Books to Read Before Coming to Colombia (Besides Gabriel García Márquez)


One Hundred Years of Solitude Love in the Time of Cholera The General in His Labyrinth

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by JM Porup, in which the author of Lonely Planet Colombia (5th ed.) offers his suggestions.

Books by Gabriel García Márquez

You’ve read A Hundred Years of Solitude. (Oh wait–you haven’t? You should.)

But there’s a lot more to Colombia than Márquez.

Colombia has a rich literary tradition, and an increasing number of English-language authors are writing about the country, its lifestyle, the issues, and the region.

So if you’re looking for something a bit more modern–with more spice–keep reading. There’s more than just Marquez to choose from.

OK, alright already. We should probably mention Márquez anyway. Nobel Laureate and all that, you know?

Love in the Time of Cholera” will give you a taste of what Cartagena once was like, and “The General in His Labyrinth” will help you understand why sleepy Mompox was once such a vital, strategic link between the highlands and the Caribbean Coast.

I heard a story once about Márquez that made me laugh.

The Fruit Palace Maria Marching Powder


A scholar who was obsessed with the man’s novels went to the Caribbean Coast. He wanted to understand where all this “magical realism” came from.

The scholar went home disgusted. “It’s not magical realism!” he fumed. “Márquez was just writing what life is actually like in Colombia!”

Cali-lovers, of course, should not leave without a copy of Jorge Isaacs’s Maria–the plantation El Paraíso where the novel is set still exists and is now a museum, and can be visited as a day trip from Cali.

(Confession: I lived in Cali for three years and never visited the museum. Somehow I imagine rural Valle de Cauca in 1860 was a bit different from Cali today.)

The Fruit Palace

Now for some fun stuff. Ever read The Fruit Palace?

I howled with laughter when I read this book. It’s pure gonzo. Written back in the early 80s, English journalist Charles Nicholl goes looking for trouble in the cocaine underworld–and finds it, in spades.

Is it “fair and balanced”? Is it a nuanced dissection of Colombia’s problems at that time?

No, and hell no. But it’s scary and funny as get out. Well worth a read.

Marching Powder

Marching Powder. No! Not another drug book! Well, let’s just state the obvious: drugs are the dirty little secret that everyone in Colombia knows about and no one wants to talk about.

Until drug legalization happens–something the US will never allow their client states to do–Colombia and other countries in the region (like Bolivia, where this book is set) are stuck dealing with the fallout.

Haven’t heard of Marching Powder before? Like the Fruit Palace, it’s a true gonzo story, this time of Australian Rusty Young’s stay in La Paz’s infamous San Pedro prison. Note the word ‘stay’: not incarceration.

In San Pedro, everything–including your cell–is bought and sold, and hanging out with English drug runner Thomas McFadden in his plush pad is a mere matter of bribing the right guards.

A movie version starring Brad Pitt and Don Cheadle is in the works.

The Second Bat Guano War  The United States of Air

The Second Bat Guano War

What’s a blog post without a plug for your own book?

I always wanted to write spy novels like John Le Carre. But when I sat down to write one, this snarling, hard-boiled gritty noir came out instead. It’s got some elements of espionage, but it’s more for fans of the truly hard-boiled.

Set in Peru and Bolivia, the story follows our drug-addled expat English teacher from the slums of Lima to a Buddhist ashram on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

It contains volcanos, a plot to end the world, spies, and lots of jaded cynicism.

The United States of Air

The United States of Air is my favorite so far. If you like South Park, you’ll love this–a poo-filled piss-take of the War on Terror, War on Drugs, War on Insert-Your-Favorite-Abstract-Concept-Here. Absurd and ridiculous.

Warning: This Book Contains Twinkies. Lots of Twinkies.

Medellin Travel Guide Michelin Colombia

Michelin Travel Guide

What does the author of Lonely Planet Colombia (5th ed.) recommend you use?

Drum roll please…

NOT the Lonely Planet.

Ever watch “The Office”? That’s what LP is like, only it’s the guidebook business. What do they sell in “The Office”, anyway? Do we ever find out? I can’t remember, but whatever it is, I sure as hell wouldn’t want to buy it.

Check out these two titles instead:

My friend and fellow journalist Richard McColl (of Casa Amarilla in Mompox) wrote this Michelin Colombia guide. Richard’s been living in Colombia for yonks, and knows the country as well as anyone. This book is especially good for the culture and background sections.

Medellin Travel Guide

Gosh… hmm, where have we seen this book before?

Here’s the drill, people. While I lived in Colombia for many years before writing the Lonely Planet, most guidebook authors are not expats.

They come, they spend a day in a small town, maybe three or four in a big city like Medellin, then they bug out. That’s all they get paid for. That’s all they have time for.

David lives in Medellin. (Well, most of the time, when he’s not travelling the world, LOL). And he’s been here for a while now. If I were a guidebook author coming to Colombia, I would totally be cribbing notes from his book.

Why should I do the work if I can just copy his list of discos, visit them for five minutes each, and write my own text to avoid copyright violation?

So. You can read a rehash of David’s book in the next Lonely Planet, and pay $15 for it. Or you can buy David’s Medellin ebook for a couple of bucks, and it get it straight from the horse’s mouth.

What do y’all out there think? What books would you add to this list?

Leave your suggestions in the comments!


J.M. Porup

About J.M. Porup: Former Lonely Planet author J.M. Porup now writes satire. American by birth, Australian by choice, Colombian by marriage and Canadian by accident, he escaped from the US in 1999 and plans to renounce his citizenship.

His first editor–way back in the mid-90s–called him a loose cannon. Ever since, Porup has done his best to live up to that high standard.

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