7 best books on South America

Planning a trip down to El Sur? Get to grips with the fascinating continent through these reads

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The Independent Online

When many people plan their South America holidays, they imagine the Peruvian rainforest of Che Guevara’s Motorcycle Diaries, or the epic plains of Tierra del Fuego, as told by Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia. The problem is, Guevara raced his two-seater bike across the continent in 1952, while Chatwin met the Patagonian gauchos in 1974.

Decades later, the experiences may be similar, but a million other things will have changed for the intrepid traveller. In 2017, you can get free wifi in most hostels and bars, find a McDonald’s in nearly every city and your tablet or iPhone is almost never more than a day away from being fixed. 

You may think this means exciting experiences are no longer available in 21st century El Sur – but as these writers below prove, hair-raising adventure is still very much on the menu.

While the traditional guidebooks are still very much needed when it comes to planning your itinerary, these are the reads you need to really get to know the continent.

1. Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries by Kim MacQuarrie: £13.87, Simon & Schuster

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South American history up to the present day has been defined by strong men controlling or manipulating the masses. MacQuarrie uses the stories of the likes of narco-kingpin Pablo Escobar and Maoist rebel Abimael Guzman to explain the modern socio-political make-up of the continent. He also provides a vivid account of how Western explorers discovered Lake Titicaca and Machu Picchu and, in regards to the latter, exploited it. This book is a hugely informative meld between the men who revealed the treasures of South America to the world and those who shaped its modern identity.

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2. How to Travel Without Seeing by Andres Neuman: £12.99, Regan Arts 

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Written by Andres Neuman, the much celebrated Spanish-Argentine writer, this book vividly describes the great cities of South America, and was inspired by a continent-wide book tour promoting his novel, Traveller of the Century. Fleeting and light, Neuman deftly brushes on many topics from the last days of Hugo Chavez to Latin American films to bizarre customs forms and regulations. For people doing a city tour of El Sur and rushing through highlights of each country, this will prove a reliable, familiar and at times comic literary guide.

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3. Brazil by Michael Palin: £8.99, Orion 

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Who better to introduce diffident Brits to Brazil than the UK’s favourite traveller, Michael Palin? In addition to peerless writing, his open-minded approach to new cultures and experiences remind the reader not of an Empire apologist, but of an eager schoolboy ready for anything. Twice the size of India, Brazil can be intimidating, but this travelogue offers suggestions for travellers with different levels of acceptable adventure. From meeting the fierce tribes of the Amazon to rubber prospecting to walking around the modernist capital, Brasília, Palin’s journey is compelling and exciting.

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4. Viva South America! A Journey Through a Surging Continent by Oliver Balch: £10.99, Faber & Faber

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South America loves Simon Bolivar, the legendary Venezuelan general that led the revolt against Spanish colonial rule. Balch uses General Bolivar’s war of liberation as the framework for travelling around Spanish South America, highlighting the current political landscape and its origins. He achieves this goal all the while negotiating the classic issues and pleasures everyone experiences on the “gringo trail”, from struggling up the altitudinous hills of La Paz to sipping your first pisco sour. It’s as anecdotal is it is politically aware.

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5. Walking the Amazon by Ed Stafford: £9.99, Ebury 

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At 4,345 miles, walking the entire length of the Amazon River is not a crazy challenge – it’s almost suicidal. If you’ve heard rumours that all of South America is now a tame “gringo” holiday park to wander wherever you like, then read this book. The wild nature of the continent and its complicated border politics frustrate his seemingly simple wish to follow the great river across El Sur. Like Livingstone travelling up the Nile over a century ago, Stafford’s battle of endurance tells us as much about him as the extreme environment he endured. From experienced death threats over the radio to confrontations with hostile (and armed) indigenous warriors – it is, clichéd as it may seem, a true rollercoaster read.

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6. In Search of Lady Ayahuasca by Zach Zimmerman: £7.59, Z Publishing 

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Covering a journey of only a few days, this journal explores this itinerant writer’s hunt in the Amazon jungle for enlightenment, in the form of the shamanic drug ayahuasca. Whether you are interested in cleansing your ills with a mind-bending drink or not, his descriptions of the dangers, beauty and discomfort of the Amazon are captivating. Zimmerman illustrates the reality of travelling through the Amazon with a prose style that places you in the middle of the action. It’s a short travel book for lovers of Hunter S. Thompson and other gonzo-journalists.

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7. Short Walks from Bogotá by Tom Feiling: £9.99, Hive

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Colombia is beautiful, the food is delicious and the people hospitable – the only problem is that the decades of civil war, drug wars and of course Pablo Escobar have almost crippled its international reputation, especially for tourism. This reputation is something Feiling tackles head on. As a journalist by trade, he is at his best discussing the socio-political issues at the heart of the country. He does, however, produce a detailed picture explaining Colombia’s journey from colonial rule to the dark days of the cocaine barons onto current efforts rebuilding the country and conserving the rich wildlife.

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The Verdict: South America books

To get round South America and find the right hostels, the guidebooks can keep you on the right path. However, to help you understand and get the most out of a South American country you may only be spending a few days in before moving, these are essential. Our pick of the lot is Life and Death in the Andes by Kim MacQuarrie, which vividly explains the history which shaped a continent.

All prices are RRP

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