30 Books on Colombia That’ll Give You Serious Wanderlust

by | May 1, 2024 | Books

Looking for books on Colombia for a future trip to the country?

Or are you just interested in learning more about Colombia from the comfort of your own home?

In this post, I’m going to share with you a list of 30 of the best (and worst) books on Colombia that I have read and my honest opinion of each book. Hopefully, from this list, you’ll find something to read.

This list includes both fiction and nonfiction. You’ll find books by Colombian writers that have been translated into English as well as ones written originally in English. I’ve also included travelogues, memoirs, and books on the history, politics, and culture of the country.

Let me know what you think of my Colombia book recommendations in the Comment Section below.

And if you want more book recommendations for different countries around the world, check out my complete list here!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links.  As an Amazon Associate and a Bookshop.org Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.  Please see this website’s Disclosure for more info.

Fiction Books on Colombia

Colombian writers like to weave historical events into their novels. Therefore, books set in Colombia are a valuable gateway to understanding the country’s history and politics.

If you don’t want to read through each book review, here’s a quick guide to the list with my rating (out of 5 stars):

1. Chronicle of a Death Foretold

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1981; Translated by Gregory Rabassa

My Rating: 5 out of 5 Stars

“On the day they were going to kill him, Santiago Nasar got up at five-thirty in the morning to wait for the boat the bishop was coming on.”

If you’ve never read a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, I recommend starting with Chronicle of a Death Foretold. It’s short and a masterpiece in storytelling.

The whole book lasts one day. It is the last day of Santiago Nasser’s life. From the beginning of the book, you and all the townspeople know that two brothers are going to kill Nasser. The only person who doesn’t know is Nasser himself. The big mystery is why no one in the town warns Santiago or tries to stop the killers. It’s also the question that you won’t be able to get out of your head weeks and even months after reading it.

The book’s pacing, suspense, and beautiful prose make it one of the best books on Colombia. It’s also less misogynistic than Marquez’s other books.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

2. One Hundred Years of Solitude

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez, 1967 (Spanish) and 1970 (English); Translated by Gregory Rabassa

My Rating: 2 out of 5 Stars

“It’s enough for me to be sure that you and I exist at this moment.”

One Hundred Years of Solitude is considered Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s masterpiece and most famous work. It is also one of the best representatives of Latin American magical realism.

Many people love this book. Every Spanish speaker I have talked to about it loves it! They say it’s hilarious. However, there are others who disagree. I found it boring and misogynistic, and the English translation is not funny at all.

The story follows the rise and fall of several generations of the wealthy Buendia family in the fictitious town of Macondo.

For the first several years, the townspeople live an idyllic existence, cut off from the outside world. Eventually, the outside world creeps in. Politics, religion, corruption, war, technology, and foreign capitalism arrive in Macondo. The town’s perfect life ends. The changes lead to the fall of both the town and the Buendia family.

I tried hard to like this book, but I just couldn’t. I can appreciate how well-written it is and the themes of solitude and history’s circularity. However, I couldn’t get emotionally attached to any of the characters to care enough about what happened to them. Marquez’s attitude toward rape and women was also a turn off.

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3. Love in the Time of Cholera

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez,1985; Translated by Edith Grossman and Kjell Risvik

My Rating: 1 out of 5 stars

“She had never imagined that curiosity was one of the many masks of love.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s second most famous book is Love in the Time of Cholera. Unfortunately, I despised this melodrama more than I have despised any other book.

The story takes place in 1931 in a city along the Caribbean coast, perhaps Cartagena.

One day, Florentino Asaria, the bastard son of a wealthy man, sees the young and beautiful Fermina for the first time and falls madly in love with her. Fermina isn’t sure how she feels about him. But Marquez doesn’t spend much time analyzing her feelings. Fermina is treated more like a passive object.

Eventually, Fermina marries someone else, but Florentino never stops obsessing over her. He vows that once Fermina is a widow, he will marry her. Thirty years later, the day finally arrives. Fermina is a widow, and… Sorry. Don’t want to spoil it in case you do read it.

I HATED Florentino Asaria. Marquez portrays him as a Valentino-type of character who has women falling all over him. He’s such an amazing lover that prostitutes don’t charge him for sex. What fantasy world does this writer live in?

However, I found him to be a creepy pervert. There’s one part of the book in which he grooms his 13-year-old relative into becoming his lover. In another scene, he passes a maid in the hallway and suddenly rapes her. Another character rapes a woman and she then falls in love with him.

I appreciate Marquez’s beautifully descriptive writing. But call me a feminist if you want, I don’t care. I found the book repulsive.

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4. The Sound of Things Falling

By Juan Gabriel Vásquez, 2011; Translated by Anne McLean

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“So you fell out of the sky, too?” the Little Prince asked the pilot who tells the story, and I thought yes, I’d fallen out of the sky, too, but there was no possible testimony of my fall, there was no black box that anybody could consult, nor was there any black box of Ricardo Laverde’s fall, human lives don’t have these technological luxuries to fall back on.”

Juan Gabriel Vásquez, the second-most translated writer in Colombia, is known for his books that delve into the country’s history. One of his most interesting works that I recommend reading before his others is The Sound of Things Falling.

The book is divided into two parts, with the first set in 1960s Bogota and the second in 1990s Bogota. In 1996, Antonio Yammara, a law student, spends his free time playing billiards with the reserved and private Ricardo Laverde, an older man in his 40s or 50s. All Antonio knows about Ricardo is that he spent time in prison and that his wife is American.

One day, Ricardo is murdered. Deeply affected by his death, Antonio decides to investigate and his quest for answers takes us to part two, where we learn about who Ricardo is, how he ended up married to an American and in prison, and why he was murdered.

Ricardo’s story makes this book worth reading. It’s engrossing and heartbreaking. My only complaint is that we don’t get more of his story.

Buy Book: Amazon

5. The Shape of the Ruins

By Juan Gabriel Vásquez, 2015; Translated by Anne McLean

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“What you call history is no more than the winning story, Vasquez. Someone made that story win, and not any of the others, and that’s why we believe it today. Or rather: we believe it because it got written down, because it wasn’t lost in the endless hole of words that only get said, or even worse, that aren’t even spoken, but are only thought.”

The Shape of the Ruins is my favorite Juan Gabriel Vasquez novel. However, I recommend it only to history enthusiasts. The book is over 600 pages long and delves so deeply into Colombian history that if you’re not fond of history, you won’t enjoy the book.

Vasquez writes himself in as the story’s main character, making the book feel like the events in it truly happened. He befriends a doctor and a conspiracy theorist, who lead him on a journey through the depths of conspiracy theories, including the assassinations of Jorge Eliecer Gaitan and General Rafael Uribe Uribe, the JFK assassination, and the sinking of the Lusitania.

The book asks a lot of questions about history and who controls it. The one that stuck with me was why specific versions of history survive and others don’t.

If you like books that stimulate your intellectual curiosity and make you ponder world history and international politics, you’ll like The Shape of the Ruins. However, for those looking for an exciting thriller, you will be disappointed.  

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

6. The Informers

By Juan Gabriel Vásquez, 2004; Translated by Anne McLean

My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

“A person is from wherever they feel best, and roots are for plants. Everyone knows that, don’t they?”

The Informers is another book written by Juan Gabriel Vasquez that delves into a dark chapter of Colombia’s history. Unfortunately, I was disappointed with the book and can’t recommend it.

The story revolves around Gabriel Santos, who writes a biography about a Jewish woman who migrated to Colombia from Germany with her family during the 1930s. To his surprise, Gabriel’s father writes a harsh critique of the book in a prominent newspaper.

During World War II, the government compiled a list of suspected German Nazi sympathizers living in Colombia. Those who made the list lost their businesses and property and were sent to prison camps. Gabriel’s father has kept his involvement in the lists hidden all his life. Gabriel sets out to uncover what his father did during World War II and his role in the German blacklists.

This book had the potential to be quite fascinating. Unfortunately, Vasquez’s poor execution in revealing Gabriel’s father’s role during the war leaves very little room for suspense. As a result, the book felt dull and anticlimactic.

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7. Fruit of the Drunken Tree

By Ingrid Rojas Contreras, 2018

My Rating: 6 out of 5 Stars

“War always seemed distant from Bogotá, like niebla descending on the hills and forests of the countryside and jungles. The way it approached us was like fog as well, without us realizing, until it was embroiling everything around us.”

Fruit of the Drunken Tree stole my heart and then broke it into a million pieces. It is my favorite book set in Colombia and I give it 6 out of 5 stars.

The story is set against the backdrop of 1989-1994 Bogotá, amidst the terror of Pablo Escobar, the kidnappings by communist guerillas, and the murders of the paramilitary death squads.

Seven-year-old Chula lives with her middle-class family in Bogota. Her mother hires a maid, 14-year-old Petrona, from the slums of Bogota. However, the mother’s tarot cards warn her not to trust Petrona. Chula’s mother doesn’t listen. This knowledge that Petrona will one day betray the family doesn’t spoil the book, though. Instead, it creates a sense of foreboding.

Contreras is a master at building tension into the story. She leaves clues throughout about what’s going to happen, adding suspense but never coming across as contrived. Her characters, even the flawed ones, are so vividly drawn that you can’t help not caring for them.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

8. Like This Afternoon Forever

By Jaime Manrique, 2019

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5

“Colombian people are not charitable by nature. Because of the oppression in which we’ve lived, we have become cannibals of other Colombians. The hardships of our lives have made us envious—we are motivated by envy, so we compete with others out of envy; we kill out of envy; the happiness of others makes us miserable.”

Like This Afternoon Forever is a gem of a novel that caught me completely off guard. I didn’t expect to like it as much as I did.

The story is set in the 1990s and 2000s in Bogota and Putumayo, a poor region on the Ecuadorian border where locals are threatened daily by communist guerillas, paramilitaries, and narcos.

Lucas, a Mestizo from a poor family, and Ignacio, from the Bari indigenous ethnic group, fall in love while studying at a seminary. Eventually, they both become Catholic priests and head parishes in Bogota. However, as they get older, their paths diverge: one becomes a champion of justice, aiding the poor, while the other takes a more conventional path.

The book is also about the “false positive” scandal that rocked Colombia. The military would kill civilians and dress them up as a member of FARC guerillas.

The story is engaging, with vivid descriptions of characters and settings. The themes of love, faith, and social justice add depth to the story. However, I wish the author had delved deeper into the “false positive” scandal.  

Overall, this is one of my top five favorite books on Colombia.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

9. Infinite Country

By Patrician Engel, 2021

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“But every nation in the Americas had a hidden history of internal violence. It just wore different masks, carried different weapons, and justified itself with different stories.”

Infinite Country is an okay book (not bad but not great either) about Columbian immigrants in the United States. There are better, more nuanced books about the immigrant experience than this one.

Mauro grows up poor and abandoned by his mother. He meets Elena and falls in love. They immigrate with their daughter to the U.S., where the have two more children. However, Mauro gets deported. Elena stays. She can’t raise all three children on her own, so she sends her youngest daughter, Talia, back to Colombia.

Talia gets into trouble and ends up in a reform school. She escapes and tries to get back to Bogota so she can get on a plane to the U.S. Does she make it in time? Does she change her mind and stay in Colombia?

Mauro’s story of his hard life really pulled at my heartstrings. However, Elena and Talia lacked that same vulnerability, leaving me ambivalent about their outcomes. I wanted more Mauro and less Elena and Talia. Sadly, the book is dominated by the two women.

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10. In the Beginning Was the Sea

By Tomás González, 1983; Translated by Frank Wynne

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

“The rains came and so began the first of the two winters J. would spend on the finca; the first of his last two winters on earth.”

I enjoyed In the Beginning Was the Sea. It’s not perfect. However, the setting and story drew me in.

Set in the 1970s, J. and Elena, a young couple from Medellin, buy a farm on an island off the coast of Colombia. The island is inhabited mostly by Black people. J. and Elena are white. They are not the most likable characters. Elena is especially so. At first, J and Elena try hard to make the farm a success. But then life takes a downward spiral, and both are faced with one obstacle after another.

There are many hints throughout the story that things are not going to end well for the couple. These “spoilers” did not ruin the book for me. Instead, they create a sense of foreboding.

If you only want to read happy books, you might not like it. However, it’s an interesting read if you like a bit of edge and tragedy to your novels. I liked it!

The book also made me think a lot about what makes some people succeed and others fail.

The book is supposedly based on a true story that happened to the author’s brother.

Buy Book: Amazon

11. The Vortex

By José Eustasio Rivera, 1924

My Rating: 4 stars

Published in 1924, The Vortex is an important work of fiction and a Colombian classic that highlights the abuse and exploitation of the indigenous people working on rubber plantations in the Colombian Amazon.

The book takes place between 1900 and 1920, during the rubber boom in the Amazon. Greed led rubber barons to exploit their workers on their rubber plantations, turning them into slaves through debt peonage. Jose Eustasio Rivera wrote Vortex to inform people about this exploitative system.

The story begins with serial seducer Arturo Cova and his lover Alicia fleeing Bogota. Before he makes it to the rubber fields of the Amazon, he ditches Alicia. In the Amazon, he experiences firsthand the abuse and horrid conditions that the rubber workers must endure.

The scenes of abuse of the workers make this a difficult book to read. However, it’s a must-read for those wanting to understand the devastating consequences of this historical period.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

12. The Queen of the Valley

By Lorena Hughes, 2023

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“But mostly, it was that you loved who you became when you were with him.”

If you are looking for a fun, light romance and work of historical fiction with a strong female character set in Colombia, The Queen of the Valley is for you!

Set in 1925 after a devastating earthquake hit Cali, The Queen of the Valley is a sequel to The Spanish Daughter, a book set on a cacao farm in Ecuador. You can read my review in my post on the best books on Ecuador. The book can stand alone but it will probably be more meaningful if you read The Spanish Daughter first.

Maria Purificacion, also called Puri, travels to Colombia to investigate the disappearance of Martin Sabater—her cacao supplier and former lover. As she reaches Martin’s cacao farm, she discovers something unexpected. The farm has turned into a Catholic hospital run by Dr. Farid Manzur and his sister Camila. To uncover the truth about Martin’s disappearance, Puri disguises herself as a nun and a nurse and begins to work covertly within the hospital.

As someone who loves mysteries and historical fiction, I found this book to be an enjoyable read. It has well-developed characters and moves at a fast pace.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

13. Missionaries

By Phil Clay, 2020

My Rating: Have Not Read Yet

Written by Phil Klay, Missionaries is a thriller about the Colombian Civil War and drug war. I have it in my library queue, so I’ll be reading it in the next few weeks.

The book focuses on the Civil War and drug trade around a group of Colombians and Americans fighting to stop it. Abel is a former member of a paramilitary. Juan Pablo is a lieutenant colonel in the Colombian army. Lisbette is an American journalist looking for her next big conflict to cover. Mason is an American special forces officer.

I’m not sure how much I’m going to like this book. I’ve heard it glorifies violence and war and spends little time reflecting on the innocent victims. I’ve read the first chapter, and I thought the events conflicted with everything else I’ve read about the war. If you’ve read it, let me know!

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14. Delirium

By Laura Restrepo, 2004; Translated by Natasha Wimmer

My Rating: Did Not Finish

Laura Restrepo is probably Colombia’s third most translated writer. Her book, Delirium, is her most well-known book, and many reviewers say the book helped them make sense of the violence and conflict that ravaged Colombia during the reign of terror of Pablo Escobar in the 1980s and 1990s. 

Augustin’s husband, Aguilar, returns from a trip to find his wife going insane. It sounds like she has either bipolar disorder or borderline personality disorder.

The book gradually reveals who Augustine is and what drove her to insanity through the perspectives of four people: Augustine, her loving husband Aguilar, Augustine’s former lover and drug trafficker Midas, and her grandfather Nicolas.

I had a hard time getting into the book. The style of writing is long paragraphs of monologues. No dialogue. No indications telling you that the narrator is changing. It’s a book that you have to read with complete concentration and without any distractions. It’s the only book on this list that I could not finish.

Buy Book: Amazon

Check out these book recommendations posts…

Books on Colombia: History

Almost all Colombian fiction writers set their books during one of their country’s tumultuous periods. Therefore, if you know some Colombian history, you will enjoy those novels more.

Here are the 4 books on Colombia’s history:

15. The Making of Modern Colombia

By David Bushnell (1993)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Usually, the violence pitched Liberal peasant against Conservative peasant, while the larger landowners of either party, to say nothing of business and professional people and politicians, stayed in the relative safety of the cities.”

If you want to understand today’s Colombia, you need to read its history. David Bushnell’s The Making of Modern Colombia is the best book to do that. It’s one of the few books in English on Colombia’s history.

I love that Bushnell doesn’t just simply recount Colombia’s history. He also analyzes it and explains why certain events happened the way they did, why there’s so much violence, and why certain social structures, governing systems, and economic systems are the way they are in Colombia.

The only negative aspect of this book is that it was published in 1993, which means it doesn’t include the peace deals between the government, paramilitaries, and the communist guerrilla group FARC.

If you want to learn more about Colombia’s past and how it got where it is today, then I highly recommend this book.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

16. Colombia: A Concise Contemporary History

By Michael J. LaRosa and Germán  R. Mejía, 2012

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“Conflict has been endemic in Colombia since the earliest days of the republic’s founding. It has resulted from geographic factors which, in isolating large segments of the country, created strong regional identities and culture.”

Colombia: A Concise Contemporary History was published more recently than Bushnell’s book, but it’s not as good. Skip it.

In fact, it’s not really a book on the history of Colombia. The title is misleading. It’s not organized chronologically, but instead according to topics: demography, culture, violence, narcos, etc.

The writing is dry and dull. It’s full of statistics, fact, and figures and little analysis. It felt like a professor speaking to me in a monotone voice.

The formatting in the ebook version is horrible, making it difficult to read.

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17. Bolivar: The Liberator of Latin America

By Robert Harvey, 2011

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Bolívar was one of the shapers of the modern world, leading his ragged band of followers to take on what was then the longest enduring empire, that of Spain, which disposed of some 36,000 troops and 44,000 seamen to preserve an entire continent in its iron grip. He liberated no fewer than six modern countries from the Spanish stranglehold – Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia and Panama – in a series of astonishing marches that led his army across Amazonian rainforests, sodden marshes, dizzying mountains, parched outbacks and prosperous highlands to exceed the achievements of the conquistadors, Hernán Cortés and Francisco Pizarro (because the Spanish empire was so much better armed than the Aztecs and the Incas).”

Simón Bolívar, the liberator of South America, is a revered figure in Colombia even though he was originally from Venezuela. Nearly every Colombian town has a square or street named after him.  

You can find a few excellent books on Bolívar in English. The most popular one is Marie Arana’s biography on Bolivar. I’ve read another book by the author and loved it, but I haven’t had a chance to read this one. The one I did read is by Robert Harvey, a renowned author known for his insightful biographies, and I think it’s a good one.

It’s impossible not to find Bolivar’s life fascinating. He was arrogant, full of bravado, sexually promiscuous, and passionate.

I liked how Harvey provided a global and historical context of what was happening in the world at the time. He also does a good job of providing a balanced perspective of Bolivar—a flawed hero who did great things but did not always have great ideas.

However, you might find much of the book boring if you’re not into reading detailed battle scenes. Of course, you will find endless battles in any book on Bolivar because they took up much of his life.

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18. There are No Dead Here: A Story of Murder and Denial in Colombia

By Maria McFarland Sánchez Moreno (2018)

My Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

“Colombia is a country of extremes. There are extremes of weather, ranging from hail and sharp cold to tropical heat; and of terrain, with mountains, beaches, and rainforests within only hours of each other, and sometimes jumbled together. Fabulously luxurious homes and exclusive tourist resorts sit within miles of slums overflowing with people who live in crushing poverty. Joyful carnival celebrations and a rich heritage of music and dancing coexist with daily stories of tragedy and indescribable pain.”

Brilliant title. Unfortunately, the content inside wasn’t as brilliant as I was hoping it would be.

There Are No Dead Here describes the investigations conducted by three fearless Colombians (a human rights activist, a prosecutor, and a journalist) into crimes committed by the paramilitaries and their connections to the Colombian military, intelligence agency, and government.

If this is your first book on Colombia, I would stop and pick up something else that gives a more balanced overview of its history since 1964. My mistake was reading this book before other books on Colombia. Instead, read it after you’ve read other books about Colombia’s history. The book ONLY covers the crimes of one side of the conflict: the paramilitaries. It pretty much gives the guerrillas a pass, giving you a skewed understanding of the conflict.

The book also gets bogged down in a lot of details that, if you’re not familiar with the events, can make it hard to read (and boring!).

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

You might be interested in these book posts:

Books on Colombia: Travel & Culture

Lots of travel books have been written about Colombia in the past 15 years. They all mix travel with Colombian history. Here are some of the popular ones that have gotten great reviews.

19. Magdalena: River of Dreams

By Wade Davis, 2020

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The cartels rose out of the barrios and country clubs of Medellín and Cali, but the ultimate responsibility for Colombia’s agonies lies in good measure with every person who has ever bought street cocaine and every foreign nation that has made possible the illicit market by prohibiting the drug without curbing its use in any serious way.”

Magdalena: River of Dreams will definitely spark your wanderlust for Colombia. The book is part travelogue and part history with an emphasis on the environment (the Magdalena is a very polluted river).

Wade Davis travels from the start of the Magdalena River (Colombia’s Mississippi River) to its end. As he travels along the river, he meets many Colombians who tell him about their experience with the violence that has terrorized the country since the 1960s (Escobar, the guerillas, and the paramilitaries).

The book is fascinating and well-written, and Davis is good at giving you a sense of place.

Magdalena: River of Dreams was the first book I read about Colombia, and after reading almost 30 more books about the country, it still remains in my top five.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

20. The Robber of Memories

By Michael Jacobs, 2012

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“The older I got the more I appreciated the role of travel as a stimulus to memories, and the way in which journeys even to new places were somehow always awakening memories of places seen in an ever-receding past.”

Michael Jacobs’ book, Robber of Memories, is another travelogue about traversing the Magdalena River. However, in this one, he travels up the River to its origins. In between the history lessons and descriptions of the landscape and Colombians he meets are stories of his father and updates on his mother’s dementia.

As he makes his way up the river by boat, bus, and horse, he talks to Colombians about the years of violence: Escobar, the guerrillas, and the paramilitaries. There’s an interesting chapter about a visit to a village where early-onset Alzheimers is endemic. Toward the end of the book, he’s kidnapped by the communist guerrillas.

It’s interesting, and Jacobs is observant and a good interviewer. If I had to choose between Wade’s book and Jacobs’ book, I’d choose the former. However, both are good reads.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

21. Short Walks from Bogota: Journeys in the New Colombia

By Tom Feiling, 2012

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“I’d spoken to countless Colombians who told me that theirs was a ‘normal’ country, blighted by the cocaine trade and the pariah status that foreigners afforded it. It was an understandable reaction, though it went hand in hand with a reluctance to admit, much less tackle, the source of the violence that has until recently plagued their country.”

Short Walks from Bogota is the third book I read on Colombia that is part travelogue and part history.  In this one, Tom Feiling takes his readers around Colombia from Bogota to the coast and then to the mountains. He talks to ordinary Colombians about their experiences with the conflict over the past 50 years.

I quite liked the book. He was a lot more honest and less enamored of Colombia than the other two authors, so I found his writing to be quite refreshing. As I have been doing during my reading journey through Colombia, Feiling tried to make sense of all the violence and contradictions. In the end, he seemed more frustrated at not being able to come to any conclusions.

I recommend Short Walks from Bogota if you’re planning to visit Colombia. Wade’s book on the Magdalena might be better, but Feiling’s book is also quite good.

Book Buy: Amazon | Bookshop.org

22. Colombia: Culture Smart!: The Essential Guide to Customs & Culture

By Kate Cathey, 2019

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“In this rigid class system the disparity between the haves and the have-nots was enormous, with extreme wealth countered by extreme poverty. Frustration spawned a renegade tradition of outlaws, banditos, narco-traffickers, guerrillas, and militias that have shaped Colombia. The roots of lawlessness and violence run deep.”

Colombia: Culture Smart is a must-buy (but not perfect) book for those planning on traveling or moving to Colombia.

As the 29th book I’ve read on Colombia, the book still managed to provide me with a lot of practical information on the country’s culture and customs. There are a lot of useful tips on dining out (including tipping), making friends, visiting homes, using taxis, staying safe, and talking to Colombians in Spanish (use “Usted”).

The first section is a well-written overview of Colombia’s history. The book on its past is more up to date than the others on this list, so you’ll learn a bit (still rather brief) about what’s happening in Colombia after the peace deal with FARC. The book also reveals whether the country produces more or less cocaine than before Pablo Escobar. What do you think?

I do have some complaints. The book often only mentions the customs of people from Bogota and not those from other major cities in Colombia. There are a few typos. It can be repetitive.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

Books on Colombia: Narcotraffickers

I didn’t expect to enjoy book on Colombia’s narcotraffickers as much as I did. All of them I read were page-turners. Before reading them, I hadn’t seen Netflix’s Narcos. Afterwards, I watched it but stopped after a few episodes because I thought they were painting Pablo Escobar as too much of a hero. The following books present him as more of a sociopath.

23. Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw

By Mark Bowden, 2002

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The flow of cocaine to North America and of dollars south could be considered a revolutionary tactic—at once sucking out Yankee dollars and corrupting the brains and bloodstreams of decadent norteamericano youth. By this reasoning, Pablo was not just enriching himself, he was striking a blow against the world establishment and using its own money to build a new, modern, hip, progressive Colombia. On an international scale, he was taking from the rich and giving to the poor.”

If you’re looking to learn about Pablo Escobar, Killing Pablo by Mark Bowden is an intense, riveting, and VERY informative book. I did not expect to like it so much.

The book is about the hunt for Pablo Escobar. The beginning describes Escobar’s life story, how he went from his middle-class childhood to becoming one of the most powerful, wealthiest, and most dangerous narcotraffickers in the world. Then it moves to the years Escobar terrorizes Colombia and finally ends with the pursuit of Escobar.

The book raises the question of whether the ends justify the means. To take down Escobar, a group called Los Pepes went after his family and associates—killing them. Who was involved is still a mystery. The U.S.? The Cali Cartel? The Colombian police?

I got so emotionally invested in wanting Escobar caught that I didn’t care what method they used. He was a dangerous sociopath who murdered with impunity because he could manipulate society. I’d love to know what you think after reading this book!

Killing Pablo is told from the point of view of the Colombians. If you want an American point of view read Manhunters.

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24. At the Devil’s Table: The Untold Story of the Insider Who Brought Down the Cali Cartel

By William C Rempel, 2011

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“By 1993, one-third of the police and military in Cali, Medellin, and Bogotá were on the drug cartel’s payroll.”

At the Devil’s Table is another page-turner that you must read if you’re interested in Colombia’s drug cartels. However, read it after finishing Killing Pablo because most of it takes place after his death.

The book is about the takedown of the Cali Cartel, Pablo Escobar’s main rival and “the biggest crime syndicate of modern times.” The book is told from the point of view of Jorge Salcedo, the man responsible for bringing down the Cali Cartel. Jorge was the head of the Cartel’s security.

Although the Cali cartel’s story isn’t as exciting as Pablo Escobar’s, it’s still a fascinating book.

Buy Book: Amazon

25. News of a Kidnapping

By Gabriel Garcia Marquez

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“No Colombian in history ever possessed or exercised a talent like his for shaping public opinion. And none had a greater power to corrupt. The most unsettling and dangerous aspect of his personality was his total inability to distinguish between good and evil.”

Written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, News of a Kidnapping is a well-written, engrossing, and powerful book.

 The book describes a series of kidnappings by Pablo Escober of several prominent journalists in the 1990s. Escober used the kidnappings to negotiate with the government to avoid extradition to the United States. The book follows how the victims’ families and friends worked to get them released.

I read the book before reading Killing Pablo, but I think it might be better to read after. No matter when you read it, it’s worth reading because it gives a perspective of Escobar from one Colombian’s point of view. The other books on this list were written by Americans.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

26. Kings of Cocaine: Inside the Medellín Cartel

By Guy Gugliotta and Jeff Leen, 1989

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“In the end, only a handful of Colombians would remain at the top of the heap. These few would become the kings of cocaine. They would be tested constantly—by rival traffickers, by police, even by governments. But they would always survive, and most of the time they would prevail. They would become famous, ranked among the most successful, the richest, and certainly the deadliest criminals on earth. Together they would be known as the Medellín cartel.”

If you want to learn about the other members of the Medellin drug cartel besides Escobar, read the engrossing and informative Kings of Cocaine.

The book follows the rise of the Medellin cartel and its four most powerful leaders in the 1970s and 1980s: Pablo Escobar, Jorge Lius Ochoa, Carlos Lehder, and Jose Gonzalo Rodriguez Gacha. It describes how these four Colombians controlled the cocaine business from production to distribution and how they were able to buy off the military, police, and government of Colombia.

I can’t get over how long it took the DEA to discover what the Medellin cartel was doing.

Published in 1989 (before Escobar died in 1993), the book is dated. It also contains many grammar errors, types, and odd word choices. At 688 pages and hundreds of characters, the book gets bogged down in details! Despite all this, I could not put it down.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

Books on Colombia: Memoirs

This list of Colombia book recommendations ends with 4 memoirs, two of which are excellent and I highly recommend reading.

27. The Man Who Could Move Clouds

By Ingrid Rojas Contreras, 2022

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“I wonder if—since my life echoes Mami’s, which in turn echoes Nono’s—all of us are on the same ghost walk, retracing and undoing one another’s lives.”

The Man Who Could Move Clouds by writer Ingrid Rojas Contreras is about her family of curanderos (healers, shamans, or witch doctors). Her grandfather was one. After a case of amnesia, her mother also gained the power to heal people, speak to the dead, and appear in two places at once. Then Rojas Contreras has an accident, resulting in amnesia. Will she, too, gain the power of a curandero?

After her accident, Rojas Contreras becomes interested in her family’s past, and she travels back to her family’s ancestral village to dig up her grandfather’s body.

The stories of her family and Colombia’s history are interesting. Every sentence is so rich and vivid that you want to slow down and savor it. 

I liked the book but didn’t love it. At times, it got repetitive and boring. I wasn’t engrossed in the book as much as I was with her first novel, Fruit of the Drunken Tree.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

28. Oblivion

By Héctor Abad, 2006 and Translated by Anne McLean and Rosalind Harvey

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“When, a few years later, the neighborhoods of Medellín became a hotbed of killings and a breeding ground for thugs and hit men, the Church had already lost contact with these areas, just as the State had. Both institutions had thought it best to leave them alone, and, left to their fate, they became infested with savage hordes of murderers, who sprang up like weeds.”

Written by Héctor Abad Faciolince, Oblivion is about his father, Héctor Abad Gómez, an activist, a doctor, an advocate for the poor, a fighter, and a patriot. If I could give this man a grade or a rating, I’d give him 10 out of 5 stars or A+++++. Every father (and even every mother) should read this book to learn how to raise his (or her) children.

The book is also excellent. Although it focuses on just one man, his life story reveals a lot about Colombia: family life, the church, politics, the education system, society, the poor, and the country’s male machismo culture.

Hector Abad died in 1987. He was gunned down, probably by paramilitaries or someone in the government. No one will ever know for sure because no one has ever been arrested for his murder. However, just a few days before his death, a kill list was published and Hector Abad’s name was on it.

One of the many highlights of the book is the discussion on where the cycle of violence in Colombia comes from.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

29. Even Silence Has an End: My Six Years of Captivity in the Colombian Jungle

By Ingrid Betancourt, 2010

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“For I was discovering that the most precious gift someone can give us is time, because what gives time its value is death.”

I started this 595-page memoir on a Saturday and finished it the following day. That’s how good of a book Even Silence Has an End was!

Betancourt (French and Colombian citizen) was campaigning to become the president of Colombia when she traveled to an area she was told by the military was safe. She ended up being kidnapped by FARC and held prisoner in horrible conditions in the Amazon jungle for 6.5 years!

One of the many things that stuck in my mind was how the prisoners treated each other and how manipulative their jailers could be. It’s an eye-opening look at human nature.

The only issue I have with the book is that it is too long.

Some of her fellow prisoners have written books contradicting what she said. Out of Captivity is by the three Americans who were in prison with Betancourt and Captive by Clara Rojas.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

30. The Book of Emma Reyes: A Memoir

By Emma Reyes, 2012; Translated by Daniel Alarcón

My Rating: Haven’t Finished Yet

The Book of Emma Reyes is a memoir written in the form of letters that the painter Emma Reyes wrote to her friend, Germán Arciniegas, from 1960 to 1997.

The letters tell the story of her miserable childhood in extreme poverty and neglect in Colombia. Her mother abandoned her at age 6 or 7. She was sent to live in a convent run by nuns, spending her days working. She received no formal education and was illiterate until her late teens. Her memoir ends when she leaves the orphanage.

Reyes’s life is pretty extraordinary. She not only overcame her past but also flourished to become a professional artist and travel all over the world.

I haven’t read this book yet. Reviews have been overwhelmingly positive—amazing, gut-wrenching and eye-opening.

Buy Book: Amazon | Bookshop.org

Final Thought on Books on Colombia

Those are 30 of the best books on Colombia and my honest review of them. Here are my 13 5-star Colombia books:


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Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.


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