After spending two weeks in Colombia, I could have gone home with a sense of fulfilment, having traveled through four of its cities and glimpsed at its beautiful contrasts—from the highland cool of Bogota and Medellin to the tropical heat of Cartegena and Santa Marta. From admiring the beautiful paintings and sculptures of Fernando Botero to sipping great coffee in Pergamino Café, I also felt that I’ve accumulated enough wonderful memories.
But I knew there was one place I could not miss: Aracataca, hometown of Gabriel Garcia-Marquez and setting of what is undoubtedly his greatest work, One Hundred Years of Solitude. For me, it was a trip that offered double nostalgia: one for a book that's all about melancholy, and another for my own memories of falling in love with literature as a teenage boy.
From the coastal city of Cartagena - setting of Chronicle of a Death Foretold and itself a significant place for Gabito (as he is fondly called by his compatriots), I took the bus to Santa Marta, another Carribean city famous for its beautiful sunsets. Spending the night there, I headed the next morning to Aracataca.
Even when I was on the bus, the scenery was strangely familiar: endless swamps and banana plantations, representing the landscape that the Buendia family and their friends had to traverse until they established Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude - as well as the landscape that much of the land would turn to with the coming of foreign entrepreneurs.
But it was in Aracataca where García Márquez’s fiction truly comes to life. As we approached the town, we passed along a river that I immediately recognised as the “river of clear water that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs” upon whose banks Macondo was built. When I saw the tin roofs, almond trees and yes, even the yellow butterflies, I knew I had finally reached my dream destination.
A bicitaxi (basically, a pedicab) took me to the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Museum - site of the novelist’s boyhood home. Although the original house is gone a replica captures what it must have looked like when Gabito was growing up; animating the museum were life-size characters from One Hundred Years of Solitude - from the unforgettable Ursula to the mysterious Colonel Aureliano Buendia. Behind the house stood a large tree that must have inspired the chestnut tree where the prodigious patriarch, Jose Arcadia Buendia, was tied after being obsessed with alchemical knowledge.
As I was leaving the museum a local guide, named Kiké, offered to show me around, and I agreed, making the request that he speak in slow Spanish as I still struggled with the language. Kiké was a big fan of Gabito, and as he walked, he would cite passages from the novels, and describe real-life events and characters that inspired their fictional counterparts.
Amid the heat “so strong that it was difficult to breathe”, we walked on the dusty, unpaved roads, visiting the telegraph office where Gabito’s father once worked, a statue of Remedios the Beauty, and even Melquiades' tomb. Instead of Arabs selling trinkets and Pietro Crespi selling musical instruments, the "Street of the Turks” featured telecom stores offering mobile phones and internet cards. Somewhere in those streets must have been the site where Jose Arcadio Buendia took his sons to see ice for the first time.
The tour, fittingly, ends in the railway station, used no longer for public transport but for coal: symbol and substance of the change - and changelessness - that has characterised both Aracataca and Latin America.
On my way back to Santa Marta I stopped by the town of Cienaga to see the site of the Matanza de las bananeras (the 1928 Banana massacre) that was likewise memorialised in One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Buendia family may remind us foremost of our loves and lusts, dreams and desires, follies and failings, but the Banana massacre—which in the novel people denied ever happened - reminds us of what’s at stake in fiction itself: the politics of memory. The banana planters of Colombia, just like the activists during Martial Law and the suspected drug users of today: the memory of their victimhood can be easily erased, yet fiction can be truth’s last refuge, just as magic can be the canvas by which reality can be more fully conveyed.
“Macondo is not a place but a state of mind that allows one to see what one wants to see and how,” its author once said. Perhaps, like the house of mirrors that Jose Arcadio Buendia dreamed of, it allows us to see the many facets of ourselves. Or perhaps, like Melquiades’ telescope, it can allow us to see what lies far beyond us.
In Aracataca, the possibilities are as numerous as the butterflies.