Time flashes back to Úrsula’s great-great-grandmother in the sixteenth century who burned herself badly when Pirate Sir Francis Drake attached Riohacha. Her husband, unable to find an effective treatment for her terror and burn, builds her a bedroom without windows so she will no longer fear the intrusion of the pirate and his dogs. The husband goes into business with a native tobacco planter named Don José Buendía and so their families have been tied ever since. Úrsula and José Arcadio Buendía are first cousins. Their families try to discourage the union because of the threat of the defects caused by inbreeding, warning about an aunt and uncle who produced a son with the tail of a pig. José Arcadio Buendía makes light of the warning, and the couple is married, but Úrsula remains afraid of the warnings.
The Spanish view of Sir Francis Drake as a pirate is an important distinction from the narrative most often taught in U.S. history books, which frames Drake as a heroic sea captain to the English. Úrsula’s great-great-grandmother’s husband’s only way of calming his wife from the trauma left behind by Drake’s attack is to seclude her from all outside stimulants. He goes into business with the ancestor of José Arcadio Buendía, and, for all of these years, their families have interbred, causing the parents of Úrsula and José Arcadio Buendía to discourage their union for the threat of genetic defects, specifically a child with the tail of a pig, an image that will be brought up again and again as a worst-case scenario.
Úrsula’s mother makes her a chastity belt which she wears to bed for several months, and rumors spread that a year after their marriage Úrsula is a still a virgin because José Arcadio Buendía is impotent. They go on like this for another six months, when José Arcadio Buendía wins a cock fight against Prudencio Aguilar and Aguilar insults José Arcadio Buendía’s manhood publicly. José Arcadio Buendía kills Aguilar with his grandfather’s spear. That night José Arcadio Buendía orders his wife to have sex with him, blaming the murder on her. Úrsula and José Arcadio Buendía are haunted by the ghost of Aguilar, and they tell him that they will vacate the town to leave him peace.
Úrsula and José Arcadio Buendía experience the conundrum of being looked down upon whether they consummate their marriage or not. José Arcadio Buendía’s pride in his sexual potency causes the crime he commits, the impetus for their fleeing Riohacha to start a new life for themselves elsewhere, where they won’t live with the ghost of the dead man or the shame imposed on them by their families. José Arcadio Buendía’s inability to take responsibility for his actions even goes so far as to transfer the blame for the murder to his wife for having withheld sex for as long as she did.
The couple gathers a group of friends to set out across the mountains in search of new land. Fourteen months into the journey, Úrsula gives birth to a son without any deformations. After two years of wandering, they find themselves on the other side of the mountains, looking at the swamps spread out before them. They camp beside a river and that night José Arcadio Buendía dreams of a city built of mirrors named Macondo. In the morning, he declares that they will establish the city right then and there. He doesn’t decipher his dream until the day he sees the ice and believes Macondo will eventually be built of ice. He dreams of an ice factory, but focuses on the education of his sons, moving back into the present.
The group’s assumption that they might find the sea on the other side of the mountains is disproved when all they find is a swamp, a disappointment that they don’t care to explore further. Instead, exhausted, José Arcadio Buendía’s vision of a city of mirrors leads him to believe it’s a sign that they should settle there by the side of the river. The dream establishes the metaphor of the city of Macondo as a city of mirrors, an image that is explored as generations reflect generations over and over, though José Arcadio Buendía misinterprets the image and imagines that the mirrors foreshadow the city one day being built of ice.
Aureliano Buendía has an intuition for the art of alchemy and he and José Arcadio Buendía set out to separate Úrsula’s gold from the bottom of the pot. José Arcadio (I) takes little interest, maturing into a very strong young man, whom Úrsula, pregnant again, notices has a notably large penis. A woman arrives to the house to help with chores, and she can also tell people’s fortunes using her deck of cards. She reads José Arcadio’s cards and he becomes obsessed with her and her smoky smell. She invites him to visit her in the night, and he goes to her house, trying to find her in the dark rooms by her smell. In a house full of people, she takes him to a corner and makes love to him, though José Arcadio feels, even in that moment, a “fearful solitude.”
José Arcadio Buendía and Aureliano are similarly motivated by the wonders of the workshop. José Arcadio, in contrast, begins to establish his strength and virility. His attraction to the woman who can tell his future can be connected to his curiosity about his brother’s ability to predict events, but the attraction is primarily based in carnal interest. José Arcadio’s ability to find Pilar via her scent is the first of many instances in which characters are accompanied by a sensory signal, often detectible only by their love interest. José Arcadio’s feeling of solitude, even when making love, shows how loneliness is often the most acute in the company of others.
The woman who seduced José Arcadio (I)’s name is Pilar Ternera, one of the original inhabitants of Macondo, dragged along by her parents to separate her from a man who had raped her at fourteen and broke his promises to care for her. José Arcadio dreams of her in the daytimes and visits her at night. Aureliano Buendía and José Arcadio Buendía announce that they have separated Úrsula’s gold. José Arcadio tells Aureliano about his affair with Pilar Ternera, and the two brothers talk all night with one another, until Aureliano asks his brother what an orgasm feels like and José Arcadio says, “It’s like an earthquake.”
Pilar Ternera coming to Macondo in an attempt to escape a traumatic past is parallel to the way Úrsula and José Arcadio Buendía also attempted to leave past indiscretions behind. Father and son separating the gold from the other metals in an attempt to alchemize them shows the way that progress is made with this technology; a positive development is just reverting back to the gold’s original state.
Amaranta is born in January, “light and watery, like a newt.” The newer gypsies return to town with a flying carpet. José Arcadio (I) and Pilar Ternera wander the amusements and she tells him he’s going to be a father. José Arcadio hides from this news, becoming withdrawn. Wandering the fair alone one night he spots a gypsy girl who is the most beautiful person he’s ever seen. He presses his hard penis against her and they escape to a tent where many of the gypsies are passing through and having sex. Though he is shy at first, the passion of the others awakes his own interest. Several days later, José Arcadio leaves with the gypsy band.
The way in which Amaranta is described at her birth characterizes her throughout the book. Her family is never quite able understand why she behaves in the way she does. The carpets the gypsies arrive with are another example of the magic that is accepted as real by the people of Macondo. Their knowledge of this magical thing will diminish their interest in the real flying machines that are introduced to them later in the story.
Úrsula tries to find José Arcadio (I), but she ends up wandering very far away. José Arcadio Buendía goes out in search of his wife, but after three days of searching, returns empty-handed. He cares for baby Amaranta and Pilar Ternera offers to do the chores, but Aureliano Buendía can tell via his psychic powers that she is to blame for José Arcadio’s disappearance and so he scares her away. Magical things begin to happen in the laboratory, like objects moving on their own and water boiling without a heat source. Five months after leaving, Úrsula arrives home with a pack of people following her, having discovered that the closest civilization was just two days away on the other side of the swamp.
Úrsula’s commitment to José Arcadio and the way she leaves behind her newborn daughter to try to track him down parallels the biblical story of the prodigal son. Without the grounding influence of Úrsula at home, magic is allowed free rein in José Arcadio Buendía’s laboratory. Úrsula’s trekking through the swamp shows how, though the people of Macondo thought themselves quite isolated, they have actually been very near to other civilization all this time, but had been unwilling to explore the uninviting path it would take to find those other people. The introduction of these new people marks a new era of Macondo, one exposed to outside influences.