Like most South American countries, Colombia has many faces. But unlike anywhere else, it’s steeped in so many layers of history, heritage, and fiction in queal measure, it’s no surprise magical realism was born here and nowhere else in the world. Colombia is Cartagena with its colorful past and present, Colombia is Medellin, Colombia is the Andes Mountains and the chaos of Bogota, the crooked streets of Cali and the emerald greens of the Coffee Triangle, it’s the crazy zigzags of the Trampolin del Diablo trail and the generous curves of the Cocora Valley roads, but for me, the essence of Colombia is Santa Cruz de Mompox, a forgotten city in the crook of the arm of River Madgalena. It’s out of the way, Mompox: hidden in a hot, humid swampland way off the main roads or points of interest, it’s not on the adventure travel bucket list, nor does it come up as a must-see destination in Colombia. And yet, this is where Colombia reveals itself anew.
Santa Cruz de Mompox
“Mompox does not exist. Sometimes we dream of it, but it doesn’t exist” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez, “The General in His Labyrinth”.
A bumpy dirt road leads across a green flatland before disappearing into a muddy riverbank. A century-old wooden barge bobs on the shores of River Magdalena as the first few trucks and passengers board. Nearby, a rickety wooden shack serves as a restaurant; smells of cooking chicken emanate from the makeshift kitchen where women guard large bubbling pots from bare-bellied children and cats. Several Colombian pickup drivers slowly eat their lunch watching the comings and goings on the barge, wiping sweat from their brows, swatting flies away; the air is so hot and drenched in moisture it seems to ripple, then stay perfectly still. I ask them when the barge is set to depart. “When it fills up. In half an hour, maybe, or tomorrow morning”.
Slowly, the barge fills with old, beat-up pickups, small motorcycles, and foot passengers. The barge’s motor groans to life, and the boat pushes off the river mud. Three old men sit at the edge of the barge, hats drawn over their eyes, watching the slow-moving waters of River Magdalena rush past. The banks of the river are so impossibly green they seem like a mad painter’s vision: swampy little inlets and creeks are covered by trees overflowing with vines, moss, flowers, and reeds, growing under and over each other, struggling for a breath of air, creeping around the tree trunks and devouring the undergrowth as it fights through in a myriad of new saplings and sprouts, water birds leisurely picking at the muddy waters.
The barge rumbles by, and after an hour or so, there it is: Santa Cruz de Mompox, the City of God, Simon Bolivar’s most beloved refuge. Before there was Colombia, Mompox was the first city of Nueva Granada to declare absolute independence from Spain – and any government – in 1810. Founded in 1537 on the ancient lands of the native Malibu tribe, Mompox soon rose to riches and glory as it became one of the major ports on the Magdalena River and home to Colombia’s most talented goldsmiths. Spanish and creole nobility ruled their vast haciendas from Mompox and the city became so prosperous it was constantly targeted by river pirates. With a history so deep and layered – tales and legends of chiromancy and remnants of the Spanish Inquisition, native, Spanish, and Caribbean influence, Bolivar’s famous cry, “If I owe my life to Caracas, to Mompox I owe the glory” after the city had rallied behind him in the battles for independence – Santa Cruz de Mompox on the banks of Magdalena once rivaled Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean shores.
And then, at the beginning of the 20th century, the Mompox arm of the Magdalena river began silting until it became standing water, and the river traffic diverted to Magangue via the Lobos Arm. Little by little, then all of a sudden, Mompox had found itself on an island surrounded by the stagnant link of the Magdalena and the wet marshlands, falling into ruin and sliding out of memory.
As the barge stumbles into the old port of Mompox, I struggle to ride up the slick, muddy bank where chickens and bare-footed kids scramble out of the way, shrieking with laughter. Heavy, loaded motorcycles aren’t a usual sight in Mompox where time seems to have frozen still: the empty, sun-baked streets are still lined with exquisite Spanish galleries, houses with ornate windows and dainty balconies, and old colonial churches circling the squares and leaning heavily onto the shoulders of nearby villas that once belonged to the aristocrats of Nueva Granada.
The air is heavy with heat and humidity forcing the inhabitants of Mompox to shut the windows and take their places in rocking chairs under the shade in the inner courtyards, and the city’s siesta is as still as the quiet of its ancient cobblestone streets. Nothing stirs except the brown, muddy waters of the Magdalena, and it’s as if Mompox is dreaming with its eyes open, stone angels watching over the Simon Bolivar cemetery and the old, nineteenth-century cannons still trained on the river.
The few hip cafes offering vegan lattes seem out of place here, almost embarrassed of their own chrome surfaces and espresso machines; Mompox is old, and it remains old, encroached by the swamps, the dead arm of the Magdalena, the sleeping alligators, the water birds, the pungent, earthy smell of the tropical heat, and its own memories it can’t escape. In the filigree workshops and the wrought-iron balcony railings, the narrow streets and the plaza de armas, the potted flowers spilling out of large Spanish windows, the old Mompox still looks out to the river – perhaps for Bolivar to return, or for the ghost of Gabriel Garcia Marquez to dream up a new fate for the City of God.