In his iconic video for “La Foto de las Dos,” Latin Grammy Award winner Carlos Vives sings his passionate, hit song before a vast building in Mompox de Santa Cruz, a 1995 UNESCO Heritage site, while a heart-pulling couple fall in and out of love in this stunning municipio founded in 1537.
Hoy los fantasmas de tu amor me llaman, Hoy te quiero contar
Porque nunca te pude olvidar, Y recuerdo que tu amor conmigo*
(*Today nostalgia squeezes my soul. Today the ghosts of your love call me. I want to tell you today. Because I could never forget you)
Since arriving to Colombia in 2014, this “town trapped in time” has seemed intriguing, mysterious and charming; eventually, a visit would be mandatory. Consulting fellow volunteer and Colombia bestie Andrea, who visited a few years earlier, it became apparent Mompox was definitely worth the trip, even as she noted, “getting there is… interesting.”
Following a weekend in Tolú and Coveñas, an early bus ($6,000 COP) in the pouring rain for less than an hour led to the first stop along this journey: Sincelejo, Sucre. Arriving to the bus terminal, a slick collectivo (shared taxi), driver offered transport to the second stop in Magangue, but actually drove less than a kilometer to another terminal, where other travelers waited under the aluminum roof of a vast, opened-sided garage.
About an hour later, trying to avoid asphyxiation from the exhaust of an idling diesel bus, some passengers finally asked the driver, “what are we waiting for?” He responded that the collectivo was “faltan uno,” or one person short of leaving with a full car. Tired of waiting, a woman darted from the garage to the bus stop next door, and returned with two passengers. The collectivo, finally full, ($10,000 COP each), headed out, with rain still falling at a treacherous pace from the dark skies.
Arriving an hour later in Mangague, the eighth largest metropolitan area in Colombia, the final stop was La Bodega, a boat terminal for the Magdelena River, where several services offered swift transport to Mompox ($9,000 COP) .
Launching from an interesting “port,” where huge stairs lead right to the water’s edge, tiny chalupas filled with families carrying babies, large bags of food and provisions, sped across the vast waters of the Magdalena, passing ferries transporting cattle, and strange swampy “gardens” of huge plants and lily pads. Half an hour later, the boats disembarked at a dirt-laden dock, where travelers were offered the option of a shared taxi or moto taxi ($10-13,000 COP pp) to surrounding towns.
After a quick check in at Casa Sol de Agua, the afternoon was perfect for a walk around the Centro, with its breathtaking historic houses and no less than five major churches. Passing the massive yellow and white Iglesia de la Maria Inmaculada in the Plaza de la Concepcíon, across from the main location for the video by Carlos Vives, the town really felt stopped in time, partly because this was a festivo Monday, and most places were closed.
One exception to the closed places was Heladeria la Libertad, a spacious corner tienda selling cold drinks and snacks, where a few locals sipped cervezas, played cards and shared gossip on the available tables.
As luck would have it, stopping in the Heladeria la Libertad for refreshment included meeting the owner’s son, Manuel, who struck up a conversation in English, and agreed to a motorcycle ride through town to photograph the newly-added letter sign at the entrance to Mompox. Manuel had studied English in Bogotá and turned out to be an excellent conversationalist, offering tips of places to visit in his charming town.
The late afternoon light brought a good opportunity to see the sights and photograph the town without the crowds or distractions of a normal weekday. As evening fell, the gothic tower of Iglesia Santa Barbara glowed like an ornate castle, while families walked together along the river: the perfect accompaniment to a parkside meal of empanadas, salad, juice and pan de bono.
Day 2 in Magical Mompox
Since it seemed the night view of Iglesia Santa Barbara wasn’t enough to see all of its beauty, in the early hours, another visit was prompted by the sound of roosters crowing.
Walking before the gold and white facade, which beamed like the morning sun, it was easy to see why this church was included among the images selected for the Colombia is Magical Realism international campaign.
After a leisurely breakfast of fresh maracuya juice, pan de queso, café tinto and mango slices with salt and lime, more walking around revealed the local and lively side to Mompox after a festivo Monday.
The Magdalena river flowed quickly on the malécon as schoolchildren bounded out of class just after noon next to the Iglesia San Francisco.
Hungry for lunch, the friendly calls of “a la orden,” from the staff of Comedor Costeño brought a curiosity for this reputable eatery, where they were happy to accommodate a vegetarian diet. Diving into a generous portion of savory coconut rice, salad, quesillo (cheese) and patacón (with a fried egg on the side), plus a chilled Club Colombia ($8000 plate, $3000 cerveza + tip), street dogs watched diners devour their portions while the river flowed quickly beside the al fresco dining area.
Following lunch, Manuel messaged he was up for some English conversation, and another visit to his mother’s tienda seemed a perfect way to pass the afternoon. As the strong Colombian sun made its way across the store’s enormous windows and massive doors, the conversation flowed from names of fruits and common dishes to country traditions and popular US music. It was a sheer blessing to meet a native Momposian who also spoke excellent English.
Eventually, Manuel left for his evening job, prompting a walk back to the hostel lit by the dusk sky and time to stop for a quick dinner, before going to bed early for the 6:00 am morning bus for Cartagena. With it’s six-and-a-half hour bumpy transport to another UNESCO Heritage Site in Colombia, the bus service is not known for any type of on-board meals.
As the droves of locals headed to the plazas in front of the churches, Khalilieh Parrilla Bar offered tahini, pita, falafel and other reasonably-priced Arabian small plates. Accompanied by a friendly waiter asking questions to practice his English at the riverside table, a surprise ending to the meal was presenting him with a $20,000 COP for which he did not have more than $10,000 change, so the $3,000 COP drink and service was “gratis.”
Walking back to Casa Sol de Agua, the night breezes lifted the chill from the Magdalena River into the air of Mompox. Strangely, it seemed relevant that the server at Khalilieh had no change – almost iconic or spooky in a metaphorical way. Like casually forfeiting the cost of the drink, such is life on a secluded, historic island, where, sometimes, change really is non-existent, both in money and in time.