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Aracataca: In Search of One Hundred Yellow Butterflies

Swallowed by the banana plantations of the Colombian Caribbean, Aracataca saw the birth of its son Gabriel García Márquez (Gabo) in 1927, and with him, Macondo, the mythical town of his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. Panorama of the Americas invites you to follow the trail of the yellow butterflies immortalized by the Nobel Prize winner who died in 2014 and explore this place and others that inspired his work.

By  Alberto Piernas
Photos : Margarita María Navas

“It was a village built on the bank of a river that ran along a bed of polished stones, which were white and enormous, like prehistoric eggs. To the east there lay an impenetrable mountain chain and on the other side of the mountains there was the city of Riohacha. To the south lay the swamps, covered with an eternal vegetable scum, and the great swamp Ciénaga Grande was to the west.”

This is how Gabriel García Márquez described Macondo, the famous town in One Hundred Years of Solitude, his most popular book and a symbol of the history, not only of the Caribbean and Colombia, but of all of Latin America. Before the success of the novel, Macondo was also the name of a banana plantation split by the train tracks on which Gabriel García Márquez left Aracataca, his native town and the place that directly inspired the town in the novel.

Located on the Colombian Caribbean about 50 miles from Santa Marta, the capital of the department of Magdalena, Aracataca is a town trapped between the jungle and the burbling of the Piedras River, where part of Gabo’s magic universe unfolds. Visitors can enter this universe via several Macondo tours, organized from Santa Marta on board “chivas,” or rustic buses that allow eating, drinking, and dancing. I chose a solo visit to the town that I had discovered in the pages of my favorite book.

The House of Stories

A nearly three-hour bus ride from Santa Marta decanted me in Aracataca. I was greeted by an enormous sign with multi-colored letters that welcomed me to a town that seems unaware of its magical status, a town crossed by a stream where people gather for barbecues. Children dash about in the vegetation on one side, while on the other, there is a giant image of Gabo, inspired by the famous yellow butterflies in his work. This reference recurs in several places around town, including posts or building façades where paint and paper cut-outs reproduce the storied insects that “preceded the appearances of Mauricio Babilonia,” one of the characters in One Hundred Years of Solitude.

It’s only one of many phrases that adorn the walls of the author’s house, now a charming museum and the main visitor attraction in Aracataca. Even though houses that bear some relation to Gabo have recently been freshened up, old homesteads, including the principal pieces of furniture, have been preserved. The tour includes sites such as the office of Gabo’s grandfather, Colonel Nicolás Márquez; the house of the Guajiros, who worked with the family; and especially, his childhood bedroom. It was here that he tasted his first unearthly fears, particularly the many stories recounted by his grandmother Tranquilina, inspiring the child in the art of narrating the history of his family through the eyes of Úrsula Iguarán, the legendary heroine of One Hundred Years of Solitude.

This is a magical tour for all lovers of the work of Gabriel García Márquez, a journey on which the whispers, the phrases, and the furniture of another time transport visitors to his universe.

The Magic at the End of the Street

When I left Gabo’s house to delve into the rest of Aracataca, I realized that the town was exactly as it had been described by its best ambassador: tropical heat, dirt streets, and various places mentioned in his novels.

The most iconic is the tomb of Melquíades, the gypsy who brought change to the Buendía family, and whose tombstone stands isolated on one side of town. It’s not far from other must-see sites, such as the Telegrapher’s House, where García Márquez’s father, Gabriel Eligio, met his wife, Luisa Santiaga Márquez. A humble street plays host to the statue of Remedios la Bella, described as “the most beautiful woman ever seen in Macondo.”

The town’s dirt streets and colorful walls provide a backdrop for the lone railroad track that reminds us of the connection between Gabo and the rest of the Colombian Caribbean, which is studded with references to the author.

The Colombian Caribbean According to Gabo

García Márquez once said, “In the Caribbean there’s a perfect symbiosis —well, let’s say one more evident than elsewhere— between the people, daily life, and the natural world.” This exuberant and musical land was always an extension of the writer himself.

These beaches, jungles, and magical towns were directly or indirectly immortalized by the author in many of his works, from the dissection of Caribbean dictators in The Autumn of the Patriarch, to the coastal town in No One Writes to the Colonel, and through Manaure, the town where the murder that inspired Chronicle of a Death Foretold took place. So many pages and books that the author imbued with the scent of coconut, guava, and the egg corncake that he loved.

This fascinating tour ends in Cartagena de Indias, where Gabriel García Márquez had a house, and where the streets of Colonial balconies once plunged us into the enthralling story of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza in Love in the Time of Cholera, a work that reached the Magdalena River and lifted off in a balloon north of that Caribbean to lose itself among coconut palms and bougainvilleas. You too can reread the story, taking flight to follow the trail of the legendary yellow butterflies.