Ciénaga: The Colombian Caribbean


In his article “Ciénaga: Los nuevos aires del Caribe colombiano,” Jorge López Orozco (La Tercera) explores the town on Ciénaga, in Caribbean Colombia. He writes: “Halfway along the trip between Barranquilla and Santa Marta, this town goes almost unnoticed. Its streets are full of stories that link it with literary glories such as García Márquez, it has a 13-kilometer-long beach, and it is next to a huge saltwater lagoon—the most important lagoon in Colombia—where colorful houses float between large mangroves and the Sierra Nevada mountains.”

A meter-long iguana meter moves along slowly, enjoying the intense noon sun. A tuc-tuc (motorcycles that carry people in a cart) comes to a stop. The driver and the passengers smile and observe the lethargy with which the reptile crosses one of the main streets of Ciénaga. It seems surreal, but it is a classic image of this middle point of the Colombian Caribbean.

Ciénaga has gone unnoticed among its dazzling neighbors: Cartagena and its walled city, Barranquilla (industrial and full of vallenatos), and Santa Marta, which has been reborn in recent years and is the gateway to the famed Tayrona National Park. Too much competition for a city with the soul of a village that has had to overcome pain and blood to see the light.

Eduardo Sarcos pedals along despite the heat. For about 400 Chilean pesos, he takes two people on his tricycle to wherever they want. With 21 years of age, for 12 months he has run his rickshaw, which joins dozens and dozens of other vehicles that cross the streets without stopping. Cars are unnecessary, because this is the realm of bicycles and motorcycles. “We call Ciénaga the capital of magical realism,” says Eduardo Sarcos.

The roots of Macondo

It is not a superficial phrase. The history of Ciénaga, as people say and repeat, inspired Gabriel García Márquez to write his most famous book: One Hundred Years of Solitude [Cien años de soledad]. The historic neighborhood has houses, built more than a century ago. In one of them, they say, lived Remedios la Bella, one of the most memorable characters of this masterpiece. Her real name was Rosario Barranco, a 1933 beauty queen and inhabitant of the mansion has been now turned into the first (and only) boutique hotel of Ciénaga. With six rooms and impeccable viewpoints of the city on its roof, this pioneer hotel has a huge mural in honor of Remedios and her yellow butterflies.

In Ciénaga, the theme of the inspiration of García Márquez and One Hundred Years of Solitude is a serious matter. It has generated lauded historical studies that relate to General Ramón Demetrio Morán with the character of Aureliano Buendía and Armando Barrameda, featured as Aureliano Babilonia. And the battles in the book were based on a real event that shocked Colombia at the dawn of the 20th century: the civil war of a thousand days.

In Ciénaga, magical realism surpasses the literary. You live it. In a corner of the center of town is the “House of the Devil” [Casa del Diablo], with two floors and 14 Roman columns that recall the pact that Manuel Varela made with Satan, exchanging his soul for wealth. Of course, the man became more alive and he sacrificed other souls yearly to keep the money that fattened up his fortune.

The stories of this town-city weave in the life of Jews from Curaçao, Italian families, and masonic lodges, and the indigenous peoples coming from the heights of the Sierra Nevada with the “gringos” who came to do business with banana crops.

[Translation of excerpts by Ivette Romero. Read full, original article (in Spanish) at

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