The 15 Must Read Books For Anyone Travelling to Latin America| 16 November, 2016
I can still vividly remember the weeks preceding my first excursion alone in Latin America, to Nicaragua and Honduras, in which I was completely engulfed in the poems of Ruben Dario, the biography of Augusto Sandino, and paperback historical accounts of Contras and Sandinistas alike. It wasn’t until a few days before leaving home that I realized I should probably buy a guidebook. The rise of popular guidebook publishers and glossy travel magazines have no doubt better equipped us globetrotters for our future ambitions, but over the years of travelling and maturing I have come to the realization that the best way to prepare for a trip is to indulge in the history and the creative and intellectual culture of your destination. During recent and frequent trips to Colombia I have formed the habit of starting a Gabriel García Márquez novel just before leaving home so that (in the most spontaneous and unplanned manner) I can finish it on my last day in the country.
In my search for the best books to recommend for anyone travelling to Latin America I made the conscious decision to focus on books that have endured the test of time and are regarded as classics or have been praised by historical scholars, cultural critics or wanderlust travellers as accurately representing the ideals and imagery of the region. In this regard it was hard to exclude some of the new wonderful novels written in the past decade by a new wave of contemporary writers (Yuri Herrera, Andres Neuman and Juan Gabriel Vasquez). My goal was to steer this list across geographical and cultural spectrum, from the cold mountains of the Southern Cone to the sandy beaches of the Caribbean, and from military and political history to culture and the arts. From the start I told myself I could not just simply list my personal favourites… but as it turned out, most of these actually are my personal favourites!
Bolivar and the War of Independence
Daniel Florencio O’Leary, Translated by Robert F. McNerney Jr. (University of Texas Press)
This epic story of Bolívar’s South American campaigns were taken from the personal eyewitness accounts of the Liberator’s Irish friend and General, Daniel Florence O’Leary. The book vividly recaptures the personality of Bolívar, his accomplishments and struggles, but also traces the intertwining of all the South American forces in a joint effort for liberation, from strategic treks across Argentina, to campaigns in the Andean highlands, to recovery and despair on the Caribbean coast. “Shortly before his death Bolivar expressed the wish that General O’Leary write the story of his life,” recalls the translator, “and it would seem that he chose the man pre-eminently qualified to record his life long struggle for freedom.”
Liberty For Latin America
Alvaro Vargas Llosa (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Vargas Llosa (son of the Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa) scans the past two centuries of Latin American political and economic history to find what exactly went wrong in creating a continent with devastating economic hardships, poverty and social unrest. His accurate and unbiased view distributes the blame equally from Marxism to capitalism, and from internal corruption to external first world and Western interference. His solution is spelled out in a methodical approach: to reform both public institutions and the culture at large to better serve the broad public of the Latin American countries.
The Lost Steps
Alejo Carpentier. Translated by Harriet de Onís. (Alfred A. Knopf)
“Taking not one country but the whole world, we can say there are only a few masterpieces and literary men of genius… having made this point, I will state very deliberately that in my opinion The Lost Steps is a work of genius, a genuine masterpiece.” Enough said from the acclaimed writer and commentator JB Priestly, but aside from Carpentier’s literary genius this masterpiece will spark wanderlust for South America. The story follows a weary Manhattan musician as he sets out on a commission to find a mysterious ancient musical instrument in the heartland of the Amazon and must endure the violence of political revolution, the mysterious powers of the Andean hinterland, and the betrayal of passionate love along the way.
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels through Paraguay
John Gimlette (Alfred A. Knopf)
A practicing London lawyer and avid traveller, Gimlette pulled from his own experience travelling through this small, poor, landlocked country, to ignite Paraguay’s rich, bloody, absurd and surreal history into a compelling narrative. “Mr. Gimlette gives us a cast of characters as vivid as any by Dickens or Waugh,” notes Michiko Kakutani. “The country that emerges from this book is a kind of looking glass world – as surreal and unlikely a place as anything that… Latin American practitioners of magical realism have conjured in their novels… like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera.” Reading this book will make many rethink skipping this small, overlooked country as they map out their next South American journey.
Love in the Time of Cholera
Gabriel García Márquez. Translated by Edith Grossman. (Alfred A. Knopf)
García Márquez is considered high in the vanguard of the literary ‘boom’ period of the 1960s and 70s, and all of his novels are a must read. But Cholera has always struck a unique cord as being considered among travel books to South America. The journey of this intelligent and seductive novel not only exhibits the famous Nobel Prize author at his best, but gives a fanciful colour to the character of Colombia: her colonial Caribbean cities and coastline, the great Magdalena River, and the frontier Andean outposts of Vila de Lyeva and Santa Fe (before Bogotá).
The Death of Artemio Cruz
Carlos Fuentes. Translated by Alfred MacAdam. (FSG Classics)
Lying on his deathbed, the wealthy and powerful old man begins to look back on his life and remembers the whirlwind and fullness that it was – thus begins Carlos Fuente’s most acclaimed novel. “What Artemio Cruz remembers – his whole life – is also in essence the story and the tragedy of Mexico.” Filled with aspirations, romantic ambitions, idealism and disillusionment, this grand panoramic novel archaically recounts the events of a notable life – and a country.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent
Eduardo Galeano. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. (Monthly Review Press)
Although in his later years the Uruguayan author held a disavowing stance toward this groundbreaking book, it remains today a powerful and passion-filled dissertation of the political left in Latin America. Published in the 1970s, Open Veins is still praised by many, including academic scholars and prominent world leaders of our own time, as a canonical manifesto against the implications of colonialism, capitalism and the United States upon Latin American history.
Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America
Alma Guillermoprieto (Vintage Books)
Along with her book, The Heart That Bleeds, Guillermoprieto’s objective and fearless journalism recreates a picture of contemporary Latin America through the lens of history. She unearths the roots of violence and war in Colombia, the “harsh angel” of Che Guevara, Eva Peron, Cuba, Mexico, and the “bitter education” of Mario Vargas Llosa.
Bruce Chatwin (Penguin)
In the early 1970s Chatwin, then the art and architecture journalist with the Sunday Times Magazine, was interviewing the famed modernist designer Eileen Gray in Paris when he noticed on her wall a map of Patagonia. “I have always wanted to go there,” Chatwin’s biographer, Nicholas Shakespeare recalled. “So have I,” responded Gray, “go there for me.” Two years later Chatwin travelled to this arid South American region, and as a result of his six month journey he crafted a meandering experimental masterpiece that is today considered a travel classic. It is a deeply symbolic story of a man that encounters the captivating bewilderment and remoteness of the Patagonian wilderness while searching for an ancient dinosaur relic.
The Path Between the Seas
David McCullough (Simon and Schuster)
The historic and global implications of the Panama Canal reaches far beyond the slender isthmus of Central America, and McCullough brings this wide breadth to the forefront in his informative account. The creation of the Panama Canal was an epic event and a magnificent feat that forever changed the way the world operates. MuCullough’s expertise in historical investigations allows you to be a fly on the wall in the behind-the-scenes political and economic manipulations, and puts you sweating in the Panamanian jungle with a shovel in your hand.
Rio de Janeiro: Carnival Under Fire
Ruy Castro. Translated by John Gledson (Bloomsbury)
Castro, wielding his literary brush so masterfully, has painted a vibrant portrait of the city he knows and understands like none other – a city that arguably stands today as one of the most beautiful in the world. Through his charming wit and lyrical style, Castro seems to have reinvented the travelogue as he leads you down Rio’s streets recalling the anecdotes from history (as if he had been there) that have made this city what it is today, from troubling episodes of violence to comical absurdities.
The Motorcycle Diaries
Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Translated by Alexandra Keeble (Oceans Press)
Before immortalizing himself as the iconic representation of revolution in Latin America, Che Guevara was a young medical student who abandoned his middle class Argentinean lifestyle to venture out and experience his own continent. This book is the personal account of his spell-bounding motorcycle journey throughout South America that ignited his revolutionary spirit, and has influenced millions of others to follow in his adventurous and social footsteps.
The Green House
Mario Vargas Llosa. Translated by Gregory Rabassa (Harper and Row)
Considered a classic in the oeuvre of this Peruvian Nobel Laureate, Vargas Llosa’s complex and telling novel meanders through the lives of numerous diverse characters between the Peruvian Amazon and a brothel in the small desert town of Piura. The novel questions the limits between savagery and civilization – a theme all too familiar in the history of Latin America – and pairs the virtues of youth and innocence against an encroaching world of corruption.
Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Region of the New Continent
Alexander von Humboldt. Translated by Jason Wilson (Penguin Classics)
The German naturalist Alexander Von Humboldt has received renewed popularity with the recent book, The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf, which could also be paired with this book as a must read for its anthropological context. Personal Narrative is the memoir of van Humbolt’s journey across the South American continent between 1799 and 1894 where he received international fame for his scientific observations on the native plant and animal life and for his discoveries of ancient Aztec cultures and art.
The Rum Diary
Hunter S. Thompson
Remove any thoughts you may have from the recent Johnny Depp motion picture, and read this book with a fresh mind… and with lots of rum! Thompson develops a narrative that mimics the Caribbean culture in which it takes place; sometimes filled with the colourful energy of sensual adventure, other times slowly pacing through a sweat-soaked afternoon on a white-sand beach. For anyone even considering a trip to Puerto Rico, Cuba or the Dominican Republic, this book is a must.
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