In colonial times the area then known as Nueva Granada was to inspire Spanish imaginations as the land of El Dorado, “the Golden One,” referring to an inaugural ritual of the Chibcha Indians in the mountains near Bogotá. The actual ceremony consisted of the new tribal chief, covered with gold dust, being borne on a raft along with a cargo of gold objects on sacred Lake Guatavitá, where as an offering he would sink the precious items and immerse himself in the water.1 Today the image of Colombia is more one of coffee advertisements, emerald stones, drug scandals, and inevitably, political violence. Were it not for García Márquez’s writings, “Colombia” in the minds of non-Hispanics would evoke little more than those conquistador fixations and television stereotypes. His verbal inventions are that country’s best export, providing as they do a necessary counterimage, an in-depth introduction to a national reality far richer and more manifold than any media imagery will allow.
That reality, taken for granted in García Márquez’s work, is large and variegated. In surface area Colombia is almost twice the size of Texas; its population hovers around thirty million. Its geographic spread includes the sparsely settled eastern plains, the high chill of the Andean chain and Bogotá, the coastal heat of the Caribbean provinces, the desert desolation of the Guajira peninsula jutting to the northeast, the lush “eternal spring” of the western Cordillera Central and the Cauca Valley with its cities Medellín and Cali, and the vast, humid Amazon bush dipping four degrees south beyond the equator. Colombia is the one mainland South American country blessed with both Atlantic and Pacific littorals; it shares borders with Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Brazil; and through Panama (formerly Colombian territory) it has a Central American frontier. While from this geographic assortment Garcia Márquez would choose the bright sands of La Guajira and the most rarefied of Andean redoubts as settings for some of his livelier episodes, the bulk of his fiction takes place in imaginary or unidentified towns and villages located on or near the Caribbean shore.
The total cultural reality of Colombia is also belied by a certain standardized ecological and ethnic image. Most foreigners—other Latin Americans in