7 best books on South America

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

Matt Payton@paytesy89
Thursday 30 January 2014 19:04
Guidebooks can keep you on the right path, but to help you understand and get the most out of a South American country these travelogues are essential
Guidebooks can keep you on the right path, but to help you understand and get the most out of a South American country these travelogues are essential

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

Right up to the present day, South American history 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 the case of 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

Written by Andres Neuman, a 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 topics ranging from the last days of Hugo Chavez to Latin American films, bizarre customs to 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

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

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

South America loves Simon Bolivar, the legendary Venezuelan general who 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, and more, all the while negotiating classic issues and pleasures everyone experiences on the “gringo trail” – struggling up the altitudinous hills of La Paz, for example, and sipping your first pisco sour. It’s as anecdotal as it is politically aware.

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

Walking the entire length of the Amazon, some 4,345 miles, is not just a crazy challenge – it’s almost suicidal. If you’ve heard rumours that South America is now some kind of tame holiday park to wander through anyway you like, then read this. The wild nature of the continent and its complicated border politics threaten to frustrate the author’s seemingly simple wish to follow the great river. Like Livingstone travelling up the Nile over a century ago, Stafford’s battle of endurance tells us as much about him as it does the extreme environments he endures. From death threats over the radio to confrontations with hostile, armed, indigenous warriors it is – clichéd as it may sound – a true rollercoaster read.

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

Covering a journey of only a few days, this short book explores this writer’s hunt for enlightenment in the jungle – or, more accurately, in 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 forest with a prose style that places you in the middle of the action. Perfect 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

Colombia is beautiful, the food is delicious and the people hospitable. The country’s 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. Feiling tackles this head on. 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 its rich wildlife.

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The Verdict: South America books

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

All prices are RRP

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