Like so many things in Colombia, I had never heard of La Cueva until after I got here. Last October I was blessed with a visit from my dad and stepmama. As I waited for them in the lobby of their hotel, I started flipping through a massive coffee table book to kill the time. It caught my attention because I recognized a younger-looking Gabriel García Márquez on the cover. I’ve been a fan of the Colombian Nobel Laureate since I came across a copy of The General in his Labryinth many years ago. Sometime after that, I struggled through One Hundred Years of Solitude—a true labor of love. Since then I've read just about every Gabo work of fiction I could get my hands on, but Love in the Time of Cholera and Of Love And Other Demons stand out as two of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read.
Márquez is intriguing for so many reasons—his role in establishing/popularizing the literary style known as realismo magico... his politics... his journalism... his reputation. More than most authors, the idea of Márquez has always seemed to loom at least as large as the body of his work. For someone who’s devoured most of that work, I still find myself feeling like there’s so much about him that I just don’t know.
Sitting in that hotel lobby last October, I stumbled upon some real cultural context. Like I said, I had never heard of La Cueva or el Grupo de Barranquilla, the group of writers, journalists and thinkers that would do so much to shape the literary culture and reputation of Colombia. My curiosity was more than piqued, and I immediately started making plans to visit La Cueva, the local restaurant/bar that served as the group’s watering hole during the 1950’s.
But, lo que había pasado fue... la cosa es que... well, I spent the next six or seven months almost making it to La Cueva. First it was Noviciembre*... then Carnaval... then my friends flaked on me once or twice. There was always some reason not to go... “so-and-so says it’s really expensive and the food’s not that good.”
Anyway, it finally got to the point where I had to draw a line in the sand. I felt like Jerry Maguire... “I am GOING to La Cueva this weekend... who’s coming with me?!” I was fully prepared to make a solo trip if it came to that. Thankfully, Tom and Yubi had my back, so a few weeks ago I finally got what I wanted.
With all the hype, I was a little prepared for disappointment. I was NOT disappointed. The music was badass... no stage, just a dozen musicians tucked/crammed in the corner of the restaurant, letting loose some raw, unadulterated salsa brava. The ambiance was also on point—sure, the restaurant has gotten a little classier than the days of El Grupo de Barranquilla. Fortunately, they’ve managed to clean up their act without losing their roots. The walls are lined with chock-full bookshelves and life-sized photos, showing a who’s-who of the Barranquillero literary scene—I admit, I didn’t recognize most of them, but I’m pretty sure that’s who they were. My favorite photo shows one man sleeping (passed out) on the bar, while his “friend” attempts to balance a shot glass on top of his head. Like I said—classy, yet down to earth.
At the time of writing this article, I’m about halfway through a work of non-fiction that provides a different perspective on the early influences on Márquez. In García Márquez en Cartagena: Sus inicios literarios, author Jorge García Usta makes the case that the two years spent in Cartagena (1948-50) were equally influential on the Nobel Laureate’s literary voice. It’s an interesting book, but not quite as intriguing as the idea or the experience of a visit to La Cueva. Plus, I’m a ‘killa boy, so I’m biased.
But what’s most importantly, La Cueva is NOT really expensive. Sure, it’s not an everyday outing for a Peace Corps Volunteer, but the beers are three or four mil, the cocktails, at less than ten, are excellent, and the menu is reasonable. In other words: “GET THERE.” If you’re like me, then you wish that Barranquilla had a few more venues featuring live music. Fortunately, La Cueva lives up to the hype—something that so few places seem to do these days. So, next time you’re looking for a quality outing on a Saturday night in BQ, grab a friend or two and call it a cultural outing. You won’t be disappointed.
*Noviciembre is the hazy November/December period leading up to Christmas and New Year's when not a whole lot of anything gets done in Colombia.