It probably goes without saying that there’s a vast supply of terrific books about Latin America. As we discovered during a visit to Oaxaca’s Amate Books, the best English-language bookstore we found in the Spanish-speaking Americas, we could have spent the last 18 months reading worthwhile volumes solely about Mexico and we still wouldn’t have come close to working our way through the shelves.

However, we have at least started to scale the mountain of books that make up our ever-evolving Latin American reading list. We’re as interested in the history, economy and culture of any country through which we pass as we are in the roads and trails we ride. In some ways, we were led by books and articles as much as by maps as we cycled 24,000km through South America, Central America and Mexico.

That said, what follows certainly isn’t a definitive guide. We passed through several countries – Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Uruguay – too quickly to read anything more than the short histories offered by our guidebooks, along with various random articles plucked from newspapers and journals such as the New Yorker. A few countries in which we lingered longer, such as Costa Rica, didn’t inspire us to investigate them in any great detail. For no good reason, we read only three worthwhile books about Brazil during the three months we spent in the country. And with the possible exception of the first book in the Argentina section, there are no works of fiction on this purely non-fictional list. That’s for another day.

We’ll add more books to this page as and when we’ve read them. Which, in a few cases, may be some time. Will is currently attempting to read ‘The Language of Solitude’ by Octavio Paz, apparently the definitive book about Mexico and the Mexican character, in the original Spanish. Check back for a review in about 2019.



General &/or multiple countries

The Americas: A Hemispheric History (2003)
Felipe Fernández-Armesto
Attempting to tell the story of the Americas in 200 pages seems a fool’s errand. However, Fernández-Armesto – a Londoner by birth, an academic by profession – does a sparkling job in this essayistic history, sprinting through several millennia in opinionated style: the 18th- and 19th-century revolutions that gave numerous countries independence were ‘the last great common American experience’; much US involvement in Latin America during the last hundred years constitutes ‘the imperialism of interference’; Argentine leader Juan Perón was ‘a mountebank dictator splattered with motley’. It’s hard to envisage a more useful single short volume for any reader wanting to understand how the Americas got this way.
links: publisher’s site

Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent (1971)
Eduardo Galeano (translated by Cedric Belfrage)
‘Open Veins of Latin America’ was already one of the most famous books on this list even before, at a summit of American leaders in 2009, Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez presented his US counterpart Barack Obama with a copy. As both men knew, the gesture was provocative: ‘Open Veins’ purports to chronicle the ways in which Latin America’s natural resources have been commandeered and exploited by Europe and the USA ever since the Spanish arrived in the 16th century. As with all polemics, it’s best read in consort with other, more sober histories; for one thing, the often ragingly inept and/or corrupt Latino governments deserve more blame than the author seems willing to assign them. Even so, Galeano, a Uruguayan, makes a convincing case in sharp, sometimes withering prose, although the publishers should have engaged a proofreader to check Cedric Belfrage’s English translation.
links: publisher’s site | Guardian interview from 2013

Wild Coast: Travels on South America’s Untamed Edge (2011)
John Gimlette
We can’t speak for the accuracy or otherwise of ‘Wild Coast’, as we didn’t visit the three countries on the northern coast of South America – Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana, together 30 per cent larger than Germany but with a smaller population than Essex – on which it’s focused. Few do, which is the most compelling selling point of ‘Wild Coast’: the region remains largely unexplored by travel writers and largely unvisited by travellers (Laura and Paddy Mottram, friends and fellow cycle tourists, are two honourable exceptions). In many ways, ‘Wild Coast’ is by-the-book, first-person travel writing, following an intrepid author through a variety of eye-widening set pieces. Still, it’s a lively read, and made us wish we’d taken the opportunity to visit these curious places. Next time.
links: author’s site

Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, the United States, and the Rise of the New Imperialism (2006)
Greg Grandin
The title of the second book by Greg Grandin, a professor of history at New York University, puts its thesis in plain sight: essentially, that Latin America in general, and Central America in particular, served as the laboratory for the interventionist, imperialist foreign policy that came to define several recent US governments through such misconceived projects as the war in Iraq. With a historian’s diligence but, occasionally, a campaigner’s zeal, Grandin maps US involvement in assorted unpleasant episodes: the Chilean military government of the 1970s and ’80s, led by General Augusto Pinochet and quietly backed by the US; the Iran-Contra scandal; the death squads and civil war in El Salvador; and so on. A brisk read, rich in detail but with admirably little fat on the bones, ‘Empire’s Workshop’ is a surprisingly fierce book in places, but Grandin would argue that it needs to be – and he certainly makes a convincing advocate for the prosecution.
links: author’s site

Looking for History: Dispatches from Latin America (2001) |
The Heart That Bleeds: Latin America Now (1994)
Alma Guillermoprieto
In ‘Looking for History’, three enlightening profiles (Eva Perón, Che Guevara, Mario Vargas Llosa) break up sections of first-rate reportage centred on a trio of countries in the 1990s: Colombia and the FARC rebels; the pace of change in Cuba; and Mexico at the time of the Zapatista rebellion. We chanced upon ‘Looking for History’ in a Nicaraguan bookstore, and we’re glad we took a punt; first published in the New York Review of Books and the New Yorker, the essays and reports are insightful, even-handed and beautifully written, and led us to an equally excellent compendium of Guillermoprieto’s reporting published seven years earlier. Anyone looking for a single book from which to learn a little about modern-day Latin America would do very well to start here. A native of Mexico City, Guillermoprieto is still filing dispatches from her home country, such as this typically considered article about the 43 missing student teachers in the state of Guerrero.
links: author’s archive at the New York Review of Books | author’s archive at the New Yorker

Andes (2010)
Michael Jacobs
We bought the penultimate work by Michael Jacobs, who died in 2014, in the hope of reading a book about the Andes. What we ended up reading was a book about one Englishman’s journey through the Andes, and the distinction is important. It’s not that Jacobs doesn’t tell the stories of this astonishing mountain range; he does, and many are beautifully written. But they’re too often linked by anecdotes told in the classic Englishman-abroad, fish-out-of-water manner, which gradually grow tiresome over the course of what’s a fairly lengthy volume. As with almost all contemporary first-person travel books, ‘Andes’ would be much improved by a little more of its subject and a little less of its author. (Jacobs also wrote about Latin America in two other books, ‘Ghost Train Through the Andes: On My Grandfather’s Trail in Chile and Bolivia‘ (2006) and ‘The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia‘ (2012), neither of which we’ve read.)
links: publisher’s site | Guardian obituary from 2014

Mountains of the Mind: A History of a Fascination (2003)
Robert Macfarlane
This isn’t a book about Latin America. However, you can’t cycle through South America without accounting for the Andes, and Robert Macfarlane’s cultural history of the fear and awe that mountains inspire in the Western imagination offers a novel perspective on their importance. A climber as well as a writer and academic, Macfarlane is great on the experience of the ascent, but ‘Mountains of the Mind’ – the winner of the Guardian First Book Award in 2003 – is best approached as a survey rather than as a first-person memoir. (‘The Wild Places’ and ‘The Old Ways’, the other two books in a trilogy dedicated to what Macfarlane calls ‘landscape and the human heart’, have absolutely nothing to do with Latin America but are, we think, even better.)
links: publisher’s site | Guardian interview from 2003

Radical Cities: Across Latin America in Search of a New Architecture (2014)
Justin McGuirk
The subtitle is a little misleading: McGuirk focuses as much on social policy as on new design and construction in ‘Radical Cities’, which explores the ways in which politicians, architects, activists and residents have dealt with an assortment of challenges – poverty, crime, space and so on – relating to urban living in Latin America. Half the book is covered by Colombia (Bogotá and Medellín, which we visited) and Venezuela (Caracas, which we skipped); the other chapters visit Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Tijuana in Mexico, Argentina, and the capitals of Chile and Peru. Rowan Moore, the Observer‘s architecture critic, grumbled about an occasional lack of depth, pointing out (correctly) that some of these cities merit an entire book by themselves. But for readers like us, dilettantes seeking an education in Latino urbanism taught in layman-friendly language, the book’s journalistic pace is a great asset.
links: publisher’s site | author’s site




Murder City: Ciudad Juárez and the Global Economy’s New Killing Fields (2010)
Charles Bowden
The subtitle of ‘Murder City’ suggests ponderous reportage, but Charles Bowden’s sparse, tough and yet somehow impressionistic style is quite the opposite. A Mexican border city in the grip of corruption, crime and violence, Ciudad Juárez was and remains at the front line of the so-called War on Drugs. Bowden, who died in 2014, wrote frequently about Juárez, most prominently in four books; the title of an earlier work, ‘Some of the Dead Are Still Breathing‘, gives a clue to his style. ‘Murder City’ is less interested in telling a story than creating an atmosphere of dread and menace; it often feels more like fiction than journalism.
links: New Yorker interview from 2010 | New York Times obituary from 2014

The Mexico City Reader (2004)
Rubén Gallo, editor (translated by Lorna Scott Fox & Rubén Gallo)
Most of the writers featured in this compendium of non-fiction about the Distrito Federal were new to us, and will probably be new to most readers outside Mexico; indeed, a number of the essays were translated into English especially for this anthology. Like many similar collections, it’s more than a little spotty, both in terms of what it covers and the quality of the writing. Still, there’s plenty worth reading: Gonzalo Celorio’s digressive survey of literature dedicated to Mexico City; two pieces by the great essayist Carlos Monsiváis, one on the Metro system and another on a notoriously seamy dive bar called El Catorce; Alma Guillermoprieto’s astonishing tale of garbage hawks at one of the city’s largest rubbish dumps, a piece also included in the abovementioned ‘The Heart That Bleeds’; and Rubén Gallo’s wide-ranging introduction.
links: publisher’s site | editor’s site

Narcoland: The Mexican Drug Lords and Their Godfathers (2010, updated 2013)
Anabel Hernández (translated by Iain Bruce & Lorna Scott Fox)
Journalism can be a dangerous business in Mexico, and Anabel Hernández took considerable risks to research, write and publish this eye-watering investigation into the country’s drug trade. Its central character is Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel. However, the book takes in a cast of hundreds – indeed, it can be hard to keep track of who’s who – as it details how parts of Mexico have come to be run by drug barons and crime syndicates, their dominance built with the high-level help of corrupt politicians, bent civil servants and crooked police. The book caused a sensation in Mexico when it was published five years ago (under the title ‘Los Señores del Narco’). If even half the stories it tells are true, then little short of revolution will fix what’s now a profoundly broken country.
links: publisher’s site | Dissent interview from 2013

First Stop in the New World: Mexico City, the Capital of the 21st Century (2008)
David Lida
Like the city it documents, ‘First Stop in the New World’ is something of a mess. Lida, a US-born expatriate who’s lived in the city since 1990, hasn’t tried to build a sensible narrative from the detritus of this insensible city, and his book bounces all over the place. Some thematic chapters run to two pages, others to more than 20 (the longest are on crime and sex); interviews with teenage drug addicts follow musings on luxury retail. Lida is a journalist by trade, and ‘First Stop in the New World’ resembles a collection of magazine columns (or, on occasion, blog entries) in search of a deeper context. Still, the pacey, jump-cut style suits the subject; and Lida, who clearly knows the city better than most outsiders, is a capable guide.
links: publisher’s site | author’s site

The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail (2013)
Óscar Martínez (translated by Daniela María Ugaz & John Washington)
The focus of Óscar Martínez’s first book is Mexico, but many of its characters are illegal migrants from Central America – from Guatemala, from Nicaragua, and most of all from Honduras and Martínez’s home country of El Salvador – who make a hazardous trek through the country in the hopes of one day reaching the USA. A few make it to the States and, somehow avoiding the authorities, manage to stay. Many more are arrested by US authorities and sent home within days, hours or even minutes of reaching the promised land. But thousands don’t even make it that far, falling victim to kidnappers, gangs and corrupt police officers as they scramble the length of Mexico by train (known as the Beast, hence the book’s title), by bus and on foot. Martínez joins the desperate hordes atop the railcars and in the migrant shelters, on the roads and in the forests, giving a voice to a community whose members are all too rarely heard. It’s a spectacular piece of reporting, one of the most vivid books about Latin America either of us have read since we started travelling through it.
links: publisher’s site | Texas Observer interview from 2013

The Life and Times of Mexico (2004)
Earl Shorris
The facts are here, or seem to be. You can trace Mexico’s progress down the centuries by following the chronology of this weighty volume, which starts at the beginning and ends with two oral testimonies from present-day Mexicans. However, ‘The Life and Times of Mexico’ is not really a straight history; Shorris weaves anecdotes and digressions into the narrative, and his writing is livelier and more expressive than you might find in more conventional works. It could have been a mess, but it’s really a wonderful book, as energetic and quixotic as the country it documents. Incidentally, we’d never heard of Shorris before picking up ‘The Life and Times of Mexico’, but he seems to have lived a fascinating and enviably full life.
links: New York Times obituary from 2012

Amexica: War Along the Borderline (2010)
Ed Vulliamy
While the late Charles Bowden (see above) brought a novelist’s eye to life on the Mexican border, Ed Vulliamy takes a more traditionally reportorial approach. We prefer it – a veteran British newspaperman, Vulliamy makes for a clear-sighted guide to what’s become one of the world’s most troubled, complex frontiers, and ‘Amexica’ remains both current and valuable five years after its publication. The Guardian‘s website editors seem reluctant to give Vulliamy’s regular reports on a variety of subjects the prominence they deserve, but there’s a full archive at the link below. In particular, his recent pieces on the drug trade in Mexico (here, here and here) and the regeneration of Medellín in Colombia (here) are all hugely illuminating.
links: author’s archive at the Guardian



Central America

The Last Colonial Massacre: Latin America in the Cold War (2004)
Greg Grandin
Before Greg Grandin wrote ‘Empire’s Workshop’ (see above), a damning survey of US involvement in Latin America during the latter part of the 20th century, he made his reputation as a historian with two books about Guatemala: ‘The Blood of Guatemala: A History of Race and Nation‘, which we haven’t read, and this short book, which pulls few punches as it covers democracy, violence and harmful US intervention in the country during the Cold War. Grandin’s done his research and makes some compelling points, but ‘The Last Colonial Massacre’ is a little jumbled – a firmer hand at the editing stage would probably have made it a more powerful book.
links: author’s site

The Jaguar Smile: A Nicaraguan Journey (1987)
Salman Rushdie
During the mid 1980s, Nicaragua’s government came under siege from a band of violent insurgent rebels known as the Contras. For a time, the Contras had been openly backed by Ronald Reagan’s US administration, which was fearful of Nicaragua becoming another Cuba and wanted to overthrow the country’s left-wing Sandinista regime. Congress eventually prohibited Reagan from delivering further funding to the Contras – but his government blithely continued sending cash and resources to the rebels on the quiet. Some of this money came through illegal weapons sales to Iran, then the subject of a worldwide arms embargo. Other assistance came with the help of Latino drug lords, who were apparently permitted by senior CIA officials to import cocaine and other narcotics into the US as long as they delivered funds and/or weapons to the Contra fighters in return. (Pause to consider all that for a moment. Even 30 years later, it’s astounding.)

Given such a background, it’s unsurprising that Rushdie’s sympathies are with the Nicaraguan government, especially as the Sandinistas initiated the author’s visit to the country that this slim volume documents. Even so, ‘The Jaguar Smile’ is an awkward read. Rushdie seems unable to decide whether he’s reporting or editorialising, and can’t resist drawing big conclusions about the Sandinistas and their influence on contemporary Nicaragua from small incidents and cocktail-party conversations. The book ultimately reveals more about Rushdie and his sense of self-importance than it does about Nicaragua.
links: publisher’s site | author’s site




In Patagonia (1977)
Bruce Chatwin
Based on a trip Chatwin took in 1974 to what was then a largely unexplored part of the world, ‘In Patagonia’ made the names both of its author and, to budding backpackers, of the region on which it’s focused. Chatwin’s creativity didn’t just extend to the book’s unconventional form; ‘a kind of literary cubism’, as Robert Macfarlane puts it. For it’s now widely believed that substantial parts of ‘In Patagonia’ were complete fabrications, Chatwin telling a travel writer’s story with a novelist’s authorial licence. Nicholas Shakespeare, his biographer, excuses such behaviour; in his view, Chatwin ‘tells not a half-truth, but a truth-and-a-half’, which seems rather weaselly. Still, regardless of whether it should be filed under fiction or fact, this remains the most famous book about this mysterious part of the world.
links: autobiographical New York Times article from 1983 | Daily Telegraph article from 2014

Operation Massacre (1957)
Rodolfo Walsh (translated by Daniella Gitlin)
First published as a series of magazine articles, revised repeatedly by Walsh after its original book publication, and only translated into English for the first time in 2013, ‘Operation Massacre’ describes the 1956 execution in Buenos Aires by Argentine police of nearly two dozen suspected dissidents who were thought to be hostile to the military government. Rodolfo Walsh had a background in detective fiction, and he turns an atrocity into a taut thriller as he describes the night leading up to the murders. The latter part of the book, which details the aftermath and fallout from the affair, isn’t as powerful, but the context it provides should be valuable to readers who, like us, know little of this bleak period in Argentine history.

Walsh himself was a fascinating character. Restless to the point of distraction, he wrote in a variety of styles, campaigned for numerous causes (some controversial) and even founded an underground news agency. In 1977, aged 50, he penned an open letter to the military junta then running Argentina, criticising their policies on everything from human rights to the economy. (Translated into English, the full text of the letter can be read here, complete with helpful annotations.) The following day, shortly after posting the first copies of the letter to newspapers, he was ambushed by armed forces on a Buenos Aires street. His body has never been recovered.
links: publisher’s site | London Review of Books review from 2013




Futebol: The Brazilian Way of Life (2002, updated 2014)
Alex Bellos
Written while the author was the Guardian‘s Brazil correspondent, then updated for the World Cup in 2014, ‘Futebol’ is a collection of largely self-contained chapters linked by a common theme: football’s importance to Brazil’s cultural identity. That makes the book sound rather pompous, but it’s a great read, lively and insightful as it criss-crosses the country following the beautiful game. It’s safe to assume that Bellos’s observations and conclusions about Brazilian football are accurate – a few years after ‘Futebol’ was published, Bellos was invited to co-author Pelé’s autobiography.
links: author’s site | author’s archive at the Guardian

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon (2009)
David Grann
By 1925, British explorer Percy Fawcett was an old hand in South America, having made more than half a dozen successful expeditions into the unchartered wilds of Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. His next adventure was to be his grandest and most daring yet: a trek into the mysterious Amazonian jungle in search of a long-lost city and civilisation that Fawcett called ‘Z’, but which was more widely known as the mystic, mythic El Dorado. In April 1925, he set off into the jungle and was promptly never seen again. David Grann tells Fawcett’s tale in ‘The Lost City of Z’, then follows him into the wilds to try and find the city himself. The story is sufficiently extraordinary that it would probably survive retelling by far worse authors than Grann, one of our favourite New Yorker writers; there’s no better example of his skill than this thrilling article on the death of a Guatemalan lawyer. Even so, this really is a terrific book, alternately gripping and tremendous fun.
links: author’s site | author’s archive at the New Yorker

A Death in Brazil: A Book of Omissions (2003)
Peter Robb
The central character in ‘A Death in Brazil’ is probably PC Farias, who served as the treasurer to Brazilian president Fernando Collor in the early 1990s. Even by Brazilian standards, both Farias and Collor were spectacularly crooked; Collor eventually resigned from the presidency after being impeached for corruption. But Robb isn’t content with telling the tale of the duo’s rise and fall – ‘A Death in Brazil’ ends up as a tough, freewheeling and unapologetically selective history of the country, seen through the eyes of an author who’s never shy about putting himself at the centre of the action as he travels in search of his story. It’s not a straightforward book and hardly tells the whole tale of Brazil, but the writing is vital and often sensational.
links: Daily Telegraph interview from 2004




Desert Memories: Journeys Through the Chilean North (2004)
Ariel Dorfman
Like Mario Vargas Llosa and the late Gabriel Garcia Márquez, Ariel Dorfman is a classic example of the Latin American public intellectual, writers whose fame and influence in their home countries far transcend the world of literature. (Born in Buenos Aires but resident in Chile from the age of 12, Dorfman was forced into exile after the Pinochet military coup in 1973, and only returned to Chile in 1990. He’s now a US citizen with homes in North Carolina and Santiago.) In this slim travelogue through the Atacama Desert in northern Chile, Dorfman writes evocatively about the abandoned nitrate mines of Humberstone and Santa Laura, and about a friend of his who fell victim to the Pinochet regime. But despite some lovely, thoughtful passages, ‘Desert Memories’ feels hurried and slightly indulgent, something hardly helped by the fact that Dorfman seems constantly to be running out of time in almost every place he visits. It’s hard to avoid feeling that this could and probably should have been a better, richer book.
links: publisher’s site | The Progressive interview from 1998

Finding the Devil: Darkness, Light, and the Untold Story of the Chilean Mine Disaster (2012)
William Langewiesche
‘Finding the Devil’ is a short book – really, a long article masquerading as a short book – about a small story: the 2010 collapse of the San José Mine in northern Chile that left 33 miners trapped underground for 69 days. There’s little suspense when every reader knows how the story ends, but Langewiesche – a former pilot whose work Will first discovered in ‘Inside the Sky‘, a peerless collection of essays about flight – is a master at this sort of storytelling and threads everything together with great skill.
links: publisher’s site | author’s archive at Vanity Fair




Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw (2001)
Mark Bowden
The clue to the style of ‘Killing Pablo’ is in its subtitle. The author of ‘Black Hawk Down‘, Bowden fancies himself as a storyteller as much as a reporter, and his account of the search for Colombian drug baron Pablo Escobar is pitched as a thriller. The book requires both an appetite for movie-trailer clichés (‘Respectable Colombian society had picked a fight with the most powerful man in their country, and there would be hell to pay’) and a tolerance for occasional bursts of complete nonsense (‘Violence stalks Colombia like a biblical plague’); and Bowden’s decision to try and humanise his lead character by referring to him throughout as ‘Pablo’ – using standard reportorial practice, almost everybody else in the book is called by their surname – is a cheap trick. Still, Bowden clearly did an impressively vast amount of research for ‘Killing Pablo’, and it’s easy to see why the book is still regarded as the definitive account of this very modern morality play.
links: author’s archive at Vanity Fair | author’s archive at the Atlantic

Short Walks from Bogotá: Journeys in the New Colombia (2012)
Tom Feiling
Many of the books on this list are by writers who might be classed as insiders by their readers but outsiders by their subjects. Feiling is one such example: although he’s British, he lived and worked in Colombia for several years, and had already written a well-received book about the cocaine trade by the time he returned to Colombia a few years ago to take its pulse. Feiling’s knowledge of the country and his contacts within it helped him gain access to towns and regions that few journalists (and, it goes without saying, even fewer cycle tourists) dare to visit, even at a time when Colombia was and is safer than it’s been for two generations. ‘Short Walks from Bogotá’ was an invaluable primer as we travelled through present-day Colombia, and we found it hard to disagree with Feiling’s thoughts about the future of the country (essentially, optimistic but with profound reservations).
links: author’s site

News of a Kidnapping (1996)
Gabriel García Márquez (translated by Edith Grossman)
The title of ‘News of a Kidnapping’ reflects its author’s original ambition for the book: to tell the story of the abduction in 1990 of Maruja Pachón, the wife of a Colombian diplomat, by Medellín drugs lord Pablo Escobar (the subject of ‘Killing Pablo’, mentioned above). García Márquez eventually changed his mind, expanding his remit to cover several other kidnappings carried out by Escobar as he fought the Colombian government’s plans to extradite him to the US, while also trying to explain to a lay readership how Colombia had come to find itself in such an unholy mess in the first place. The book is stronger on the personal stories than on the bigger picture, but it’s an engrossing read all the same.
links: New York Times obituary from 2014




The Conquest of the Incas (1970)
John Hemming
Everything you ever wanted to know about the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Peru, plus a fair amount that you probably never wanted to know about the 16th-century Spanish conquest of Peru. This apparently definitive account of the fall of the Inca Empire is the kind of scholarly book that reviewers generally describe as ‘magisterial’, which we’ve long suspected is widely used as shorthand for ‘we didn’t finish it’. While the scope of ‘The Conquest of the Incas’ is vast and impressive, even more so when you discover that it was Hemming’s first book, it’s probably more than most casually interested travellers will either need or want to read.
links: publisher’s site

The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of the South American Wilderness (1961)
Peter Matthiessen
Author travels through unknown, often unchartered territory with a cast of charismatic ne’er-do-wells for company, describing what he sees and senses along the way. Summarised like that, ‘The Cloud Forest’ is the kind of first-person travel book that we – well, Will – usually detests. But the late Peter Matthiessen wasn’t like most travel writers, and his retelling of this journey through then-unvisited corners of South America – chiefly Peru, though other countries also feature – is wonderful. In both his non-fiction works and his novels, which include ‘At Play in the Fields of the Lord’, Matthiessen shared with fellow author and longtime friend James Salter a kind of truculent machismo. Like Salter, though, he was capable of casually capturing great beauty with a butterfly net. Published more than 50 years ago, decades before the internet helped shrink the world to a fraction of its previous size, ‘The Cloud Forest’ is the kind of book it would be impossible to write today.
links: publisher’s site | New York Times obituary from 2014

A Brief History of Peru (2010)
Fernando Rosas (translated by Christopher & Helen Ryan)
A Peruvian academic, Rosas credits himself as the ‘compiler’ rather than the author; in the introduction, he admits he’s done little more than collate other people’s research. ‘A Brief History of Peru’ isn’t really an enjoyable read, something we suspect has more than a little to do with a sluggish, joyless translation. Still, as one of only a handful of short histories covering this vast, complicated country, it’s a useful primer.
links: publisher’s site

Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru (2006) |
The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland (2003)
Hugh Thomson
In ‘Cochineal Red’, Hugh Thomson lambasts the Indiana Jones stereotype of the adventurer archaeologist, yet he kicks off the book with a dramatic account of his helicopter mission in pursuit of infra-red images of a site called Llactapata in the Peruvian Andes. The site was discovered by Hiram Bingham, a Yale man tweedily outfitted in his explorations by Abercrombie & Fitch who also ‘discovered’ Machu Picchu (ie was directed there by locals). But Llactapata was eventually lost again to cloud forest until Thomson himself rediscovered it as a gung-ho graduate-turned-explorer, sponsorship rather than scholarship being the job requirement.

The stories of this and other explorations of the Inca world are told by Thomson in ‘The White Rock’, written retrospectively but with all the idiocy and passion of Thomson’s younger self. ‘Cochineal Red’ is a more studied account of Peru’s ancient cultures, including the earlier Moche, Nasca and Chavín, and the more useful reference. Thomson is a writer and film-maker rather than an academic archaeologist, and so has no intellectual axe to grind. He demystifies Peru past and present in an unmistakably English style – self-deprecating, funny, intelligent and even-handed – and provides an engaging and affectionate introduction to the country. (Both ‘Cochineal Red’ and ‘The White Rock ‘are considerably better than ‘Tequila Oil‘, his thin and outdated account of his youthful travels through Mexico.)
links: author’s site



from New Orleans, LA, USA