I’ve now reached the riverside settlement of Mompos. Strung out across the banks of the Magdalena, this colonial river port was once an important staging post for the transport of gold and goods between the interior and the coast. Now it’s contentedly living out its retirement as a laid back, pleasantly dishevelled town, just awkward enough to reach from Cartagena to keep it that way.
The journey here was an eventful one, following first the main highway towards Medellin, then a slippery, sliding trail through the remote, inaccessible ranch country of El Salado, once a FARC (Colombia’s revolutionary army) stronghold, and sadly infamous for the massacre by paramilitaries that took place in 2000. After my lap-of-luxury sailboat crossing from Panama (which I’m still getting guilt pangs about), this ‘short cut’ definitely satisfied my fix for discomfort, stretching out a three day ride into four. Reaching the town itself involved crossing the swirling eddies of the Magedalena on a wonderfully slow, ponderous ferry, the perfect filter to life’s usual clammer and clatter, unplugging Mompos from the rest of the world.
I like it here. Even if time hasn’t quite stood still, it’s definitely dialed back a couple of notches. Mompos’ searing midday heat, its grand, crumbling colonial houses, a cast of characterful locals and its sleepy, forgotten air lends itself to a location in a Marquez novel – which it’s believed to be, as the setting for the Colombian author’s Chronicle for a Death Foretold.
The roads, flitting between buckled pavement, dust and stone, are quiet and mellow, home to bicycles, trikes, wandering cattle, horse and carts, and the rattle of motorbike taxis. The street corners are well stocked with mounds of sweet mangos and neat stacks of pineapples. There’s little more to do than wander the backroads, sit beneath the umbrella shade of ceiba and knotted orejero trees, or join the locals in watching the world go by from the meditative comfort of a rocking chair.
I left Cartagena with Arnaud and his friend Anne Claire. She's taking a break from her work in the Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire) to visit him for a month, having bought a bicycle in Turbo for a bargain $100.
Camping in the grounds of one of the cattle ranches close to San Jancito.
The owners, from Bogota, were away. Kindly the family looking after the ranch welcomed us in, fascinated by the minutae of all our kit.
Heading back out onto the highway early the next morning. The terrain here is gently rolling and beautiful, marred only by heavy truck traffic that thunders by.
Enormous, land-of-the-giant avocados, range in price from 500 pesos (25c) to 4000 pesos (over 2 dollars), depending on taste and texture subtleties I have yet to decipher. I picked up one of the cheaper versions, and it was good enough for me.
The heavy traffic on the road to Medellin, which came in spits and starts, was getting me down. At El Carmen, I left the others and turned off onto this dirt track - carretera despatada, as unpaved roads are called here - to the tiny settlement of El Salada.
Perfect riding conditions. Although relentlessly steep and hot in places, it was all but empty.
Beautiful rock formations too, as the track meandered its way through the backcountry.
Then the mud started, just in patches at first. Note still-clean tyres.
Only motorbike taxis and a few jeeps travelled this road. Some stopped to warn me that if rain should fall, the whole area would quickly become an impassible mudpit...
After El Salida, where I was stopped and quizzed at the army base, it was easy to see why. The road deteriorated rapidly, and was no longer drivable in anything but a burly tractor.
And then, what I was dreading most: a distant storm swept in over the horizon bringing the promise of a downpour.
Once rain fell, the trail instantly become a slippery quadmire, as foretold. Making it up this short, steep incline alone took me the better part of twenty minutes. I struggled to push the bike forward half a metre, before sliding back on my heels, resting, and repeating. Had anyone seen me, they'd probably have spotted a mad glint in my eyes. And they'd probably have laughed at the comic element of my toils, knowing there's a perfectly good paved road just thirty kilometres away...
Before long, the 'road' was little wider than a singletrack. As I later found out, occasional vehicles do pass through in the dry season, winching their way up the steeper inclines. In the rainy season, not even motorbikes use these roads, and that's saying something in these parts.
I made the tactical decision to camp the night in the grounds of an empty ranch, hoping it would be drier by morning. In the middle of the night, I awoke to the sight and sound of an electric storm overhead, and a field flickering with hundreds upon hundreds of glow bugs, lighting the landscape up like an alien landing. Unfortunately by morning the heavens opened and my tent was soon floating in the middle of a marsh. Not ideal...
My drenched companions.
As the rain fizzled out, the owners arrived, smiling ruefuly at the sight of my tent and my bedraggled state.
Their mode of transport: the donkey. I was soon to appreciate how much more sensible these beasts are for this part of the world.
A sooty pot of water was soon bubbling away over the fire.
They offered me strong coffee served in seed pods - totumo. Perfect receptacles for cupping cold, water-wrinkled hands around.
I left the ranch and pushed on, inching forward, barefoot, slipping and sliding everywhere. After some time, Senor Ormedo Periz passed me by, and offered to carry my panniers on his donkey. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably still be there...
The river had also risen overnight, so his donkey had to be coaxed into swimming across.
We somehow manhandled the bike and panniers across this slippery log.
Normally my bike weighs around 15kg. By this time, even without panniers, it was almost impossible to lift, thanks to its extra cargo of mud and tacky donkey shit. Still, those Surly Troll massive clearances were doing their job as best they could - only on a few occasions did I have to stop and scoop out great handfuls of muck to keep the bike rolling. Running disc brakes made a big difference too - now I just need to find wider racks...
Compare and contrast my tyres from earlier photos...
Unfortunately, mud worked its way into the Rohloff cabling, making shifting especially hard.
Once I made it to the tiny settlement of Canutalito, Ormedo invited to his home for a bucket shower, a plate of yucca and a cup of coffee.
From there the track improved, still mud splattered in places, before finally emerging back on the main road at San Pedro.
In Magangue I caught up with Arnaud and Anne Claire. Following a formula Arnaud has been using since he left Alaska, we slept the night at the local fire station. The firemen rotate 24 hours on, 24 hours off, but have to supplement their income with secondary jobs - like selling sunglasses in the street, or driving motorbike taxis.
Basic shower facilities in the neighbouring, now disused rice factory.
The next morning we were up early to catch the sunrise and the ferry over to Bodega, some 40kms away from Mompos via a quiet paved and dirt road.
A slow, languid journey down the river. It took an hour, though I'm not sure how far we actually progressed. All part of the timewarped feel of the area....
Colombia has recently been experiencing unusually heavy rainfall, and much of this low lying area was completely flooded. Cows were marooned on newly created islands.
A chance for a chat and a kip...
More rain induced destruction.
Fields and farms all around were inundated, lending the area a strange, watery beauty.
This pile of bananas would keep me fuelled for at least a week.
A stature of Simon Bolivar, who liberated much of South America, stands in the main square. The rousing inscription reads: If it's to Caracas that I owe my life, it's to Mompos I owe my glory.
My dusty bike and Mompos backstreets.
Arnaud, who is riding around the Americas, climbing the highest peak of each country en route, and his friend Anne Claire.
A dirt road runs the length of the town beside the river, lined with parks and local cafes, pumping out endless loops of traditional, lilting 'vallenatos' into the balmy air.
A sanctuary. La Casa Amarilla, one of the finest hostels I've come across, is very relaxed, packed with information and well priced. Both the interior and exterior of this former 18th Century warehouse have been beautifully converted and restored. I was particularly pleased to arrive, knowing I could rest sore muscles, wash mud-impregnated clothes and give my bike some much needed TLC. And right now there's a posse of eight trans-American cyclists here!
The view to Santa Barbara church, from the rooftop terrace of the hostel.
Vibrant colours. I can't get enough of them.
I'm also a sucker for a bit of sun-bleached, peeling paintwork...
I was invited into this particular house after nosily peering through its open doorway. It was originally bought for twelve pieces of gold, and the family have lived there for four generations.
Full of original features, like this water urn, it was used as a location in the filming of Marquez' Chronicle for a Death Foretold.
Ye olde locks. Doorway detail.
And a more contemporary side to Colombia. Football and guns...
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1995, Mompos is slowing being meticulously restored. Unfortunately, due to bureaucratic disputes, the magnificent customs house in Plaza de la Conception has fallen into disrepair.
Nowadays, kids climb the staircase and backflip into the fast flowing, cooling waters of the Magdalena river below.
If that sounds too athletic, you can hail one of these trike-powered vendors selling natural fruit drinks, mixed with icy cold water. 'Refrescos', they yell, bouncing their way through the backstreets.
Did I mention the baking heat? Here's Monty, resident hound of Casa Amarilla, collapsed at midday...
The Need to Know section:
Money-wise, it’s around 1800 pesos to the dollar at the moment.
La Casa Amarilla is a great base in Mompos, and comes complete with all import Wifi, a lovely kitchen, a terrace, clean en suite dorm rooms (15,000 pesos pp) and space to store bikes. Even eight of them…
The national map institute of Augustin Codazzi, publishes an in depth road atlas of Colombia (13 000 pesos), which covers most of the backroad and dirt track options in the country – the layout is a little weird though. There’s also separate state maps, with even more detail, for 12 000 pesos each. There are Augustin Codazzi offices in each state capital; the one in Cartagena is in Plaza Bolivar, in the old city.