Some writers bring places to life in such a way that their novels' settings are nearly inextricable from their literary identities. Dickens and London. Faulkner and Mississippi. Steinbeck and Salinas. Wanderlit (wander + literature) is a series dedicated to exploring where travel and literature intersect as I visit the places my favorite authors have immortalized.
I should preface this piece with the confession that I haven't read many Gabriel García Márquez novels (only two, to be exact). When Juan and I started dating he gave me a copy of Chronicle of a Death Foretold, his favorite novel, after learning that I had never been exposed to the Nobel Prize-winning Colombian's work, despite my Bachelor of Arts in literature. Infatuated with García Márquez's storytelling methods, I bought Love in the Time of Cholera shortly after turning the last page of Chronicle of a Death Foretold.
While planning our trip to Colombia a couple months later, we rather impulsively decided to go to Cartagena as the prelude to our trip to Juan's hometown, Bogota, the capital city of Colombia. Friends and family urged us to go to the walled Old City with its colonial charm and tropical climate, but honestly, it didn't take much to convince me to visit the birthplace of Gabo's magical realism.
From the moment we arrived in Cartagena — an enchanting Caribbean city with weathered 16th century fortress walls, colorful colonial buildings, and palm-tree-shaded plazas crowded with tourists, dancers, and street vendors — the reality of magical realism was immediately apparent.
It was easy to imagine why Gabriel García Márquez chose this centuries-old colonial city as the backdrop for his powerful, Nobel Prize-winning love story, Love in the Time of Cholera. Walking through Plaza Fernández de Madrid, the real park the fictional Park of the Evangels in Love in the Time of Cholera is based on, it wasn't hard to envision Florentino Ariza sitting "on the most hidden bench in the little park, pretending to read a book of verse in the shade of the almond trees" trying to catch a glimpse of Fermina.
While in Plaza Fernández de Madrid, we also spotted Fermina's childhood home. According to scholars, García Márquez's inspiration for Fermina's childhood home was a white house adorned with a parrot-shaped door knocker (the perfect allusion to the beginning of the Love in the Time of Cholera).
We also enjoyed spending quite a bit of time in the shady and tranquil Parque de Bolívar, the real park the fictional Plaza of the Cathedral of the novel is based on. Surrounded by stunning colonial-palaces-turned-museums and shaded by palm trees, we shared the park with street vendors, musicians, dancers, and other tourists seeking refuge from the heat of the midday sun.
In the novel, this park is adjacent to the Arcade of the Scribes, where Florentino helps "unlettered lovers write their scented love notes, in order to unburden his heart of all the love that he [cannot] use." Today, there is free Wi-Fi in the plaza advertised by several signs posted in the park. Perhaps this is an homage to Florentino's work as love's scribe in the fictional version of the park, allowing lovers to communicate easily and effectively from the center of town via their smartphones.
As we walked down Casa de la Moneda from our Airbnb and passed boutique hotels with colonial facades, historic buildings turned upscale retail stores, and trendy restaurants serving street vendor staples with a refined twist, I couldn't help but think the recent gentrification of Cartagena finally brought about the city revival Fermina's husband, Dr. Juvenal Urbino, always longed for in the novel.
Some of our favorite restaurants of the trip exemplified the elevation of street food and local flavors to bourgeois palates. El Boliche Cebicheria, a tiny seafood restaurant in the Old City, serves up inventive ceviches filled with local flavors. We had the tamarindo ceviche and the costeño ceviche and a delicious boliguaro de corozo cocktail featuring cherry juice and aguadiente, Colombia's anise liquor (and the liquor Fermina's father and Florentino share when Fermina's father attempts to threaten Florentino into leaving his daughter alone).
In the up-and-coming Getsemaní district (referred to as "the old Gethsemane District" in the novel), we ate at El Cocina de Pepina, an authentic restaurant that serves traditional dishes. We sipped on the Colombian craft beer Apóstol and dined on cabeza de gato (stuffed plantain, yucca and cassava balls), aji rellenos (roasted, stuffed peppers), and dehydrated beef stuffed with cheese and peppers.
We also went to Demente, a cool bar next to Plaza de Santisma Trinidad in Getsemaní that wouldn't be out of place in downtown Los Angeles, and ordered a tangy green mango margarita and a classic mojito. I imagine Dr. Juvenal Urbino would be pleased with the emerging trendy food scene in the Old City and Getsemaní.
Being in a modern port city, we took our Cartagena exploration offshore and went on day trips to two local islands: Isla Pirata and Isla Barú where we spent the day at Playa Blanca, a beautiful public beach.
Though these excursions weren't anything like the riverboat cruise Florentino and Fermina took up and down the Magdalena River, they allowed us to see Cartagena from a different perspective. To get to each island, we boarded a relatively janky speed boat and exited Cartagena Bay, passing the fortresses that once guarded the entrance to the city by sea, to enter el mar Caribe, the appropriately nicknamed sea of seven colors. Each time we returned, entering the bay as the Spaniards did, as the English did, as Fermina and Florentino did, the city was a formidable sight on the horizon.
On our last day in Cartagena, we took a cab to the outskirts of the city and climbed to the top of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.
From the 16th century fortress there's an incredible aerial view of the walled Old City. I couldn't resist thinking that this is how Fermina and her husband must have viewed Cartagena when they took a tour by balloon in the novel:
"From the sky they could see, just as God saw them, the ruins of the very old and heroic city of Cartagena de Indias, the most beautiful in the world, abandoned by its inhabitants because of the cholera panic after three centuries of resistance to the sieges of the English and the atrocities of the buccaneers. They saw the walls still intact, the brambles in the streets, the fortifications devoured by heartsease, the marble palaces and the golden altars of the Viceroys rotting with plague inside their armor."
Leaving Cartagena, awestruck by it's equal parts grit and charm, history and modernity, magic and realism, I kept thinking about the relationship between truth and imagination. "A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe it," García Márquez aptly revealed in an interview with The Paris Review.
Gabo, with more than a little help from Cartagena, certainly made me believe in magical realism.