By Joanna MarracelliOften times, the road less traveled proves to be the road with the greatest benefits. Santa Cruz de Mompox, or simply Mompox (spelled also Mompos/Mompoj), could certainly be considered one of the roads less traveled and one that contains many treasures for those willing to seek it out. This historic city, which lies on the Rio Magdalena, is far removed from main roads, making getting here an adventure in itself. The 16th century colonial architecture is extremely well preserved and earned the city a nod from UNESCO back in 1995. It was also in Mompox that Simon Bolívar once declared, “If to Caracas I owe my life, to Mompox I owe my glory.” A plaque commemorating the famous war hero lies proudly in the center of town. This was in reference to his time spent in the city, gathering his troops to fight for independence against the Spanish.
In colonial times, this town was an important trading post thanks to its strategic place on the Magdalena river. It was far enough away from the Caribbean Sea to remain protected from pirates and pillagers and in addition, it joined up to more inland routes making it an important link between sea and mountains. Colonial architecture and wrought iron work characterized many of the buildings. Artisan filigree work thrived. The city flourished. But the very river that gave Mompox the ability to blossom also became its downfall. Inexplicably, the river shifted its course making it difficult to gain access to the town. The trading decreased and Mompox became something of a forgotten city, holding onto glory from a bygone era.Although a bridge has been in the works for many years, Mompox remains isolated and so arrival here is not an easy venture. The remote location only adds to the magic of the town but it does make for a long, tiring trip. There are three main ways to get here. The most direct way is also the most expensive and the bumpiest! The puerta a puerta service (door to door) costs 70,000 COP (US $36) for the 7-hour ride from Cartagena (they also serve nearby cities of Barranquilla & Santa Marta). The other two options involve buses. One is a cheaper, more indirect way with a stop in Magangué (4 hours), followed by a ferry ride, shared taxi and mototaxi, in that order. The other bus option and the one I took, is direct offered from Expreso Brasilia, from Cartagena to Mompox, taking about 8 hours (ferry ride included) for 50,000 COP (US $26). After the taxing journey to get here, I half expected to be wowed upon arrival, and I was disappointed when I wasn’t instantly impressed. Perhaps it was the long ride or the sweltering heat. Mompox is hot, humid and swampy, reminiscent of the Louisiana bayou during summertime. Motorcycles buzzed passed me blowing dust that stuck to the beads of sweat on my forehead. I was to quickly learn that this is not the city to dazzle you upon arrival. Mompox requires the visitor to slowly peel back its layers and discover each treasure that lies within. With just over 25,000 inhabitants, it maintains a sleepy atmosphere, mostly due to the weather. The day is best to be passed just sitting in one of the rocking chairs Mompox is famous for. We checked into our chosen accommodation, a great budget choice, over at La Casa del Viajero. Initially, we picked this lodging due to its price. At $25,000 COP per night (US $13), it was much cheaper than any other option in town. Well, this was our first surprise in Mompox. La Casa turned out to be better than we could have ever anticipated. A bright, cheerful yellow colonial house welcomed us inside where we met the genuinely kind Juan Manuel. Here, you are treated like one of the family. We met his sister and his associate David Dimas. Never in my life have I had service like this. Juan Manuel is always there with a gracious smile, willing to have a chat about anywhere in Colombia you might fancy and he is ready to help you discover the hidden secrets that lie in Mompox. The rooms are basic but impeccably clean and most importantly, they have strong air conditioning, which is crucial to a good night’s sleep in this steamy town. La Casa is really a home away from home and the folks I met there are now considered friends. If you want a bit of luxury while staying in the town, I put my vote towards Hotel Boutique Bioma. We did not sleep there but I ventured inside for a look and was impressed by not only the rooms and environs, but also by the friendly owners. We were taken around for a tour by the affable Gerardo Alferez and offered lunch in the on-site restaurant, which we obliged. The place is stunningly gorgeous and features a swimming pool and rooftop patio with lavish, sweeping views over the colonial rooftops of Mompox. For lunch, we sampled the local river fish of the area, bocachico. It was prepared minimally, en papillote, which best brought out the natural flavors of this delicate fish.
I mentioned to Juan Manuel that I was interested in food and inquired if there were any local specialties that I should try while here in Mompox. He quickly became excited and took me on a gastronomic tour to uncover one of the city’s first treasures. First, he invited me to try the tasty little snacks dubbed ‘el diablito’ (the devil) due to their hard crunchy exterior. Made from cheese and cassava, the little snacks are a special treat here in Mompox and I was instantly hooked!
We started a walking tour to divulge other culinary treats of the city. Dulce de limon is popular all throughout Colombia and made famous in Mompox by Doña Ada, located just around the corner from La Casa del Viajero. It is said, here, you can find the best dulce de limon in the country. It’s simply a candied lime peel, served with its own syrup. I can describe the taste as wonderfully refreshing when serve chilled, a perfect balance between sweet and acidic. I tried others while in town and it’s true, nothing compared to Doña Ada.We continued walking along to the dusty outskirts of town, picking fresh, juicy mangos from the numerous trees along the way. We arrived to the queso de capa factory, where we had a chance to witness the local artisans hard at work making this famous cheese. Sold everywhere in the streets here, it is made in much the same way as mozzarella except they heat the cheese and roll it out, akin to a large sheet of pasta. And like mozzarella, it has an equally addictive quality to it! Don’t miss the ‘bocadillo’ version, which has a large chunk of guava paste stuffed inside.
Next it was on to another local treat, the casavito (also spelled casabito). This was perhaps one of the most surprising things I have ever eaten. It’s a folded pastry filled with sugar, coconut and anise. What makes it so unique is the dough. It’s made purely from pounded cassava root. We got a chance to visit the house of Ramon Ponton Navarro (Tel: 310 654 62 88) where, with his family, he makes the casavitos daily. Each one is painstakingly made by hand. First, the family has to dry out the cassava root, literally wringing the liquid out by hand. Next, Ramon pounds the root into a fine powder and sifts out any large pieces. Finally, the casavito is ready to be cooked.
He places the powder on the hot stove top and almost as if by magic, it forms together to make a delicate binding. Carefully he fills it with the sugar mixture and folds it gently over. It blew my mind that such a flavorful and delicious pastry could be made purely from this root–no fat was used! Do not miss a visit to Ramon’s house if you are visiting Mompox to witness (and taste) this incredible process! We graciously ate these small works of art that could hold their own in some of the best bakeries in the world.
The next day, we continued our food tour with an early morning stop over at Luis Enrique’s (Tel: 313 550 31 31) place for the famous butifarra. In Peru, butifarra often refers to a pork sandwich, but here in Mompox, Colombia, it was all about the humble meatball. But not just any meatball. No sir. These handmade creations, which take about 5 hours to make, are prepared by Luis Enrique directly in his home.He grinds the pork by hand and adds garlic and salt for flavor. He stresses that you shouldn’t embellish the meat too much, just simply enhance it. After grinding, the pork is placed in cow casing (tripe) and it gets boiled for about 5 minutes. The real flavor comes by slowly smoking the butifarra by hanging it on top of a parrilla (BBQ). The butifarra are put into large metal bowls which Luis attaches a special sling to. He then can walk around town, banging his knife against the bowl, which is the secret signal to everyone that he is ready to sell his creations. A squeeze of lime and it’s ready to eat.
We spent the remainder of the day slowly walking around town, visiting the striking colonial buildings, especially the churches. The town has two main roads which run parallel to each other. One of these is along the river and its beauty is temporarily interrupted by massive construction. The roads and sidewalks are turned inside out while workers jackhammer in the relentless sun. We questioned Juan Manuel and he informed us that Mompox is preparing for the annual jazz festival, held here every October. The festival, along with the Semana Santa, draws both foreigners and Colombians and the town packs out. It is these two times of the year that Mompox is transformed from a sleepy city to one that hosts hordes of tourists.
As we strolled the dusty streets, we passed men fishing along the river, while others sold pineapples. Old ladies rocked in their rocking chairs while fanning themselves and I found it difficult to imagine a more festive atmosphere here in languid Mompox. For now, we just enjoyed the sun slowly setting, turning the sky all shades of pink as young people began to gather in the plaza Concepcion to play chess while classical music blared out. Drinking a fresh limonda de coco (frozen lemonade with coconut) and the famous fruit juice lulo (a delicious tart/sweet fruit found only in Colombia) provided a wonderful respite from the heat and the plaza is the perfect place for people-watching, an activity enjoyed by both Momposinos and the curious tourists that visit.
It’s difficult to leave Mompox. Spending the days discovering its layers had proven limitless. Just when we thought there wasn’t anything left to find, we unearthed more. In addition to the food finds here, wrought iron work, which you can appreciate in everything from the keys to the window coverings, is ubiquitous in town. In the Hotel Bioma, they have several art pieces all made from traditional wrought iron. Another precious metal featured is silver, specifically in the works of exquisite filigree. You can find filigree silver all over the town, sold as elegant earrings and necklaces. They even make their own wine here, a sweet version more suited for an aperitif than a steak dinner. We sampled the mango and were pleasantly surprised at how refreshing and dangerously drinkable it was.
We couldn’t leave without a last lunch and what better place to have it, then at recommended (by practically everyone in town) El Comedor Costeño. Set up directly on the river, they serve up a delicious version of the fried river fish, bocachico, with Caribbean staples like coconut rice and fried plantains. We watched the pineapple pickers float by with their loaded boats as children tried to clamor inside to where the fruits lay in the shade away from the relentless sun. When one of the locals saw me trying, unsuccessfully, to fan myself from the blistering heat, he got up to move his fan over to me. It’s these small acts of sharing that define the essence of Momposinos.On one last note, we had heard great things about restaurant El Fuerte (Tel: 57 5 6856762). The owner, an Austrian man by the name of Walter, is said to have one of the best pizzas in Colombia. His wood-fired pies are pretty famous in town but unfortunately the restaurant was closed while we were in town. We called but were greeted rather rudely by a surly woman. I would still urge you to go, if you happen to be in town but call ahead to be sure the place is open.
A visit to Mompox is truly like stepping back to another place in time. The Rio Magdalena created both its life and its retreat. It’s left the town in a beautifully preserved state just waiting to be discovered. And that’s precisely the appeal for the traveler willing to take time out to slowly peel back its layers. Mompox is quietly waiting for you.