Mompox: Town of a 1000 churches and scorching heat

Trip Start Jan 01, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Sunday, January 8, 2006

It used to be an obligatory stop on the trip up or down the Magdalena River from Bogotá to Barranquilla. Now it can only be reached after a detour of several hours on an unpaved road and two or three river crossings on a couple of tied canoes with a wooden platform on top... But Santa Cruz de Mompox still is one of the most haunting and stunning little towns you'll find anywhere, and the complete forgetfulness into which is has fallen since one century ago is part of its charm. Not many people get here, which makes you feel the privileged owner of some secret not known to many...

I promise that very few times in my life I had felt so much heat.... in fact, I don't think I had ever experienced it anywhere... From around 9 30 in the morning to more or less 4 in the afternoon, you cannot walk without feeling the unforgiving weight of the sun upon you, like a sack of salt on your back.  Should you step one meter into the sunlight, you can expect to be drenched in sweat in less that a couple of minutes.
And even though you constantly shower yourself with the water bottle you carry, in just a couple of seconds your hair, your face and your throat are completely dry once again. What makes this town such living hell weatherwise but one of the most stunning places in Colombia?

First, it's location doesn't help much at all... Just before the town, the river divides itself into two branches and then comes back together right after, forming a small island where Mompox lies... So, you can add the factors... sea level, river, tropical temperature, the lowlands that make up the area and humidity. Result: it is paradise for mosquitoes!!   But even though it sounds horrible, that's when one realizes that the town's design is at least the smartest given the circumstances....  except at exactly noon, there is always one side of each street that is covered by the shade that the long tiles and roof project, so you can at least run away from the sun and hide from the sweat... The small grid-shaped town, of about 3 x 10 blocks, is made of wide streets with tall sidewalks on which you can never walk... they're always occupied by rocking chairs. People spend half of their life sitting in the shade, keeping track of what happens from the comfort of their moving seat and chatting away from door to door... Not that it really matters, as there are barely any cars, just some motortaxis... And even despite the scorching heat and the small size of the town, you end up walking up and down it time after time, stopping to say hello to someone, to rest in the shade for a minute, to take another shower...

What else makes it so special? Well, Mompox was a very prosperous town in those times, which means that very rich people lived here. A lot of help was needed, so several towns where all the black servants lived appeared around... San Martín de Loba, San Jacinto, Palenque de San Basilio. Some, like Palenque, were towns of slaves that had run away (cimarrons) and in fact this town was the first place to declare independence from Spain, at least 50 years before the first colony formally did so. That mixture produced some of the most amazing folk expressions we have. Add the Spanish, Indian and Black elements and you have musical rhythms like cumbia, pollera, lumbalú...  and our prized instruments, the "gaita", the "tambora". Have you ever heard of Totó la Momposina? Of Petrona Martínez? Or the Gaiteros de San Jacinto? Take the chance to do so...
If you ever watch Francesco Rosi's film "Chronicle of a Death Foretold", based on García Márquez's novel, you will see some of those little corners of the town... Don't be dissuaded by the heat, the humidity or the bugs... some places are well worth the troubles and the difficulties.
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