The Colombian Town That Gabriel García Márquez’s Legacy Helped Transform

The Colombian Town That Gabriel García Márquez’s Legacy Helped Transform

Statues and murals bear his likeness. Schools and libraries are named after him. Hotels, barbershops, nightclubs and bike repair stores carry references to his work.

In the sweltering Colombian mountain town of Aracataca, it is impossible to walk down a single street without seeing allusions to its most renowned former resident: the winner of the 1982 Nobel Prize in Literature, Gabriel García Márquez.

Yellow butterflies are seen all over town, a nod to one of his famous literary images. The house where he lived as a child has been turned into a museum filled with its original furniture, including the crib where he slept.

The library, named Biblioteca Pública Municipal Remedios La Bella, after the character Remedios the Beauty from his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” features a glass case of his books translated into various languages.

Aracataca, a once dusty and dilapidated town of 40,000 plagued by unemployment and a lack of basic services, has been transformed by its connection to Mr. García Márquez, Colombia’s most famous author and one of the world’s literary titans.

Ten years ago, the town had little to offer tourists and did little to promote its connection to the author, beyond a museum and a pool hall that called itself Macondo Billiard, after the name of the fictional town in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

But since Mr. García Márquez’s death in 2014, interest in him and his hometown, which inspired some of his most well-known works, has surged.

Many refer to the writer by his nickname, Gabo, and the town has become a sort of Gabolandia.

Walk down any block, and there are visible reminders of the author: signs with his name, murals, statues, street signs and plenty of stands selling any of number of items, from baseball caps to coffee mugs, with Mr. García Márquez’s likeness.

With the release of his final posthumous book, “Until August,” hopes are high among Aracataca officials and residents that the surrounding publicity will lure even more tourists.

“We have seen changes in all aspects,” said Carlos Ruiz, the director of a museum where Mr. García Márquez’s father worked as a telegraph operator. He has been working along with the regional government to boost literary tourism in the town.

“What we want is for Aracataca to be strengthened through Gabo,” Mr. Ruiz said, adding that 22,000 tourists visited last year, up from 17,500 in 2019.

The town celebrates Mr. García Márquez’s birthday on March 6 every year, but this year’s festivities were bigger, with more participants and more activities.

The celebration included a short story and poetry competition featuring a dance performance by girls dressed as yellow butterflies. A librarian dressed up as Mr. García Márquez to read parts of “One Hundred Years of Solitude” to children. In the evening, a theater group put on a performance of “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

Mr. García Márquez didn’t want his latest book published, and the literary merits of the work are already being debated. But, in his hometown, the work has generated intense excitement.

“There is a great expectation, especially because in this work a woman is the protagonist,” said Claudia Aarón, 50, a schoolteacher.

“How nice,” she added, “that our great teacher still lets us enjoy his work even after his death.”

Ms. Aarón, who was dressed in bright yellow like many of the others at the poetry competition, recalled the last time the writer came to Aracataca, in 2007, when he rode around town in a horse-drawn carriage.

“That was tremendous,” she said. “He and his wife, waving like the queen of the town.”

“So many things help us and motivate us to continue living here, to fight for this culture,” said Rocío Valle, 52, another teacher attending the poetry contest. “Thanks to God and thanks to Gabo.”

Mr. García Márquez was born in Aracataca in 1927 and was raised largely by his maternal grandparents before he moved to Sucre to live with his parents at age 8.

While his time in Aracataca was relatively brief, the town became the model for the fictional town of Macondo. (There was a referendum in 2006 to change the name of Aracataca to Macondo, which ultimately failed.)

In his memoir “Living to Tell the Tale,” the novelist recalled that when he returned to Aracataca as a young man, “the reverberation of the heat was so intense that you seemed to be looking at everything through undulating glass.”

These days in Aracataca, the works of Mr. García Márquez are taught as early as preschool, with children asked to draw pictures based on his short stories that are read aloud, Ms. Aarón said.

A group of teenagers gathered outside a shop on Wednesday said the legacy of Mr. García Márquez’s Nobel Prize had inspired them to be creative and imaginative in class. They debated which work of his was their favorite — “The Incredible and Sad Tale of Innocent Eréndira and Her Heartless Grandmother” or “The Story of a Shipwrecked Sailor.”

Alejandra Mantilla, 16, said she was proud to see tourists from as far away as Europe and China visit the town, particularly because Colombia still struggles to overcome its reputation for drugs and violence.

“Colombia is maybe one of the countries that is very isolated because of drug trafficking and all that,” she said. “So it’s good that he gives a good image to the country.”

Iñaki Otaoño, 63, and his wife, who live in Spain, made sure to make Aracataca one of their stops during their monthlong trip to Colombia. Mr. Otaoño said he had read all of Mr. García Márquez’s works.

“We are a bit monomaniacal about this gentleman,” he said. “We had to know the place where the book takes place.”

He said they planned to buy his new book when they got to Bogotá.

“Better to buy it here in his country, right?” he said.

The regional government has been working to revive a railroad that passes through Aracataca, currently used only to transport coal, to transport passengers as part of a “Macondo route.” A large hotel with a pool and bakery is also under construction.

The increased tourism has provided more financial opportunities.

When Jahir Beltrán, 39, lost his job as a coal miner, he worked briefly in construction and farming before a friend suggested that he work as a tour guide.

He started studying Mr. García Márquez’s writing and hired a tailor to make him a uniform so he could dress up as Col. Aureliano Buendía, a key protagonist in “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”

“All this knowledge, both of the writer and of old Aracataca, has helped me to transmit it to the tourists,” said Mr. Beltrán, who now works full time as an independent tour guide. ‌ ‌

Fernando Vizcaíno, 70, a retired banker, got the idea to turn his house into a hostel about six years ago when he saw visitors starting to arrive in bigger numbers. He named it the Magic Realism Tourist House, and he and his wife decorated it in brilliant colors, chock-full of homages to Mr. García Márquez.

Mr. Vizcaíno said his father was a friend of the author’s family and carried letters back and forth between Mr. García Márquez’s parents when they were young and pursuing a forbidden love, a courtship that inspired “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

“Here in Aracataca, he is still alive,” he said.

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Chriss B. Cornell

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