10 Books you should read before traveling to Colombia
By Laura Rocha
These awesome reads will help you immerse yourself in Colombian culture before you set foot there.
1. Love in the Time of Cholera – Gabriel García Márquez
Region: Caribbean Coast
While this is probably Garcia Marquez’s second best-known novel and not his most popular one, it is worth sinking your teeth into it as a way to immerse yourself in Gabo’s world, which is ultimately a mirror of Colombian society. The country’s only Nobel laureate in Literature yet, patriarch of magical realism, built a world where the absurd is normalized in a way that profoundly reflects Colombian folklore.
This story takes place mostly in the fancy neighborhoods of Cartagena, which is now one of the most visited cities in Latin America. Full with Caribbean charm and color, Cartagena represents many of the contradictions that make Colombia such a peculiar country. It follows the longwinded and complicated love story of Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza, which blossoms as a secret love in their youth. Fermina is the daughter of a powerful member of the elite, who does not consider Florentino as a suitable husband for his daughter.
2. The Vortex – José Eustacio Rivera
Region: Amazon and Orinoquia
This 1924 novel will take you through some of the roughest natural environments of Colombia: the rainforest and the grass plains. These settings are a kind of labyrinth in themselves: it is easy to get lost in them, and in the process, to lose yourself. It takes place during the country’s rubber boom, a time when the remaining native populations, after a century of independence from the Spanish, were being exploited in order to harvest rubber from the trees. It is a violent tale about forced labor and racism, that allows a window into understanding what Colombia went through during the 20th Century, beyond the famed stories of Pablo Escobar and the drug wars.
Note: we’d recommend this book for high school seniors or older readers. Although well worth your time, it is a pretty violent read.
3. The Sound of Things Falling – Juan Gabriel Vásquez
Juan Gabriel Vásquez is one of Colombia’s thriving current generation of writers. This is his third novel and it tells the story of a crumbling Bogotá in the 1990s. The city suffered the consequences of the drug wars, which touched everyone’s lives, even if they were not personally involved with the drug trade and neither were their families. Vásquez explores the complexity of this situation from a very personal perspective: he explains that this book takes him back to when he was growing up, back to many of the things he himself lived in in the capital city.
If you want context about the Colombian drug war and to understand the consequences that touched every single life in the country, skip Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar and read this one instead.
4. Mother Tongue: A Bogotan Story – Juan Fernando Hincapié
This is a funny novel about returning to the home country after living abroad: Enrique is a young Colombian man who returns to Bogotá after living and studying in the US: It is a play on language, on the prejudices Colombians (and Latin Americans in general) face when living abroad, and an inquiry about identity.
This novel was originally written in English and published by Colombian independent house Rey Naranjo. It may be a bit harder to get your hands on it, but you can always get it directly from the publisher’s online. Or visit a bookstore while you are in Colombia!
5. The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir – Emma Reyes
Region: Rural Andean Region and Bogota
This is a nonfiction book! It is a collection of letters that artist Emma Reyes wrote to her friend the historian Germán Arciniegas, who encouraged her to write about her childhood and compiled her letters after she passed away. Reyes wrote to Arciniegas while she was living in Paris when she was already respected as a visual artist. But her childhood was filled with pain, abandonment, and fighting to survive — even if her tone comes across as playful and trauma-free.
The prose is innocent and beautiful, and this is the only book that provides such a profound insight into what it is like to grow up as an orphan in rural Colombia.
6. The Children – Carolina Sanín
This novel is set in modern-day Bogotá and follows a middleaged woman named Laura, who has decided not to have children. One day, she finds a six-year-old boy on the steps of her apartment building but seems to have nowhere to go. It is an exploration of Colombian femininity, and of the questions that surround motherhood in its relation to identity, a dilemma all women in modern Western society face at some point in their lives in one way or another.
Sanín is one of the best known contemporary authors in Colombia, mostly recognized because she is not afraid to speak her mind. Her writing style is poetic and intimate.
7. Voices of Bogotá: A Short Story Collection – Various Authors
Bogotá is a loud, chaotic, lively metropolis that has attracted immigrants from all over Colombia and the world. This short story collection gathers the stories from the creative writing in English collective, Bogotá Writers. It is a testament to the diversity characteristic of the city, with each distinct voice telling a distinct story, and bringing forth the inner lives of the people you’d cross paths every day in the streets of such a gigantic city.
With such a variety of authors that have ended up in Bogotá from different contexts, the book ends up being a sort of guide to the city, showing the places the characters frequent and the parts of the city they love and hate.
8. Fruit of the Drunken Tree – Ingrid Rojas-Contreras
Like The Sound of Things Falling, this novel deals with the consequences of the 90’s drug wars in the lives of regular people, but from a different perspective. The novel follows two young girls: seven-year-old Chula, who lives in a bubble of apparent safety in a gated community of the capital city, and Petrona, a teen-aged liv-in-maid who gets hired to work for Chula’s family. The two form an unlikely friendship and entangle themselves in a web of secrets.
Again, skip Loving Pablo, Hating Escobar and read this one instead.
9. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
Region: Caribbean Coast
If any work of literature can be considered a mirror of Colombian society and history, including some of its most violent episodes, it is One Hundred Years of Solitude. Published in 1967, García Márquez was awarded the Nobel prize in Literature in 1982 in great part because of this novel. It is considered the banner of Latin American magical realism, where the absurd and inexplicable are part of daily life, much like in Colombian and Latin American Folklore.
The plot is complicated enough that summarizing it could mean an article in itself, but basically, the novel follows the lineage of the Buendía family, founders of Macondo, a small town in the Caribbean region of the country.
10. Delirium – Laura Restrepo
This beloved novel by Laura Restrepo follows the story of a young man who comes home after a short business trip to find his wife has gone completely crazy. It tells the story of how her husband tries to figure out what happened to her, decoding parts of her past he had no idea about. It is a critically acclaimed novel set in Bogotá and deals with themes such as mental illness and gender roles.
Bonus! Puñalada Trapera – Antología de cuento colombiano – Various Authors
This one has not been translated to English yet – therefore, it is a bonus! If you read Spanish, this short story collection is unique and well worth your time. It gathers a great diversity of voices of young Colombian authors — some who have published novels and poetry books, some who are just starting out.