Chasing Butterflies

Victoria Kellaway visits the birthplace of Gabriel García Márquez, Nobel Prize winner, pioneer of Magical Realism and Colombia’s most famous writer.

There is no such thing as magic, which means it's technically impossible that the man standing before me - a man with 39 children and 126 grandchildren - got up this morning and fell straight from the pages of a Gabriel García Márquez novel.

But Antonio Jaramillo, 82-years-old, twice married, keen guitar player, is exactly the sort of person you should meet in the tiny village of Aracataca, birth place of García Márquez, especially if you’re a skeptical soul like me, who is slightly alarmed at being dumped from a bus in the middle of nowhere, somewhere south of Colombia's Caribbean coast.

You can’t help but wonder what they think of it all here. García Márquez was the front runner of the famously creative Barranquilla Group; beloved in Cartagena with his ocean-front home and penchant for waxing lyrical about the city; celebrated in Bogotá for his work at El Espectador newspaper, before becoming Colombia’s most famous writer. But he left the village of Aracataca before he collided with fame. How can he still be relevant here?

I’d heard stories of residents painting sarcastic slogans under the Welcome to Aracataca signs, along the lines of “That’s right, it’s not Macondo” – a side sweep at anyone hoping to find the characters from A Hundred Years of Solitude, the Nobel laureate’s most famous work. Instead they seem a jolly lot, vallenatos blaring on every corner, motorbikes humming up and down, hideous memories of the banana plantations fading with every dance and drop of rum.

Despite the sarcasm, Aracateños are most definitely pro-García Márquez. You can have a few beers outside a bustling little shop called La Hojarasca, named after one of his early works (‘Leaf Storm’ in English). Similarly, you can visit what was genuinely the old Casa del Telegrafista and relive your memories of Love in the Time of Cholera and other favourites.

I even had my photograph taken with a bronze statue of Hundred Years’ character Amaranta Úrsula in her rocking chair, which let me tell you is a very big deal for a García Márquez fan (I probably should have admitted that at first. Yes, I’m a García Márquez fan. I even made it through The General in his Labyrinth, for which you really have to love Gabo, Simón Bolívar, or both)

Aracataca's car repair shop is cheekily called Macondo and there are numerous other references dotted around the place. You can stroll past the author’s old school and it's completely acceptable to wait for the train just so you can have your photograph taken beside that too. In fact, no-one turns a hair at anything here, not even when you’re six foot tall, blonde and blue-eyed and you've resorted to chasing yellow butterflies down the street.

I'm not usually the sort to go tramping barefoot through the woods, in deep mud amongst iguana-hunting children, and jump fully clothed into a deceptively strong river and float back to Aracataca. But this is García Márquez country. Hang it, it’s the Colombian coast. You’re supposed to do that stuff here, and floating on your back in those pale brown waters, admiring blue skies, butterflies and tropical birds overhead, is probably the greatest tribute you can pay.

Of course no journey to Aracataca would be complete without a trip to García Márquez’s old house and here the powers-that-be have done a fantastic reconstruction job. The place oozes with the author’s wizardry, the very real magic of his autobiography Living To Tell The Tale, which you must read before you go – if only because it’ll make hugging that famous tree in the garden a little bit more special (you will hug the tree, trust me).

Now, many people might deter you from a visit, saying there is nothing of interest here. I was definitely supposed to be above a visit to Aracataca and a cuddle with old Ursula. Mr Jaramillo, him with the guitar, died shortly after my trip to the village too, which wasn’t part of the tale and, yet, I'm still a believer. As for you, go to Aracataca, jump in the river, chase some butterflies, meet some of Mr Jaramillo’s 39 children, 126 grandchildren, and then tell me Gabo's reality doesn’t exist. Because it’s all just a fantasy, right?

Victoria Kellaway is a British journalist who has lived in Bogota for six years. She is the co-author of the satirical best-seller ‘Colombia a comedy of errors’ and co-edited the essay collection ‘Was Gabo an Irishman’.