Charming and somber, Florentino Ariza is the President of the River Company of the Caribbean's Board of Directors and general manager of the company. Although Fermina Daza rejected him during their youth, Florentino has remained in love with her. He has meticulously maintained his health in the hopes of outliving Dr. Juvenal Urbino for a second chance with Fermina.
In her adolescence, quick-tempered and serious Fermina Daza falls in love with Florentino Ariza and becomes his fiancée, despite her being so young during their initial courtship that marriage had not entered her thoughts. Lorenzo Daza, determined that his daughter will marry into high society, disrupts the relationship by taking her on a long voyage to Riohacha. When she sees Florentino upon her return, Fermina decides their love is "nothing more than an illusion." As suddenly as she ended her relationship with Florentino, she begins one with Dr. Juvenal Urbino.
Dr. Juvenal Urbino
The son of Dr. Marco Aurelio Urbino and Doña Blanca, Dr. Juvenal Urbino attends school in France. While there, his father dies of cholera, beginning his obsession with the disease. When he returns from France, he falls in love with Fermina Daza. They marry and spend more than half a century together, despite constant arguing and his short-lived affair.
Lorenzo Daza, Fermina's widowed and controlling father, intends to find a rich, aristocratic husband for Fermina. He banishes his sister for aiding meetings between Fermina and Florentino and sends Fermina away. Lorenzo Daza is suspected by the townspeople of criminal activities. Eventually, the governor of the province alerts Lorenzo's son-in-law, Dr. Urbino, that "there is no law, human or divine, that this man has not ignored." Dr. Urbino covers up the scandal, and Lorenzo Daza leaves the country, never to return.
Lorenzo Daza's sister Escolástica Daza raises her niece after the death of Fermina's mother. Fermina teaches her uneducated aunt to read, and Escolástica gives the teenage girl some life lessons—encouraging the girl to meet with Florentino and to accept his proposal. This proves disastrous for Escolástica, as Lorenzo dismisses her from the household when he discovers she's assisted the lovers. No further details are provided on Escolástica, except that Fermina searches for her for more than 20 years, until finally receiving word that her aunt had died long ago in a leprosarium (a hospital for people afflicted with leprosy).
Two years older than her cousin Fermina Daza, Hildebranda Sanchez is her lifelong friend. Both young women are in love with men their families disapprove of, and both carry on secret communications with their lovers. Although Hildebranda marries and has children, she still yearns for her secret lover of long ago. It is Hildebranda's flirting with Dr. Juvenal Urbino that leads her cousin to become interested in the doctor. Years later, Fermina takes refuge at Hildebranda's ranch following a fight with Dr. Urbino. There, the aged friends reminisce about their youth.
Tránsito Ariza is Florentino's loving mother and the only person he tells of his affection for Fermina. She is practical and hardworking, operating a small pawnshop to make a living. She tries to help Florentino in his courtship of Fermina, and, after Fermina makes plans to marry Dr. Urbino, she finds her son a job far away, so he can make a fresh start. When Tránsito sees that Florentino intends to wait for Fermina to be available, she buys a house for the eventual couple to occupy. She then grows senile and dies without ever seeing her son married to the woman he loves.