It’s difficult to read about Colombia without stumbling across the name Gabriel García Márquez. Colombians talk about him with a sense of reverence and ardor. I brought with me a few of García Márquez’s works to Colombia and because of the deference that is given to this man, I purposely read none of them before we moved.
I felt that by first experiencing the country that so greatly inspired the author, I would also feel his work as I read it.
When I was 19 or 20, I tried reading Love in the Time of Cholera but abandoned it a third of the way through as “boring.” Although that statement is a bit embarrassing now, I think my flippant attitude was due more to the fact that I didn’t know anything about romantic love. I simply wasn’t ready to read it because I had no way to relate to the fulcrum upon which the story rests.
Cartagena and Love in the Time of Cholera are inextricably linked in my mind. Although the location of the book is unnamed it’s accepted that Cartagena is the inspiration behind the novel’s setting—in fact, the movie adaptation of the book was filmed within the walls of the Old City.
Cartagena has a long history—it was home to the oldest known Pre-Columbian settlement, dating from 7,000 BC. The indigenous tribes were displaced when the city was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century, instantly becoming a political center and prized port for the Spanish gold and slave trade.
Because of it’s economic and political importance, Cartagena has the most extensive fortifications in South America. In 1811, it was the first Colombian city to declare it’s independence from Spain. When it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984, the wheels of modernization and preservation began turning, making this city a huge tourist attraction and top stop for cruise ships (BTW, all these tidbits were taken from our Colombian Guide Book).
This past October we were fortunate to spend a weekend in the city that gave birth to this amazing story. It’s probably the combination of sticky heat, turbulent history, and diverse cultural mix, but I think the Old City of Cartagena is truly magical. It’s filled with colonial homes with whitewashed balconies draped in bougainvillea. Horse-drawn carriages clop by. As we walked the old city walls after dark, people were dancing while thunder boomed overhead.
Because I hadn’t yet read the book, I didn’t know that we were strolling by Plaza Fernández de Madrid, where the fictional Florentino would have waited for Fermina to pass or that we passed under the colonnaded arcade where he later composed love letters for others when his own love went unrequited.
Keep scrolling for a few of our favorite photos from the trip.
Now that I’ve experienced the Old City of Cartagena (and know a bit about love), I’ve revisited Love. It’s amazing how sharply García Márquez captured the essence of this place—what’s more is that the feeling lingers to this day, even though his novel was set at the end of the 19th century.
I haven’t yet finished Love, partly because I can’t read more than a few pages at a time—even in English, I need a dictionary at least once per session. And I can’t rush myself through these deliberately, beautifully, twice chosen words. Chosen first by Marquez himself and then perhaps more carefully for the second time when the text was translated into English. The language is thick, lyrical and dynamic. I could have reread Love without visiting Cartagena but now that I have, I can’t imagine reading it any other way.
Before we finish, I want to make a quick note. I read a lot of other travel blogs as research for my posts and have noticed that I kind of skim over unsavory topics. I don’t want this place to be filled with fluff but on the other hand, I don’t yet feel comfortable pointing out every flaw or problem Colombia faces. Perhaps once I’ve lived here longer or feel like I have the world figured out and something to contribute I’ll want to give my opinion on these issues. I say this because Cartagena has a whole other reputation and form of tourism which I don’t address here and is part of the reason I didn’t want to venture far from the Old City. That being said, I don’t think my view is any less authentic because I didn’t see the seedier side of the city.