Marooned on a freshwater island in the vast low-lying wetlands of the Rio Magdalena’s eastern branch, MOMPOX (also spelt Mompós) was founded in 1537 by Don Alonso de Heredia (brother of Cartagena’s founder). It served as the lynchpin for the mighty river’s trade network between coastal Cartagena and the country’s interior, and remained one of Colombia’s most prosperous commercial centres until the silt-heavy river changed its course in the late nineteenth century and Mompox was left to languish as a forgotten backwater. Simón Bolívar raised an army here and Mompox was later the first town in Colombia to declare complete independence from Spain in 1810.
Its beauty has remained practically untouched ever since and UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1995 in recognition of its outstanding colonial architecture. It was also the setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s classic novella Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Time seems to stand still here: locals unhurriedly putter around the unpaved streets, cats doze in the shade of the tombs at the cemetery and fishing boats ply the network of rivers and lakes. The town’s remoteness has kept it out of mainstream travel but its appeal as the “anti-Cartagena” – architecture to rival the coastal city but none of the hustle – has seen a recent influx of visitors.
Mompox’s grid of streets stretches out alongside the river and is easy to explore on foot. Its sprawl of grand Catholic churches and elaborate colonial mansions is a constant reminder of the town’s faded glory and wealth. The town is also famous for its wooden rocking chairs, which residents drag on to the streets in the evenings to watch the world go by, as well as filigree silver and gold work sold around Calle Real del Medio, and Vinimompox – fruit wines made from banana, guava, orange and tamarind.
The best way to explore is to wander the streets, peeking at the whitewashed colonial houses with wrought-iron grilles, intricately carved doorways, clay-tile roofs and fragrant flower-draped balconies.