Updated November 20, 2019
You could drive all around it and never know it was there. It's like every kid's dream of a secret hideout behind the trees, and only the invited members of the club get the secret map. Once you get there, you get the pleasure of privacy and luxury without being bothered by the world around you.
That pretty much defines the luxury adult treehouse of Mompox, Colombia, 300 kilometers upriver from Cartagena. The thing is, this incredibly cool fantasy island hideout is also a UNESCO world heritage site!
Simón Bolívar, the great South American liberator who led the successful ouster of Spanish rule, was himself a member of the "Mompox club." He loved Mompox. We bumped into him -- okay, his statue -- in the town park, under which was inscribed his famous quote, "If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompox I owe my glory." Apparently, Mompox supplied a lot of guys to help Bolívar win the battle in Caracas. Mompox became a strategic point because of its location for both trading and battles.
But way before that, it developed a reputation as a hideout for the rich and famous of Cartagena -- like I said, the ultimate treehouse for the club! You see, Cartagena had this "little problem" with pirates constantly ransacking the town. That's why if you visit Cartagena, you see that it's a walled-in city with huge fortifications and cannons that remain from the 17th and 18th centuries. The bluebloods of Cartagena eventually needed a better place to put their stash, and then of course, as long as their stash was there, why not spend a little bit of it there too!
It worked, and whenever the pirates attacked, the rich folks just went out the back door and sailed upriver to Mompox where the real treasure was. Eventually, it became such a good idea that goldsmiths settled in and used Mompox to set up a mint.
I went expecting all kinds of open museums and gift shops like in Cartagena, buzzing with tourists. Well, that's kind of the point, tourists don't make it here, maybe they can't find it, it's too much in the sticks. Only the adventurers show up, and what I found is that they have some galleries and gift shops for souvenirs, and tours and museums, etc., but everything is just really slow and laid back, so the ticket taker or store owner may just have forgotten to unbolt the door or is taking his time with an extra hour siesta.
Whatever, I could understand. According to Colombian travel office, Mompox has different activities, but while visiting the town I found the truth. Mompox is kind of steamy and makes you want to slow down your agenda. The colonial churches and other historical buildings like the San Juan Hospital go back all the way to 1550, and you go inside and the wood and walls have that smell of ancient times, causing you to walk carefully, or put your arms around enormous uneven wooden columns that have propped up the building for centuries. But then again, you may just want to join the locals hanging out in the park by the Magdalena River, gazing up into the trees covered with Spanish moss, watching the monkeys play and swing from limb to limb.
Of course, a lot of people come here to buy gold and jewelry. While the era of wealthy investors building their luxurious palaces ended in the 19th century when mother nature started changing the course of the river and eroding the island, local artisans still remain to this day making gold, silver, and pearl-laden jewelry at really great direct-at-the-source prices.
But, I'm not a goldy girl, in fact, I prefer just wearing leather bracelets. So my buddy and I were more interested in nature. Oh boy, did we find something fantastic!
Mompox has what it calls a botanical garden on the south side of town where it's more residential. Heh. We looked all over for it, for some sign that said "Jardín Botánico", a big gate, a sight of a greenhouse hovering over the rooftops, that kind of thing. At wit's end, we went from shop to house to passerby, asking them to point us the way, until they finally pointed us to a driveway at the end of a long stone wall.
The jardín botánico is someone's private home, with dogs happily barking and wanting to play, and cats roaming the grounds looking for mice. The owner was just finishing breakfast and looked like he had just come in off the farm, but walked up to us and welcomed us inside for some lemonade. That simple.
What we didn't yet know was this was going to be FAR MORE fabulous than any botanical garden. We were talking to a modest medicine man, who on his few hectares of property cultivates all the most fascinating species of plants I only knew of in my dreams.
After our lemonade, he walked us step by step to see citronella, coca (yes, that's right from which cocaine is made), vanilla, cinnamon, coffee, chocolate, tamarind, bats holes, and what else ... balsa.
On that last one, balsa, it sure smells good, and from the tree oozes sap, which I said, oh cool, and reached out to scoop some on my finger and get a better whiff. The medicine man ran after me to try and stop me, but it was too late. You see, balsa sap stings like hell if you get it in your eyes, which of course I did. Despite my washing and holding washcloths over my eyes for three days, the sting was terribly painful, and I learned my lesson (once again) to look, don't touch, girl!
The journey to Mompox is as exciting as the place itself. We got on a bus from Cartagena to Mompox, which takes us down to Sincelejo, the birthplace of the musical genre Vallenato, and then proceeds east into the swamplands that surround Mompox until we reached the end of the road at Magangue. From there, we and the bus waited by the side of the river for a ferry! An old crickety one, but hardy enough to hold several cars, buses, and passengers, and it took us for a trip up the Magdalena river current where we could see from the deck all kind of river and swamp culture until we reached the port on the opposite side of Mompox' island. The bus then continues on the island for a good 40 minutes or so until it arrives to the town of Mompox itself. A long journey, but only for those who don't anticipate it to be long.
As far as leaving, you don't have to back the same way. We didn't. We wanted to go back to Santa Marta, and for that, we took a smaller bus and a smaller ferry from the other side of the island up through the countryside of César and Magdalena provinces to the crossroads of Bosconia, then transferred there to another bus from Bosconia to Santa Marta. This actually was a bumpier, but shorter trip, and allowed us to see farms and haciendas that few travelers get to see of country life.
I so look forward to hanging out in Mompox again as soon as possible.
I already miss my monkeys in the park.
Emilie Velastegui is a travel writer and researcher. When not traveling and writing, she helps mostly foreign universities coordinate field research in biology and social studies. She also frequently heads off to Eastern Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil, where she says "the snakes are radically cool."
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