My chosen fighter lay breathing its last in the cement ring while all around me people cheered, spat, swigged bottles of beer and fistfuls of crumpled pesos changed hands. Just a couple of hours previously I had arrived in Mompox from Cartagena and found myself $10,000 pesos in the red at the local cockfight. With that lethal jab, my days as a cockfight gambler came to an abrupt end.

How could I have known that the events of Easter 2007 – on assignment to write about Mompox’s famously austere Semana Santa – would lead me to run my luck, choose an ingredient of magic ‘realism’ and open a guesthouse in the Garciamarquian heartland of Colombia, a region where legends and superstitions are no more fiction than reality and where shamans are as much in demand as the priests at Mass.

Semana Santa in Mompox

Holy Week in Mompox is heavily Catholic, but the town’s population blends a variety of traditions.

Mompox, a UNESCO world heritage site, founded in 1540 on the banks of the River Magdalena, played a key role in the Spanish colonization of northern South America. On November 3, 1812, it was awarded the title of Ciudad Valerosa, or Courageous City, for having been the first to declare absolute independence from Spain.

The old town consisting of three wide straight and dusty streets is not hard to navigate. Lined with large windowed-whitewashed one storey colonial mansions that run parallel to the river it remains largely as it was and gives the idea of what a rural Spanish colonial city was like.

Expansion has grown far beyond the three original streets and with its renowned Semana Santa celebrations it is a key destination for religiously inspired Colombians. But how much does the average Colombian holidaymaker know about the history of Mompox? New research undertaken by the Academia de Historia de Mompox and local historian Virgilio DiFilippo suggests that the town really owes its existence to more shady elements such as smuggling, contraband and rampant Masonic involvement.

Certainly, when Simón Bolívar, liberator of much of South America said, “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompox I owe my glory,” he was truly grateful to the 400 or so momposinos who in 1812 joined his ranks and followed him into the battle for Caracas. It is up for debate whether all or some of those soldiers from Mompox actually made it to Caracas. It has been suggested that the altitudes and weather encountered in the Andes led many of the volunteers to return back to the Momposino ‘depression.’

Momposinos will have you believe that Bolívar came here because he was enamoured with the city. In effect, Bolívar knew he could recruit an army in Mompox, and that the city was the seat of the wealthy Gutierrez Pineres family – still here today and still in possession of the house on the Alberrada – themselves famed Masons and therefore bound to aid a fellow Mason like Bolívar.

Such is the Masonic influence in Mompox that DiFilippo and others have started research on the symbolism of the street grid to the old city plan. Listening to his enthusiasm and reasoning, it is hard to deny Templar involvement. It just seems that there are too many coincidences to deny some sort of Masonic involvement. While this revelation is a spiny topic to the religious institutions in Mompox, the layout does lend itself to certain conspiracies and since Mompox is a city of complex paradoxes, why not entertain them.? After all, the contraband route from the Guajira peninsula to the interior via Mompox was routinely referred to as the Camino de Jerusalén, or Pathway to Jerusalem.

Aside from the members of the Academia de Historia de Mompox there are few individuals willing to support the Masonic theories, most prefer to steer the conversation back to the issue at hand, Semana Santa, and its austerity or as the President of the Holy Week commitee claims: “a gift from Momposinos to God.”

This is all interesting and of course debatable, but how can one balance Catholicism alongside pagan worship and so unashamedly promote Mompox as a pious Catholic destination? I too have fallen victim to some pagan worship when my mother-in-law, who in my absence while we were in a lull at the guesthouse having received few visitors, had the house blessed by an ‘alternative’ party in addition to having attended Mass that morning. Later that afternoon nine unannounced guests turned up. With this incident I was converted.

To back up a pagan vision of Mompox, one can dissect the Semana Santa celebrations as anticlerical as on the streets during processions you are not going to see a parade of Priests (only on Palm Sunday), and you will encounter scores of Nazarenes cloaked in heavy purple and blue smocks suffering under the weight of the ornate wooden carvings of Saints in the sweltering heat.

DiFilippo believes that the divisions which undermine the Momposino interpretation of Holy Week could stem directly from rivalries which existed within indigenous cultures and their colonial masters. Shamans defined their territorial boundaries as ceremonial centers and many were absorbed by influential Catholic orders such as the Dominicans, Jesuits and Augustinians.

This conflict, which has been embedded in the city’s identity since its conception, has turned now political and therefore shapes the current belief system where Catholicism is ranked – albeit clandestinely – alongside that of shamanism.

But, I suggest that you leave it all aside, pull up a chair at a riverside kiosk, order an ice cold beer and let the breeze from the Magdalena lend its favours while you contemplate that here exists a place where entire families sit in their rocking chairs, conversing into the early hours in an almost other-worldly existence. Mompox is a place that people disbelieve and then embrace with vigour.

Once your head is whipped clean by the hot Caribbean air that buffets the famed walled city of Cartagena, give in to the literary travel bug and head into the interior following the Magdalena 249km inland to Mompox, Gabo country, heartland of ‘the Liberator’ Símon Bolívar and the Masons, birthplace of poet Candelario Obeso, setting for a solemn Semana Santa and what I believe to represent the true Colombia.

Richard McColl is a freelance journalist who runs La Casa Amarilla, a guesthouse in Mompox.