The best books on Latin America – our choice

by Paul Cardwell on August 27, 2011

Here is our choice, inevitably 100% personal:-

Top Latin American books

Best Latin America book America Latina by Fabienne Rousso-Lenoir
If I had to choose just one book, this would be it. Illustrated with quotes and beautiful images, it brings out the wonder and delight of what makes Latin America unique, in prose that is marvellous to read.
Best Latin America book The Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Diaz
OK, it’s 500 years old, but this first-hand account by a conquistador who participated with Cortes in the conquest of the Aztecs reads like a thriller. Not easy to put down, and some great descriptions such as the colourful market of Tenochtitlan.
Best Latin America book The Rivers Ran East by Leonard Clark
Clark, a US Intelligence colonel, searches for the 7 Cities of Cibola and Inca gold after WWII. This involves setting foot in the Peruvian Amazon, then uncharted and dangerous territory inhabited by untamed tribes. At times hard to believe, this is definitely a thriller, impossible to put down. I’ve re-read 3 times now! The Amazon is safer nowadays – or is it??
Top Latin America books Full Circle by Luis Sepulveda
Although billed as a South American journey by this Chilean writer, it mainly covers trips through Patagonia and Ecuador. It is literally a series of unusual and amusing travel anecdotes, warmly written and giving an excellent taste of each place and Latin America as a whole.
Top Latin America books In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
Deservedly a classic, and in my mind how travel books can best bring out both the enjoyment of travel and the discovery of places and people. Chatwin admirably brings alive the characters and history of Patagonia, and really does inspire you to leave the armchair for the real thing.
Top Latin America books The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto Che Guevara
Another classic, by a then-unknown Argentine medical student who (perhaps) should have stayed put in his armchair. The book, a diary of the epic bike trip he and a fellow student made from Argentina to Venezuela, is as enjoyable as the recent film and provides a panoramic view of life of people as they scam and hustle hospitality along their route.
Savage – Life and Times of Jemmy Button by Nick Hazlewood
The best version I’ve read about the Jemmy Button episode; a gripping and ultimately bewildering story about the kidnapping of 4 Fuegian natives by the captain of the Beagle, their ‘education’ in England, and the tragic and unexpected events after they returned to Tierra del Fuego.
Great Latin American book Savages by Joe Kane
Here the savages refer to the Huaorani tribe in Ecuador as described by Kane who lived with them and highlights their lifestyle and running battle against petroleum companies in the Ecuadorian Amazon. A battle against forces that, as elsewhere, can only be slowed, not stopped.
Great Latin American book Lost City of Z by David Grann
This recounts the story of Colonel Fawcett, who along with his son and a friend disappeared forever in the 1920s while seeking a lost city in the Amazon. Well-researched, it is set in parallel with the author’s own attempt to revisit the expedition route. Fawcett just escaped death on an earlier expedition, memorably saying “The exit from Hell is always difficult”.
Great Latin American book The Uttermost Part of the Earth by Lucas Bridges
This is a classic of Latin America and Tierra del Fuego. Bridges, son of one of the first missionaries who started the settlement of Ushuaia around 1870, recounts the settlement’s early days and his life in the region with the natives. A fascinating but rather sad book, as the natives already were disappearing then thanks to illness and conflict with new settlers.

 

Few of these relate to the whole of Latin America, but common to all is that they deal with one facet or another of what is so fascinating about the continent. None are guide books, yet all give a glimpse of the real Latin America that is not the normal remit of such books. These are books we have particularly enjoyed, so this excludes books like The Old Patagonian Express by Paul Theroux. This is the type of travel book this reviewer dislikes, simply because Theroux’s clinical coldness and cynicism removes all sense of wonder about travelling. But more anon – perhaps in a separate blog comparing it with In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin?

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