When Gabriel García Márquez wrote, his stories were dusted with magic and dripping with fantasy—yet he would look you dead in the eyes, and say, this is real. That was his truth; the same way his grandmother would tell him ghost stories with a stoic face and deadpan tone; the way life slithered from the absurd to the abnormal, always anchored in reality. His style not only championed his native Colombia’s spirit, but bolstered the narrative of life in Central and South America, which many struggle to explain, and very few managed to depict.
The sleepy, northern Mompós, officially Santa Cruz de Mompox, served as a backdrop for One Hundred Years of Solitude, which fetched Gabo a Nobel Prize. Bearing resemblance to the fictional Macondo, this UNESCO site is but a crumbling colonial town situated amid swamps with mango trees and secluded wooden huts on stilts. It is where blue Caribbean waters meet the murky Magdalena River, the longest in the country. It is a portal to the late writer’s lifelong obsession with the river dating back to 1943, when he embarked on a luxury steamboat—the David Arango—at 15. A walk down the nearly 500-year-old cobbled streets of Mompós catches sights of mouldering facades, mansions, and colourful churches. In the evenings, the plaza in front of Santo Domingo Church fills with food stalls and recordings of classical music. Owing to boutique hotels and restaurants, this gem is slowly finding its way into limelight.
A further 240 kilometres northward, tucked in the Sierra Nevada, lies Gabo’s birthplace, Aracataca, generally hailed as a more popular contender for Macondo. Murals of the author and Remedios, a character of beauty so enchanting that she ascended to heaven, sprawl across the quarters. A tour of Casa Museo Gabriel García Márquez, a remarkable reconstruction of Gabo’s childhood home, holds his typewriter and dictionary. A walk through El Carmen where yellow butterflies flutter, reveals a tombstone erected to honour Melquiades, the visionary gypsy of the novel. Aesthetically, there isn’t much to see, but it is a one-stop destination for diehard Márquez fans as the essence of Gabo awaits visitors at every turn.
Yet, perhaps Cartagena remains the most fantastical destination on this trail, rich in history and ripe with romanticism. It is the stuff of Caribbean fantasies as well as the city that launched Gabo’s trajectory as a writer. Having arrived as a penniless student from Bogotá, he later maintained a sea-facing house in the San Diego quarter to which he returned every year. Opposite his abode sits the famed Sofitel Santa Clara hotel, which the writer frequented for a drink. Back in the day when he was a journalist and the hotel was a hospital, the author learnt about the discovery of a skeleton of a young girl with long copper hair. Fiction swirled with truth and she became a 12-year-old Marquis’ daughter sent for exorcism in the acclaimed Of Love and Other Demons. At Plaza Fernández de Madrid, lanes are festooned with flower-speckled balconies. This setting of a bench-filled park of young lovers entwined in each other’s arms took shape of Park of the Evangels in Love in the Time of Cholera.
In any city that brims with life and character, Gabo would have had no trouble seeking stories.
Pooja Naik is Senior Sub-Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She likes to take long leisurely walks with both hands in her pocket; channeling her inner Gil Pender at Marine Drive since Paris is a continent away.