The hour-long flight from Bogota to Barranquilla is a journey across contemporary Colombian history and political divide, as you leave behind the precise world of Bogota and reach the magical and sinister Barranquilla.
The Andes begin near Bogota, stretching all the way to Chile. The air is rare and hotels inform their guests that they should contact physicians if they have difficulty breathing.
Bogota is formal and punctual, where the elite bristle if someone describes Colombia as a Third World country. But in Barranquilla, the pretence disappears. The Andeans, known as cachacos (or highlanders) consider themselves aristocratic and speak excellent Spanish, but those who live in the plains, or costeños, consider them arrogant. The coast people are ethnically mixed, loquacious and believe in miracles. Barranquilla is known as Colombia’s golden gate: its first port and first airport, and Latin America’s second oldest commercial airline, Avianca, which brought me to Barranquilla, were all founded here.
The road to the city of a million people runs along a swamp that connects the beach with the delta of the Magdalena River. Barranquilla has a colonial core, an Americanized sprawl and the appearance of unplanned industry. It has the worn, lived-in feel of an old town. It is a chaotic maze where cars jostle for space with animal-driven carts.
Freshly painted kiosks advertise miracle cures—this is the land of magic realism—promising eternal life, sexual prowess and protection from evil. Step aside from Barranquilla’s busy streets and you will find tree-lined avenues, shading the homes from harsh glare, as if hinting hidden histories.
For literary insomniacs, Barranquilla matters because it was in its bars that young Gabriel Garcia Márquez hung out with other reporters. Their conversations nurtured him, as he wrote a column that gained him early fame. The Barranquilla Group included Márquez, Álvaro Cepeda Samudio, Germán Vargas and Alfonso Fuenmayor, who appear as the four friends of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude.
Writing about this group in his memoir, Living to Tell the Tale, Márquez said: “Never did I feel, as I did in those days, so much a part of that city and the half-dozen friends who were beginning to be known as the Barranquilla Group in the journalistic and intellectual circles of the country … young writers and artists who exercized a certain leadership in the cultural life of the city.”
Their old bohemian hangout, La Cueva, still exists, but has been gentrified and restored. To find what remains of Márquez’s inspiration, head towards the quiet houses, with their rocking chairs in the verandah, the creeping vines with purple flowers, the grandmother sitting by a blue-washed wall on a large bed, the smell of last night’s rain wafting through the air and the old man slowly drinking an increasingly warm beer.
Márquez could ignore the fetid air, as he listened with rapt attention when his grandmother began another fantastic story with a face as unemotional as if it was made of bricks. The trick of magic realism lies in making the outrageous appear ordinary and the ordinary quite bizarre.
We thought of that one night in the restaurant, fans circling above us valiantly to cool us and sweaty waiters, old men in white shirts, cheerfully replenished our chilled drinks, letting us kill time. The hotel was large and built in colonial times, with alcoves and huge arches, and its garden had palm trees and tourists were lying by the pool, their near nakedness blending with the moist landscape. The grand staircase took you to your room with its noisy air-conditioner and a TV offering 35 channels in Spanish.
Barranquilla reinforces the idea that you don’t need exceptional beauty to keep a great conversation going. Hemingway and Fitzgerald met in Parisian cafés. Barranquilla’s bistros have no Parisian charms, but that did not prevent Márquez and his friends; the fragrance of the guava and the memories of the massacre of workers of the United Fruit Company (now Chiquita) in 1928 were enough to get their creative juices flowing freely.
The seminal event in One Hundred Years of Solitude is the massacre, which took place in Ciénaga, near Barranquilla. Violence is always around the corner here, pitting the rancher against his workers, the highlander against the coastal folk, the left against the right, the rich against the poor, the conservative against the liberal. The origin of much of this violence is found in the plains between the Caribbean coast and the Andes.
This violence has torn Colombia apart, but Márquez’s prose stitches it back together. His fiction draws on his journalism, which, he says, “(was) my actual appointment. It permits me to maintain contact with reality.”
Today, visitors come to Barranquilla for its oil fields and coal mines. Literature is not on their agenda. But reading Márquez, and looking beyond the walls of their secure hotels will take them to the magical world that lies beneath the symmetry and order of precise itineraries.
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