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5 Great Armchair Journeys to South America

Machu Picchu, Peru, South AmericaHere’s an odd confession from a travel writer: sometimes I enjoy the run up to a trip more than I enjoy the trip itself.  Sounds crazy, no?  I think it is the joy of researching and reading around the destination.  Once I’ve got my travel dates in the diary, I head straight to my local library, where I indulge in a lovely long stroll through the travel books section.  In my library, happily this includes both the essential new guidebooks and the older, more battered leather-bound accounts of travel from bygone eras.  I find I can’t resist the latter: I love tales of travelers like Patrick Leigh Fermor or Gertrude Bell, who packed their clothing in leather suitcases, included their black tie for formal dinners in the Hindu Kush, and wrote their travelogues with fountain pens on vellum-bound books, rather than documenting their progress on Instagram. 

South American travelogues and novels offer up some of the most evocative travel writing I know, and no trip to Costa Rica, Easter Island, Cuba, or Peru should be undertaken without at least flicking through some of the greats.  Here are a few my librarian friends and I believe are worthy of suitcase room (or Kindle bandwidth!) 

1.  In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin
The gold standard of the genre, In Patagonia may well be master storyteller Chatwin’s greatest achievement, as he travels from Rio Negro to Ushuaia in a memorable journey, which has captivated readers and galvanized travelers ever since.  

2.  The Motorcycle Diaries: A Journey around South America by Ernesto Che Guevara 
The future iconic poster-boy for Cuba’s Marxist regime takes off around South America with one friend and a very rickety motorcycle.  With 20/20 historical hindsight, we get the political significance of his journey: this is privileged Che acquainting himself with poverty and the legacies of colonial South America.  It is a testimony to the writing, however, that this in no way gets in the way of this rollicking tale of youthful antics and a stunning portrait of a continent in transition.

3.  Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabríel Garcia Márquez
This tale of unrequited love sweeps us along on a delightful - if highly symbolic - journey via the Rio Magdalena through South America.  Garcia Márquez’s writing plunges us into the world of nineteenth century Colombia, and his evocative and sensual descriptions of the landscape will whet your appetite for your own departure.

4.  The Old Patagonia Express by Paul Theroux
For Paul Theroux, the journey is what matters, not the destination, but how vividly he paints the places he visits as he makes his way by train through Central and South American.  While his attitude is at times withering and his assessment of South America in the 1970s somewhat disparaging, he nevertheless gives us a wonderful sense of the scale, history, and emotion of the continent.  

5.  Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time by Mark Adams
Don’t miss this hilarious account of one writer’s attempt to get to the top (and to the bottom) of Machu Picchu.  Turn Right at Machu Picchu is part travelogue, part sidesplittingly funny narrative non-fiction account, and part historical investigation as Adams travels to the Peruvian ruins on the trail of Hiram Bingham III, who first discovered the site in 1911.  As Adams - a self-confessed timid traveler - searches for clues as to the true purpose of Machu Picchu, he awakens his own hilarious inner adventurer, and we are the richer for it.  

Posted: 10/26/2015 4:07:50 PM by Alexander + Roberts