Colombia: Mompox

Okay, Mompox was next up... now what? As it would turn out, getting TO Mompox was more the Mompox story than the fabled town itself. I knew I was in for a long day when I called the lone hostel ahead for suggestions on how to get there. Mompox wasn't on the beaten, or even the less-beaten, path. Immediately I was presented with a few options, each of which included a couple times where I'd hang out in the middle of nowhere to wait/hope for a transport. It wasn't a given that they'd arrive in any timely manner to convey me further on my path. Hmmm.

Indeed, beaten tracks don't lead to a place forgotten in time, rendered a mere fore- or afterthought to the rest of the country. This was amazing when apprised of Mompox's history. But that was then, and this was now... so ultimately I settled on what would probably be the least direct - but most dependable - route. I would come to rue this decision shortly - or longly, since short would have nothing to do with the experience.

A hellish day of travel began brightly at 6a.m. in Taganga, where I had a final breakfast coffee. I also gave a hello and goodbye to my latest trumpet fan, Luis, at his beachfront crepes place. Shortly thereafter I hailed a taxi to take me to the bus station in Santa Marta in the early dawning light. The cool quiet of the morning was promising.

As often happened, my taxi driver was lively for such an early hour, soon giving me his business card should I have any further needs - or if I had friends?... - in the area. Sure, I thought... before my scrambled brains coalesced into coherent thought: huh? I had no plans to come back.

So far, so good in the meantime, though - it was only a matter of minutes at the station to get me on a bus. Soon we were moving at 8a.m. toward Cartagena, where I'd have my first bus change. I wasn't freezing yet, either, even if these coastal buses were known for pulling off The Full Freezer. For that event I had my jacket and sweater pulled out of my backpack at the ready.

Were it only so - only an hour later, I began to sweat, sticking to my seat in what could only be termed the best Caribbean fashion. A little A/C, please? No - just movies. Somehow, instead of the pleasures of an Arctic winter, our little bus of twenty victims managed to endure three complete-yet-completely-forgettable flicks instead. I could only appreciate the efficiency with which they were crammed in, precisely starting with each movie's first second and yanked out at the first credit.

In the span of less than four-and-a-half hours we were subjected to a suite of Jackie Chan movies: Shanghai Noon, Shanghai Knights, and Two And A Half Thieves. The latter, which pandered least to American audiences as much as the first two East-West hybrids tried to otherwise, was best. I watched, resigned to having no other option.

It was too early to sleep again; there'd be no reading of my latest book picked up from Taganga until Mompox, either - Una Breve Historia De Che Guevara. Even a half-hour stop in Barranquilla, with the engine running and a slight resumption of heavenly A/C, couldn't halt the parade of kung fu kicks. Lucky me... or us, to be fair. Well, to be REALLY fair, I'd have to admit that my fellow passengers appeared transfixed by the keystone kops hijinx rolling on-screen, nonstop and at full volume. The iPod was nixed due to that latter detail, unable to compete for my ears' attention.

Over the last couple of hours to Cartagena, our merry crew also had the great fortune to contemplate a pair of cute little twins. Or rather, we questioned: when were they going to vomit? They didn't look too good, and it didn't take too long. Nor would it play out as a single occasion, either, eventually turning to a sustained, crying wail all the way into town. While annoyed, I couldn't help but feel sorry for the father. He sat helplessly and hopelessly crammed with his two girls in a seat made for two... and a steady supply of plastic bags to gather offerings.

The bus had by this time taken to sweltering, followed by even more heat when we stepped outside to change buses in Cartagena. A fleet of buses ranging in birthdays from 1922 to 2010 lay in wait for the likes of me, rumbling in protest to the beating sun. We could see none of the glorious fabled city, of course, being amidst what could only be described as the station's pure mayhem on the distant outskirts of town. I wished the vomiting girls well as I turned to finding a bus heading into the hinterlands.

I knew that I had to head south toward Magangue on this route, but it seemed that every bus company had a different idea of how long that would take, and what it would take to get there. Finally I placed my trust in some bus company reps that seemed most matter-of-fact. True or false information taken as received, I'd at least be moving along shortly in the correct direction.

Soon I would begin questioning the wisdom of my decision over the hours to come, yes, but that'd only be after I had boarded the sweaty special of an old school bus. It'd be roughly three-plus hours to Bongo. Bongo?!? Sure, Bongo. THAT was worth a rim shot, if not the drum. Whatever - as the waters of my body freely began to roll ever-earthward, I'd more immediately spend most of this journey dealing with space issues, all associated with the large woman sitting next to me.

Joining my seat bench on the further outskirts of town at a highway junction, she'd spend the ride herself similarly uncomfortable. I probably should have sympathized more. She was tasked with carrying her girl in this oven, the little one only trying to sleep. Occasionally the girl would drop her head hard onto my shoulder, keeping me from a likewise slumberous outcome. Thanks. This rock-head hit me shockingly hard each time, enough to give myself cause to wonder if I'd soon be sporting a bruise. No fun, no how.

The estimated time it would take to get to Bongo, too, varied greatly with each person I queried as our bus made its pitstops. Really, why'd I bother even asking? Every answer was different. Finally, however, I found myself at the fabled crossroads of salvation - Bongo! - waiting for transport to Magangue. I found only a few convenience stores front the two joining roads in the interim, offering only the most pitiful of junkfoods to mark the lonely junction. Beyond those were only a host of vehicles engaged in trade and transport - or the passing boredom which attended those.

Each vehicle passing engendered curious looks from all: how would they change my new neighbors' outlook in the commerce it might bring? For my part, I immediately had found a hulking wreck of a car willing to go on to Magangue - as soon as it would fill up. Three others arrived over the next half hour to join me, then our "taxi" was rolling away from Bongo. Wait a sec: BONGO! I never DID hear any drums; I felt deeply betrayed.

Our taxi's last entrant, unfortunately, was a prodigiously fat lady - she took her position between us two other men on the back seat. Not happily so for any of us, though: she eventually came to take over the complete rear seat, setting to complaining from the start over the lack of space. This wouldn't let up the entire way, about 45 minutes in all. What... fun!

My commiserator on the bench's other end and I, meanwhile, could only withhold our tongues. Our ribcages were too busy coming to painfully know the contour of the doors' interiors only too well. Furthering the litany of vitriol from the woman, meanwhile, the wheel of her bike - a present to some unfortunate offspring of hers, no doubt - had come off when being tied to the car's roof. When she let up on the space problem, she picked up with that again - and vice versa. Could this get any worse?

Yes. It wasn't long before rain moved in with a fury, a thunderstorm that pelted both the bike and the other man's luggage above. There had been no more space in the interior of the car - my backpack was safely on the inside being the first passenger, a sole consolation - so the luggage bore the wetness for all of ten minutes. Juan - or Jose, or Tomas - now started in on the driver, too. The driver, however, wasn't one to hold his thoughts back either. Great. Thus would the gringo (me!) stay silent and wait for it all to end.

At Magangue, thankfully exactly 45 minutes later, it did, as our driver sped through town dropping us off one by one. He narrowly missed any of a dozen pedestrians in the process. Really, I wasn't in such a hurry to pay funeral expenses - couldn't we go a little slower? Soon we were at the dock in spite of the carnage; there the driver tried to stick me for CP25,000 for his excellent efforts. What?!?, I fumed.

Knowing that the fat lady had paid CP15,000 had already settled the score for me - that'd be my price, too. As the driver let rip at me in colorful language to argue his cause, I finally took off the restraints from 45 miserable, hellish minutes, letting loose with what could be only termed my most lucid and expressive Spanish to date. I finally tossed CP15,000 at the miscreant as I moved away from the vehicle and he threatened to call the police.

Go ahead and call them, I figured - I saw my boat waiting at the jetty on the mighty River Magdalena. The boat filled relatively quickly - a first for this long-already day - and it wasn't long that for CP6000 a head we were crossing the mighty Magdalena. This lasted only twenty refreshingly-breezy minutes - darkness dropped quickly and stealthily to change the ambience of the trip. Pitch black was the night, impressive in its stunning, enveloping descent.

We pulled up to the dock at Bodega already in nightly silence; the passengers soon scattered to a lonely array of awaiting vehicles. It was only a mere matter of moments before all I could hear was what passed locally for crickets. For two other passengers and I, a new waiting game had begun at this outpost of civilization.

Our driver didn't want to leave until his vehicle was full, or nearly so. Nothing surprising there, but... arghh. Would this day never end? Apparently not: this entailed waiting for the next shuttle boat, supposedly the last of the day in this extended holiday season. We'd collect mosquito bites and ungodly amounts of sweat for our patience. Thanks, driverman!

There was nothing but nothing to do in Bodega except await the landing of the next craft. A couple of buildings fronted the shore, the only prominent one a bar/restaurant that served as a place for a drunk to bawl tunes to one and all under the night sky. Lucky us - but it WAS entertainment.

Finally the desired boat arrived, only after we listened for its telltale motor in the distance for a good while. The derelict van filled practically to capacity in complete darkness now; soon began a series of mysterious bumps and jolts for the requisite hour under oppresive heat to Mompox. An hour later I was dumped on Casa Amarilla's doorstep, completely wiped out and looking at 8p.m. on the clock. I couldn't even mumble WHEW, only sputtering w-h. Ew.

Finally at my destination, I wondered what would await me for my troubles. Well, first things first - that'd be a stomach bug. I spent the next day, Christmas Eve, in a foggy haze that was an entire day of sleeping. This laugh-a-minute stomach fun would not be gone until the next day, so it would turn out that I'd miss the hostel's one attempt of Christmas revelry - Christmas dinner at the owner's girlfriend's parents' house. The last part was even too much to keep together in my addled thought processes. Still - I had gotten away from the crowds, and I no longer was on a bus, boat, taxi, or otherwise. I took a deep breath - whew.

I was still hot and sweaty, though. For all the charm of the hostel - a colonial residence of many years, now near the end of an extensive restoration - the dormitory rooms didn't offer much in the way of ventilation. A ceiling fan immediately became my best friend - forever, as we cut our fingers and exchanged blood - as I was fortunate enough to grab the bed directly below it. The few rooms with A/C had been long ago claimed by incoming Colombian families; they'd otherwise never show their face in a hotel without that and a TV. So insisted my new host, and he should know.

Richard, the owner, was a Brit of longtime acquaintance with Latin America. He had been a journalist for many years and passed through many countries on the slow road. He had gotten to know them all well, finally settling on Colombia as a place to stay on. His girlfriend was met in Bogotá, so it was only by chance that her relatives in relatively obscure Mompox would lead to an opportunity awaiting him. The town had no hostel then, a surprising situation for a UNESCO site of good repute. He soon found a building worthy of restoration in a promising spot, what would become Casa Amarilla. The rest, for him (or them) at least, was history.

THAT the town had plenty of - history. Mompox had been an important place for around three hundred years, the midway point for river traffic heading inland from the coast at Baranquilla. With the other end of the navigable line being Honda, Mompox had served as a place to store goods in transit on its way to such heavies as Medellín and Bogotá. The many dilapidated warehouses attested to this former glory (or utility).

With traffic ultimately changing in commonplace form to planes, trains, and automobiles (trucks), however, Mompox's days had become numbered long ago. Plus, the river forked around the large, low island on which the town sat: the other arm had become the main route of boat traffic, too. This further added to the sidelining, properly salting the wound in the process. Mompox thus slipped into a long slumber from which it never recovered, and perhaps wouldn't... unless the UNESCO standing helped tourism. MAYbe.

It did have a heyday, though, even landing a starring role as the location of Garcia Marquez's classic Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It figured largely as a hotbed of politics then, even being such a charged atmosphere that the local Liberals and Conservatives truely detested each other with even more than their typical loathing and spite. This played itself out on the streets, to the point that on one side of 18th street lived the one party's adherents. The other's glared back at them from the other side.

Indeed, some people lived entire lives never crossing the street into the other side of town, a standoff that even went so far as to divide the cemetery that straddled the same road. Now that's some politics. Continuing the history lesson, and sprinkled throughout, too, were plaques detailing every locale where Bolivar had laid his head or otherwise touched. These served to remind me of the many places throughout the mid-Atlantic U.S., those states where one could find "George Washington slept here" signs. Some things are the same all over in the name of tourism.

Giving some structure to the town, its three main roads ran perpendicular to 18th. These were known descriptively as the waterfront, middle, and back roads. They served as reference points to getting anywhere in sleepy, colonial Mompox. Along and nearby them were numerous handsome buildings, many reflecting the colonial architecture. As usual, this was most prominent in the churches and grand residences.

This didn't mean that there was much to do, however, outside of visiting the graveyard, with its white stacks of tombs, or wandering past the former warehouses on the waterfront. The deep DEEP courtyards buried behind ancient colonial doors beckoned in private residences one couldn't easily visit, places both functional and trapped in time. I'd drop the pace of my walking to otherwise look within; random faces would turn at times to look without as I nonchalantly took to moving along again.

Bicycles and motorcycles dominated the quiet streets otherwise, with three-wheeled motorbike taxis in curious abundance. I noted the odd (though not complete) absence of cars in their stead. Perhaps this helped allowed for a further disconnect with the off-island world, I mused.

Otherwise, it took no time to realize that nothing happened in Mompox. Ever. With my ignomious introduction via a hellish day of transport, though, that'd be fine for the time being. I just wanted my health back (which I quickly got) and relief from the incredibly stuffy heat (which I didn't.) A nice compensation, nevertheless, was the tranquility found in this backwater.

Richard meanwhile was a plentiful source of Colombia info, ranging from politics and history to hostel hijinx. The latter came replete with prostitute stories and the like, as usual. He also had many a story about the frustration of getting anything done to completion in Latin America, specifically the restoration of his hostel now nearing two years in effort (yet nearly done). Now THERE was a familiar story I'd heard from hostel owners throughout Latin America. Sometimes it went as charm, other times as frustration - that completely depended on what you were trying to get done and in what time frame, of course.

Regarding the business, Richard was opting for an egalitarian tack of sorts. He was determined to place a great emphasis on creating a place that attracted gringo and Colombian alike, already taking justifiable pride in the mixed clientelle he had received. By not raising his price in high season he had earned some respect and loyalty as well, a worthy standard. Beyond that, he had found a family environment to live within in the process. Perhaps no one better embodied THAT than the eight-year-old imp-of-the-hostel, Sabina. Now THERE was a wise-cracking and worldly-winking kid, one who had the run of the place... and all of the tourists that came within her reach.

Some things were completely beyond Richard's control, though. For example, there was the lack of waterfront development. With the town's UNESCO status, money had found its way internationally from Spain to Bogotá for work on it. There it got lost, too, with no current word on its status. I was not alone in guessing that it ended up in construction materials and labor on some grand villas in the north suburbs of Bogotá. At least the howler monkeys wandering in the trees would continue to enjoy their reprieve - for now.

For his part, Richard had claimed some responsibility for the island of land fronting his hostel, paying to keep it clean and kempt as the howler monkeys above moved from one grand tree to the next. That couldn't stop the scene on the very watermost strip itself, though. There was found a collection of a few outside bars, each serving virtually only beer and hosting competing stereo systems at full blast. Their musical choices proved undesirable, most unforgivably never even including the most famous singer from the area - and practically all of Colombia - Toto La Momposina.

The waterfront development - coming some day, certainly, as money always spoke loudest in the end - would push this scene away for good in the future, yes, but for the moment this sonorous overload undoubtedly served to make five nights sufficient for me in the stifling heat. THAT detail - the air's choking stillness - would only find hints of a break, without ever actually doing so. A wall of rain tempted all of us for a few days, possibly the key to break the spell of high temperatures, but it only teased us enough to come to the town's edge... before chuckling at us visibly and moving away.

Perhaps it was only for the oppressive heat that I never fully got my groove in Mompox. Nevertheless, I had long learned to cut bait when something wasn't properly working. I didn't blame Mompox, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly what it was outside of the heat. It might have only been that there was no quick escape to nature available, or that I hadn't found a good trumpet practice space from which I could put up with the heat. Whatever - I decided it was time to succumb to Cartagena's dubious charms - or rather especially the throngs that would come with them.

Cartagena, in moving north again, would be a rare backtrack for me in my travels - and not convenient at that, timewise, with New Year's Day approaching. I was hesitant about that to the end of my Mompox stay, wondering how long I'd stay in such multitudinous company on a Caribbean shore at the top of the high season. Still, some things were now in my favor. These included a direct bus service from Mompox to Cartagena (What? No BONGO wait?), an Irish couple from the hostel to join me, and a consistent blast of A/C onboard to comfort me (or charitably, us) the entire way.

Indeed, six hours of wonderously air-conditioned bus, and two endured movies (the first okay and soon forgotten, the other horrendous and not so - the religion-pushing Fireproof) on a bumpy road later, Cartagena made its way back onto my plate. It certainly was nice to have the ferry (much larger than the shuttle I had taken in) timed for the bus; I smiled as the crossings were sped by in Magangue, Bongo, and Cartagena's outskirts. I was back in motion again.

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