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Mompox – Where Time Once Stood Still…in a Chalupa – Mompox, Colombia

Mompox - Where Time Once Stood Still…in a Chalupa
Mompox, Colombia

Once upon a time, in the steamy lowlands of Colombia, the great Magdalena River rolled out sleepily into a bustling town as it winded its way to meet the sea.

Now, nurturing but threatening, the river is gradually choking the town to death. Trading, once brisk and easy, guiding ships to its dock, is halted by the ever-shallowing water level. The river gave life then the river took it away. Today, it’s just another snoring town, where time stood still.

Lone Chalupa Crossing the Rio Magdalena
Lone Chalupa Crossing the Rio Magdalena
Simply irresistible, or simply crazy, either one or both, it could be a treasure trove in the attic or I could be mistaken.

In my quest for the quintessential Spanish colonial town in Latin America, my persistence yielded a lead when I spotted this one with a catchy rhythmic name called Mompox, on the off-the-beaten track.

Sounds very appetizing, Mompox’s “x factor” lends a titillating touch of exoticism as it has done to Mexico, Xian, and Xanadu. Not being exaggerated, I think it has what it takes to be in the league of New York, London, Paris, Tokyo as well as Bosnia, Baghdad, and Kabul - a two-syllable name with an easy memory recall.

Technically intriguing is this one remnant of the many Spanish legacies in Colombia. It just elicits excitement because the more knowledgeable fathers at UNESCO - as we all know that father knows best - declared it a World Heritage Site. Mompox together with Cartagena beat others for this honor. Why no others more deserving than this town - if indeed Colombia is only allocated a quota of two in this category - is a 64 million dollar question.

Searching for information - guidebooks, the internet, travel agencies, I find it limited, running at least in the English version of it.

Quick search for images harvested satisfying results to quench my curiosity. But posting queries on a US-based Colombian website produced fruitless response. Surfers are either simply uninterested beyond the topics of immigration and mail-order brides, or have never heard about it.

Simon Bolivar, South America’s Washington and Napoleon incarnated in one, found this spot as a refugee way station, licking his wounded ego after a temporary defeat. Commercial decline caused by the river’s strange twist of fate, eventually discouraged vessels as siltation built up along its banks - brought diminishing returns and fell back in the rat race to modernization. It’s surely an interesting bit of sad story.

Served by an obscure airport, it has no direct road contact with any major city. This town’s perceived remoteness and accessibility challenged situation evoke a latter day Timbuktu or Samarkhand attributes set in the swampy bowels of the Magdalena. God knows if its surrounding waters are infested by caymans and piranhas; or if traffic lights are installed, or sophisticated camera batteries are in stock. An added mystique of adrenaline oozing surprises enhanced its irresistibility.

In Cartagena, my “mission control” and launching pad for this micro-sized “Core of Discovery”, I was able to gather snippets of information and confidence that snowballed in due time for my trip. Bumping by Abaco, I thought I was in a TV sitcom pub set, a bookstore stuffed with English speaking staff and patrons comprising a cast of mainstay characters hanging around and all know too well each other’s first names. This oasis of Mestizo and fair-skinned Colombians in a city amidst a sea of mulattoes, confirms the cliché “birds of the same feather flock together”. Classy but approachable, it’s beyond comparison to the government’s tourism office located by the promenade besides the mini cruise-ship jetty, manned by an anorexic and lifeless non English-speaking trainee, and guarded by a camouflage-uniformed soldier with his K-9 sniffing partner.

In this store, a Scandinavian-looking clerk who may pass as a poster girl for Abercrombie and Fitch, with her easy switch between crunchy Spanish and cosmopolitan English, jotted the direction:

1) Take Metro Bus bound for terminal; 2) Proceed to Expreso Brasilia bus counter and buy ticket for Magangué; 3)Take trip to Magangué; 4) At Magangué, walk to the docks and wait for chalupa; 5)Take chalupa ride to Bodega; 6)At Bodega take taxi to Mompox; 7)Arrive at Mompox.

She assured me of a perfectly safe trip but it’s more like an “Amazing Race” obstacle relay to the hinterlands. Yes, it’s terrorist-free but too convoluted of a ride. The instruction was initially confounding.

Making it complicated is its location, a fork in the river, on a big flat island with no bridge connection. After the first leg from the west approach at Magangué, the next move is to cross the river’s west arm to the small village of Bodega, the last pit stop, continuing by land on its final push for the town, which faces the east arm. The whole trip lasts eight hours.

The chalupa ride is one jolt. Sounds mouth-watery, but this motorized outrigger-less roofed-over fat canoe, three seats across at the belly, packs 18 people. It fills the river gap completing the trip in this sluggish economic region, generating no interest or impetus from the national government.

At the crack of dawn, I checked-out profusely sweating after a shower. Perspiring from intense humidity exacerbated by my heavy backpack, I traversed down the tout-free-for-now streets of Cartagena towards the bus stop by the promenade, the breezeway opposite Plaza del Reloj near the Pegasus statue where my trip will commence. The first green-colored Metro Bus doesn’t usually arrive until 7:30 am. But it’s perfectly OK to take any bus as long as it goes to the terminal, far off east of the city. Local informants are simply too careful to suggest short of anything below their perceived comfort and safe level for tourists. Mini buses are cheaper, naturally ventilated, and still safe.

The bus schlepped all the way across town to Cartagena’s east edge through congested dusty suburban roads. My heart false alarmingly pounded fast as the bus squeezed its way excruciatingly a busy slum street-market literally stinking with fishy catches and stale butchered meat.

My next leg was a breeze. Expreso Brasilia touts were waiting, not withstanding other cheaper alternatives. The trip was a pleasure best remembered by its friendly passengers and eye-soothing views of softly undulating savannah hills, and sleepy villages few and far between. It became all too familiar and repetitive as we were serenaded by a video of Colombia’s famous Cumbia crooners.

Now the end of the segment has arrived in dusty searing Maganque. Instantly reminding me of any remote Philippine provincial town, its familiarity didn’t register any surprising curiosity and fear. I’m just as feel-at-home in my own turf. Dominantly indigenous, displaying brown complexion but with slight hints of Spanish facial features, passengers and town residents appeared and go about their ways just like Filipinos. Practically, I didn’t have any problem blending in.

The bus conductor entrusted me to my fellow passengers, their affable smiles, reduced by communication gap, just simply registered godspeed and revealed curiosity elicited by this not-all-too-familiar tourist visiting a not-all-too-familiar destination. Two Mompox locals, college kids, heading home on a school break offered to guide me on the rest of the trip, a shining act of Colombian goodwill and hospitality.

Now comes the hard part. My newfound guides led me to the embarkation point. Luggages were hoisted up the roof while we passengers tremblingly took our positions as the canoe sunk further down by each load. It finally took a precariously dangerous level at seventeen passengers, one shy of the eighteen desired by the boatman when he acceded to prodding and complaints. Water was just about three inches or less lower than the rim of the canoe. Reluctantly, he set off to the super wide waterways of the Magdalena. Cat and mouse car chases in the freeways of Los Angeles will be more exciting if transformed here. Thrill seeking cops and robbers will have a ball riding in its magnificent name-your-speed traffic-less vastness.

Features of a Mompoxian Casa
Features of a Mompoxian Casa
Slicing through the waters with its noisy engine, the boat simply zoomed like a hydrofoil; nose protruding in an upward angle displacing slivers of jet stream splashes on both sides, giving a spectacular water show, making me wonder, will we ever survive this trip?

On to its first ten minutes, the engine bogged down and the boat simply drifted by, a perfect karma for this greedy boatman, even if we’re all in the same boat.

Time stood still - the boat floats precariously in a balance.

The stillness of serene wildlife was occasionally broken by screams of lady-passengers and guffaws of men when the boat tilted to one side, allowing water to spill in, creating thrilling short bursts of panic, that’s when impetuous passengers rock the boat with a sigh.

Afternoon heat and evaporation permeated. I felt gently cradled in a hammock by the placid arms of the waves swayed with the lullaby sounds emitted by the slapping waters. Background faint echo of quaking and chirping feathered creatures as well as locust-like monotone buzzing by unseen critters slowly soothed my ears. The slow motion fluttering leaves of vegetation lining the banks simply levitated me to hypnosis mode.

Occasional passing chalupas and a petroleum barge distract my sleeping momentum of my state of drowsiness, defining the only manmade activity in this scenery.

After twenty minutes, the boatman finally came up with an idea of revving-up the engine once again.

More on a paddled speed, it looked like a 10 mile/hr running Segway on an empty 50-lane freeway but much better off than allowing ourselves from being drifted down by the current on a whim. It chugged inch by inch, foot by foot.

Finally, a young good samaritan boatman with his empty chalupa came to the rescue. We were conveyed to his boat in the middle of the river, in a dangerous tilting maneuver. One by one, we evacuated the former, the scene reminiscent of the suspenseful movie “Speed” when tactical SWATs rescued the hostages from a bomb-fitted bus, our luggages to follow.

It ended-up a too-late-the-hero rescue as the receiving dock of this trip is five minutes away, just around the corner, behind those bushes. I was thankful anyway.

Taxis awaited us in the arrival point; my guides finished off the haggling, finally agreeing, we split the fare between the four of us, my two guides and another passenger. Being the “Guest of Honor” I was offered the front seat, while the three were squeezed sardine style at the back. The road is smoothly paved but rough on the edges, and just obstructed by herds of cattle, seemingly blasé to traffic. One cow even gave me a sleepy wink. It’s just about a half hour ride; the first passenger was dropped off. After we entered the town, I was next.

I asked to be dropped off at Hostal San Andres, a lovely, homely, ancestral house with very high cool ceilings framed by crooked rafters and primitive laths hovering above high walls and tall windows.

The rest of the evening was spent on familiarizing with the surroundings. After a quick nap and shower, I was given by these local guides a short introduction of the town that practically my sense of its bounds was completely covered just before darkness loomed over.

In the morning, I was lazily most inclined to spend the day in my very gravitational air-conditioned room rather than spending out. Not withstanding, I was able to finish the tour by noon.

The churches are just oozing with rusticness, complete with the bells and whistles of austere quaintness, no bravura or bonanza of glitters and curlicues here. The only fact that six of them are clustered within a small area is a marvel in itself. The church of Santa Barbara, the queen of them all, stands out as a unique Mompoxian style, gabled main structure with quirky profiled and mildly offbeat bell tower.

Houses are just as simply typically Andalusian thrown in with balconies - if ever they have upper floors. It featured tall windows with wooden shutters. Street-level house openings offer a glimpse of an airy Mompoxian home. Wooden rocking chairs that come in a set, a specialty handicraft of this town are displayed proudly by homeowners in their living rooms.

The open windows allow the much needed air circulation on a tropically sweltering summertime heat even on a December day.

As I stumped under the midday sun, hot air seeps upward, sucking out the fluid from my dehydrated body while I explore the scorching dusty streets.

Wide jelly dome-shaped canopy trees provide cool umbrella shades, a soothing relief, eliciting lethargic, aimless strolls especially at the quayside. Townsfolk meet at the market, its line of old fashioned but very busy convenience stores and its sidewalk spillovers where smalltime peddlers park their carts and lay their wares combine a setting of razzmatazz rusticness. Beaten up burros face-off with tuk-tuks driven by dusty rubber-slipper footed drivers.

Contemplative Courtyard
Contemplative Courtyard
Mompox reminds me of my mother’s waterfront laid back hometown of Donsol, Philippines, relaxed and provincial. It epitomized simple, stress-free living. Her town would’ve been more inviting with some history intact, if the invading Japanese didn’t set it on fire, destroying its entire legacy in a dark episode of World War II. Just exactly like this, since Mompox’s come-ons, its churches, do not have to shout out-loud with splendid architecture to be noticed by UNESCO.

I tried to fit in more attractions in my empty itinerary - a walk in the quay where Bolivar’s historic landing is memorialized, a visit to the town hall, a local nobility’s mansion-museum, the town’s gold museum, the town college, and even the town cemetery.

The town hall has a contemplative courtyard, so does the mansion, the museum, and the college. The small empty school is interestingly decorated around its patio arcade, a memory lane of sorts, arrays of passport style photos of its alumni in antiquated black-and-white - gaze down with inspirational and challenging reminder to student passersby on school days. Classroom furnishings are more of past relics curiosities.

The car, tuk-tuk, and donkey accommodating “Main Street” where my hotel is located are lined with jewelry shops. Mompox is also famous for its silver filigree industry, which is why its only heavily secured public museum is dedicated to ecclesiastical jewelry.

Living up to its category as cozy and neighborly, the town’s residents seem to know everybody here where neighbors are no stranger to each other. The town bakery’s owners are very amicable, and so is the restaurant’s, next door.

Bidding goodbye to Mompox, I am now faced with the challenge of a long complicated trip ahead back to Cartagena. Joking aside, it involved just one mode of transportation the whole time - a bus, which will navigate the river crossing on a barge.

At the docks, time once again stood still - for more than two hours, to be exact. That’s how slow the queue took to get into the barge. I have practically run out of Spanish words and topics talking to my seatmate to kill time.

Getting out on the other side is easier. The rest of the trip was a breeze, except for the approach to Cartagena where heavy traffic resumed and time ticked-by once again.

A rundown of expenses:

3-DayTrip to Mompox: US$70 (if you’re not into silver jewelry)

Stroll on a Leafy Quay on a Hot Day: Priceless

Stranded on a Chalupa: Priceless

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