Colombia is known for spectacular scenery and rich culture—the legend of its beauty has traveled far and wide, so you'd think a visual medium would be the only one that could do it justice. And while there are certainly vivid travelogues, documentaries, and pieces of cinema that come close to capturing Colombia in all its glory, somehow it's no match for the written word.
Perhaps it's because Colombia is possessed of a magical quality evoked in everything. You see it in its diverse flora and fauna, the salsa, cumbia and vallenato rhythms that pulse through the country, and the warmth and generosity of its people. It's also got a compelling history steeped in tragedy and violence—fertile ground for narrative storytelling on the page. Rest assured that all titles on this list capture the feel of the country and the colorful cast of characters, both real and imagined, that have populated it over the centuries.
#1 One Hundred Years of Solitude (Gabriel García Márquez)
This powerhouse work, released in 1967, is number one with a bullet for a reason: it redefined both literature and Colombia for the masses. It's what spawned the phrase "magical realism" (a writing style told in a straightforward manner but with the flare of the fantastic), which is now inexorably linked with the Colombian culture. But ultimately this is a Latin American book, arriving at a time when other authors on the continent were pushing literary boundaries in similar imaginative fashion, be it Borges in Argentina, or Amado in Brazil. That said, García Márquez, a kid who grew up amid poverty, earned the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 for this effort.
The story of Cien Años de Soledad follows seven generations of the Buendía family as they live, love, and die (and resurrect) in the fictional town of Macondo (based loosely on the author's hometown of Aracataca, near the Colombian coast). Throughout it, there's no shortage of wild and extraordinary happenings. The imagery here is stark—yellow butterflies and shipwrecks on land, gypsy ghosts and a baby born with the tale of a pig.
A fun jaunt after finishing the book is to make the pilgrimage to the small town of Aracataca and see where the nascent flames of García Marquez's creativity were first stoked. Just don't expect too much: the municipality has mostly neglected tourism, other than their Quixotic campaign to officially change the town's name to "Macondo."
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#2 Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel García Márquez)
If you're planning a trip to the Colombian coast, you'd do well to give "Love in the Time of Cholera" a read. Published in 1985, the story is a sweeping epic like Solitude, but told as a classic romance. It follows the story of poor Florentina Ariza, who falls in love with a girl out of his league when the two are teenagers. The book is set around the turn of the 20th century in an unnamed city on the Caribbean, which is basically a double for Cartagena de Indias. Much of the book also focuses on old riverboats traveling up and down Colombia's storied Magdalena River.
Told in flashbacks, "Cholera" begins with Fermina Daza in old age and the untimely death of her well-respected and wealthy husband, Dr. Juliano Urbino. At this point, an aged Florentino shows up declaring his love and is instantly rebuffed. We spend the bulk of the remainder of the book steeped in the history of the two protagonists, as well as the some "622 affairs" that kept Florentino occupied while pining for Fermina.
The book is filled with the rich, romantic imagery of the Caribbean coast, so needless to say it's a great novel to pack if you're planning a Colombian honeymoon.
#3 Killing Pablo (Mark Bowden)
Pablo Escobar as a subject has been enjoying something of a renaissance in recent years. Between the show "Narcos" and all the movies being made about Colombia's highest-profile (and long dead) drug lord, he's become as much a pop culture icon as he is an infamous historical figure. And while there's no shortage of material about Colombia's most notorious son, as a journalistic account of his legacy, "Killing Pablo," released in 2001, might be the best.
That's because it was Mark Bowden's book that painted a full picture of Pablo Escobar for those outside of Colombia. Before this, there were few English-language accounts of his exploits. The book mostly follows the joint efforts of U.S. and Colombian military/law enforcement personnel to finally capture Pablo Escobar, leader of the Medellín Cartel. Beyond giving you a nail-biting account of the final chase to whack Pablo, it's also a highly detailed and well-researched look into Colombia's recent history, as well as its legacy of narco-terrorism and drug violence. Foreigners should know the price in blood Colombians have paid for the beauty of their country and culture—and this book elucidates that point nicely.
#4 Bolivar: American Liberator (Marie Arana)
While Pablo Escobar may now be firmly ensconced in popular culture, one historical figure that remains relatively unknown outside Latin America is Simón Bolívar, the great Libertador (Liberator). In the early 19th century this aristocratic Venezuelan rose to become one of the great military minds of the Spanish independence movement. First leading from Venezuela before operating out of Cartagena, Bolívar traversed 75,000 miles of South America on horseback, eventually liberating six nations from Spanish rule.
The seat of the first independent government was called Gran Colombia, in what is modern-day Colombia. Bolívar served as the first president of this new, united Latin America. Marie Arana's 2013 book is a well-researched account that paints a vivid picture of both the man as well as Latin America during those tumultuous and violent times. Mostly, you get a sense of the heartbreak as Bolívar is forced out of power and banished into exile, his dream of a fully united Latin America crumbling around him.
After reading "Bolívar: American Liberator," be sure to make the jaunt from Bogotá to adjacent Boyacá Department and see where Bolívar led his men to the final decisive victory over the Spanish at the Battle of Boyacá. You won't miss the flags.
#5 The General in His Labyrinth (Gabriel García Márquez)
After learning the real-life events of the Liberator, let the master of fiction García Márquez add his fantastical touch. This 1989 novel takes place during the last year of Bolívar's life before his untimely death at the relatively young age of 47. The story follows an infirmed Bolívar after he is forced out of politics in Bogotá and banished from the country. He makes the long trip from the capital to Santa Marta, on the Caribbean coast, reflecting on his life and accomplishments during the journey. And although he's preparing to embark for Europe, Tuberculosis will claim his life before he has a chance to board the ship. The narrative is a bittersweet account of how loss and regret follow even the most epic of lives, and how we all end up at the same place in the end.
After finishing it be sure to visit the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino in Santa Marta, the hacienda where Bolívar died in 1830. Note the small bed, not much larger than a child's. It will give you a sense of just how diminished the man was by the end of his remarkable life.
For more ideas on what to do on Colombia's Caribbean coast, see this article.