Whether your planning your trip, on a trip, or simply want to travel through the words of a page, these novels will help. I have listed them in a geological order from the northern most to the southern most part of my trip. Part review, part summary, and part personal opinion, I hope these stories fill you with as much wonder, inspiration, and a sense of adventure as they did for me.
Panama by Carlos Miller
This book is the Shantaram of Central America—a foreigner lands in a country only to become involved in top-level government coups and with every kind of bad guy that existed in 1989 Panama, when Manuel Noriega ruled the country in a military dictatorship. It’s a complicated, fast-paced pulse-racer that also provides an insightful look into Panama’s past. Backwards glances provide tableaus of Henry Morgan’s 1714 raid of the Spanish, the Spanish conquest itself, and the visit of Theodore Roosevelt at the Panama Canal during construction in 1906. It’s an enthralling piece of historical fiction to read while in the same country that—in reality—has come a long way in a short amount of time.
River of Doubt by Candice Millard
The perfect book to make you appreciate your nice, warm, dry hostel bed...or to inspire you go off the “Gringo Path” for the thrill of the unknown. This non-fiction story follows Teddy Roosevelt as he travels to South America after losing re-election for a third term. What was supposed to be a simple media tour to Argentina turns into a dangerous and mysterious adventure down an unchartered river through the Amazon. Nicknamed “The River of Doubt”, the winding nature of the water, elusive tribes that live off of it, and the deadly animals are nothing compared to the mysteriously opaque color of the formidable river itself. I started my summer reading all about President Roosevelt's early life, which in part inspired my South American trip. This book ended my journey with a new appreciation for the outdoors, for taking honor and pride in what you do, and for the inspiration to pursue the unknown.
The Robber of Memories: A River Journey Through Colombia by Michael Jacobs
While this book was not my favorite for its prose, the author is clearly and genuinely in love with the Magdalena River for it’s history, literary weight, flora, and fauna. It may infect you with a love of Colombia’s largest river—and the country—as well. Taking place in the modern day, it’s also a reminder of the turmoil happening just outside your hotel for the locals, the government, and the FARC itself. As you create memories of your personal trip, Jacobs questions memory itself as he draws parallels between his elder parent’s loss of memory with the mystical river that goes through Colombia.
Love in the Time of Cholera and 100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
These two classics were inspired by many places in Colombia, whose cities may jump off the page as you realize where it is and what it looks like today. Love in the Time of Cholera is a classic read, and it's more grounded in the country's character and history. 100 Years of Solitude, on the other hand, contains magical realism that reflects back onto the country itself. In Cartagena, a colorful seaside city, Gabriel Garcia Marquez is celebrated and idolized. It was within these streets that a friend of the author commented that Cartagena was so absurdly beautiful that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was less of a creative writer and more of a notary. The books will bring this magical world to life as you enjoy a meal over-looking ancient stone walls towards an ocean sunset.
Killing Pablo:The Hunt for the World’s Greatest Outlaw by Mark Bowden
While this is not the most colorfully descriptive book, the actual logistics of catching Pablo Escobar are so mind-boggling that I didn’t mind a literal description at all. The bribery, drugs, experimentation with technology, outrageous ambitions, and ridiculous amount of money involved in this story make it absolutely necessary to tell everyone else in your dorm room what you just read. Most of the action takes place in Medellin, which today is a vibrant, beautiful city that still holds a dark history over its head. While the narrative journalism does leave out what I can only assume to be some stark imagery of guns, mansions, prostitute and death, the author introduces characters that you will admire and loathe even before your Netflix Narcos binge.
The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
This book is full of fabulous adventure—jumping, running, shooting, and a fascination with the unknown that’s perfect as you trek through a jungle that indigenous people still to this day call home. At the beginning of the novel, a young journalist is friend-zoned by his love interest because he’s “too safe”, so he volunteers for an expedition to a place in South America where one kooky scientist claims he has seen dinosaurs. Not only is it entertaining for its physical challenges and scientific wonder—it is still very funny, despite its being published at the turn of the century. To instill laughter and a sense of wonder, pick up this book.
The Journey of Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca by Alvar Nunez Cabeza de Vaca
This autobiographical work, written in the 16th century by the Spanish explorer himself, actually takes place in what is now Mexico and the land surrounding the Gulf. Back then, however, it was populated with Indians who faced harsh winters, warfare, beautiful springs and an open countryside. This explorer, shipwrecked numerous times and near death and starvation countless others, spends years with Native Americans. He learns their hunting techniques, customs, languages, and ways of life in a surprisingly sensitive and nuanced way (for the 1500’s). While the language is a bit outdated, (and his outdated ideology cringe-worthy at times), this verifiably true story is amazing to contemplate—and it provides the perfect context for the Spanish invasion of South America as you travel through places named after "great" explorers and realize the difficult history entrenched in every city.
Machu Picchu: The History and Mystery of the Incan City by Jesse Harasta
This quick read was the perfect book to have as I ascended through Machu Picchu’s ancient grounds. Between the personal biases that might exist in tour guides, the occassional language barrier, and a difficult accent it can be difficult to discern any important information off of a guide about the buildings you are looking at. Machu Picchu itself is not labeled at all, and can quickly turn into a large field of rocks to the uneducated tourist. This book is quick, to the point, and scientifically realistic about what Machu Picchu is, was, and can be. I highly recommend taking this on your trek to fully understand the beauty and mystery that this world wonder possesses.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu by Mark Adams
Fellow traveler Mark Adams creates hilarious and simultaneously interesting travelogues as he camps his way through Peru's ancient grounds. This is the perfect companion during your trek—if you have any energy left at the end of the day. Every tour guide you have in Peru will vilify Hiram Bingham, the "discoverer of Machu Picchu" who is responsible for excavating many of the artifacts he found back to the United States in 1911. This book provides a refreshing look at what actually happened with the appropriate context of time and history. I loved this book for it's wit, perspective, and sense of adventure.
War by Candlelight by Daniel Alarcon
I don’t normally fall for short story fiction, but this novel took me through Lima, Peru to New York City and back again with beautiful prose and intriguing story lines. Hardships, both national and internal are faced not with outstanding moral character or weakness, but a very real sense of both. It’s a book that proves that migrants, immigrants, those who leave their old selves behind, or even cities that evolve aren’t wrong or right. It's something to contemplate.
The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto "Che" Guavara
Obviously. Although I did have to tell one ambitious backpacker who was “inspired” by the book to ride his motorbike through all of Central and South America that the motorcycle of the novel is in fact lost in the first few chapters—Che Guavara and his pal Alberto actually hitchhike for most of the book in utter poverty by boat, mule, plane, or whatever else is available. Still, this is a quick, easy read that is not only beautifully written, but it is also a testament to how the continent of South America has changed since Che's initial trip in the 1950’s. Without knowing much about the book, I started reading it in Santiago and actually followed the same trail the men did, through northern Chile to Arequipa, Peru and all the way to Machhu Picchu! As the poetic author explains customs and landscapes, look out the bus window. You will realize this is as close to time travel as you can get.