Following in the footsteps of legendary author Gabriel García Márquez, James Rice takes us on a literary tour of Colombia.
Gabriel García Márquez, the acclaimed Colombian novelist who died in April 2014, never considered his stories as magical as others supposed. Amused that he was always praised for his inventiveness, he once said: “The truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality…the problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.”
Could there be a better advert for his homeland? The Colombian Ministry of Tourism doesn’t think so: it’s adopted “Colombia, Magical Realism” as the slogan for its promotion abroad, borrowing from the literary style attributed to Márquez. And in the wake of his death, more and more readers captivated by his fiction will be heading to Colombia, once off-limits to all but the most adventurous of travellers but now proud to show its magic again. So where best to go, if you’re looking to understand the man whom many considered to be the greatest writer of his age, and his works?
Growing up in Aracataca
Many of Márquez’s stories (including One Hundred Years of Solitude, for which he won the Nobel Prize) are set in the fictional town of Macondo, a hamlet that rises to prosperity through its banana plantations and then declines into a desolate, ghost town crippled by nostalgia and melancholy. Aracataca, where Márquez spent his early childhood, was the model for Macondo; his acknowledgment is quoted in a mural outside the town that states: “I returned one day and discovered that in between reality and nostalgia was the raw material of my work”.
Located around 80km south of Santa Marta in Colombia's northern parts, Aracataca doesn’t yet offer much for the visitor, although the house where Márquez was born and raised by his grandparents is now a simple museum with excerpts from his books, and you can visit the school he attended, the train station that bought in the banana workers, and a statue of Remedios the Beauty (a character from One Hundred Years of Solitude).
An education in Bogotá
It’s fair to say that Márquez did not fall in love with Bogotá at first sight, when he arrived there aged 14 after receiving a scholarship. Describing that moment in his autobiography, he wrote: “[it] was a remote, lugubrious city where an insomniac rain had been falling since the beginning of the sixteenth century…not a single consolatory woman could be seen.” Still, he managed to complete a few years of law study at the university there, and it was in Bogotá that his first stories were published in the newspaper El Espectador.
Aside from visiting the National University where Márquez studied, the main point of interest is the Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, a space in La Candelaria district dedicated to reading, art and culture. Close by is a large mural with an illustrated timeline of Márquez’s life.
Destitute in Cartagena de las Indias
As a student, Márquez fled from the political riots in Bogotá in 1948 and arrived in Cartagena, destitute. He slept in a park and was promptly arrested for violating curfew. Not the best introduction to a city, perhaps, though Márquez was later to reflect that his landlady’s first words to him (“You’ll see, in Cartagena everything’s different”) would always ring true.
And so it is for many visitors to this picturesque colonial city on the Caribbean coast, whose colourful history is tied up with gold, piracy and the Spanish Inquisition. Cartagena is the setting for several Márquez novels, most notably Love in the Time of Cholera. For those who want to see the real-life equivalents of places Márquez recast, the Route of García Márquez Tour (three hours) takes in almost 40 sites linked to scenes from his novels, or there’s an excellent self-guided audio tour.
Brothels in Barranquilla
In 1950, Márquez left Cartagena for nearby Barranquilla, where he lived above a brothel and became a regular member of the Barranquilla Group of writers and journalists in the city. They would often meet in bar called La Cueva, which is still going strong. You could also visit the Caribbean Museum, which has a room recreated to resemble Márquez’s office when he was a journalist here working for El Heraldo.
Passing through peaceful Mompox
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Mompox, more than any other town in Colombia, evokes the sleepy, peaceful and dream-like atmosphere of the port towns that Márquez would pass on the River Magdalena when he travelled by boat from the Caribbean coast to Bogotá. The town is also one of the settings for The General in his Labyrinth, which tells of the last days of South American liberator Símon Bólivar.
Mompox is certainly not easy to get to – from Barranquilla, it’s at least six hours by bus, colectivo (minibus) and water taxi – but the arduous journey keeps visitor numbers down and preserves its untouched, backwater appeal. Soaking up the atmosphere is the thing to do here, though do stay at (or at least visit) La Casa Amarilla, whose owners know much about the town’s history and its associations with Márquez.