Granta, £25, 580pp. £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

Andes, By Michael Jacobs

Michael Jacobs has dedicated his bulky record of travelling down the Andes to his brother, who survived being stoned in Peru, and to the bus drivers. Although parts of this extraordinary feat involve trains, planes, a ferry and taxis, it's the buses and their drivers - who rattle up and down giddy-making gorges and over oxygen-starving mountain passes, often compared to a rollercoaster – that count. To trust these death-defying buses, with landslides, punctures, tales of guerrilla hold-ups, fog, blinding rain and crosses signalling crashes down ravines, is astonishing.

Jacobs even enjoyed this constant massaging on unpaved roads. Unlike his earlier account of travels in South America in search of his grandfather, there seems no deep motive, other than childhood images and fertile books. Jacobs follows his guiding authors, like the liberator-turned-dictator Simó*Bolívar and his tellingly named dog Nevado, and the explorer Humboldt (and his mute companion Bonpland, who wasn't under house arrest in Bolivia, but in Paraguay) - often along their exact tracks.

His dual journey with these authors, and others like Isherwood, makes for vivid reading. We have a layered history of first impressions as these authors and Jacobs pass, sometimes hurtle, south down the mountain chain. Jacobs's art historian's training impels him beyond the picturesque, aware that prose descriptions don't really work; yet there are only six illustrations. Where he stands out from previous travellers is in his rapport with those he meets. Not only does he have – or develop - a network of friends, but he entices out of these encounters a human warmth and depth.

Travelling is not only backpacking and reading earlier travellers, but also meeting people. Jacobs cut his teeth (food is important in this book) in Spain. He's an old-fashioned Hispanist of the ilk of Ford, Borrow and Brenan, highly literate but genuinely democratic. If there's a bar, Jacobs will be there all night; the seedier, the better. His earlier Spanish books, including an encyclopaedic guide to Andalucia, led him to settle in rural Jaén, which he has memorably written about. Many asides come from comparisons with this Spain he knows so well. Linking his Andean travels with Spain revives the maligned colonial inheritance.

Like many travellers, Jacobs is also accompanied, first by a faceless teacher from his village, and then by fellow travel writer Chris Stewart (and then others), but none becomes a foil in Bonpland's way with Humboldt. Whether peeping into eco-lodges or battlefields or Inca ruins, Jacobs is fully there, suffering, panting, pacing up and down.

As he zigzags down the Andes, we learn to trust, with relief, this "ageing" backpacker's perceptions. There's not one boast; he never feels superior, or clever at a native's expense, and is often extremely funny. He is the self-deprecating eccentric and solitary abroad. His created persona is often nostalgic, even sad (he misses his dog) but he endures. In many ways he cannot compete with his hero Humboldt – who had such dazzling learning that even Goethe was knackered after an hour with him – but he shares not being self-centred during his six-week ordeal, and his enthusiasm never flags.

Some passages are more vivid than others, like his memorable account of the Bolivarian society in Quito when, packed with well-dressed generals shouting "Viva", he's asked to speak, ashamed of his travel rags. He recalls the old Spanish love of pompous ceremonies and feels as if in a dream, without any clothes on.

Behind the anecdotes, there's a sense of the Andes being ruined, especially in Argentina, by modern life. The snow on the peaks is diminishing; eucalyptus is planted ubiquitously and dense woods deforested. He's aware of the politics, of Morales and Chávez, but above all, has a dream-like sense of the Andes fractured into self-contained local climates and terrains. When he finds Chaví*like "an empty wine cellar", we realise that the Andes are a lesson not only in our transitoriness, but also in loss. He cites a bishop in 1768, who couldn't find any Indians left to convert and ended up speaking with shadows. Right down in Puerto Williams, on an empty peak with prowling wild dogs, Jacobs is told that he has come all the way to the end of the world, but stays only a day.

Jason Wilson is author of 'The Andes: a cultural history' (Signal Books)

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...