One of the most important novels in Latin American history, María, is set in a traditional plantation house in the Valle del Cauca department of Colombia. The house is called Hacienda El Paraíso and was owned by the father of the author, Jorge Isaacs. It’s now a Colombian National Monument and museum because of its significance to the novel.
About Jorge Isaacs
The father of the author, George Henry Isaacs, was an English Jew originally from Jamaica. He moved his family to Cali in the early 19th century and converted to Christianity in return for a gift from the Spanish crown. Isaacs later bought his Colombian citizenship from Simón Bolívar by paying for it in cattle. He became one of the wealthiest landowners in Colombia, owning nearly half of what is now Valle del Cauca, and purchased the hacienda in 1854.
Jorge Isaacs published María in 1867. The main character was based on his cousin with the same name and contains many autobiographical elements. It’s a story of heartbreak in which a young man, Efraín, falls in love with his first cousin, which is forbidden by their family. Efraín is sent to Bogotá for six years to complete high school, but the young lovers continue their relationship by frequently sending letters. Upon his return from Bogotá, they live together in the family home for three months until Efraín is sent to London to study medicine. While he’s away, María falls gravely ill. Efraín hears the terrible news and begins the three month journey back to the hacienda, only to return a few days after she dies.
Visitors can take a guided tour of the house (in Spanish) and learn about its connection to the novel. Adult admission is COP$8,000 (as of November 2016). A parking lot is located across the street from the hacienda. The home is open Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30am to 4:30pm.
Tours start under the large tree in front of the home. As you sit on the gigantic roots protruding from the ground, the guide explains the love story in the novel and the Isaacs family history. A bust of Isaacs and a plaque commemorating the significance of the home is under the tree. In the novel, María would pick fresh roses from the garden in front of the home.
The home was built between 1816 and 1828. It’s surrounded by channels of water that prevent insects and other animals from entering the home while also providing a relaxing ambience with the constant sound of running water. The house is maintained with several original pieces and is decorated as described in the novel. It’s a great look into the life of the wealthy on a mid-19th century sugar cane plantation.
The Front of the House
The first room on the tour is Efraín’s room, which is located in the front of the house to the left. This is where the guide shows photos of Jorge Isaacs and some interesting features of the COP$50,000 bill that features elements of the novel. The fresh roses in the vase to the left are placed there every day in remembrance of the flowers María brought to her lover’s room every morning.
At the front of the house to the right is the study in which Efraín taught geography and literature to María and her sisters during his short stay at the home.
We then waked through the living room. A grandfather clock sits in the corner and is stopped at the exact time and day of María’s death. A vessel on a table looks to be made of iron, but it’s actually carved out of a solid piece of wood.
From there, we walked out to the patio where we were able to get a quick look at the back garden. A room off the patio served as a chapel where mass was celebrated three times every Sunday. One service was for the family, a second for relatives, and a third for slaves. The service was performed in Latin.
The room next to the chapel served as Efraín’s father’s bedroom. It was connected to the room used by María’s younger sisters, Emma and Eloísa, in order to keep an eye on them.
On the other side of the house is the bedroom of Efraín’s mother, which is connected to María’s room.
The Back of the House
A wing in the back of the house is a room where the women would learn to sing and play instruments among other skills, and the dining room where the family would gather to eat. At the very back is the private study of Efraín’s father.
Kitchen and Slaves Quarters
On the side of the house is the kitchen and a washing area where slaves would prepare meals and wash the dishes. They were not allowed to sit to wash the dishes because it was considered a sign of laziness, and they would be punished accordingly. A small room next to the kitchen served as the slaves quarters. All slaves had to sleep together in the cramped space.
After the Tour
Once the tour of the house is over, visitors are given a chance to walk around freely and take pictures. They’re also invited to go behind the house, where a newer building contains a cafeteria and an area where fresh flowers are sold.
Hostal del Piedemonte
The property located across the street from the hacienda is an entertainment zone run by Hostal del Piedemonte. Several tents are set up selling crafts and snacks, there’s a swimming hole with a waterfall, pools, games and entertainment for children, and horseback riding. Paragliding excursions on the mountain behind the hacienda are offered.
A large rock on the property is described in the book as the place where Efraín first professed his love for María. It’s a popular place for couples to go and sit.
There are also 24 cabañas and a restaurant that serves traditional Colombian food, specializing in food from Valle del Cauca. We tried the fiambre valluno, which is six different kinds of meat cooked along with rice and a potato in a plantain leaf. The food wasn’t that great because some of the meat was cold and the portions weren’t very consistent from person to person. Service was also lacking. There are much better restaurants on the way to the hacienda that are worth stopping at. Skip this one.
A visit to Hacienda El Paraíso can easily be combined with Museo de la Caña, about 15 minutes away. It’s also worth popping into Santa Elena, where María is buried and there’s a monument to Jorge Isaacs and María.