Mompos, Colombia -
Something felt different when I stepped of the boat onto solid ground in Mompos. The first thing was that I wasn’t hounded by taxi drivers. I wasn’t bothered by anyone because no was around. It was the first time that I can remember in which I arrived in a town and wasn’t immediately pounced on by taxi drivers or hostel touts. I could walk down the street in peace with 16th century Spanish colonial architecture on my right and the Magdalena river on my left. A perfect arrival.
A Town Preserved
Mompos was founded in 1537 as an important port town on the side of the Magdalena River. Goods which would move to or from Cartagena for Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru passed though this town. Being further into the interior of the country meant Mompos acted as a safe port that protected goods from piracy. The town saw it’s fair share of wealth as goods passed through town and six colonial churches, large mansions and fine houses were built in this small town. The town takes a special pride in it’s part for New Granada’s independence from Spain supplying many of the troops that Simon Bolívar used in the Battle of Carácas in 1813 leading him to say, “Si a Carácas debo mi vida, a Mompos debo la gloria.”, “If to Carácas I owe my life to Mompos I owe my Glory.” His hold on Carácas was never that strong and lost the city one year after taking it so to me this sounds more like propaganda for when he later returned to the city in order to get a place crash for a few nights and recruit more men for his campaign.
Towards the end of the 19h century the branch of the Magdalena river that Mompos was built on began to silt up not allowing larger cargo boats to pass through bringing an end to the town’s prosperity. This means today the town has changed little. Many of it’s public buildings are still used for their original purposes in which they were built and the people take a special amount of pride in preserving their town. The only thing that seems to have changed since the 19th century was the introduction of electricity and the addition of motorcycles on the streets mixed in with the donkey carts.
And in this environment are silver smiths creating fine filigree jewelry, furniture shops creating rocking chairs and wooden furniture that disappeared long ago in the US. Church bells chime off the hours and as the sun goes down the rocking chairs that are oh so popular here get pulled out onto the sidewalk as old women and men rock away the evening as bats flitter about above their heads. It’s hard not to enjoy this town. The people are more friendly than normal and it’s easy to strike up a conversation and join in at whatever the locals are doing whether its jumping off a tree into the Magdalena River or joining them for a drink in the plaza during the evenings.
And this is what makes this place great. It’s just far enough off the beaten track to keep hoards of travelers from passing through but yet it has just enough of a travelers infrastructure to make your stay enjoyable. Without an inundation of tourists the people welcome you and are interested in talking to me without any hidden agenda. This was the kind of place I was looking for in Colombia and I’m glad I finally found it.
The Bakery Incident
On Thursday night I walked into a bakery on my way back to my hostel after dinner. I was walking back with three travel friends Benoit, Jean Marc and Jackie. I had first met the in Cartagena and then again in a place I hadn’t expected to meet anyone – Cabo de la Vela. I told them I was headed to Mompos when in Cabo and to my surprise they showed up in the evening of my first day in Mompos.
“I’m going to buy bread for breakfast.” I said as I ducked into a bakery.
Scanning the shelves for some kind of sweet bread preferably with a fruit jelly stuffed inside I was oblivious to the fact that an inebriated, old Colombian was feeding the three of them shots behind my back.
“Sam! Let’s go!”
I turned around to see them taking shots one after the other after the other after another imploring me with their eyes to hurry up. The old man then noticed me looking at the four of them and began feeding me shots of Aguardiente in rapid fire succession. I downed three in a thirty second span, pointed to a random loaf of bread and was about to head out the door when the bakery’s owner, Martin, told me to take a seat.
There’s no way out of this now so took a seat and immediately knew I was ‘all in’ for the night. The others came in and took a seat with me as the old Colombian (his name’s Juan by the way) continued feeding shots to us. He would try to say something but was too far gone so instead shrugged his shoulder and handed out more Aguardiente. Giving out drinks was now his only way of communication. When we entered the store there was a half bottle of Aguardiente. Ten minutes later it was gone and Juan had stumbled down the street to buy another bottle.
A quarter of the way through the second bottle Jackie had enough sense to return back to the hostel. Benoit, Jean Marc and myself didn’t have that much sense and we stayed. Juan fell asleep half way through the second bottle leaving it up to us and Martin to finish.
We finished that bottle off and Martin hopped on his motorcycle to buy a third bottle. Not the best of ideas but we just gave ourselves a few questioning glances as he drove away. He drove twenty five feet to the front of a tienda and then walked back to the bakery before falling asleep on a chair leaving the third bottle to the three of us.
At 2:00 am we well into the third bottle and I was raiding the bakery shelves for some food. The bakery was the only thing still open at 2:00 am so two Colombians walked into the bakery looking for beer. Martin was still sleeping and we all looked at each other not sure how much Martin would normally charge for a beer (yes, the bakery also sells beer).
“2,000 pesos.” says Benoit as he shrugs his shoulders indicating that that’s his best guess at the real price.
“Fair enough” they say and had over 8,000 pesos for four bottles.
We then begin imitating Juan to the best of our ability and start feeding them shots in rapid fire to have them help us finish this third bottle. Just as we finish up Martin wakes us up and kicks us out of his bakery. It was another completely random and eventful night in South America.
Photos of Mompos: