his but we’re just going to have to make our own way ourselves.
Next stop: Rincon del Mar