Travel: Magic moments of real Colombia: The masterpiece of magical realism, One Hundred Years of Solitude, was set in Aracataca. James Wilson went there, and found fact as strange as fiction

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The Independent Travel
It was when we tried to get off the bus in Aracataca that we realised this place did not perhaps get many visitors. It wasn't there. 'South of Cienaga, just before Fundacion,' said the guidebook, but we kept looking and waiting and it didn't show up; nothing but the road and a disused railway and a few odd houses, surrounded by banana palms. There was one clue, though - a garage with a name familiar to any reader of Gabriel Garcia Marquez's epic, One Hundred Years of Solitude: the Macondo Service Station. Well, we thought, at least we're on the right track.

Any other significance that Aracataca might have enjoyed has long since been eclipsed by its importance as the birthplace of the great Colombian novelist, and as the fictionalised Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude. No question as to which incarnation is better known: the name Macondo even appears on some maps, alongside that of Aracataca, a bizarre machine-gun rattle, too beautifully sonorous to be believable in a novel.

With tourism not exactly top of Colombia's priorities, however, Aracataca has been spared the dubious honour of being consecrated as a literary shrine. It might be within day-trip range of the beach resorts and cruise ships of the Caribbean coast, but this is no neat package; no 'Gabolandia' theme park with gift shops selling plastic yellow butterflies or little goldfishes (two of the images of the novel). There are popular local songs about Marquez, and Colombians are immensely proud of their most famous (living) compatriot, but more people probably attended Pablo Escobar's funeral than have ever made the pilgrimage to Aracataca.

Thus does Aracataca preserve that intoxicating, insouciant madness - not just Colombian but Caribbean Colombian - which is the key to One Hundred Years, and which makes it the opus maximus of that elusive genre, magical realism. True, there is no shortage of more beautiful, absorbing and accessible places nearby, which also have Marquez associations, notably the historic colonial towns of Cartagena and Mompos, where the evocative film of his best work, Chronicle Of A Death Foretold, was made. Neither, though, possesses Aracataca's large measure of lost-in-the-bush lunacy in which Marquez's fiction delights.

We actually found the place second time around. After checking into a hotel with no water, opposite Fundacion's Macondo pawn shop, we caught a ride back to the Macondo garage and took the first paved road - the only paved road - off the highway. A 10- minute walk took us past a neat little school proclaiming 'Welcome to the land of the Nobel' (Marquez was awarded the Literature prize in 1982), and to the hidden heart of the town.

It was siesta time: the streets were almost deserted, the shaded tables at the bars on the main square scarcely busier. Nothing moved except a man pushing a cart loaded with a bicycle, a stereo, a fridge and numerous smaller goods; a mobile raffle.

The clock stopped here some time around 1928, the year of Marquez's birth. The United Fruit Company had covered Aracataca with banana plantations, but the boom came to an end in a massacre of striking workers in the railway station in nearby Cienaga - events described in One Hundred Years. By Marquez's own account, Aracataca then went into a sorrowful decline, but it has evidently recovered a fair degree of prosperity and pride since then; the latter not least due to its most famous son, whose trademark yellow butterflies emblazon the municipal signposts and murals.

It is not strictly true to say that Aracataca has nothing for the tourist. The house where Gabriel lived until he was eight is still there, converted into a museum. We tried following the signs to it, and again got nowhere. This was what endeared Aracataca to us most: the fact that, though we could have no other reason for being there, nobody ever tried to show such unlikely-looking strangers where the house was.

It was heaven. We wandered the rutted and dusty streets, with their flowers and bright houses, until we went round in circles. Nobody batted an eyelid. When we finally stumbled across the house, it was shut.

The director of the museum was soon spotted, however, coming along the road in a pair of red football shorts. He led us in and sat us down at his desk. I thought he was rather self- important when he told us repeatedly he was to be the next mayor of Aracataca; I thought he was mad when he gave us 10 copies of his autograph. Finally I realised he was drunk.

Its director aside, the museum was a disappointment. It didn't have much except a crude and rather cross-eyed bust of Marquez. The house where he had lived turned out to be an older wooden cottage through the back of the museum, and the future mayor didn't have the keys. But a quick peep through the window revealed it wouldn't have made much difference. Perhaps they'll get some more mementoes when he dies, I thought.

It is a shame, for the house was important to Marquez. The eldest of 16 children, he was left there with his grandparents as a gift of reconciliation from his parents, whose marriage had been frowned upon. His grandfather was a retired liberal civil war colonel (though not, apparently, in the mould of Colonel Aureliano Buendia, the luckless hero of One Hundred Years), and it was from his grandmother that Marquez first learned the fantastic- but-true stories, and the matter-of-fact manner of their telling, which characterise the novel. (One Hundred Years was even originally conceived as The House, with everything happening within the Buendia household.)

Still, a building can tell only so much, and we were soon granted much more insight into Marquez's fiction when, after we had given in to amiable persuasion and bought a tatty souvenir pennant, the future mayor decided to take us for a drink. Several fleeting beers ensued with various local dignitaries: the current mayor, the best storyteller in Aracataca . . . Soon, tiring of introducing us to bellied townsfolk, our host flagged down a man with a donkey cart. I clung to the back while the driver forced the animal over the rutted streets by jabbing a stick up its rear. With the future mayor beside me, dreamily indicating with a sweep of his hand how much would change during his year in office, and promising to take us to the Street of the Turks of the novel, I began to realise that in magical realism there was much less magic, and much more realism, than I had ever thought possible.

We arrived at the abandoned railway station. At a bar overlooking a stream (or a sewer) we fell off the cart and sat down with more of the future mayor's friends, talking about football and Britain, trying to convince them that 60 million people could fit on an island much smaller than Colombia with not too much discomfort. With the disused tracks vanishing into the palms, and only the hazy mountains to the east to give any idea of orientation or distance, a world outside, as Macondo's first residents found, was difficult to conceive of, and even more difficult to encounter.

Marquez did get out - to school, university, a career in journalism - but never lost touch. I read the pennant we had bought: 'I consider myself a Latin American of any country,' it said, 'without ever letting go of a nostalgia for my homeland: Aracataca, to which I returned one day and found that between reality and nostalgia lay the raw material of my work.'

It was tempting to think everybody in Aracataca could be a writer, all just telling it how it is. Reality here was just as distorted by the tropical sun and the temperament of the inhabitants as it ever was by one person's imagination.

We made our excuses and took a last turn around town. Aracataca seemed to bloom; the billiard halls were swinging, the roulette wheels were spinning. The man with the cart hawked his raffle. At every corner people stopped us to talk. One of our new friends invited us to his house if we needed somewhere to stay, and explained about the future mayor: his father had been a witch who wandered around on moonlit nights terrorising the town and howling like a dog.

With night falling, we finally bumped into the main road, squeezed on to a bus, and Aracataca disappeared once more into its cocoon of banana plantations, all set for another hundred years.

The Colombian airline, Avianca (071- 437 3664), offers an eight-stop air pass for its domestic airline network from dollars 340 ( pounds 230). The airline serves 16 cities, including Bogota, Cartagena, San Andres and Barranquilla. A five-stop pass is dollars 220. If you arrive in Colombia on another airline, the pass costs from dollars 519 for eight stops, from dollars 399 for five stops. Avianca offers return fares, London to Bogota, from pounds 490.

The Corporacion National de Turismo in Bogota is on 010 57 1 243 84 15 (fax 284 95 42).

(Photograph omitted)

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