Updated May 17th, 2020.
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There’s that feeling, pulsing through your entire body. Travel is on its way, but it isn’t here yet. Countdowns cover your walls, you incessantly google road trip quotes and you record everything on The Travel Channel (watching each episode multiple times).
Trust us when we say we completely understand. Whenever we travel to South America, the excitement builds up months beforehand and without a way of channeling it, our friends and families soon get sick of our one-track conversation.
One of the best fixes we have found is to read anything connected to the continent. In a quest to find the best books about South America, we’ve been perusing libraries, asking travellers in our Facebook community and spending all of our holiday money on Kindle downloads!
Thankfully, we’ve found a lot to keep us occupied! Here are our favourite books for anyone travelling to South America!
Best Fiction Books Set in South America
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
One Hundred Years of Solitude is written by one of Latin America’s most famous authors and the man who put Colombia on the map with his profound work of magical realism.
Set in the fictitious town of Macondo, which remains almost completely isolated from the outside world for over 100 years, this spellbinding novel illuminates the intangible, mysterious air that seeps into the skin of every South American traveller.
“One hundred years of solitude is my number one book ever.” – Katie.
The Bad Girl – Mario Vargas Llosa
In this novel, renowned Peruvian author Llosa has created a story about love in its most passionate, obsessive form. Originally meeting in Lima, Peru, Ricardo Somocurcio chases an alluring woman around the world for close to a lifetime.
From Paris to Japan, readers watch as the seductive power of a world-class bad girl dictates the course of his life.
Lost City Radio – Daniel Alarcon
A fast-paced novel that centres around the mysterious disappearance of a woman’s husband.
As Norma sits in her broadcasting studio reading out the names of the lost, she is caught off guard when a young boy from the jungle arrives unannounced. Carrying a link to the whereabouts of her husband, the two embark on an unlikely adventure.
House of the Spirits – Isabel Allende
A story of fortune telling, love, relationships and sexual intrigue. House of the Spirits spans multiple generations as a young woman pieces together her family history using her grandmother’s diary.
Set in 1970’s Chile, this book shines a fascinating light on the political turmoil that was raging within the country.
“House of the Spirits is an amazing book.” – Jake.
Galapagos – Kurt Vonnegut
Surely dreamt up during a massive acid trip, Kurt Vonnegut’s Galapagos makes for an interesting, if not farfetched read. Follow the fictional story of the last humans on earth as they evolve into seal like creatures on the Galapagos islands.
Reading about the world crumbling is a stark reminder of how fragile our human societies really are and is especially poignant in the current climate.
Love in The Time of Cholera -Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Another favourite amongst backpackers and literature fans alike, Love in the Time of Cholera is a story of romance, forbidden love and masking pain with sexual experiences.
Covering over 51 years from start to finish, this book is sure to bring a tear to the eye of any hopeless romantic on the road!
“Love in the Time of Cholera, written by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, (a famous Colombian writer) is an incredible read!!! – Julie.
Best South American Memoirs
The Motorcycle Diaries – Ernesto Che Guevara
In South America, adventure is the name of the game and no novel captures this energy better than the early journals of radical Che Guevara.
Join Guevara as he travels the length of South America, most of it on his trusty 1939 Norton 500 motorcycle. Deeply moved by the world around him, Che let his introspections guide his journey, getting lost in the many layers of his surroundings.
My Invented Country: A Nostalgic Journey Through Chile – Isabel Allende
Straddling two different worlds, Allende writes about her childhood in Chile and her adult life in America. Drawing on the spirit and resilience of her native Chile, she describes the traumatic event that prompted her to write and the aftermath that brought her to the United States.
Allende also writes about the terrorist attacks on September 11th, a reality-shaking her new home which forces her to confront her stratified sense of self.
Jungle – Yossi Ghinsberg
When four travellers embark on the adventure of a lifetime, they didn’t expect to get lost deep in the Bolivian jungle. Follow Yossi as he gets separated from the group and has to survive on his own in the harshest of environments. With each passing day, his hope evaporates and his body starts to give up the fight.
“Jungle by Yossi Ghinsberg, both inspired and frustrated me so much… which meant it occupied a lot of my time in thought. Also made into a film with Daniel Radcliffe (which I refuse to watch after having seen Swiss army man, that was where I drew the line on that guy).” – Flower.
The Candy Machine: How Cocaine Took Over the World – Tom Feiling
A brilliantly absorbing read which explains the political and social implications that cocaine has had on South American history.
Examine the cultivation, distribution and difficult censorship of the drug. The novel is a gripping point of journalism, revealing the complexities that run like electric currents under the feet of every wide eyed traveller.
Old Patagonian Express – Paul Theroux
From Boston to the Southern tip of Argentina, follow Paul Theroux’s epic train journey along the length of the Americas. This book does not glorify travel but shows us the monotony, discomfort and at times, downright agony that travel can produce. Yet you will still come away wanting to strap on your backpack and get out to explore the world!
Even Silence Has An End – Ingrid Betancourt
In 2002, Colombia was a scary place which is demonstrated perfectly in Ingrid Betancourt’s Even Silence Has An End. Ingrid was a politician determined to weed out corruption from her country, until she was kidnapped by FARC and held in chains for over six years. This harrowing account was written in her own words after her release in 2008.
Marching Powder – Rusty Young
Rusty Young spent close for four months living inside Bolivia’s most infamous prison, San Pedro, La Paz, in order to get to know the inmate Thomas McFadden. Famous amongst backpackers across the continent, McFadden showed tourists around the prison, sold them cocaine and even had them stay overnight in his cell.
Initially imprisoned for international drug smuggling, join Thomas as he learns how to navigate life in a Bolivian prison and see just what this journey cost him.
“Marching Powder is a great read!” – Patricia.
Touching the Void – Joe Simpson
Touching The Void documents the story of two best friends and a mountain climb that went terribly wrong. After believing his friend to have died climbing in the Andes, Simon cut the only rope that was keeping Joe from falling off the side of the mountain. The thing is, Joe wasn’t dead. And the fall didn’t kill him either.
This remarkable tale of survival, friendship and bravery has reverberated among the climbing community since it occurred over 25 years ago.
A much more lighthearted memoir, Miss-Adventures is a series of embarrassing, worrying and laugh out loud funny anecdotes from Amy’s travels across the continent.
Each chapter begins with a snippet of “helpful” advice dished out from friends and family before she began her travels. Amy dissects this advice and rates it on its accuracy. A must read for those who want an understanding on what travelling South America is like in this day and age!
Best History of South America Books
Giving voice to the stories that often lay dormant, Eduardo Galeano tells the story of Latin America’s exploitation. From the discrimination against its indigenous cultures to the pillage of its natural resources, Galeano has bravely chosen to illuminate the truth in Latin American history.
The Galapagos Affair – John E Treherne
South America is full of intriguing tales but none more so than the story of European settlers to the Galapagos Island of Floreana. Stories of nudist colonies, free love, dominating female figures, murder and unexplained disappearances make this one of the most fascinating accounts of the 21st century.
Silver, Sword and Stone describes over 1000 years of South American history through three running themes. Natural riches, violence and religion. The stories are woven together artistically and keep you gripped from start to finish. If you want a solid foundational knowledge of the continent before you arrive. This is the book for you.
And there we have it. Our top 18 books to dive into before travelling to South America! Have we missed a favourite of yours? If so, jump over to our Facebook community and let us know!