This collection of 20 books about Colombia feature some characters who have gotten lost, others who have found themselves and many who have persevered against terrible odds.
I’ve not only read Colombian books, but I’ve also traveled there. I’ve curated a list of powerful reads for you that that offer a strong dose of steamy jungle, dark impulses and magic threaded throughout.
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5 Literary Novels Set in Colombia
One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Marquez is Cartagena’s favorite son. His very particular brand of storytelling popularized magical realism, making readers believe in the most improbable of events. Had you asked me a few months ago which was my favorite Marquez book, I would have said Love in the Time of Cholera, because of it’s complicated take on love.
However a recent re-read of One Hundred Years of Solitude has changed my mind. This character-driven, multi-generational story is about the birth, life and death of a Colombian town. It’s full of passion, misplaced loyalties, clan politics and remarkably long-lived prostitutes.
Delirium, Laura Restrepo
Restrepo’s story begins when a man named Aguilar returns home to Bogotá after a trip only to discover that his wife Agustina, is in the throes of madness. This Colombian book’s plot will take you through the factors in Augustina’s life which have brought her to this state, including the country’s war and corruption.
Delirium tells the story from the point of view of four different characters: Augustina herself, her husband, her grandfather and a former lover.
Return to the Dark Valley, Santiago Gamboa
Howard Curtis, Translator
A misfit poet, a paramilitary priest and a diplomat/writer thread their way through this dark and violent story. Their individual story lines come together as they agree to help the poet Manuela travel back to Colombia to confront wrongs done to her. Gamboa’s vision of the “dark valley” is a mistrustful one, and he and his characters aren’t quite ready to believe in Colombia’s recent peace.
If you find that you like Gamboa’s writing style, he has another book set in Colombia called The Night Will Be Long.
The Veins of the Ocean, Particia Engel
The story centers around Reina, as she attempts to come to terms with her family’s story, which features their emigration from Colombia, her brother’s death row suicide and her own guilt related to his crime. She meets Nesto, who teaches her about the life-giving forces of the ocean, giving her space to find peace and redemption.
“Stunningly beautiful and completely raw and emotional.”
In the Beginning Was the Sea, Tomás González
Frank Wynne, Translator
This book is great for people who like their humor as dark as a freshly roasted cup of Colombian coffee. J. and Elena flee their yuppie existence in Medellin for rural life on a finca on the Colombian coast. Their murky pasts and hubris trigger a slow motion train wreck.
“… shot through with moments of incandescence, tragedy and a kind of Hemingwayian clout.”
The Adventures and Misadventures of Maqroll, Alvaro Mutis
Edith Grossman, Translator
This compendium includes seven novellas that feature Maqroll’s Quixotic (mis)adventures. He chases after doomed schemes in rotting ports, steaming jungles and hallucinatory river journeys.
“…Sinbad the Sailor of the Arabian Nights meets the Wandering Jew of medieval folklore…”
7 Colombian Novels Featuring its Dark Modern History
Colombia’s dark, modern history has shaped its current culture as well as it’s literature. Some the following novels set in Colombia deal with corruption and the drug trade, with a melancholic exploration of the character’s interior life. Others deliver the goods with a thrilling, page-turning pace.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree, Ingrid Rojas Contreras
This is one of my favorite books set in Colombia and I read it while traveling there. Contreras’ book converges two very different coming of age stories during the time of Pablo Escobar’s rein of terror.
Seven year old Chula comes from an upper middle class family, sequestered in a gated community and protected from the reality of 1990’s Bogota. Petrona comes from the hardscrabble slums. She takes a job with Chula’s family in an effort to provide for her precarious family. The crime and corruption of the time intrude into both of their lives, with devastating consequences.
The Sound of Things Falling, Juan Gabriel Vasquez
Anne Mclean, Translator
Vasquez is gaining on Marquez and has developed a reputation for writing some of the best books about Colombia’s modern life. The Sound of Things Falling is about time and memory and how past events can damage us. The main character, Yammara reflects back to when he witnessed his friend’s murder. As he investigates what happened, he discovers the many ways in which his own life and his friend’s family have been shaped by his country’s recent violent past.
“What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over.”
Like This Afternoon Forever, Jaime Manrique
Lucas is the son of a farmer. Ignacio is descended from the Baru indigenous people. Both enter the seminary out of a desire to help others and get an education. Their subsequent love affair provides both freedom and a type of prison for each of them. Their love and lives are all set against the violent backdrop of Colombia’s civil war and the corruption and civic upheaval that accompanies it.
Colombiano, Rusty Young
After his father’s murder, young Pedro joins a paramilitary group, swearing vengeance for his father’s death. However, can he stop himself before he descends too far into a ruthless trap of violence and obsession?
“The plot’s twists and turns had me anxiously turning the pages to see what was coming next.”
The Armies, Evelio Rosero
Anne McLean, Translator
In The Armies, Ismail, a retired teacher, spends his days visiting his friends and spying on his neighbor as she lays naked in her garden. This idyllic existence is destroyed when the drug trade and paramilitaries move into the area. Life shifts from bucolic to bellicose as the peaceful village is thrust asunder.
Infinite Country, Patricia Engel
This book shifts back and forth in time…and geography. Elena and Mauro meet and fall in love in Bogota. But life is brutal there, due to the long standing civil war. They make the difficult decision to emigrate to the United States. While there, they start a family, and also overstay their visas. The resulting deportation forces them to make some very difficult choices.
The book weaves Colombian mythology into this heartbreaking tale of family sacrifice.
This book was a Reese’s book club pick. If you like her choices, we’ve also got other book club guides and book lists featuring Reese’s books.
A Clear and Present Danger, Tom Clancy
The book is always better than the movie, and Clancy’s thriller set in Colombia is no exception. You get all of the action, plus a lot more detail as Jack Ryan, CIA Analyst, sets about uncovering the source of disloyalty within a drug cartel, and a conspiracy in the White House. It’s full of explosions, car chases, bravery and fickle politicians.
Missionaries, Phil Klay
Klay’s political thriller also features American interference into Colombian affairs. The book features two Americans (a military liaison and a journalist) and two Colombians (a former paramilitary foot soldier and a lieutenant colonel in the army). The Americans are in Colombia attempting to help the government negotiate the end to the internal civil war with the FARC. They all want a “good war”, by that, a winnable one.
You get the backstory for all four characters and why they each chose this mission. But between the faulty intelligence reports and byzantine political landscape, things really heat up.
6 Best Non-Fiction Books About Colombia
These non-fiction books about Colombia cover its history, from independence through modern day. They explore Colombia’s unique culture and the consequences of its terrible drug war.
Bolívar, Marie Arana
Colombia owes its independence to Bolívar. Arana’s factually balanced account of his life presents him as flawed and brilliant. The book captures 19th Century South America and Bolívar’s role as general, diplomat, strategist and abolitionist, in an unrelenting fight for independence from Spain.
Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle, Ingrid Betancourt
Betancourt’s memoir recounts her abduction by the FARC followed by six years in captivity. Her jungle prison is claustrophobic and fraught relationships with both her captors and her fellow hostages doesn’t make it any easier.
“Betancourt takes us into her mind as she undergoes indignity and deprivation, attempts several escapes (unsuccessfully) and yet somehow manages to keep her heart and head in tact…”
The Dispossessed: Chronicles of the Desterrados of Colombia, Alfredo Molano
Daniel Bland, Translator
The Colombian army’s response to the civil war was violent and corrupt. They killed and displaced many ordinary civilians under the guise of clearing out terrorism. This book is a safe harbor for stories of the dispossessed (or desterrados) and offers the reader insights into their daily lives and struggles.
There are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia, Maria Maria McFarland Sanchez-Moreno
In a related tale, There are No Dead Here focuses on the story of three Colombian investigators who tracked down collusion between Escobar’s new mafia and the country’s military and political establishment. Great non-fiction background for fans of the TV show “Narcos”.
The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself, David Bushnell
There is a lot of focus on the drug war and civil war in this list of Colombian books, but there is more to the nation than that. This primer on Colombia covers the full history, including what makes it so different from its neighbors and its unique efforts at nation building.
It was originally published in 1993, so you may not get the most “modern”, up to date info on Colombia’s status, but it is an even handed look at her history.
One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, Wade Davis
Davis’ book is a complete palette cleanser from Colombia’s dark history. He and fellow student Tim Plowman followed in their professor’s footsteps, taking a journey down an Amazonian rabbit hole.
While there they studied the cultural symbolism of plants in the Amazon basin. “Wade Davis writes with both a respectful sensitivity and the curiosity of a wonder-struck child.”
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