• Dan Hilden

Aimless Wanderings in Colombia Part 2: Mompox and Cartagena

I tend to forgo comfort for flexibility when I travel. I hate booking rooms or domestic flights far in advance because I don’t like being locked into specific plans. What if I find a place that’s worth spending a few extra days in? What if I meet people who can show me a side of a place that I wouldn’t otherwise see? Solid plans have screwed me out of potentially good experiences in the past, and a lack of planning sometimes allows me to wander deeper into a place or experience. I say all of this to justify why we waited too long to book an in-country flight and instead were forced to take a moderately painful 24+ hour bus, then boat, then moto-taxi ride from Periera to Mompox.

A long-ass bus ride is a long-ass bus ride. I don’t need to go too deep into the experience. The first leg was a handful of hours to Medellin on a nice bus on a slow, mudslide speckled highway. Then there was a taxi ride from the southern bus terminal to the northern one, made much longer by rush hour traffic. And then the long, long ride to Mompox. I’m usually pretty content with staring out the window watching the country go by, but this was an overnight bus. I slept a little, read a lot, and caught some glimpses of towns along the way made a little hallucinatory by my half-awake state.

When we finally got off the bus in Magangué we were greeted by a crowd of pushy moto-taxi drivers. Their form of moto-taxi is just a motorcycle that you ride tandem with the driver and whatever baggage you have, as opposed to the motorized rickshaw which seats two or three in a cart in back with the driver on the motorcycle up front. I’m sure they’re competent and all, but it’s hard for me to feel good about hopping onto a motorcycle with another guy and 40 pounds of baggage, much less ask my girlfriend to do the same. We ignored these guys and walked over to a waiting taxi.

There is nothing for the foreign visitor in Magangué. I’m sure spending time there would lead to some interesting cultural experiences, but the place is rustic. Our taxi wound through the morning traffic, sharing the roads primarily with ancient motorcycles and horse powered buggies ferrying loads of produce, construction materials, and manure. At the river port we were greeted by several men asking where if we were trying to get to Mompox. I was immediately suspicious that they were trying to lead us to their sketchy river taxi service or whatever, but really they were just trying to help us find the official window where we could buy a ticket to Mompox.

Tickets in hand, waiting bystanders eagerly directed us towards a long, brightly painted boat that sat low in the water, its stern weighed down heavily by two oversized motors. Stepping off the dock we had to crouch low to squeeze into the opening between the wooden hull and the fiberglass canopy. Other passengers, locals and Colombian tourists, packed in after us, and the chipped and cracked fiberglass overhead bowed downwards as dockworkers loaded baggage and deliveries onto the roof. I looked out across the brown, slowly moving but very wide river and was just beginning to think about what a death trap this thing could be, when life jackets were passed in.

Image: The ferry up the Magangué

We motored at full speed for about 10 minutes and then swung into a tributary, docked near a collection of small huts and buildings in a patch of forest, and offloaded. As we untied our packs from the roof a young woman who we later learned was from France but was going to school in Medellin got our attention from across the dock and asked in English if we wanted to share a cab; we all knew that Mompox was the only place that a foreigner would be going from here. So too did the eager group of taxi drivers who awaited us onshore.

We were now a solid 24 mostly sleepless hours into our journey, and suddenly we were surrounded by a mob of drivers, all loudly offering pretty much the same price to go to Mompox. Men pulled at our bags knowing that if they could get one of our packs into a truck, we were sure to go wherever it went. The prices all seemed inflated, and the French girl and I (Lyndsey speaks very little Spanish) both tried to focus on one driver at a time to see what they could offer. Some of the drivers seemed cash hungry to the point of being overaggressive and a little scary, others just seemed amused by the spectacle of three gringos. Behind the mob I saw a lone moto-taxi (the rickshaw style) that looked like it would carry three passengers and called out to its uninterested seeming driver asking what he would charge. His price was the same as the rest, but the three of us quickly agreed that an open carriage sounded nicer than a cramped, run-down taxi in the tropical heat. The driver loaded our bags under the bench seat, and we set off for the 45 minute ride along an impressively potholed highway to Mompox, passing through a landscape and villages that in my mind more resembled west Africa than Colombia.

Image: The taxi drivers wait next to a ferry just like the one we were on.

As chaotic as it all was, the piecing together of the route across the country, the negotiations, the bumpy rides, the uncertainty of arriving in a new town or port, the glimpses of local life seen from the road and through moments of friendliness and even friction between strangers, all play into what I love about travel.

In Mompox we parted ways with our French friend and walked a handful of blocks through busy, gritty seeming residential streets to find our hotel. We were shown to a dark but clean room, loud with the almost ever-present street noise of Colombia, unpacked, savored the air-conditioning for a few minutes, and headed out to find lunch. We sat at a busy outdoor restaurant beside the river and watched iguanas jump between tree branches while eating a typical Colombian lunch of soup, pork, chocolate rice, and fried plantains, and then wandered the streets for a while before giving up and going in for a long siesta.

Founded around 1537 to serve as a river port linking the Caribbean with the foothills of the Andes, Mompox was safe from the pirates and rival navies that regularly attacked the colony’s main port at Cartegena. Mompox soon became a sanctuary for Spanish wealth and culture, and by the early 19th century it was one of the most influential cities in the Spanish colonies. It was the first Colombian city to declare independence from Spain in 1810, and around 1812 Simon Bolivar arrived to recruit and train most of the city’s able-bodied men to serve as the foundation for the army that would eventually free much of Latin America from Spanish rule. Late in the 19th century, the Magdalena River began to fill with silt, and within a few decades, the port was all but closed. Situated between three rivers, Mompox became isolated from the outside world. The era of narcotraffickers and paramilitaries made the area a no-go zone until the last decade or so, and finally, a bridge was built over the Magdalena River just a couple of years ago. Worn around the edges but intact, Mompox, now a UNESCO world heritage site, is a time capsule of Spanish colonial architecture.

Gallery: Architecture in Mompox

It took us a couple of days to warm up to Mompox. The travel guidebooks make it sound like the tourism industry in the city is booming, but aside from a few obviously foreign visitors and maybe a couple of dozen Colombian tourists that milled around in the plazas down by the waterfront on weekend nights, it seemed primarily to be a commercial hub for the surrounding agricultural communities. We stayed at a highly rated but affordable ($21 a night) hotel where there was only one other guest; a Colombian who spent one or two nights and seemed to be in town for business. By and large, the city is loud, hot, and gritty. The long siesta makes it hard to get anything done or find food between about 1pm and sunset, but it really is too hot and muggy to enjoy life outside between those hours anyway.

7am in Mompox: The drone of moto-taxis has not yet begun, and most of the activity in the streets is comprised of people sweeping, scouring, and mopping the dust from the sidewalks and patios in front of their homes and businesses. In many cases, this will be repeated in the evening. The streets may be dirty, but it seems to be a point of pride that the walkways won’t be. We walk down the narrow residential streets, take a right onto the Calle Real del Medio where businesses are beginning to open, and the occasional delivery truck, moto, or horse-drawn carriage passes by as produce vendors set up their stands. The sidewalks here are two or three feet above the road level, built that way hundreds of years ago, presumably so that you might avoid wet feet if the river gets a little too high. We take a left at the 440-year-old Iglesia de San Fransisco and past the plaza take a right to walk along the quiet, pedestrian (and occasional moto) only walkway along the river. Most of the restaurants are still closed; breakfast isn’t really a big thing in much of Colombia. There is nothing much to do aside from watch the river, the birds, and the iguanas. Lyndsey draws, I take some photos. Eventually we sit down at a small, empty café for some coffee, and then get back to wandering. At the next plaza city workers are sweeping and emptying trash cans, and a group of old men are sitting in the shade of some trees telling stories. We take a right and head back to the main streets where traffic is now loud and constant. We stop at a couple of shops to check out some of the intricate handmade gold and silver jewelry that this city has been producing for hundreds of years. It’s a buyers market: I would guess that some of this would sell for 10 times more in the US. A little more walking, and it’s time for lunch. Then a long siesta followed by more wandering, a light dinner of street food, beer down by one of the plazas beside the river where kids are practicing soccer, and then it’s time to turn in.

Gallery: Mompox Life

There’s not much to do in Mompox these days, but that’s part of the allure. After a couple of weeks of nonstop go-go-go travel we were ready to chill out a little. Our eyes adjusted to the grit, our sleep schedules to the cooler early mornings, and the place grew on us. Cartagena had the opposite effect.

Photo: Evening at the city fortifications of Cartagena

Situated a few hours north of Mompox on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is nothing like anywhere else in Colombia. Old world architecture, modern art, and Afro-Caribbean culture blend to make one of the most vibrant cities in the Western Hemisphere. It is awe-inspiring and for sure beautiful. But spend a few days there, and you can’t help but notice dark underpinnings. Friction. In central Colombia, a new friend told us “as you walk through Cartagena remember that the poorest people in Colombia live there.”

Throughout much of Latin America, cultural and income inequality is obvious and open. For better or for worse, much of the culture is shaped by poverty. When homes offer little in the way of comfort and entertainment, family and community bonds far outweigh the importance of material goods that a lot of us in the west are tied to. Whole communities; whole cities, in some cases, are relatively poor, but they’re in it together. Plazas are lively and crowded on weekends, and community-wide festivals are common. Open-air markets give farmers, vendors, and crafters an opportunity to sell their goods to consumers for a lower price than if they had to rent a shop or sell though a shop owner.

Cartagena remained comparatively safe and stable through the chaos of the ‘80s, ‘90s, and ‘00s, and during that period tourism was ever-increasing. Today the historic old town is filled with upscale restaurants, shops, cafes, and hotels. At some hours, hawkers selling hats, sunglasses, cigars (and cocaine), jewelry, selfie sticks, and drinks, seem to outnumber the tourists themselves. Of course, these people can’t afford to live or eat in this part of the city; high rent means high prices on everything. Food and drinks at humble seeming restaurants and cafes cost at least twice what it did in other Colombian cities, sometimes three or four times more. Wandering the streets around 10pm on a Sunday night, we found ourselves wondering where everyone went. The streets were quiet, and the lights in the apartments above the ground level businesses were mostly dark. This is not the norm in Colombia. The old colonial buildings are real; it’s the culture that is a façade.

The Getsemani neighborhood at the southeast side of the old town has managed to hold onto its culture and character for now, but you can see the transformation taking place. Some streets that were once apartments and businesses are now just rows of hostels and international bars, lined with the same décor that you see at every tourist hotspot in the world. Tours are offered to lead young travelers from one Instagram famous building or mural to the next, ensuring that everyone can arrive, fill their feed, and move on quickly.

On our way to the bus station, as we left the city, we got stuck in traffic for an hour or so and I struck up a good conversation with our taxi driver, a former police officer. He talked in detail about how regular people are getting priced out of their neighborhoods and pushed into slums at the edge of the city. He’d lived here for his whole life and was clearly a proud Cartagenian but was worried about what the future might bring to his city.

We had similar conversations all over Colombia. People are getting more educated, outside money is flowing in, the streets are safer than they have been in decades, but normal people are still having trouble making ends meet as the price of housing and commodities go ever higher. I’ve seen the same thing happening at pretty much every up and coming tourist destination I’ve been to around the world. Outside money comes in, the cost of everything rises as land is bought up to make room for the businesses and infrastructure to support it all, but most of the new jobs are low paying. Before long the people who live and work in the place are priced out. Am I just jaded because I live in a tourist town in the US? Maybe. And yes, I know that my going to these places perpetuates the problem. What can we do about it? I don’t know yet.

Cartagena was the only place where we saw any sign of the nationwide protests that were going on while we were in Colombia. It was completely nonviolent.

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