Backpacking Latin America is a life-changing, wonderful, challenging, and deeply memorable experience at any age and budget. I did this several times – a solo trip at 25, with a friend at 26, with my then-boyfriend at 29, and with my now-fiancé at 31. The books I read whilst travelling are always linked in my memory to where I was and what I was doing at that time. The emotions of the book become enlaced with the new experiences gained.
There are some books that can lift a veil to the region you are standing in. Other books are a companion that have joined you for the ride, as you grow together through adversity, hilarity, and usually both together.
Here are the books I found most evocative of Latin American lives and places, both real and imagined. Any of the books below is worth reading if you are planning a trip to Latin America or are currently travelling, and especially if you have returned home but with a piece of your heart left behind!
The Country Under My Skin: a Memoir of Love and War by Giaconda Belli
This is the memoir of Nicaraguan aristocrat turned revolutionary, Giaconda Belli. Giaconda gives up every privilege she was born with and stakes her life on her fight for the future of her country. Her strength within a mad, overturned world feels like a kind of real-life sequel to In the House of the Spirits (below). Especially if you are a solo female traveller, let Giaconda’s beauty and audacity travel with you.
Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
This is a beautiful love story about one man who loves one woman for his whole life, and one of my favourite books of all time. There are some books that evoke a sense of place so deeply that you feel like you are living in the heady, magical world they create. I was in the tropical colonial town of Love in the Time of Cholera whilst I read it, in London.
It is much shorter than One Hundred Years of Solitude, though set in the same kind of Macondo-like magical realist world. If you read only one novel by Marquez, make it this one.
God’s Middle Finger: Into the Lawless Heart of the Sierra Madre by Richard Grant (Published in the UK as Bandit Roads: Into the Lawless Heart of Mexico)
God’s Middle Finger felt like a un-showered and possibly high friend tagging along with his own backpack in tow, here just for the fun of it. I love Richard’s attitude and cojones. If The Country Under My Skin is the ultimate book for a solo female backpacker, this is probably the ultimate male backpacker book (though women will find loads to enjoy too – I did!). Richard is a a certain type of backpacker – a man in a man’s world. His adventures would simply not be possible for a woman, as any female reader could tell you. He meets larger than life characters, ranging from outlaws to drug traffickers and every brand of dodgy male in between. He does not sugarcoat the vile misogyny he encounters in seemingly every conversation, nor the sickeningly high rates of sexual assault and rape in the Sierra Madre. To be frank, this book does not exactly promote northern Mexico as a travel destination – but its too much fun to resist. Just remember that Mexico isn’t really a dangerous place for foreigners – unless you seek trouble out (like Richard does) – and enjoy the ride.
I, Rigoberta Manchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala by Rigoberta Menchu with Elizabeth Burgos
Reading I, Rigoberta Menchu was a highlight of my time in the Mayan homelands. If you are traveling around central America, it is a must-read. It is simply and tenderly told, in the voice of a young Rigoberta describing her family’s way of life to anthropologist Elizabeth Burgos. The amount of poverty and suffering that Rigoberta’s community was forced to endure is almost unfathomable.
Modern day poverty is man-made. For Rigoberta’s community, it was caused by landowners that worked labourers as debt-bonded serfs, propped up by a violent Government and a social class system that crushes indigenous Mayans as expendable. Her story brought worldwide attention to the plight of indigenous Mayans and Rigoberta won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work advocating for indigenous rights.
In the House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
This novel begins in a magical realist old South American town, rich with colonial estates, great loves, and great poverty and wealth. I would rank it alongside One Hundred Years of Solitude and East of Eden as a chronicle of a family across generations. As the story unfolds, the timeline reaches the twentieth century and violent revolution descends on the family.
The story is a song of Chile. Or it could have been any other democratically elected Latin American Government overthrown by a US-sponsored military coup – there are many to choose from. For a non-fiction insight, I recommend The Open Veins of Latin America by Eduardo Galeano.
Would you add any books to this list? Have you read any of the above? Share your thoughts below.