Most people love Mompox for its colonial character, a hidden river port still reeking of conquistadors’ sweat and the old Spanish empire. But for me, the highlight is not the town but getting away from there. Nothing thrusts you deeper into the hot heart of Colombia than a slow cruise along its swirling muddy arteries on the ferry that carries cars and trucks to and from Magangué, a town on the western banks of the River Magdalena.
This old boat, which goes under the name “Mompox 450 Años” has rammed the riverbank and dropped its steel ramp with a clatter onto the mud below. But an hour after it has docked, I am still sitting in my car in a queue of cars waiting to board at La Bodega, a collection of small cafés where the road ends and the river begins on Mompox Island.
The ferry crew are in no hurry to leave, as they made it clear by their slow saunter to their mid-morning tinto and arepas at nearby tienda where they now sit playing with their cellphones. Occasionally they glance down the line of parked cars and trucks to see if they have enough to ll the ferry for the return trip to Magangué, a town that links to the main highways of north-western Colombia.
Now you may ask why anyone doesn’t build a bridge over the river instead of riding on a 70-year-old rust-bucket with the hydrodynamics of a giant frying pan under the mid-morning sun? And the answer is yes, actually there is a bridge being built, but rather slowly as it has to span 12 kilometers of river, swamps and wetlands.
The Magdalena Basin is a remarkable 500,000-hectare labyrinth of freshwater lakes and waterways where narrow spits of muddy fields dry out or submerge with the capricious flows of two big rivers, the Magdalena and Cauca. These mineral-rich waters bring life and death to a vast plain, never rising more than 35 meters above sea level and where water and sky meet in seemingly endless horizons.
The bounteous La Mojana region has hardly made the tourist trail, partly because of lack of access and infrastructure. In fact, most visitors will only touch on it in Mompox itself, where there are motorboats that make trips through leafy canals to a nearby ciénaga. It is also a chance to see the birdlife and nimble basilisk lizards that run over the water itself.
But back waiting for the ferry at La Bodega it’s the human life that is grabbing my attention as a communal whoop of joy emerges from the crowd of taxi drivers, truckers, café workers and general hangers-on. They are celebrating the well-dressed traveller who just slipped and fell face down in the mud by the ferry ramp. He gets up, looking sheepish, and someone guides him to tap at a restaurant to get cleaned up.
Then, there is more commotion as a large Dodge skips past the line of waiting vehicles, skids to a halt at the head of the queue, creating a quick concert of frustrated honks from the cars behind. The Dodge’s occupants stay hidden in their air-conditioned chariot with the tinted windows firmly closed.
I have got out of my car realizing nothing will happen until the Ferry Crew finish their slow breakfast and mingle with the various characters under a large tree by the ferry ramp. This gives me a chance to see close-up the Colombian art of overloading bicycles and one delivery boy hoisting seven crates of fresh bread on two wheels, before realizing the chain of his bike has fallen off.
I ask some truckers why they use the ferry rather than drive the main roads that run further north to link two halves of Colombia. “Here we have to wait, but it’s a shorter route,” says one. Another shrugs off the question: “Why rush?” With all the hardships thrown at them on Colombian roads, truck drivers are mobility Zen masters whose very survival depends on balancing natural and brute force in the multi-wheel of existence.
Then, suddenly things are moving and the Ferry Crew are up and walking abreast out of the café, radios in hand, aware of all eyes on them, striding across the mud like the new kids in town. The first score to settle is the dodgy Dodge. They send it reversing back down the road to make room for the large trucks, which always load first.
What happens next is a surprising masterclass of organization as unwieldy big rigs are guided by the crew backwards down the muddy slope, engines growling, then lurching with spinning wheels onto the ramp and rocking ferry, then squeezed millimetrically into spaces, followed by smaller trucks, vans and then cars, with motorbikes, scooters bicycles and assorted wheeled carts filling in the gaps.
More surprising, given the general macho nature of this part of Colombia, it is all directed by a woman. Inirida seems a natural born leader of the crew, keeping the team in line with a nod, point of her radio, shrug and flick of the hair.
Later, chatting to her on the car deck, there are more surprises as she tells me she started off in the accounts department a few years ago, auditing the ferry loading. “Some crew were skimming the payments so they sent me here to count what goes on and off. I’ve never left,” she said. I marvel at how completely she has adapted from book-keeping to life on the river.
We passing the unfinished bridge rising like a grey giant over a green landscape. When completed, in maybe three years as someone remarks, what will become of Mompox 450 Años? Inirida shrugs. She is clearly infected by the same chronic nonchalance as the truck drivers. “Maybe the company will send us to another part of the river. There are plenty of places that need ferries. Or maybe they just break us up for scrap.”
Conversing with several passengers, some who use it regularly, no one seems particularly excited about the new bridge – which when complete, will be the longest in Colombia and cut an estimated five hours travel time across this part of the country. But neither does anyone seem angry or rueful that the ferry will end. Qué será, será seems a silent refrain. On the Río Magdalena you just have to go with the flow.