The best cities in South America
12th July 2021
Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s former Nobel Laureate, and one of the world’s most beloved authors, forever changed the way we view his country. Fondly referred to by his admirers simply as ‘Gabo’, he is credited as the forefather of ‘magical realism’, a literary genre characterised by otherworldly and supernatural events occurring in complete nonchalance and banality. This is perhaps best articulated in his seminal novel ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, where mundane village life is casually interrupted by characters ascending to heaven in mid conversation, among other incidents.
Márquez was always amused when people described his works as magical, commenting 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”. His works certainly bristle with the history, culture and spirit of his home nation, so much so that the Colombian Ministry of Tourism have decided to adopt “Colombia, Magical Realism” as their official tagline for promoting the country.
As Colombia’s wildest parts steadily become more stable and safer to visit, now is an excellent time to discover the country through the enchanted eyes of its most celebrated literary hero. We have put together a list of the most important destinations to visit to gain an understanding of the man and his work.
First up is the small, rural town of Aracataca, around two hours drive inland from Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast. It was here that Marquez was born and raised by his grandparents, having moved here so his grandfather Colonel Nicolas Márquez could escape the remorse of killing a man in a duel. Revisiting here as a young, aspiring writer in the 1950s, Márquez rediscovered his childhood journal, which provided the necessary impetus to break his three year writer’s block. He locked himself away for 18 months in his study and emerged with the completed ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.
The stories of his war veteran grandfather fired his early imagination and held a significant presence in his journal, but it was the tales of his grandmother that instilled the to-be-conceived novel with its characteristic magic: Márquez later described in his autobiography how his grandmother lived in a world of deep superstition, and had a way of telling the most outlandish stories of the supernatural as if they were the most ordinary occurrences in the world. Thus the tone of Márquez’s writing was conceived.
Márquez has acknowledged his childhood home of Aracataca as the model for the fictional town of Mácondo, the hot, dusty and magical world of adobe homes where ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is set. Gabo’s acknowledgement is quoted on a mural outside of town, written alongside his smiling, moustachioed face, blurred by a swarm of his signature yellow butterflies: “I returned one day and discovered that in between reality and nostalgia was the raw material of my work”.
Today, Aracataca preserves remnants of the life of Márquez, and of his vision of Macondo. The symbolic yellow butterflies cover everything, from pavements, to walls and signs across town, just as they burst from the pages of his novels (when Márquez died, thousands of paper ones were thrown from the Catedral in Bogotá in his honour). You can also visit the Caribbean-styled family home where he grew up, which has since been converted to a museum. Walk down its white wooden-panelled corridor and pass his grandfather’s office, several bedrooms, the dining room and the kitchen. It has been furnished to resemble how it would have looked in the 30s and 40s, during Gabo’s childhood, and has excerpts of his writings displayed on the walls.
Wandering around the leafy and dusty town, you can spot the school where Gabo studied, the church he was baptised in, and the telegraph office where his father worked. As a central location in ‘One Hundred Years’, the office has been converted into a cluttered museum. There is even an uncanny statue of the venerable matriarch of Macondo, Ursula Buendia, seated on a rocking chair among the assorted curiosities.
Outside is a lush park where you can find a sculpture of Remedios the Beauty ascending to heaven out of an open book, accompanied by Gabo’s ubiquitous butterflies. According to a local guide that runs one of the Márquez tours in Aracataca, this moment of transcendence in ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’ is actually based on an Aracataca scandal: when a young woman eloped from town with her lover, the lady’s grandmother, in an effort to save face, claimed the girl had ascended to heaven like the Virgin Mary. It seems Colombian reality really does resemble the wildest imagination.
Near the park is the momentous train track that brought with it electrical lighting to Aracataca. Built by the United Fruit Company, an enormous multinational conglomeration that rose to power in the early 20th century, the track brought with it a cosmopolitan mix of workers of various nationalities and ethnicities to work on their new banana plantation, ushering in a new height of prosperity for Aracataca. However, this heyday came to an abrupt end during the Great Depression, which left the town’s populace unemployed and wrapped in melancholic nostalgia.
These events must have left a big impression on Márquez, as they govern the fate of mythical Macondo. The plantation workers’ strike described in ‘One Hundred Years’, along with the ensuing government response, were based upon a genuine event in Colombia: in 1928 in Cienega (a town north of Aracataca), US officials and United Fruit representatives described a local banana plantation workers’ strike as ‘communist’ and ‘subversive in tendency’ to the US government, who threatened to invade Colombia if the situation was not suitably contained. A local commander and his garrison thus set up on the low rooftops of the town plaza, where a large crowd of workers and their families had gathered after Sunday mass to hear from the town governor. The soldiers blocked the exits, and after a five minute warning, fired into the crowds. The military admit to killing 47 people, but others estimate that closer to 3000 men, women and children died.
The Banana Massacre, as it is known, is one of Colombia’s most haunting tragedies that taint its past. It came to define much of Márquez’s outlook: he was vocal throughout his life in denouncing US imperialism, to the extent that he was actually banned from ever entering the country, despite his status as a world-class author.
Other landmarks to look out for in Aracataca are the dilapidated ice factory, and the trickling river “with its bed of polished stones...white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs”, both recognisable as analogous to landmarks in Macondo.
Overall, Aracataca offers a strange combination of memories of Márquez’s early years, insights into his imagination, and utter indifference to the issue of the author at all. In 2006 an unsuccessful referendum was held to change the name of the town to Macondo-Aracataca, but hardly anyone turned up to vote. There are a few tours around town, but there is not much sign from the locals that they are aware or bothered about the significance of Aracataca or its literary prodigy. However, if you are interested in exploring Márquez’s Aracataca, send an enquiry to our local experts in Colombia – they provide an excellent Márquez tour, and can answer any queries you have about the country or the writer.
At the age of 14, Márquez arrived in Colombia’s capital, having received a scholarship here to study law. In later writings, he admits to considering this part of his life a cold, lonely exile up in the Andes mountains, far from the warmth of the Caribbean coast. Despite his apparent disdain for this “remote, lugubrious city”, he completed a few years of study, and published his first stories in the city newspaper ‘El Espectador’. There is not a great deal to see here in relation to Márquez. You can look around the National University where he studied, and explore a space dedicated to Márquez within La Candelaria (a colourful district of cathedrals, pastel-painted colonial homes and breezy plazas where students and visitors congregate over cups of coffee). The Centro Cultural Gabriel García Márquez, as it is called, is an area dedicated to reading, art and culture. You can find a large mural here with an illustrated timeline of Gabo’s life, and can listen to one of the literary readings or other performances that frequently occur here.
Other than that, you can explore the rest of this busy and vital city. Bogotá is covered in evocative street art that ranges from indigenous-inspired works to pieces tackling issues of women’s rights in Colombia. At night, La Candelaria is abuzz with salsa and other live music, and on Sunday mornings, the whole city is closed to traffic to allow runners, cyclists and skateboarders to take over the streets. The Ciclovia, as it is known, is an excellent way to explore the normally congested centre, and a great way to meet and chat with locals. Have a look at some itinerary ideas to find out more about Bogotá.
In 1948, Márquez fled from a devastating political riot in Bogotá to the city of Cartagena, a colonial settlement on the Caribbean coast with a chaotic history of imperialism, gold, pirate raids and the Spanish Inquisition. He arrived destitute and spent his first night sleeping in a park, where he was immediately arrested for breaking curfew. An excellent start. He later reflected that what his landlord first told him, that “you’ll see, in Cartagena everything is different” always rung true.
You can come and see this for yourself. From its old city wall, formidable fortress, crumbling cathedrals and bougainvillea-draped balconies, there is no city quite like it. It clearly inspired Márquez, who set several of his novels here, particularly ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’. There is a Márquez city tour that takes in 40 sites that are associated with scenes from his novels, as well as important locations of his life.
After two years, Márquez moved further along the coast to Barranquilla, a sweltering metropolis situated between the coast and the mangrove-filled Rio Magdalena delta. He lived above a brothel, and became a regular member of the Barranquilla group of writers and journalists. They would meet in a bar called La Cueva, a diner-styled place still open today. You can visit here and grab a drink. The other main Gabo-related site can be found in the Caribbean Museum, where a room has been designed to resemble Márquez’s office when he was a journalist for the city newspaper ‘El Heraldo’.
Other than this, Barranquilla is famous for being the birthplace of pop goddess Shakira, as well as the home of Colombia’s biggest street party, Barranquilla’s annual carnaval. It is one of the largest carnavals in South America, second only to Rio de Janeiro’s, and is an absolute riot of dancing, music and masquerade, where Spanish paloteo, African congo and indigenous mico y micas fuse into one chaotic whirl. Have a look at one of our earlier TravelLocal blog posts to find out more about this explosive celebration. It is held around February, so there is still time to book yourself a trip and join the locals in upholding the carnaval’s official slogan: “those who live it are those who enjoy it”.
The final destination of Márquez’s Colombia is found deep in the country’s interior, way down from Barranquilla on the banks of the Rio Magdalena. Once an important riverside trading town, and now a forgotten backwater, Mompox feels frozen in time, and preserves the rural atmosphere of Macondo better than even Aracataca. Márquez’s later novel, ‘The General in his Labyrinth’, passes through Mompox. Exploring the last days of the great liberator Simon Bolivar as he makes a fictionalised final voyage down the Rio Magdalena, it explores the tragic flaws of this fabulously celebrated hero as he sees out the end of his life riddled with regret for the failure of his dream of a united South America.
The real Simon Bolivar came to Mompox to recruit soldiers, who went on to play an instrumental role in the victory at Caracas, which in turn secured Venezuela’s independence. It was also here in Mompox where Colombia announced its independence from Spain in 1810. Visiting today, it is rather hard to believe that something as momentous as a country’s independence could have occurred here: its ‘port’ constitutes two riverboats tied to a bank, and very few cars move along the streets (old rickshaws are the most common vehicle, and even donkeys and carts can still be seen trudging along the dusty paths).
It is fascinating to think Mompox was once the third most important city in Colombia, strategically connecting Bogotá and the Andean interior with the Caribbean coast to the north. The river was once much larger and full of ships, and its streets once heaved with workers, tobacco, gold, contraband and slaves. There was even a royal mint here where rich merchants deposited their wealth, safe from the pirates of the coast.
Márquez was obsessed with the town ever since embarking on a luxury steam boat cruise down the Magdalena in 1943 (when he was 15). The ship was called ‘David Arango’, and continued to traverse the river until it was burnt down in 1961, symbolically marking the end of the era of cruising down the Rio Magdalena. During ‘La Violencia’, when paramilitary groups in support of the Liberal or Conservative parties were entangled in a gruesome decade of civil war, the river was one of the most dangerous places in the world. Many of the cargo ships that still sail the river carry bullet holes and other scars of the conflict to this day.
Today, the town is extremely isolated and satisfyingly difficult to get to, keeping visitor numbers low, to the extent that it can feel like you are the only visitor in town. You can wander its dusty streets and soak up its dream-like atmosphere that is so evocative of Macondo. Head to the river bank to float downstream in a dugout with a local guide, go swimming in the water, or sit on the banks and try the locally caught fish. In the evening, find the town plaza and join the residents for dinner at the food stalls, and see the night away by the riverside at its many bars and venues.
Make it happen
If you want to find out more about Colombia or Gabo, our local experts in Colombia are happy to help and can answer all of your questions. And if you area really keen, they can help you book a bespoke trip to the country to discover its magical realism for yourself. Send an enquiry now to start your journey!