GABRIELLE LIP­TON Wrote “Mompox Mágico,”


If Lip­ton were to ever make a cof­fee-ta­ble book, it might very well be about the se­cret gar­dens of Mompox. Be­hind the stoic fa­cades of the ha­cien­das lin­ing the streets of this sleepy Colom­bian river town is a world of court­yards, each its own care­ful cre­ation—some shaded by vine-cov­ered trees that have been grow­ing up from their soil for cen­turies, oth­ers burst­ing with trop­i­cal flow­ers. “Court­yards are a cen­tral part of tra­di­tional north­ern Colom­bian ar­chi­tec­ture, but the ones in Mompox are ex­cep­tional,” she says. “Whereas those in Carte­gena are of­ten grounds for cock­tails and fine ho­tel res­tau­rants, Mompox’s are more re­laxed and un­tamed, a bit like the town it­self.”

I HEAR LAUGH­TER, but I can’t lo­cate its source. It’s not com­ing from the other din­ers with me on the ter­race of the old mar­ket­place over­look­ing the lan­guid Mag­dalena River, nor from the chefs fry­ing

cro­que­tas in their out­door kitchen. It seems to be is­su­ing from the wa­ter it­self. Then three bob­bing heads drift into view, and I find my an­swer to be a trio of young boys float­ing down­river, gig­gling as they go.

Mag­i­cal mo­ments like this are al­most com­mon­place in Santa Cruz de Mompox (also known as Mom­pós), and it comes as no sur­prise to learn that the small, ex­cep­tion­ally well-pre­served colo­nial port town in­spired the set­tings in var­i­ous nov­els by Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, the god­fa­ther of mag­i­cal real­ism. Un­til my visit, I couldn’t have imag­ined that such a place ac­tu­ally ex­isted.

Founded by Span­ish set­tlers in 1540 on a swamp-fringed is­land be­tween two arms of the Mag­dalena, Mompox was once among the rich­est places in colo­nial Colom­bia, a hub for mer­chants mov­ing tobacco, slaves, pre­cious met­als, and emer­alds from the An­des to the Caribbean coast. By the early 1600s, its main river­front street, Calle de la Al­bar­rada, was a dream of Span­ish colo­nial ar­chi­tec­ture, lined with three cathe­dral-backed plazas linked by low white rows of tileroofed ha­cien­das.

In 1810, Mompox be­came the first town in Colom­bia to de­clare its in­de­pen­dence from Spain. Soon af­ter, it wel­comed Caracas-born free­dom fighter Simón Bolí­var, who en­listed 400 Mom­pox­ino vol­un­teers for his cam­paign to lib­er­ate western Venezuela from Span­ish rule. A memorial to Bolí­var in a square now filled with ven­dors of cold drinks and phone ac­ces­sories is proudly etched with his fa­mous words: “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mom­pós I owe my glory.”

Yet by the end of the 19th cen­tury, the river run­ning past Mompox had silted up, forc­ing trade ships to di­vert to another branch of the Mag­dalena (the Brazo de Loba). The town’s pros­per­ity came to an abrupt end. Ma­rooned amid low-ly­ing wet­lands, it re­treated into ob­scu­rity, a lit­eral back­wa­ter that time would for­get.

To­day, Mompox’s hun­dred years of soli­tude is its call­ing card. Pre­served by both its geo­graph­i­cal iso­la­tion and the more tu­mul­tuous years of Colom­bia’s mod­ern his­tory, the town of 30,000 looks much as it did in its colo­nial hey­day, a fact not lost on UNESCO, which in 1995 des­ig­nated its com­pact his­toric cen­ter a World Her­itage Site. In re­cent years the Colom­bian gov­ern­ment has also taken no­tice, in­vest­ing in re­ju­ve­na­tion projects and up­grad­ing trans­port in­fra­struc­ture. While it still takes five hours to reach Mompox by car and ferry from Carta­gena, a 2.3-kilo­me­ter bridge—the coun­try’s long­est—is be­ing built across the Mag­dalena to re­duce travel time. The lo­cal airstrip is also be­ing length­ened to en­able it to ser­vice reg­u­lar flights.

Whether this au­gurs a tourism boom for Mompox, I can’t say; cer­tainly some of the res­i­dents I meet are an­tic­i­pat­ing an in­flux of vis­i­tors. But as I sit by the river mak­ing notes about the town’s wide, empty boule­vards and im­pos­ing wooden doors and the stray dogs

that fol­low me though the trop­i­cal blaze of the af­ter­noons when ev­ery­one else is tak­ing a siesta, I won­der how many such quiet mo­ments Mompox has left.

I once heard that

mys­tery is es­sen­tial to beauty. This cer­tainly holds true for Mompox. It is a place of sug­ges­tions: the tail of an iguana al­most in­dis­tin­guish­able against the dense green leaves of a cal­abash tree; Je­suit mu­rals too faded to make out the im­ages; ru­mors of a 15-year-old ghost drift­ing through quinceañera dances. Much of the town only lends it­self to a glimpse—at least to out­siders.

“Mompox still be­longs to Mom­pox­i­nos,” says Richard McColl, the owner of the ho­tel where I’m stay­ing, Casa la Con­cep­ción. A Bri­tish jour­nal­ist, McColl first came through Mompox in 2007 to wit­ness its elab­o­rate Se­m­ana Santa (or Holy Week) cel­e­bra­tions. He ended up buy­ing a 17th-cen­tury ha­cienda on the Plaza de Santa Bár­bara and mar­ry­ing a beau­ti­ful Colom­bian lady with Mom­pox­ino roots.

That first house be­came La Casa Amar­illa, a midrange guest­house that helped put Mompox on the back­pack­ers’ map a decade ago; it’s still the best­known digs in town. A few years later, McColl opened Casa la Con­cep­ción on its name­sake plaza as a more up­scale and pri­vate lodg­ing. With just four rooms, it’s not listed on­line and is re­served for politi­cians, pub­lic fig­ures, and in-the-know trav­el­ers.

As McColl is now based in Bo­gotá, his mother- in-law Es­ther Gar­rido runs Casa la Con­cep­ción. She’s in ev­ery way the woman of the house, keep­ing the high-ceilinged rooms pris­tine and their ham­mocks strung tight, ar­rang­ing and re­ar­rang­ing the old rocking chairs and deep couches in the front liv­ing rooms. In the morn­ing, she floats around the court­yard—a cor­nu­copia of flow­ers —as you eat your perico eggs at the com­mu­nal break­fast ta­ble; in the evenings, she calls you back to the ta­ble to ask about your day, and to share her own sto­ries about the town.

McColl is open­ing a third ho­tel this year, Casa San Rafael, which he says will be the most lux­u­ri­ous in Mompox. As with Amar­illa and Con­cep­ción, all the con­struc­tion is be­ing done by lo­cal ar­ti­sans: a fam­ily known for their ex­per­tise in colo­nial rooftops; the town’s best iron forger for the win­dows and doors; tile mak­ers who know the se­crets to the tra­di­tional Span­ish style. In­stead of hir­ing trucks to bring in sand for con­struc­tion, McColl em­ploys fleets of horse carts to en­sure more lo­cals ben­e­fit.

Across the plaza from Con­cep­ción is the old mar­ket­place, a once derelict build­ing whose up­per floor is now home to Cróni­cas, the restau­rant where I watch the three gig­gling boys float down the Mag­dalena. Apart from serv­ing de­li­cious food, it’s an arm of La Es­cuela Taller Santa Cruz de Mompox, it­self part of a na­tion­wide group of schools that trains un­der­priv­i­leged young men and women in tra­di­tional trades and hos­pi­tal­ity.

I wait to meet the school’s di­rec­tor, Gio­vanni Ro­jas, in the restau­rant one evening, con­tem­plat­ing the river as it flows by out­side the win­dow. Just as I be­gin to won­der if I got our time wrong, he comes rush­ing in and asks, “Do you want to go to a pool party?” Be­fore I can an­swer, he ex­plains that all of his stu­dents are cur­rently en­joy­ing them­selves at a lo­cal ho­tel—for home­work.

“We have one year to pre­pare,” Ro­jas says, ref­er­enc­ing the ex­pected in­flux of vis­i­tors fol­low­ing the com­ple­tion of the bridge later this year. As such, the stu­dents that he’s plucked from Mompox’s poorer neigh­bor­hoods need to get up to speed in hos­pi­tal­ity, which in­cludes ex­pe­ri­enc­ing what it means to be a ho­tel guest—hence the pool party. The Es­cuela Taller cur­rently en­com­passes the restau­rant and a met­al­work shop where stu­dents spend morn­ings spin­ning, twist­ing, and sol­der­ing strands of gold and sil­ver into the fil­i­gree jewelry Mompox is fa­mous for. Soon, the school will also take over a ha­cienda and con­vert it into what Ro­jas says will be a liv­ing museum, with stu­dents restor­ing the build­ing back to its for­mer glory and vis­i­tors tak­ing work­shops in tra­di­tional crafts like pot­tery and black­smithing. Even­tu­ally, it will have a ho­tel too.

Ea­ger to try the “mod­ern Mom­pox­ino” cui­sine that makes Cróni­cas the first restau­rant of its kind in the coun­try, I forgo the party in fa­vor of a feast: ce­viche with chorizo and pas­sion fruit; flaky river fish steamed with pep­pers in banana leaves; shred­ded chicken pre­pared with basil, wine, car­rots, and spices; a quiche-like tor­tilla Mom­pósina of eggs, pork, and pota­toes; and a tall glass of ta­marind juice. Each dish is in­or­di­nately rich both in con­cept and fla­vor. Even more im­pres­sive is the fact that, while over­seen by a chef who trained in a three-Miche­lin-starred restau­rant in Carta­gena, the meal was largely pre­pared by fresh Es­cuela Taller grads who, just months ago, never imag­ined that a ca­reer in the culi­nary arts was a pos­si­bil­ity.

The other must-visit restau­rant in town is El Fuerte. It’s a river­side bistro run by a six­tysome­thing Aus­trian named Wal­ter Gurth, who left his suc­cess­ful ca­reer in ad­ver­tis­ing, sailed across the At­lantic, and found his way to Mompox, where he’s lived for eight years now. With thick-rimmed spec­ta­cles, a mas­sive Ber­nese moun­tain dog, and a joc­u­lar dis­po­si­tion, Gurth is a fix­ture here. And like Mc-

Coll and Ro­jas, he ex­pects Mompox will soon at­tract more tourists, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of which he plans to shut­ter El Fuerte later this year and open an even more am­bi­tious restau­rant, Los Ar­cos, in the Casa de la In­quisi­ción.

“I must have walked by it 100 times and never no­ticed it,” he says of the build­ing, which, as its name sug­gests, was once home to the lo­cal arm of the Span­ish In­qui­si­tion. “It was burned down af­ter Mompox de­clared in­de­pen­dence. Only the fa­cade was left when I bought it.”

Dur­ing his time in Mompox, Gurth has per­fected two things: bam­boo and pizza. The first is of the guada va­ri­ety, a “veg­e­tal steel” that grows in the coun­try’s south­ern cof­fee re­gion but that is rarely seen in Colom­bian ar­chi­tec­ture. When I visit the Casa de la In­quisi­ción site, hun­dreds of three-story-high bam­boo stalks lean against the walls and 30 tons more are com­ing, to be hoisted into a ceil­ing atop the tow­er­ing pil­lared arch­ways that lead into an open-air court­yard. With wild plants pot­ted be­tween ta­bles, the­ater-like bal­conies, and dim lights il­lu­mi­nat­ing the grand ar­chi­tec­ture like art, Gurth’s vi­sion for the place leaves me ea­ger to re­visit Mompox just to see the fin­ished prod­uct.

As for his piz­zas, he cooks them in a wood­burn­ing oven de­signed like one he once saw in Pom­peii, in which the smoke, rather than stay­ing trapped in the oven, climbs brick stairs and goes out through a chim­ney. Los Ar­cos will con­tinue this cook­ing method and ap­ply it to meats as well, in­clud­ing his fa­vorite three-inch-thick bis­tecca alla Fiorentina. There will also be live cham­ber mu­sic and one more ma­jor com­po­nent that Gurth re­fuses to re­veal—it will be more beau­ti­ful, he says, if it’s left as a mys­tery. The sec­ond-floor bal­cony at Casa la Con­cep­ción may well have one of the best views in Mompox, over­look­ing the busiest of the town’s three plazas. From my rocking chair, I can while away the time watch­ing men play­ing chess on benches down be­low, the an­tics of stray dogs, the tourists wan­der­ing in to pose for pictures and poke about tien­das (shops) sell­ing leather san­dals and lo­cal fruit wine. If I get hun­gry, I can shout to the near­est café and ask if they can whip me some­thing up—I’ll come down when it’s ready. This is the life.

As re­cent as three years ago, Plaza de la Con­cep­ción was not the lovely gath­er­ing place it is to­day. In 2010, the Min­istry of Cul­ture de­cided to fund a re­vi­tal­iza­tion of Mompox’s al­bar­rada— the area around the re­tain­ing wall that lines the river—which had fallen into se­ri­ous dis­re­pair. Medellin-based ar­chi­tec­ture firm Opus won the bid with a her­itage-sen­si­tive pro­posal, though their metic­u­lous­ness saw the project take more than four years to com­plete.

It was worth the wait. Now, all the de­tails that make the wa­ter­front area so won­der­ful re­late back to Mom­pox­ino her­itage. The wooden benches re­sem­ble rocking chairs; the hip-high iron posts mark­ing the bar­rier be­tween side­walks and streets mimic fil­i­gree; and the ground is laid with bricks colored the red and beige of the river sand.

To the north of the town’s his­toric cen­ter, there are also plans to turn an area orig­i­nally in­hab­ited by the pre-Columbian Zenú peo­ple into a park of small hills. It’s meant to evoke the drainage sys­tems that the Zenús once em­ployed to cul­ti­vate the flood-prone land here and in the sur­round­ing ciéne­gas (wet­lands).

Fish­er­men still live out in the ciéne­gas, and you can cruise to their vil­lages on wooden mo­tor­boats. Hav­ing been on a hand­ful of river ex­cur­sions be­fore, I ex­pect my evening out­ing to be pleas­ant. But I don’t ex­pect it to be the best boat trip of my life, es­pe­cially given that it was so lit­tle ad­ver­tised and that no one men­tioned any­thing about the birds. The hun­dreds and hun­dreds and hun­dreds of birds.

Ev­ery­thing is par for the course—our guide point­ing out an oc­ca­sional mon­key in a tree, vil­lagers wav­ing as we cruise by— un­til about 30 min­utes down­river, when we round a cor­ner into the back­wa­ters. Sud­denly, we en­ter a new king­dom where we’re a royal pro­ces­sion and the most gor­geous white cranes are the wel­com­ing pa­rade, lin­ing both sides of the wa­ter­way in per­fect rows, their re­gally long necks point­ing their beaks ever-so-slightly up­ward. As our boat put­ters through them, they take to the air, soar­ing low above the wa­ter in front of us as if to guide us deeper into their land. It’s about to rain, ren­der­ing their white even more ce­les­tial against the char­coal sky. Like the peak of a me­teor shower or a full eclipse, I try to ab­sorb ev­ery de­tail, won­der­ing if I’ll ever see a spec­ta­cle like this again.

Some­times, af­ter such su­per­sen­sory ex­pe­ri­ences, all I want is a beer and some nor­malcy. Af­ter I gush to Es­ther about the cruise, she in­structs me to go to Plaza de San Fran­cisco, which fills up at night with food carts and clouds of smoke from deep fry­ers and char­coal grills. I or­der some em­panadas, pro­cure a bot­tle of Club Colom­bia lager from a nearby tienda, and join the out­door din­ing room of cou­ples, fam­i­lies, and ranch­ers still in their hats and boots squeezed around lit­tle round ta­bles in front of the old­est church in town.

It is, in­deed, the epit­ome of a typ­i­cal night in Colom­bia. As my plate clears and my thoughts ease, I be­gin to hope that as Mompox be­comes un­stuck in time—as more cars and planes make the town’s ob­scure lo­ca­tion in­con­se­quen­tial, as more tourists such as my­self make their way here—it will main­tain an air of mys­tery. That not all of its trea­sures will be dug up or ad­ver­tised fully be­fore­hand; that lo­cals and vis­i­tors alike will con­tinue to see Mompox as a place to search for the past. And that the river will still flow slowly enough for me to hear it laugh.

Es­ther Gar­rido (left) with her sis­ter Car­men at Casa la Con­cep­ción. Op­po­site: A view over red-tiled roofs to Mompox’s Santa Bár­bara Church, a baroque land­mark dat­ing to 1613.

Be­low, from left: A host­ess at one of Mompox’s old­est guest­houses; the town’s his­toric Mu­nic­i­pal Ceme­tery; a typ­i­cal Colom­bian break­fast of perico (eggs scram­bled with toma­toes and onions) at Casa la Con­cep­ción; a fruit ven­dor tak­ing advantage of some...

THE DE­TAILS Get­ting There From Carta­gena on Colom­bia’s Caribbean coast, Mompox is most eas­ily reached by car. Rental agen­cies are plen­ti­ful in Carta­gena, or door-to-door trans­port can be hired through Toto Ex­press ( 57-310/ 707-0838). For now, the...

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