A Colombian Easter in Mompos

A Colombian Easter in Mompos

Mompós doesn’t exist, We sometimes dream about her, but she doesn’t exist.

Gabriel García Márquez in The General in his Labyrinth

hours into our journey, I’m beginning to have doubts
myself. It’s the Wednesday of Holy Week, or Semana Santa, and my
friend and I have decided to leave the ever-so-pleasant town of
Santa Marta on
‘s Caribbean coast for a large area of wetland 300km
south that contains Mompós (also spelled Mompox), an otherwise
sleepy colonial town renowned for the exuberance of its Easter

But getting there is difficult. At around 5PM we had clambered
optimistically into our air-conditioned collettivo mini-bus, but it
was an hour later before we left Santa Marta, the bus becoming
impossibly full as we picked up locals travelling to see family for
Easter – among them a mother with a newborn baby; from another
house a nighty-clad 90-year-old woman, bundled in with a pink-edged
lime-green towel for a blanket and a stoical attitude to the
radio’s aggressively loud jingles and over-zealous DJ.

As the sun dipped, we left behind the mountains of the Sierra
Nevada de Santa Marta and turned off the main road, passing through
villages with names like El Dificíl, while our driver steered with
one hand, the other clamped to his ear as he chatted on his

Now, five hours since Santa Marta, we’ve stopped outside a
thatched house in a rural village. This is not Mompós. Those of us
hoping to get there, it turns out, are to be decanted into the
sticky night and a beaten-up Ford with an equally decrepit driver,
Santiago, who has a growl for a voice and who seems, like us, not
to know where we’re going – or whether Mompós really exists.

I am rammed against the front passenger door by a large man who
squeezes himself between the driver and me, and who apparently has
no choice but to put his arm around my shoulders. But as we set off
into the darkness, the car creaking over the potholes and under our
weight, I find I’m increasingly thankful for the presence of my
sizeable neighbour, as he acts as a guide to our lost driver.

After a while we hit a newly made but unfinished road. A frog
jumps, cartoon-like, across the beam of our headlights. Santiago
makes frequent and sudden swerves to the road’s edge, where, as I
try not to notice, there are great ditches ready to swallow us up.
Without warning the road runs out and down to the swampy Magdalena
River, which we cross on a rudimentary platform nudged across the
dark water by a motorized canoe. Somehow our car makes it up the
steep bank on the other side, and after following the course of the
river, we find signs of life that signal Mompós: women cooling off
in rocking chairs outside houses painted, confusingly, with ‘Feliz
Navidad’ and images of Santa and sleighs.

We sleep at La Casa Amarilla, and the following morning a local
guide awaits us, unrequested, in the hotel entrance. His name is
Leonardo Fidel Nieto Carvajal, and he takes us out into the already
baking heat to see the Baroque confection that is Santa Barbara –
one of the town’s six churches. From the top of the octagonal
Moorish bell tower we look out over a sea of old terracotta-tiled
roofs, bounded by the slow-flowing Magdalena. It was this body of
water, linking the Andean interior with the Caribbean coast, which
made and unmade the town’s fortune.

Established in 1537 by Don Alonso de Heredia, the brother of
Cartagena’s founder, Mompós became a thriving centre of commerce.
In 1810, it was the first town in the country to declare
independence from Spain, and provided the Venezuelan liberator
Simón Bólivar with an army. On a plinth in the leafy Plaza del
Libertad are Bólivar’s words: “To Caracas I owe my life but to
Mompós I owe my glory”. But during the same century the town was
decimated by cholera, and when the river’s main channel silted up
and changed its course, the once glorious town became a backwater,
cut off and forgotten.

Leonardo takes us into one of its old colonial mansions, now
inhabited by several families and in a neglected state. Hens
scratch in the courtyard while a boy plays balero with an
improvised stick and string, his bare feet skittering along grand
old tiles that still have a sheen from the polish and wear of
several centuries. Mompós is sometimes cited as inspiration for
Macondo, the forgotten town in One Hundred Years of Solitude; but
there are much closer parallels with the town in Chronicle of a
Death Foretold, which is set on a mangrove-edged, silted river
that’s clearly this part of the Magdalena, which García Márquez
knew well.

As in that novella, the town while we’re here is busying itself
with a great event. Another colonial house, this one well preserved
and on the grand Portales de La Marquesa, belongs to the Cabrales
family, and as we pass they’re assembling the main float, now
stabled in their huge entrance, for tomorrow’s Good Friday
procession. Further along the street, a Roman soldier disappears
round the corner. Other costumed figures hurry after him, carrying
velvet pennants embroidered in gold. In the church of San
Francisco, flowers are pulled dripping out of buckets to adorn the
floats being prepared there for this evening’s procession. At
intervals, trumpets are sounded by men in purple robes tied with a
white cord of five pompoms – one for each of Christ’s five wounds.
These are the Nazarenes, a Semana Santa role passed from father to
son in Mompós.

As six o’clock approaches, white-shirted men with trombones
slung over their shoulders gather in the square. Other Momposinos
bring out wooden chairs and cups of coffee, settling in to watch
the imminent spectacle. Colombian tourists eat fluorescent-coloured
ice cream in fluorescent-coloured cones, and children ride on their
parents’ shoulders clutching balloons.

As the orchestra starts up, the procession begins its slow
progress through the square. Teenage Nazarenes come first, carrying
the lighter floats. Bubbles blown by onlookers hover above their
heads like halos. A woman burning incense is shooed away by the
marshals. As the sky turns lilac and dusk falls, lanterns
illuminate the faces of the painted wooden models on the larger
floats, which represent scenes leading up to the crucifixion. In
one of them, helmeted Roman soldiers flagellate a prostrate Jesus,
whose suffering is mirrored in the grimaces of the Mompós men
carrying this heavy scene, sweat pouring down their faces. For a
few seconds they smile gratefully as women flutter white-lace fans
at them. The band may be shrill, and the floats gaudy, but it’s a
solemn and moving spectacle. The ultimate chronicle of a death

As the procession moves on through the town, we abandon the
crowds for cold beer and rocking chairs on the Plaza de la
Concepción, under an arch of the elegant but dilapidated old
market. Bats swoop, strains of classical music play from the bar,
and the moon rises over the murky waters of the Magdalena. Magical
realism? Resurrection? In this setting, I’m ready to believe

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