Ben Ross: What's changed in 90 years of South American travel?

Something to Declare

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The Independent Travel

"The past is a foreign country," wrote LP Hartley in 1953. "They do things differently there." It surely didn't come much more foreign than Bolivia, Brazil, or British Guiana would have been for tourists in 1924, the year that the first South American Handbook was published. To mark next year's 90th anniversary, Footprint Travel Guides has produced a commemorative version, and to open it is to enter a world of travel dazzlingly different from the one we experience today. Actually, erm, no. Hang on a minute ...

Fed up with your bags being frisked as you set off for some winter sun? So were your travel forebears: "Any [steamship] passenger who carries, or attempts to carry, cartridges, gunpowder or goods of a dangerous nature is liable to a penalty of £100." What about travel insurance? "Baggage is conveyed entirely at passengers' own risk, unless insured."

Surely, I hear you cry, there was no Ryanair-esque quibbling about luggage allowance? Au contraire: "Cabin baggage, to go under berths, should not be more than 16 inches high, 24 inches wide and 36 inches long."

The parallels continue upon arrival. "Choosing pack animals" reads one heading. "In all Latin American republics, it is necessary to use mules, donkeys, burros and horses ... Choice is not always possible." Hiring a car feels much the same. And the health advice from 1924 is strangely familiar. "While vessels are in dock in tropical ports it is advisable to keep the cabin doors and windows closed. Some heat is preferable to the mosquito, as sickness often follows bites."

Admittedly, the in-guide advertising has dated somewhat. Wither Snugfit Hosiery, "Made in the USA – worn all over the world"? But you could still Thomas Cook it, even back then. The company's advert offers "Escorted tours with itineraries of varying lengths at frequent intervals". And they cashed travellers' cheques.

The fact that Footprint still publishes a South American Handbook is a cause for celebration. Argentina kicks off the 2014 edition, just as it did the original (the country merits 188 pages, compared with just 34 in 1924). And as far as Brazil goes, Rio still wins out: "The city is worthy of its setting" (1924) bears comparison with "Rio has a glorious theatrical backdrop of tumbling wooded mountains" (2014).

Of course, plenty has changed. Today, we crave adrenalin on our travels. (I searched in vain for the original's white-water rafting suggestions.) We're more confident sexually (the LGBT section is notable by its absence in the facsimile edition). Our view of the natural world is more developed (the Galapagos Islands merited just one brief mention in 1924).

However, ponder this guidance on how you should behave abroad, and nine decades of travel fall away in a sentence: "An attitude of sympathetic appreciation of these countries and peoples ... and of what they have achieved culturally as well as commercially, brings blessings upon both visitors and hosts."

See? Not such a foreign country after all.

'The South American Handbook 1924' replica edition (£10) and 2014 edition (£25) are available from