One of the last authentic colonial towns in Colombia, Santa Cruz de Mompox has slumbered for a century as a near-forgotten backwater. Now, the magic of its storied past is ushering it toward a new heyday.
I hear laughter, but I can’t locate its source. It’s not coming from the other diners with me on the terrace of the old marketplace overlooking the languid Magdalena River, nor from the chefs frying croquetas in their outdoor kitchen. It seems to be issuing from the water itself. Then three bobbing heads drift into view, and I find my answer to be a trio of young boys floating downriver, giggling as they go.
Magical moments like this are almost commonplace in Santa Cruz de Mompox (also known as Mompós), and it comes as no surprise to learn that the small, exceptionally well-preserved colonial port town inspired the settings in various novels by Gabriel García Márquez, the godfather of magical realism. Until my visit, I couldn’t have imagined that such a place actually existed.
Founded by Spanish settlers in 1540 on a swamp-fringed island between two arms of the Magdalena, Mompox was once among the richest places in colonial Colombia, a hub for merchants moving tobacco, slaves, precious metals, and emeralds from the Andes to the Caribbean coast. By the early 1600s, its main riverfront street, Calle de la Albarrada, was a dream of Spanish colonial architecture, lined with three cathedral-backed plazas linked by low white rows of tile-roofed haciendas.
In 1810, Mompox became the first town in Colombia to declare its independence from Spain. Soon after, it welcomed Caracas-born freedom fighter Simón Bolívar, who enlisted 400 Mompoxino volunteers for his campaign to liberate western Venezuela from Spanish rule. A memorial to Bolívar in a square now filled with vendors of cold drinks and phone accessories is proudly etched with his famous words: “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompós I owe my glory.”
Yet by the end of the 19th century, the river running past Mompox had silted up, forcing trade ships to divert to another branch of the Magdalena (the Brazo de Loba). The town’s prosperity came to an abrupt end. Marooned amid low-lying wetlands, it retreated into obscurity, a literal backwater that time would forget.
Today, Mompox’s hundred years of solitude is its calling card. Preserved by both its geographical isolation and the more tumultuous years of Colombia’s modern history, the town of 30,000 looks much as it did in its colonial heyday, a fact not lost on UNESCO, which in 1995 designated its compact historic center a World Heritage Site. In recent years the Colombian government has also taken notice, investing in rejuvenation projects and upgrading transport infrastructure. While it still takes five hours to reach Mompox by car and ferry from Cartagena, a 2.3-kilometer bridge—the country’s longest—is being built across the Magdalena to reduce travel time. The local airstrip is also being lengthened to enable it to service regular flights.
Whether this augurs a tourism boom for Mompox, I can’t say; certainly some of the residents I meet are anticipating an influx of visitors. But as I sit by the river making notes about the town’s wide, empty boulevards and imposing wooden doors and the stray dogs that follow me though the tropical blaze of the afternoons when everyone else is taking a siesta, I wonder how many such quiet moments Mompox has left.
I once heard that mystery is essential to beauty. This certainly holds true for Mompox. It is a place of suggestions: the tail of an iguana almost indistinguishable against the dense green leaves of a calabash tree; Jesuit murals too faded to make out the images; rumors of a 15-year-old ghost drifting through quinceañera dances. Much of the town only lends itself to a glimpse—at least to outsiders.
“Mompox still belongs to Mompoxinos,” says Richard McColl, the owner of the hotel where I’m staying, Casa la Concepción. A British journalist, McColl first came through Mompox in 2007 to witness its elaborate Semana Santa (or Holy Week) celebrations. He ended up buying a 17th-century hacienda on the Plaza de Santa Bárbara and marrying a beautiful Colombian lady with Mompoxino roots.
That first house became La Casa Amarilla, a mid-range guesthouse that helped put Mompox on the backpackers’ map a decade ago; it’s still the best-known digs in town. A few years later, McColl opened Casa la Concepción on its namesake plaza as a more upscale and private lodging. With just four rooms, it’s not listed online and is reserved for politicians, public figures, and in-the-know travelers.
As McColl is now based in Bogotá, his mother-in-law Esther Garrido runs Casa la Concepción. She’s in every way the woman of the house, keeping the high-ceilinged rooms pristine and their hammocks strung tight, arranging and rearranging the old rocking chairs and deep couches in the front living rooms. In the morning, she floats around the courtyard—a cornucopia of flowers —as you eat your perico eggs at the communal breakfast table; in the evenings, she calls you back to the table to ask about your day, and to share her own stories about the town.
McColl is opening a third hotel this year, Casa San Rafael, which he says will be the most luxurious in Mompox. As with Amarilla and Concepción, all the construction is being done by local artisans: a family known for their expertise in colonial rooftops; the town’s best iron forger for the windows and doors; tile makers who know the secrets to the traditional Spanish style. Instead of hiring trucks to bring in sand for construction, McColl employs fleets of horse carts to ensure more locals benefit.
Across the plaza from Concepción is the old marketplace, a once derelict building whose upper floor is now home to Crónicas, the restaurant where I watch the three giggling boys float down the Magdalena. Apart from serving delicious food, it’s an arm of La Escuela Taller Santa Cruz de Mompox, itself part of a nationwide group of schools that trains underprivileged young men and women in traditional trades and hospitality.
I wait to meet the school’s director, Giovanni Rojas, in the restaurant one evening, contemplating the river as it flows by outside the window. Just as I begin to wonder if I got our time wrong, he comes rushing in and asks, “Do you want to go to a pool party?” Before I can answer, he explains that all of his students are currently enjoying themselves at a local hotel—for homework.
“We have one year to prepare,” Rojas says, referencing the expected influx of visitors following the completion of the bridge later this year. As such, the students that he’s plucked from Mompox’s poorer neighborhoods need to get up to speed in hospitality, which includes experiencing what it means to be a hotel guest—hence the pool party. The Escuela Taller currently encompasses the restaurant and a metalwork shop where students spend mornings spinning, twisting, and soldering strands of gold and silver into the filigree jewelry Mompox is famous for. Soon, the school will also take over a hacienda and convert it into what Rojas says will be a living museum, with students restoring the building back to its former glory and visitors taking workshops in traditional crafts like pottery and blacksmithing. Eventually, it will have a hotel too.
Eager to try the “modern Mompoxino” cuisine that makes Crónicas the first restaurant of its kind in the country, I forgo the party in favor of a feast: ceviche with chorizo and passion fruit; flaky river fish steamed with peppers in banana leaves; shredded chicken prepared with basil, wine, carrots, and spices; a quiche-like tortilla Mompósina of eggs, pork, and potatoes; and a tall glass of tamarind juice. Each dish is inordinately rich both in concept and flavor. Even more impressive is the fact that, while overseen by a chef who trained in a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Cartagena, the meal was largely prepared by fresh Escuela Taller grads who, just months ago, never imagined that a career in the culinary arts was a possibility.
The other must-visit restaurant in town is El Fuerte. It’s a riverside bistro run by a sixtysomething Austrian named Walter Gurth, who left his successful career in advertising, sailed across the Atlantic, and found his way to Mompox, where he’s lived for eight years now. With thick-rimmed spectacles, a massive Bernese mountain dog, and a jocular disposition, Gurth is a fixture here. And like McColl and Rojas, he expects Mompox will soon attract more tourists, in anticipation of which he plans to shutter El Fuerte later this year and open an even more ambitious restaurant, Los Arcos, in the Casa de la Inquisición.
“I must have walked by it 100 times and never noticed it,” he says of the building, which, as its name suggests, was once home to the local arm of the Spanish Inquisition. “It was burned down after Mompox declared independence. Only the facade was left when I bought it.”
During his time in Mompox, Gurth has perfected two things: bamboo and pizza. The first is of the guada variety, a “vegetal steel” that grows in the country’s southern coffee region but that is rarely seen in Colombian architecture. When I visit the Casa de la Inquisición site, hundreds of three-story-high bamboo stalks lean against the walls and 30 tons more are coming, to be hoisted into a ceiling atop the towering pillared archways that lead into an open-air courtyard. With wild plants potted between tables, theater-like balconies, and dim lights illuminating the grand architecture like art, Gurth’s vision for the place leaves me eager to revisit Mompox just to see the finished product.
As for his pizzas, he cooks them in a wood-burning oven designed like one he once saw in Pompeii, in which the smoke, rather than staying trapped in the oven, climbs brick stairs and goes out through a chimney. Los Arcos will continue this cooking method and apply it to meats as well, including his favorite three-inch-thick bistecca alla Fiorentina. There will also be live chamber music and one more major component that Gurth refuses to reveal—it will be more beautiful, he says, if it’s left as a mystery.
The second-floor balcony at Casa la Concepción may well have one of the best views in Mompox, overlooking the busiest of the town’s three plazas. From my rocking chair, I can while away the time watching men playing chess on benches down below, the antics of stray dogs, the tourists wandering in to pose for pictures and poke about tiendas (shops) selling leather sandals and local fruit wine. If I get hungry, I can shout to the nearest café and ask if they can whip me something up—I’ll come down when it’s ready. This is the life.
As recent as three years ago, Plaza de la Concepción was not the lovely gathering place it is today. In 2010, the Ministry of Culture decided to fund a revitalization of Mompox’s albarrada—the area around the retaining wall that lines the river—which had fallen into serious disrepair. Medellin-based architecture firm Opus won the bid with a heritage-sensitive proposal, though their meticulousness saw the project take more than four years to complete.
It was worth the wait. Now, all the details that make the waterfront area so wonderful relate back to Mompoxino heritage. The wooden benches resemble rocking chairs; the hip-high iron posts marking the barrier between sidewalks and streets mimic filigree; and the ground is laid with bricks colored the red and beige of the river sand.
To the north of the town’s historic center, there are also plans to turn an area originally inhabited by the pre-Columbian Zenú people into a park of small hills. It’s meant to evoke the drainage systems that the Zenús once employed to cultivate the flood-prone land here and in the surrounding ciénegas (wetlands).
Fishermen still live out in the ciénegas, and you can cruise to their villages on wooden motorboats. Having been on a handful of river excursions before, I expect my evening outing to be pleasant. But I don’t expect it to be the best boat trip of my life, especially given that it was so little advertised and that no one mentioned anything about the birds. The hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of birds.
Everything is par for the course—our guide pointing out an occasional monkey in a tree, villagers waving as we cruise by—until about 30 minutes downriver, when we round a corner into the backwaters. Suddenly, we enter a new kingdom where we’re a royal procession and the most gorgeous white cranes are the welcoming parade, lining both sides of the waterway in perfect rows, their regally long necks pointing their beaks ever-so-slightly upward. As our boat putters through them, they take to the air, soaring low above the water in front of us as if to guide us deeper into their land. It’s about to rain, rendering their white even more celestial against the charcoal sky. Like the peak of a meteor shower or a full eclipse, I try to absorb every detail, wondering if I’ll ever see a spectacle like this again.
Sometimes, after such supersensory experiences, all I want is a beer and some normalcy. After I gush to Esther about the cruise, she instructs me to go to Plaza de San Francisco, which fills up at night with food carts and clouds of smoke from deep fryers and charcoal grills. I order some empanadas, procure a bottle of Club Colombia lager from a nearby tienda, and join the outdoor dining room of couples, families, and ranchers still in their hats and boots squeezed around little round tables in front of the oldest church in town.
It is, indeed, the epitome of a typical night in Colombia. As my plate clears and my thoughts ease, I begin to hope that as Mompox becomes unstuck in time—as more cars and planes make the town’s obscure location inconsequential, as more tourists such as myself make their way here—it will maintain an air of mystery. That not all of its treasures will be dug up or advertised fully beforehand; that locals and visitors alike will continue to see Mompox as a place to search for the past. And that the river will still flow slowly enough for me to hear it laugh.
From Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, Mompox is most easily reached by car. Rental agencies are plentiful in Cartagena, or door-to-door transport can be hired through Toto Express (57-310/707-0838). For now, the drive takes roughly five and a half hours, including the ferry ride from Magangué on the Brazo de Loba branch of the Magdalena River.
Where to Stay
Arguably the town’s most exclusive hotel, the four-room Casa la Concepción isn’t listed online, but it can be booked via the website of its mid-range sister property, La Casa Amarilla. Doubles from US$90.
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2018 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“Mompox Magico”).