Santa Cruz de Mompox
The Historic centre of Santa Cruz de Mompox represents a river port town from the Spanish colonial era.
The town connected the seaport of Cartagena with the interior. In the nineteenth century, Mompox lost much of its economic importance: due to the lack of modern influences, the original Spanish elements such as churches, private houses and the street plan have been preserved in their authentic state.
Map of Santa Cruz de MompoxLoad map
Mompox is a bit of a logistical nightmare (not the only one in Colombia). I studied different routes beforehand, but in the end, I couldn’t think of anything better than taking a bus there from Cartagena and taking the same one back 2 days later. The Unitransco bus turned out to be the most luxurious one of my Colombia trip – with comfy reclining seats, wifi, a toilet and no stops other than in 2 or 3 towns to pick up/drop off passengers. The ride took about 6.5 hours. Google Maps and maps.me totally lost track of the route in the maze of swamps and (former) islands, spitting out various incorrect times of arrival. For the last 1.5 hours, the bus takes a really minor road.
Colombia does not have many well-preserved Spanish-colonial remains. But Mompox surely is one of them. It was founded in 1537, less than 40 years after the first Europeans set foot on the South American mainland. Its historic center is beautifully restored and very cozy. It does attract its fair share of tourists, but it is geared more toward boutique-style visitors than toward backpackers or mass tourism.
When you say that the historic center of Mompox consists of only 3 streets, that seems like a very small area. But these streets are about 2km long and it took me 3 hours to cover it all (with some stops in between on a bench or on a terrace chair to recover from the heat). The part parallel to the Magdalena River is forbidden to cars, so you can walk nicely and quietly. There are various cafes and restaurants, and a huge number of benches to sit on the waterfront. If it gets warmer during the day you can also see large iguanas sunbathing here.
There are 3 squares on the river street, each with its own church. The large yellow Santa Barbara church, with its octagonal tower (see photo 1) is the icon of Mompox. In addition, there are the large La Concepción church and the red San Francisco church (photo 2). There are also several other churches in the streets further from the river: in the 17th century, Mompox had 10 churches, all built by different Spanish monastic orders.
All major churches have their origins in the early Spanish colonization period. What you see now dates from a later date, the first churches were made of wood and much simpler in design. The current churches are brick on the outside, but the interior is wooden in all cases. The carved wooden ceilings are executed in the Moorish style of Spanish Andalusia. I did my round of Mompox early Saturday morning. At that time all churches were open - women were busy dusting the banks or putting extra waxes on them, in preparation for Saturday evening mass.
One of the most appealing buildings in the city is the old market building. It has a long veranda at the back, which borders the river. At the front, it lies on the main square with the largest church.
I found the hotel and food options especially good in Mompox. I stayed at the service-oriented Casa Amarilla (which goes one level beyond the general Colombian helpfulness). I had good fish meals at the Ambrosia and Comedor Costena. And for a coffee or a drink, there are the atmospheric Cafe1700 and the tiny coffeeshop Sol de Agua.
As other reviewers have noticed as well, Mompox does have a more shady side – the modern town seems very poor and there were young children selling snacks when the buses arrived and left between 5 and 6 in the morning. It was even more visible at the village where we had a short stop during the 3-hour boat tour that is offered from Mompox center - a concrete tourist boulevard with a viewpoint on the Cienaga de Pijiño has been built there, but the local people are still waiting for the promised paved road. This is a grim reminder that Colombia can feel very developed and economically prosperous, but many people are left behind.
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A major element in the attraction of Mompox has been its relative remoteness and difficulty of access. It is situated on Colombia’s largest inland “island”, Isla Margerita, and any visit to it involved a water journey using a ferry at Yati near Mangague to La Bodega (still 35kms by road from Mompox). And this ferry doesn’t just “cross” the river but takes a 40 minute voyage downstream and then up into a different arm of the Magdalena! This added to the mystique of reaching somewhere “up river” where things were “different” even if not quite the “Heart of Darkness”!!
We visited in Dec 2019, but Mompox is undergoing considerable change and its “remoteness” is being rapidly eroded. A bridge was built in 2006 at El Buton on the road from Bucamaranga to the South East. In Nov 2015 another new bridge was opened at Talaigua which permitted a complete road journey to/from Cartagena via La Gloria - longer in distance than the traditional route via the ferry but quicker and more certain! And more change is on the way – the route via Mangague is about to get 2 new bridges across arms of the Magdalena in what is a major infrastructure investment for Colombia. These are expected to reduce travelling time between Cartagena and Mompox from 5.5 to 3.5 hours. Luckily the opening of these had been postponed until Feb 2020 following the discovery of archaeological remains during the building of the approach road, and we were still able to take the ferry by taking the “traditional” route from Cartagena. And a delight it was too, on a crowded rackety old ferry boat with our vehicle having to push the cattle also being carried, out of the way in order to get a parking spot on board! We also noted that we were crossing the same river whose gorges we had visited almost 2 weeks before hand near San Agustin around 1000 kms to the south.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that, as we drove into Mompox at around 4pm we got, not the impression of a sleepy up-river backwater, but of a traffic filled town. And it can surely only get worse? And not only because of the new roads - on the way in we passed the town’s airport – this apparently doesn’t have scheduled flights - yet?
As the previous review has stated – the old portion of Mompox is limited to a few blocks along and behind the river (c 3 x 8). They won’t take you long to explore – but are worth doing so in depth and at different times of day. You may have to “work” to find the town’s 6 churches open. We were lucky that the iconic Sta Barbara church with its octagonal “Moorish” style tower (photo used by Watkinstravel) was open for some “deliveries” and we were allowed in, but we never made it into the oldest (1580) - San Francisco.
Mompox is hot, hot, hot, but we found one of the best times to wander was in the heat of the day – the streets were empty of people and that tropical, lethargic atmosphere for which we had come was enhanced. The architecture is certainly well preserved and the central portion seems to have avoided any jarring modern developments (or least insisted that they all adopt standard “colonial” designs). In the midday heat some nice photos of even the main streets with their gleaming white facades and wrought iron grills can be obtained, empty of people and traffic! Evening is another good time – traffic has ceased and people sit out in on the verandas on those famous “Mompox rocking chairs” Along the Malecon (photo) the river slips quietly by – moving surprisingly fast and bringing down large amounts of plant material. The only boats are the occasional local “chalupas” or water taxis. Iguanas scuttle about among the trees and a wide variety of bird life can be seen. By the riverside you will see the memorial commemorating the several visits of Simon Bolivar to Mompox (“If I owe my life to Caracas, I owe my glory to Mompox”). Marquez used one of them (the last) in his semi-fictionalised account of Bolivar’s last days (“The General in his Labyrinth”). It takes time to get there and away and, you will probably need to stay a full day as well unless you “push” the transport timetables with late departures or early arrivals and/or the new bridges increase the options. But Mompox is worth the time even if it’s not in the top "echelons” of WHS. The “List” contains a lot of “Latin American Colonial” towns but this one is a bit different. It reminded me rather of Mexico’s Tlacotalpan – another “steamy” (albeit less so) river port but from another era (late 19thC). That has (perhaps a bit unfairly) received short shrift from reviewers. Mompox is certainly more interesting, as well as being more historically significant.
Although Mompox was an important and prosperous port upriver from Cartagena, it was never very large. It hasn't really grown and has a very relaxed and lethargic atmosphere. It's no wonder rocking chairs are popular here. We quickly took over a few of our own at a little cafe and just watched the river flow by.
Arriving in the early morning off an overnight bus, our first impressions of Mompox were not positive. Bus offices are at least a few blocks inland while the historic core runs parallel to the river and is only a few hundred meters long and about 2 blocks wide. Outside of this clean, preserved colonial core, Mompox is mostly a rundown and dirty village as far as we could tell. But the core is beautiful. The original buildings are also run down but in an atmospheric kind of way. There are three small plazas along the waterfront and the churches and old marketplace have been nicely restored. There are also boat tours along the river in the afternoon. Staying in one of the colonial homes rounds out the experience. This was the "quietest" and least developed of the major tourist sites we visited in Colombia.
Unless you really want to get lazy a day is easily enough to take in the sites. There are both early morning and overnight buses to Cartagena and we arrived on a direct overnight bus from San Gil that originated in Bogota so while it is still a long journey, the route to and from the south has become much simpler.
Cartagena, the masterpiece of the empire. At the same time, surraunded for pirates from England, and Holand. If you are a wealty, and aristocratic spaniard, living in Cartagena during the XVII-XVIII centuries, the smarter way to live in the area was moving to Mompox. An island in midle of the Magic Magdalena river, in midle of the rute to Honda-Bogota, and a shelter far away from Spain. Just the idea of Spain. Perhaps Seville was the model to build Mompox. One of the most magical Unesco Sites.
Seven churches. San Francisco church just an idea of baroche.
Breakfast at the marketplace. Arepa de huevo with an fresh orange juice in front of the river. You will love it.
The marketplace from the river...just divine.
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