There is a family somewhere near the Colombian Caribbean coast who have a novel way of caring for their elderly and infirm grandfather. Supposedly, along the banks of the river Magdalena, the very same river that courses from the Colombian interior to the Caribbean and through both the literature and vernacular of Gabriel García Márquez, there is a senile gentleman completely unaware of the small detail that he is fastened to his favourite rocking chair and has been hoisted up into the boughs of a sturdy ceiba tree.
How did I learn of this remarkable, precautionary tale of geriatric abuse and perhaps staggering resourcefulness that takes “thinking outside of the box” several steps beyond? It was on a trip to the Colombian Caribbean as a rookie journalist, following a Garciamarquian route of events and locations, that I was privy to what can only be described as truly Macondian images, tales and observations.
From what I hear, the only thing that the grandfather in question realised was that he was comfortable in his chair, and the family could go off to work with a peace of mind knowing that the Magdalena river, whilst prone to bursting its banks from time to time, had never reached the heights of where their grandfather now sat. Upon hearing this tale, I knew it was time to venture inland to Mompox.
Mompox, a UNESCO world heritage site, founded in 1537 on the banks of the River Magdalena, played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America. On November 3, 1812, it was awarded the title of Ciudad Valerosa, or Courageous City, for having been the first to declare absolute independence from Spain on August 6, 1810. Mompox is very possibly a version of Macondo, a fictional town Gabriel Garía Márquez created in his famous novel 100 Years of Solitude to describe many coastal locations in Colombia.
This was exactly what I was looking for after the chic excesses of fine dining and international tourism in Cartagena. Upon hearing García Márquez speak in person at an international congress there in 2007, I was inspired to step beyond the jamboree celebrating his 80 years, 40 years since the publication of 100 Years of Solitude and 25 years since he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. My head whipped clean by the hot Caribbean sea air that buffets the famed walled city, it was time to head into the interior and follow the Magdalena river 249km inland to Mompox, Gabo country: the heartland for the liberator Simon Bolivar and the Masons, birthplace of black poet Candelario Obeso, setting for a solemn Semana Santa, and what I believed to represent the true Colombia.
There is, in my opinion, a very fine line here in Colombia. I have been living here since early 2007 and have been visiting the area in various forms as a traveller, journalist, and NGO employee since 1996. In all this time, I have come to see some truths and many fallacies. Colombia may just offer everything from the whole of Latin America within one country, but this statement can be picked apart. Although, there is a great deal laid out for the visitor here.
In a turn of events, which could be attributed to swigging too much of the Macondian Kool Aid and perhaps permitting myself a far too liberal interpretation of García Márquez’s tales, I ended up buying a property in Mompox that very year. A ramshackle, four-room colonial ruin, with holes in the roof and ghostly tales which had been abandoned for almost eight years, had a huge, stately door that opened out – not over the dusty and rutted unpaved road in front – but to unrivalled views of the Magdalena River.
That was 2007, and here I am writing these words in 2015. I’m not going to lie that the time flew by at the most inopportune moments when I needed it to be sluggish. Then, it dragged on laconically, as if stunned by the soporific heat when all I wanted was a swift day-to-day turnover.
What started as a four-room Casa Amarilla Hostel has now become a 10-room Casa Amarilla Hotel, playing host to musicians, politicians, academics and some other notables. Most recently, we were booked out for the actors of a soon-to-be-released Colombian soap opera called “La Cacica,” which producers filmed here for over a month. Cobwebs have given way for air conditioning units, leaky colonial rooftops have been repaired, and I have calculated our overall annual occupancy to run at about 75 per cent. Not bad for a town which used to receive perhaps two to four tourists a week eight years ago.
My adventures and follies in Mompox have been well-documented in my own writing and in other publications. The idea behind it all was to provide an economic stimulus to the town and ensure that this pie – big enough to provide a slice to everyone – would be of benefit to our town; this plan appears to be working. A couple of years ago, the Colombian government launched an ambitious project to restore Mompox, having recognized its importance as a tourist destination and a sizeable increase in overseas visitors heading this way.
There will be those who already harbour doubts about coming to Colombia, but, in reality, those who have always been set on visiting this oft-maligned country will come all the same—be it rain or shine. Colombia continues to represent a new frontier in Latin American travel, not understood or seen since the region’s perilous conflicts played out through the 1980s. Though the area is being breached, it still retains an edge. As aforementioned in this somewhat homogenised market, where everything can be found in English and is as close as a google-click away, this new frontier is something unusual and exotic, and Mompox is very much a part of it.
For all inquiries, please visit the website LaCasa Amerilla
If you are interested in reading about the book, you can find it here – Was Gabo an Irishman?: Tales from Gabriel García Márquez’s Colombia