I rarely read up about a place in a travel book as preparation for a holiday, but I do love to read about travel. South America, as regular readers will know, is my favourite part of the world and so I thought I’d begin here as I share my best loved travel reads. If you’ve any recommendations for must-read books on any of the South American countries, then do share – I’d love to know. And watch out for more on this theme at a later date: my bookshelves are stuffed full of addictive page-turners not only for the rest of the Americas, but destinations spanning the rest of the world’s continents.
Inca Kola by Matthew Parris
If my house was burning down and I only had time to grab one travel book, it would be this one. I’ve read Matthew Parris’ absorbing account countless times and it’s a delight from the first page to the very last. From his introduction to Limeño traffic to accounts of hostile bandits and remote mountain villages, this is a fabulous insight into how Peru used to be. In the opening chapter, Parris writes:
“Go to any scrapyard in Europe and command the wrecks to rise like Lazarus from the slab: you will have launched a fleet of the finest and newest Lima has to offer!”
I’m reminded of my first visit, in 1995, when my friend announced that, in order to find a cheap ride, you had to flag down the least roadworthy taxi that passed. The dilapidated Beetle that would take me back to airport at the end of that trip had as many rusted holes as it did square inches of metal and the doors were held in place by ordinary kitchen string. That we made it at all was a miracle, but it was indeed cheap.
Eight Feet in the Andes by Dervla Murphy
Few mothers would take their nine year old daughter on a long distance Andean trek with only a mule as transport, but then few people would look to Dervla Murphy for parenting advice. What results is a wonderful adventure and a lesson to everyone that you should never make excuses to avoid fulfilling your needs, especially where travel is concerned. I’ve never had children, but I like to think that had I done so, he or she would have accompanied me on my travels.
Often, Dervla’s experiences are far from mine, but I did identify with this:
“She…provided two litres of watery chicha fascinatingly diversified by scraps of floating vegetation. (“Better than insects” commented Rachel, peering into my glass.)”
I only tried chicha once, this home-fermented maize beer not to my taste. Rumours that those who made it spat their own saliva into it didn’t help to convince me otherwise.
Travels in a Thin Country by Sara Wheeler
Peru’s neighbour Chile is the subject of this well-written and engaging work. The author spent six months travelling in the country and writes as confidently as you’d expect. Some of my favourite parts of the book are her interactions with those she meets, including this episode in the Torres del Paine National Park:
“I asked if they could sum up the difference between Chilean Patagonia and Argentinian Patagonia in one sentence. “Absolutely none at all except the Chilean bit has mountains,” said the Argentinian. “Quite,” said Fabien (her Chilean guide) and that was that.”
That brief exchange sums up the difference in temperament between the chatty Argentinians and the more reserved Chileans. And in terms of comparing scenery, I can report that both are spectacular and equally beautiful.
The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux
While I’m not disputing that Paul Theroux is a great travel writer, he’s a grumpy old man much of the time and as a consequence, I often find his work doesn’t quite hit the spot. This is an exception and the combination of trains and the Americas is a happy combination as far as I’m concerned.
However, towards the end of the book, Theroux reverts to type as he writes about La Boca, a colourful working class neighbourhood of Buenos Aires:
“I roamed the city on my own. It now depressed me. It was partly the effect of La Boca, the Italian district near the harbour… some of the squalor was affectation, the rest was real dirt.”
He was writing in the late 1970s. I visited three decades later and the vibrant colours and equally colourful characters who inhabited the place made it one of the areas I remember most fondly. But who am I to disagree?
Bad Times in Buenos Aires by Miranda France
Somehow Miranda France manages to point out Buenos Aires’ flaws with more charm and seems to be affectionately ribbing her adopted home rather than moaning about it. This, I love:
“There was a word I kept hearing: bronca. An Italo-Spanish fusion, like most Argentines themselves, the word implied a fury so dangerously contained as to end in ulcers. People felt bronca when they waited for an hour to be served at a bank, and then the service was bad because the cashiers all had bronca too. Bronca crackled down the crossed telephone lines and stalked the checkout queues in supermarkets with hopeful names like Hawaii and Disco.”
Ah, Buenos Aires, what a screwed up and yet utterly captivating place! See you next year, I can’t wait!