Isolated and Well Off the Beaten Track – Mompox Can Be Reached
“As they sailed down to the coast the river had grown more vast and solemn, like a swamp with no beginning or end, and the heat was so dense you could touch it with your hands.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez – The General in His Labyrinth
Mompox – where on earth?
Located some 250 km from Cartagena, Mompox is not an easy place to reach. Bordered on one side by vast swamps and on the other by the Magdalena River it is hard to picture that once, up until the end of the 18th century, this town was the third most important commercial hub in Colombia, behind only Bogota and Cartagena.
Indeed, unless you have studied the Simon Bolivar’s movements and battles in liberating much of South America from Spanish rule or seen fit to read Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s novel, The General In His Labyrinth, it is very likely you will never have heard of Mompox.
How to get there
So, given its location and distance from major cities and combined with the fact that until the new highway is completed the arduous journey can be made overland from Cartagena (8 hours including a ferry ride from Magangue) or overnight in a 16 hour haul from Bogota via a bridge and brief boat trip at El Banco.
The Magdalena River
The Magdalena river has been both a blessing and a poisoned chalice to the people and city of Mompox. From the 16th to the 19th century the city developed parallel to the river. The three straight wide streets of one storey whitewashed houses that run parallel to the waters are today the beating heart of the city as they were in Colonial times.
As the key bridge between the Caribbean coast and the interior of the country, the river provided the city with the origin of its wealth. Merchants laden with both legitimate goods and contraband came here from Cartagena to protect their interests from the rampaging and frequent attacks by pirates.
Founded in 1540 on the banks of the Magdalena, and given the conditions, merciless heat and swamplands, Mompox is a feat of stubborn perseverance and exact engineering and played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America.
The historic center has preserved the harmony and unity of the urban landscape. Most of the buildings are still used for their original purposes, providing an exceptional picture of what a Spanish colonial city was like. As previously mentioned, the city increased in size and importance until that time when the Magdalena river, laden with debris and silt altered its course, moving away from Mompox and therefore leaving the city isolated and in decreasing in importance.
Modern day Mompox
Today the city has expanded with an influx of people displaced by the conflict but it can only grow so far as quite obviously an island can only contain so much expansion!
Tourism is growing gradually, obviously not as rapidly as those here would like, but, with the new highway and with an emphasis on its renowned and austere Semana Santa celebrations, hopes are high. Foreign money is flowing in and the streets and vast colonial mansions are being renovated in anticipation of Mompox becoming the next big thing in Colombia.
Mompox may be very indebted to the river for leaving it as a colonial backwater for so long. Its isolation meant that the colonial masterpieces have been left intact, the various churches and plazas may require some touching up, but they remain essentially as they were.
At the same time, the conflict has never strayed too closed to the city limits, in a department, Bolivar, that has seen its fair share of violence. Being situated in the flat swamp land with fluvial boundaries that provide little cover for attacking or retreating forces has left Momposinos alone to their own devices and to do so at their own speed.