Richard McColl is an Anglo-Canadian freelance journalist, author, and hotelier in Colombia. His articles can be read online at www.richardmccoll.com and his Colombia Calling podcasts at www.colombiacallingradio.com. He is currently writing a book about his experiences in Mompos as a foreigner.
“As they sailed down to the coast the river had grown more vast and solemn, like a swamp with no beginning or end, and the heat was so dense you could touch it with your hands.” – Gabriel Garcia Marquez wrote in “The General in His Labyrinth.”
My chosen fighter lay breathing its last in the cement ring while all around me people cheered, spat, swigged bottles of beer, and fistfuls of crumpled pesos changed hands. Just a couple of hours previously, I arrived in Mompos from Cartagena and here I found myself 10,000 Colombian Pesos in the red at the local cock fight, and with that lethal jab my days as a cock fight gambler came to an abrupt halt.
How could I have known that the events of Easter 2007, on assignment to write about Mompos’ famously austere Semana Santa, would lead me to run my luck, choose an ingredient of magic realism, and open a guesthouse in the Garciamarquian heartland of Colombia, a region where legends and superstitions are no more fiction than reality and where shamans are as much in demand as the priests at Mass.
Mompos, a UNESCO world heritage site, founded in 1537 on the banks of the River Magdalena, played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America. On November 3, 1812, it was awarded the title of Ciudad Valerosa, or Courageous City, for having been the first to declare absolute independence from Spain.
The old town, consisting of three wide, straight, and dusty streets, is not hard to navigate. Lined with large, windowed, whitewashed, one-storey colonial mansions that run parallel to the river, it remains largely as it was, and gives the idea of what a rural Spanish Colonial city was like.
Expansion has grown far beyond the three original streets, and with its renowned Semana Santa celebrations, it is a key destination for religiously inspired Colombians during this holiday period.
Certainly, when Simon Bolivar, liberator of much of South America, said: “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompos I owe my glory,” he was truly grateful to the 400 or so Momposinos who, in 1812, joined his ranks and followed him into the battle for Caracas. It is up for debate whether all or some of those soldiers from Mompos actually made it to Caracas. It has been suggested that the altitudes and weather encountered in the Andes led many of the volunteers to return to the Mompos depression. Old habits die hard. There are very able workmen in Mompos; the real quest is finding them.
Momposinos will have you believe that Bolivar came here because he was enamoured with the city. More likely, his passings through here were an absolute necessity in his wanderings that would total 123,000km by the time of his death. Mompos is so geographically important. Not only did Bolivar know he would recruit an army in Mompos, he also knew that here was the seat of the Gutierrez Pineres family – still here today and still in possession of the house on the Albarrada – themselves famed Masons and therefore bound to aid a fellow Mason like Bolivar.
How can one balance Catholicism alongside pagan worship, and so unashamedly promote Mompos as a pious Catholic destination for pilgrims? To put it bluntly, I too have fallen victim to some pagan worship when my mother-in-law had the house blessed by an alternative party in addition to having attended Mass that morning. In my defense, it happened in my absence, while I was in a lull at the guesthouse with a few guests. Later that afternoon, nine unannounced guests turned up, and I was converted.
For starters, Semana Santa in Mompos is anticlerical. On the streets during processions you are not going to see priests, only at Palm Sunday and Good Friday; ordinarily you will encounter scores of Nazarenes in heavy purple and blue smocks.
Contemporary Mompos has never suffered directly at the hands of the guerrillas due to the surrounding swamps and rivers that provide natural barriers against Colombia’s current ills. But these territorial conflicts that have been embedded in the city’s identity since its conception have assumed politics.
But, I suggest to you that you leave the politics aside, pull up a chair at a riverside kiosk, order an ice cold beer, and let the breeze from the Magdalena lend its favours while you contemplate that here is a place where entire families sit in their rocking chairs, conversing into the early hours, and one and all are welcome. Mompos is a place that people disbelieve and then embrace with vigour.
Once your head is whipped clean by the hot Caribbean sea air that buffets the famed walled city of Cartagena, give into the literary travel bug and head into the interior, following the Magdalena river 249km inland to Mompos, Gabo country, heartland for the liberator Simon Bolivar and the Masons, birthplace of black poet Candelario Obeso, setting for a solemn Semana Santa, and what I believe to represent the true Colombia.
Mompos, a true remanso de paz in Colombia.