There’s no better way for preparing for a trip abroad (or merely satisfying your worldly curiosity) than with a good list of reading material. Over the past three years, I’ve had my nose in a healthy selection of books set in South America, both fiction and non-fiction to help me get to grips with life, culture and, more often than not, wild history in this part of the world. I’ve read some crackers and used my favourites to put together this article: here are some of the best books about South America that you definitely need to add to your reading list for 2018.
General books about South America
Open Veins of Latin America – Eduardo Galeano
A challenging read in that it’s a crash course in Latin American economic history and policies over the past half millennia, Open Veins of Latin America remains a seminal read for anyone interested in learning about the cultural climate of the continent – and how we got here. Galeano explores in depth why a land so rich in mineral wealth remains a hotbed of raging poverty and ostentatious displays of wealth, exploring the colonial and modern influences of the Spanish, British and US forces and how this continent, like no other to quite the same extent, has been brutally exploited for its riches.
The Rough Guide to South America
I’ll be straight with you: while this exact guidebook has been my Bible for most of my jaunts across South America, it’s now – like most of the guidebooks for the region – horribly out of date. How do I know? Well, I’ve been in the process of re-writing parts of it (look out for new content on Paraguay and northern Peru coming soon!) and know just how obsolete they can become a few years after publication. That said, if – like me – you like to have a physical guidebook for your travels that you can highlight, scribble in its margins and dogear (I fall short at ripping out the pages of places I’ve visited; if you do this, you are a heathen), then I believe it remains the best and most reliable guidebook that you can get your hands on.
Books set in South America: Bolivia
Marching Powder – Thomas McFadden and Rusty Young
The are few prisons in South America – perhaps the world – that inspire as much interest as San Pedro in La Paz. Taking up one entire block, it’s Bolivia‘s largest prison and one where the inmates aren’t assigned a cell; instead, inside it operates like its own society, with prisoners running shops and restaurants and paying rent to be able to afford a place to live, alongside their wives and children who pass freely through the prison gates each morning to work or go to school. Marching Powder describes the experiences of the British inmate Thomas McFadden, who found himself living in San Pedro after attempting to smuggle cocaine out of the country. The true story follows the years he spent in San Pedro and the prison tours he used to offer to travellers who would spend a day inside, and which even found their way into the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to Bolivia.
Books about South America: Chile
From one of Latin America’s most acclaimed novelists, this novel set in Chile weaves a tale of three generations of women in the Trueba family. Drawing heavily on the authors’ own kaleidoscope of enthralling – if sometimes truly barmy – relatives, Allende’s three female leads, Clara, Blanca and Alba take us by the hand into Chilean society, warts and all. Culminating in the dictatorship of 1973, the beautifully written House of the Spirits manages to mix non-fiction with the author’s own brand of magical realism, making her characters and their fates seem both ir-real and utterly believable.
Books about South America: Patagonia
Few travelogues have reached the realms of literary celebrity quite like Chatwin’s wonderful tale of his trip through a fabled land where brontosaurus are perfectly preserved in glaciers, Welsh settlers drink from delicate, patterned china in the middle of the pampas and outlaws slink away to cabins on the eastern skirts of the Andes Mountains to plot their next bank robbery. Patagonia has certainly changed since In Patagonia was written in the 70s, but Chatwin’s evocative descriptions of his surroundings and painstakingly-reproduced conversations with the inhabitants of this wild land that he meets en route are a fascinating introduction to anyway seeking to travel at the uttermost ends of the earth.
The Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux
What would it be like to travel the length of the Americas, from Boston right through Central America and out into the heart of Patagonia? Only Theroux can tell you in this epic trip through this vast, unforgiving continent. Self-involved and giving far less room to the voices of those he meets along the way than Chatwin, The Old Patagonian Express is still a true travel classic, reflecting as it does on the very art and nature of travel and how doing it alone is both proof of one’s success and one’s utter foolishness.
Books set in South America: Peru
Following in the footsteps of self-proclaimed Machu Picchu “discoverer”, Hiram Bingham III, Adams – a decidedly less adventurous soul – sets out to encounter the expansive and extraordinary landmarks of the Inca civilisation, employing the help of Australian, Crocodile Dundee-esq Jon to help him on his way. Mixing well-research historical fact with a witty reflection on his own journey, Turn Right at Machu Picchu is a must-read for anyone who’s been – or will be heading to – the legendary citadel of Machu Picchu.
The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland – Hugh Thomson
British explorer and acclaimed documentary filmmaker Hugh Thomson sets out to re-discover the Inca stronghold of Llactapata, buried deep within the cloud forest of Peru. Weaving into the narrative his own extensive research into Inca culture and history, The White Rock follows his dangerous adventure, combining Thomson’s wit and fascinating knowledge of a culture that we still know so little about and making it essential reading for those wanting to explore beyond the usual Inca sights.
Books about South America: Paraguay
Irreverent in style but extensively researched and one of the most honest analyses of Paraguayan history even written, At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig sets the scene of a country that was once the most prosperous and advanced in the whole of South America, but was dragged to its ruin by the devastating egotism – and avoidable wars – by President Solano López. Colourful, entertaining prose adds in Gimlette’s own adventures in Paraguay, interweaving stories of dictators, despots and Irish mistresses as we come to learn about – and love – the politically corrupt and poverty-stricken country that Paraguay is today.
Centering on the story of an Honorary Consul who lives in Corrientes on the northern Argentine border and is mistakenly kidnapped by a group of revolutionaries, The Honorary Consul introduces us Eduardo Plarr, a doctor forced by necessity to help save the man he hates. Reflecting the 1970s and Argentina’s “Dirty War”, where many foreign-born dignitaries became targets of kidnapping, this novel examines what drives us to commit different acts: adultery, abduction and even murder.
With his usual deft eye for detail and sharp ability to highlight the eccentric – if not utterly bizarre – in every country, Falling off the Map sees Iyer travelling to the world’s loneliest places in this collection of short non-fiction travelogues. He lands in Asuncion, the Paraguayan capital, describing it – not so flatteringly – as like “a used car lot in a border town”. Wading through Paraguay’s swamp-thick history, littered as it is with the world’s longest-ruling dictator, Nazi war criminals and rampant corruption, he also explores why Paraguay is a place with which you can’t but help to fall in love.
Books set in South America: The Guianas
With his usual blend of razor-sharp wit, microscopic observation and tendency to seek out the absurd, Gimlette turns his attention in Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge to the Guianas, those three forgotten countries on the northeastern tip of the continent. Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana are so rarely mentioned in any literature but this book explores the lands that “have never been truly possessed”. Gimlette tracks the ghostly steps of long-dead gold diggers, suicidal members of US cults and starts to realise how much of these nations’ history is soon to be lost, as it’s reclaimed by the ravenous natural landscape from which it was once born.
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