Looking for Macondo in Gabriel García Márquez’s Aracataca, Colombia
During breakfast in Bogotá, John, who owns Sayta Hostel, tells me there is an old train that runs to the underground salt cathedral in Zipaquirá. The mention of an old-fashioned Colombian train reminds me of the stories by Gabriel García Márquez, and the railroad that runs to the fictional town of Macondo. I ask John if Macondo might have been based on a real Colombian town. He searches on his computer and responds “Aracataca.” It turns out that García Márquez, the Colombian Nobel Laureate affectionately referred to as “Gabo,” spent his childhood in Aracataca, which inspired many aspects of the fictional Macondo. Best known as the setting for One Hundred Years of Solitude, there are about ten additional stories and novellas that take place in or around Macondo. The real Aracataca is a small town of almost twenty thousand people in the northern coastal region of Colombia. It’s off the beaten path and difficult to get to, but with twelve more days in Colombia, a visit to Aracataca should be possible.
Warm welcome in Aracataca
Eight days later, the southbound bus from Santa Marta passes the vast green banana fields on the way to Aracataca. Since last week, several people shared mixed feedback about the town, yet none had actually been there.
A few miles north of Aracataca, the bus tenant tells me my stop is coming up. He grabs my large green backpack and brings it to the front of the bus. I’m expecting to be dropped off at a central bus terminal, but we stop at an empty highway intersection where a motorcyclist is waiting. The tenant places my bag between the handlebars and gives the motorcyclist a few thousand pesos, they both gesture for me to hop on the back of the motorcycle. The bus stopped for no more than thirty seconds. After about a mile of riding into town under the hot sun, the motorcyclist turns his head back and asks “So where are you going?”
Upon arrival at Casa Turística Realismo Mágico, Fernando, the middle aged owner with dark hair and dark blue eyes, welcomes me inside. He gives me a cold metal cup of lemonade in exchange for my passport as he checks me in. On the wall is a grid of fifteen photos of local landmarks that I recognize from García Márquez’s stories. I ask how I could find these places, and Fernando tells me he can call a local guide who will show me around for ten thousand pesos (three US Dollars). He can be here in an hour.
Setting my backpack down in my guestroom, I realize me how much this place feels like the fictional town from García Márquez’s books, where visitors come and go. Aracataca already seems different from anywhere I’ve been, and I’ve barely scratched the surface.
Walking around between fiction and reality
After a rustic cold shower with no showerhead, I join the owner on the front porch. Fernando speaks slowly with his regional accent. He tells me the town is very diverse with people from all over, adding that his second last name is German and even showing me his ID. Soon a smiling dark-skinned young man approaches the porch wearing a traveler’s vest and a non-descript ball cap. Fernando says it’s Manuel the guide, he’s a trusted friend. After a brief introduction, we leave the house walking westward. Manuel, tells me I can call him “Kike” (KEE-kay).
On the first corner, Kike points out the grocery store with a corrugated tin roof, which used to be the banana company store for plantation workers who were paid in store credit. The banana company is a recurring presence in García Márquez’s Macondo, based on the United Fruit Company that came to Aracataca in the early 1900s.
Across from the corner store is the Gabriel García Márquez House Museum, where Gabo himself lived as a child with his grandparents. The residential compound has several one-story structures with patios between them. Unfortunately, the original house was torn down in the 1970s after the García Márquez family moved out. It’s closed today (Monday), but it will be a good place to explore tomorrow morning. We continue down the road, which is currently being repaved with brick as part of an effort to make Aracataca a more welcoming place to visit.
We soon arrive in the central town square, “Plaza Bolivar.” A bronze statue of Simón Bolivar watches over the plaza as the tall trees provide needed shade from the hot Colombian sun. A tired stray dog slowly wanders the square like a canine ghost, and I’m in disbelief about how much this place feels like the strange setting of a novel. Some of the buildings surrounding the plaza look familiar, the church, an old secluded house behind a fence, the nearby the two-story municipal palace, all are referenced in García Márquez’s work. We continue to the National Postal Administration Telegraph House, the cursive script signage that still references the telegraph make this otherwise utilitarian building a relic of decades past.
Kike shows me a school that he says used to be a prison, but more importantly it’s the building where the banana company hid victims after the infamous banana massacre. In December of 1928, in the nearby town of Ciénaga, the Colombian military opened fire on striking banana workers at the orders of the United Fruit Company. The company and the military subsequently worked together to hide all evidence, including the victims themselves. The coverup was so effective that the number of people killed is still unknown, estimates vary between 47 and 3,000. García Márquez recreated the story within One Hundred Years of Solitude, illustrating the public confusion by using the perspective of a lone survivor. In the novel, nobody in town believes the survivor when he tries to them about the massacre.
Alongside a canal, we meet a slender older gentleman sitting under a tree. Kike refers to him as “el profesor,” he’s a literature teacher at the local high school, and his curriculum (“Gabolectura”) focuses on García Márquez. We sit down with the professor, who tells tells us about the importance of One Hundred Years of Solitude, and about the similarities it has with the bible. He even shows us a book he wrote analyzing Gabo’s novels and short stories. After a discussion entirely about García Márquez and his books, we continue our walk.
We reach a a small bridge over a canal, where there is a large sculpture of an open book with Gabo’s face emerging from the pages. Kike tells me this is where unemployed people congregate to find work. It’s in a busier part of town, motorbikes buzz past as people walk in and out of the local stores. I notice that “Macondo” is included in the names on several of the storefronts. To my surprise, everyone we see in town appears to be local, there are no other out-of-towners.
We enter a non-descript retail store, and Kike asks the cashier “Can we go in?” She nods her head, and I follow Kike through the back which opens to a huge concrete courtyard that used to be an outdoor movie theater. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, García Márquez describes the opening of an outdoor theater in Macondo, where a crowd erupts in anger the first time they see actors that died in a previous film reappear in another movie. It’s doubtful this was based on reality (the novel also describes a ticket booth shaped like a lion’s head, which Aracataca never had), but this outdoor theater is likely the inspiration. It is now used only occasionally for events.
After walking through the linear park, we see a statue of a floating nude woman, encircled by a bedsheet. It’s Remedios the Beauty, the fictional character who was based on local town gossip. In One Hundred Years of Solitude, Remedios the Beauty is the subject of obsession amongst the men in Macondo, until she one day ascends into the sky surrounded by her bedsheet, never to return. This story is actually based on Gabo’s cousin, an attractive young woman who was the talk of the town until she secretly ran off with her lover. In an attempt to protect her honor, her grandmother told people she had ascended into heaven like the Virgin Mary. This is my favorite anecdote from Aracataca, for so many reasons.
We walk to the train station, where trains no longer stop. The station is generally closed to the public except for public events, like the upcoming local art exhibit. People in town agree that a passenger train would attract more visitors to Aracataca. Unfortunately, the single set of train tracks is currently used solely for freight transport from distant coal mines to the Caribbean coast. When Gabriel García Márquez visited Aracataca in 2007 (seven years before he died in 2014), he came from Santa Marta in a brightly colored train, but it was a special one-time event.
We continue past the canal, where children play in the water. Kike says the neighborhood on the other side of the wall is where the Americans from the banana company used to live, I notice the corrugated tin rooves similar to the banana company store.
At the last stop we see several people cooling off in the river beneath the railroad bridge, another activity described in Gabo’s stories. It’s remarkable how effectively García Márquez conveyed the look and feel of Macondo in his books. The town I had always imagined was strikingly similar to what I’m now experiencing first hand in Aracataca, and it’s a bit surreal. After we leave the river, we walk back to Fernando’s guesthouse. I thank Kike and head to my guestroom where I take an unplanned nap.
Impromptu book club on the patio
After dark, the streets seem rather lively for a Monday night. I notice a billiard hall across from the Plaza Bolivar, similar to the setting of In This Town There Are No Theives,” about a local man who steals three billiard balls and agonizes over whether to allow the town to continue blaming another man who is from elsewhere.
Back at the guesthouse, Fernando introduces me to four guests from the Gabo Center in Cartagena. Orlando, the young literature professor with big curly hair, is typing up a short story of his own. Jhon, the photographer snaps occasional photos, and Alejandro and Ivan are both preparing an event for the local school children.
Once Orlando finishes writing his story, we start talking about García Márquez’s work. Orlando has an encyclopedic knowledge of Gabo’s stories. He tells me García Márquez wrote approximately ten short stories and one large novel during the fifties and sixties that all reference either the town of Macondo or the same cast of characters. What I didn’t realize is that all of the short stories were written and released before One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in 1967. In his subsequent writing, García Márquez’s never again referenced Macondo nor the characters. Orlando also tells me there was a major literary analysis of these short stories that was written by the Peruvian writer (and fellow Nobel Laureate) Mario Vargas Llosa. But his analysis was never published, the two authors had a public falling out that culminated with Vargas Llosa sucker-punching García Márquez in the face in 1976 at a event in Mexico City. There is even a famous photo of a smiling Gabriel García Márquez with a black eye.
The six of us, including Fernando, spend the evening on the back porch. The Gabo Center crew invites me to join them tomorrow morning for their event with the local students at the Gabriel García Márquez House Museum
Local students visit Gabo’s home
The Gabriel García Márquez House Museum, a reconstruction of the García Márquez home, is a collection of several small one-story structures on a single property, with a large back patio surrounding a huge tree that is at least a century old. The rooms are arranged to reflect García Márquez’ childhood in the 1930s. When we arrive at the museum, all electricity is out in Aracataca, so the natural light adds authenticity to the old-fashioned décor
In the back, Ivan and Alejandro have moved a large number of chairs from the small auditorium to the patio. They are planning to host the event outside. The students have not yet arrived, but sitting on the patio is the old professor from yesterday. I introduce myself again, and he asks me how many times I’ve read One Hundred Years of Solitude. I tell him I’ve only read it once, and that I read it in English. He tells me he’s read it over twenty-five times, and then tells me about the numerical themes within the book.
About three dozen students in school uniforms arrive. Ivan leads them in various academic exercises and discussions, including asking the students how the internet enhances or degrades their cultural heritage. The students articulate well thought-out positions, generally saying the cultural impact is dependent upon the way young people choose to use the internet.
Speaking with the students and their teachers, it’s clear that García Márquez’s literature is a central part of their local lesson plans. I ask Alejandro if he thinks the local students understand how important of a figure their hometown author is to modern literature; he tells me it’s probably difficult for them to fully grasp his worldwide impact. Jhon is candidly taking photos, while Orlando and the local professor discuss their mutual favorite author.
After the students’ small group presentations about different aspects of García Márquez’s life, Ivan hosts a Gabo trivia game. The students take the competition rather seriously, and it’s a fun and exciting end to the morning’s event. The students all sign the large banner hanging on the wall before returning to their schools.
After we leave the Gabriel García Márquez House Museum, the five of us return to Fernando’s guesthouse to check out of our rooms. Since I didn’t see the bus station upon arrival in Aracataca, I’m thankful that the Cartagena crew is walking there after lunch. On our way towards the station, a few people approach us on the street, and even take photos with us. Alejandro tells me the locals all know that none of us are from around here. Thankfully everyone in Aracataca has been very welcoming. Just as Macondo provided a unique setting for Gabriel García Márquez’s stories, Aracataca is unlike any other place, at least in real life.