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Story: This article appears in Volume 27: The Books Issue
I first stepped through Cartagena’s historic walls as a 16-year-old armed with a copy of Love in the Time of Cholera, Gabriel García Márquez’s famous novel about the love between his own parents. I was immediately enchanted as “Gabo’s” magical world came to life. I marvelled at the candied colours of the colonial buildings, their balconies overflowing with bougainvillaea, and lost myself in the labyrinth of its side streets, walking behind the swaying hips of the city’s palenqueras, the graceful women who pedal exotic fruit from enormous bowls balanced atop their heads.

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Meanwhile, the nights were thronged with music. Dinner at La Vitrola to the accompaniment of a legendary salsa trio was followed by an impromptu performance by cumbia dancers, elegant in their voluminous white skirts. A talented musician and dancer himself, Gabo infused these rhythms into his novels and he would often say that they were in his DNA. “This whole literature thing is just a hobby,” he jokingly confided to the Queen of Sweden at the Nobel Prize ceremony. “In fact, what I really am is a master of cumbia.”

These early impressions were my real-world entry point into the fantastical, fictional realms of Gabo’s imagination – a gateway that would lead me over the years beyond Cartagena into more remote pockets of the country where folklore, legend and fact mingle and merge, and carnivalesque characters inhabit the tropical towns and mountainsides.

The Carnaval de Barranquilla, a four-day festival that gives Rio a run for its money, is a raucous counterpoint to the stillness of the mountains. The parties here inspired Gabo’s fictitious Macondo Carnival, in which Remedios the Beauty is declared Queen. Gabo spent time partying in this bustling sea port in the early 1950s as a young journalist and it’s also where he met with like-minded intellectuals Alfonso Fuenmayor, Álvaro Cepeda Samudio and Alejandro Obregón at La Cueva, forging a formidable gang of artists, musicians and fellow writers who would shape contemporary culture in Colombia.

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