Sooner or later, pretty much every traveller in South American Colombia finds their way down to Cartagena, the fortress city by the sea. Surrounded by the formidable 16th century Las Murallas (sea wall), the city’s old town is almost too picturesque, with its maze of leafy squares and narrow streets, lined with brightly-painted colonial houses sporting ornate brass door knockers and draped with bright pink bougainvillea plants.
From early morning on, Cartagena buzzes with activity. Before 9am, scores of speedboats whisk crowds of sun worshippers to the Rosario Islands from the dock while the city’s numerous vendors lay out colourful hats, wood carvings and woven goods along the pavements.
Start your wanderings at the leafy Plaza de Bolívar, where the locals linger on the shaded benches. The grand Palacio de la Inquisición that takes up the west side of the square inspired fear and loathing in its time, with witches, blasphemers and other sinners denounced at the small window along its side between 1610 and 1776. Inside, the inventive torture implements indicate how confessions were extracted.
Diagonally across from the square is the vast, fortress-like cathedral, with a soaring but plain interior. Sir Frances Drake had a cannon fired into its interior in 1586 in a bid to persuade the good citizens of Cartagena to part with a vast sum on money – a move that persuaded the city that it needed better protection against marauding pirates. The most impressive of the Cartagena’s fortifications is the hilltop Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, across the bridge from Old Town, its towers, battlements and maze of tunnels never penetrated by the enemy.
At night, Old Town throngs with crowds. Live music plays at the Plaza de Los Coches; rows of open-topped horse-drawn carriages carry couples and families through the narrow streets; squares fill with revellers, hawkers, beggars and street musicians. From the melt-in-your-mouth ceviche, the Vietnamese-style seafood rice at La Cevichería on Calle Stuart, and the intense flavours of southern India at Ganesha at Calle de Las Bovedas, to the fine dining and live Cuban music at Calle Balocco’s La Vitriola – frequented by the likes of Shakira – Cartagena’s eating scene is second to none. Revelry continues late into the night, from the open-air Café del Mar atop the sea wall to the pumping nightclubs along the glitzy hotel strip in the new part of town, and the action only winds down at dawn, only to be repeated, night after night.
So, if all roads eventually lead to Cartagena, then Mompox – the ‘anti-Cartagena’ – is notoriously difficult to reach, lost as it is in the midst of swamps and tiny villages in the middle of Colombia. You have to catch a van in the wee hours of the morning, or else take a combo of buses and boats. A timeless languor hangs over Mompox, baked under the hot sun, and seems to seep into your very bones. The slow pace of life reflected in the gentle movement of the river and the lives of locals who trundle along the dirt streets by bicycle. Founded in 1540, this town that once rivalled Cartagena in importance as a port until the river was silted over and traffic diverted elsewhere. The town’s loss is your gain: with the exception of Colombian visitors, who come to pay homage to the setting of the film version of Gabriel García Marquez’s Love in The Time of Cholera, you will find few other tourists here.
The biggest pleasure here consists of strolling along the waterfront, ducking into narrow sun-baked streets, lined with crumbling colonial buildings, and stopping at the leafy little square, graced with a statue of El Libertadór himself – Simón Bolívar – that betrays Mompox’s former importance. The inscription below reads (in Spanish): “If to Caracas I owe my birth, to Mompox I owe my glory”. Nearby, the elaborate decorations of Mompox’s churches – the gingerbread house-like Iglesia de Santa Bárbara by the river and the brightly tiled Iglesia de San Agustín on Calle Real del Medio – are the foil to the austerity of Cartagena’s places of worship.
If the heat is too much, while away the siesta hours on shaded benches in the little tree-lined park by the cemetery. Poke around the little necropolis, its grounds overgrown with knee-length dried grass, its chipped gravestones and tombs a blinding white on a sunny day, and the cemetery cats dozing in their shadow, to see if you can spot the only Jewish grave in the Catholic ‘city of the dead’.
Gourmet cuisine is yet to make inroads here, but Comedór Costeño is an excellent bet for lunch, with heaped plates of fish-of-the-day, rice and patacones (mashed fried plantain) served on outdoor tables overlooking the river. In the evenings, the locals gently creak in the street on the wooden rocking chairs they are famous for making. You can join their example on Plaza de Concepción, knock back a drink at the Luna de Mompox or else head to the Plaza Santo Domingo that comes to life at night with street vendors grilling meat on sticks, making pizza from scratch, while local musicians provide the soundtrack.
In contrast to Cartagena’s frenetic aquatic activity, Mompox’s boats glide slowly along the banks, giving you glimpses of sunbathing giant iguanas, herons and other denizens of the river. The boat makes its way up a narrow tunnel of reeds to a vast lake where the local fishermen’s children frolic in the water. As the sun goes down, the lake acquires an otherworldly pearly sheen, and as the blood-red sun sinks below the horizon, you imagine that you’re seeing Mompox exactly the way other travellers saw it five centuries ago.