Images of spectacular landscapes, sunny beaches and colorful markets wow us quickly, but books give us a deep introduction to countries we’ve yet to explore. It’s a way to dip your toe into a destination before stepping on a plane, to learn about foreign cultures, sounds and aromas from someone else, whose lens provides insight into what you might see and experience when you travel to a destination. If you include the Caribbean, Latin America spans 33 separate countries. It has enchanted travelers and adventurers for centuries and is the home to both good and bad extremes, from extraordinary novelists, poets and journalists and extraordinary scenery to corrupt regimes and a complicated history of drug trafficking. From Bruce Chatwin’s epic crawl across vast Patagonian landscapes and Che Guevara’s politically-charged, two-wheeled journey in The Motorcycle Diaries to the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, Isabel Allende’s tale of Chilean political history and an account of life inside one of Bolivia’s most notorious prisons, here are five books that will introduce you to this beguiling part of the world. Intrigued by it all? Book a trip to explore it yourself.
In Patagonia – Bruce Chatwin
One of the most famous travelogues of all time, Bruce Chatwin’s obsession and passion for Patagonia’s landscapes, people and culture as seen from the eyes of a renegade backpacker has inspired travelers for years. It begins where many other trips to Patagonia start—at home, with a fascination of this faraway land and take you on a trip across Chilean and Argentinian Patagonia where Chatwin converses with local shepherds and thick-skinned ranchers about their lifestyles and philosophies, learns about mystical legends from indigenous tribes and discovers mind-bending glaciers while traveling the long, endless roads of seductive Patagonian landscape.
One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel García Márquez
This classic tome is by one of Latin’s America’s most prominent authors who popularized the magical realism, a genre loosely defined as a form of narrative fiction that fuses doses of magic, fables and allegory with a realistic, sometimes mundane, view of the world with. The book traces the life and multigenerational stories of a Colombian family, and many of its themes mirror the history of European settlement in Latin America as well as the role of family and patriarchy in Colombian culture.
The Motorcycle Diaries – Che Guevara
This travel memoir follows young Che Guevara and his best friend and sidekick Alberto Granada on their famous motorcycle trip across South America in the 1950s. They traverse the continent from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Chile’s Atacama Desert to the Amazon River Basin, including stops in Argentina, Chile, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela. This tome is a true coming-of-age story that traces Che’s emotional journey as he sees the world, explores foreign cultures develops political ideologies that ultimately become the backbone of his Marxist ideologies.
My Invented Country – Isabelle Allende
Chilean author Isabel Allende is more often known for her successful novels like Zorro and The House of the Spirits, but for an in-depth dive into Chilean political and cultural history, this nonfiction work is an engaging and informative window into life in Chile before, during and after the Pinochet dictatorship. The story explores the author’s experiences at home with her Chilean family in Santiago and the countryside as they discuss politics, life, culture and identity during a complicated and restless time in Chile’s history, and traces her decision to leave the country and ultimately settle in the US.
The Lawless Roads – Graham Greene
Based on the writer’s trip to Mexico in 1938 to cover the effects of Mexican President Calles’ brutal repression of the church, this travelogue reflects the authors observations of Mexican culture and religion with the backdrop of the country’s motley assortment of characters diverse terrain during a turbulent time.
Marching Powder – Rusty Young
This tomb is the antithesis of a travel memoir, but the story and reality is a fascinating account of life inside the world’s most notorious jails: San Pedro prison in La Paz Bolivia. Situated smack the center of the metropolis, the jail is most of a city within a city, where a hierarchical community of inmates buy their own cells, run businesses for profit and live together with their families and children surrounded by extreme violent. This book tells the story of British drug dealer Thomas McFadden who is thrown into the jail after attempting to smuggle cocaine out of Bolivia makes a living by running tours of the prison for tourists, including backpacker Rusty Young who ends up spending several months voluntarily living inside the jail and writing about Thomas and the prison as a whole.