Hugh Thomson’s top 10 South American journeys

From Waugh to Lawrence, writer after writer has come to the continent looking for adventure. The author of The White Rock picks out the best

Rodrigo De la Serna and Gael García Bernal in the film version of The Motorcycle Diaries

Rodrigo De la Serna and Gael García Bernal in the film version of The Motorcycle Diaries.

Writer and film-maker Hugh Thomson has led numerous research expeditions to Peru. The books which have resulted include The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland, and Cochineal Red: Travels Through Ancient Peru. His latest book, Tequila Oil, is an account of a wild and dangerous adventure through Mexico’s past and present.

The book that probably makes most people want to go to South America is Hergé’s Tintin: Prisoners of the Sun (1949) with its waterfalls, pre-Columbian civilisation and spitting llamas. Although closely following on are Hiram Bingham’s Lost City of the Incas (1948) with its romantic description of the discovery of Machu Picchu, and Conan Doyle’s enticing description of The Lost World (1912).

It’s a continent that has always drawn travellers with a literary fascination. The conquistadors would never have left Spain for the New World if their heads had not been full of wild romances, of tales of chivalry and confrontation with a strange enemy, however different their actual confrontation with the Aztecs and Incas turned out to be.

I chose to go to Peru for my earlier books, and now Mexico, because of the stories I read about those places, even if those stories were by long dead writers and painted a picture barely recognisable from the countries I travelled through.

As Evelyn Waugh points out in his book on Mexico, it is only in the disjunction between what we expect and what we find that the experience of a foreign land is forged.

1. The Motorcycle Diaries, A Journey Around South America by Ernesto Che Guevara
Che leaves his girlfriend, studies and Argentina behind to take off with a fellow medical student, Alberto Granado, on a freewheeling and delightfully irresponsible tour of the continent. With hardly any money, they beg meals off fellow doctors in the countries along their way, most of whom amiably comply. Che admits that the only difference between the clothes they wear at night and during the day is that they take their shoes off in bed. They fall off the bike a great deal, not least because bits kept falling off the bike. The inspiration for Walter Salles’s thoughtful film, but with much that was of necessity left out.

2. Mad White Giant by Benedict Allen

The punk-rock classic of travel writing , a raw, visceral account of blundering across the Amazon by someone who was totally unprepared for the jungle: when published, it blew away the old established style of assured British travellers observing the world from under Panama hats.

3. Tristes Tropiques by Claude Lévi-Strauss

Magnificent, tendentious, infuriating and deeply French. Despite the famous opening (“I hate travellers and explorers”), the book is one long and intense meditation on the need for both, with terrific stories about his expeditions into the interior of Brazil in the 30s and nights spent sleeping with tribes in the ashes of their fires. Unjustly neglected by the British as being something to do with structuralism – it’s currently out of print – this is surely one of the greatest of all 20th-century travel books – yet out of print.

4. Travels with a Circus by Katie Hickman

An entrancing tale of an English girl who runs away to join a Mexican circus (called Bell’s Circus after the whisky), which manages to get under the tattooed skin of the country. Katie Hickman becomes “La Gringa Estrella”, a performer in her own right on the elephants. Originally published as A Trip to the Light Fantastic.

5. Robbery Under Law: The Mexican Object-Lesson by Evelyn Waugh

Ignore the cumbersome title and doubtful provenance (Waugh only wrote the book because he was commissioned to do so by the Pearson family, whose British oilfields had been expropriated by the Mexicans). This contains some of his very best travel writing; the casual cruelty and honesty of Mexico both appealed to Waugh and appalled him: “The fascination of Mexico lies in the stimulus it gives to the imagination.”

6. Love in the Time of Cholera by Gabriel García Márquez

No novelist since Proust has had a more acute sense of smell than Márquez. Penguin should reissue his books with sprayed strips of paper interspersed between the leaves. The hot still air of his un-named Caribbean port , the “city of the Viceroys”, is enveloped by “the tender breath of human shit, warm and sad”, against which his protagonists wear imported cologne from Farina Gegenuber and the houses are filled with pots of heliotrope to perfume the dusk. The steamboat journey that the finally reunited lovers make into the interior of Colombia is one of literature’s most compelling.

7. Mornings in Mexico by DH Lawrence

This is far better than the plain daft novel he also wrote in Mexico, The Plumed Serpent, with its bad-Ken-Russell-movie scenes of chanting and theatrics to revive the pre-Columbian way of life. There are excellent descriptive passages here where Lawrence confines himself to simple observation of life around the country and he has a natural empathy for the campesino.

8. In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

As his editor Susannah Clapp revealed, the original MS for this was four times the length. One can only admire the boldness with which it was pared down to the elegant and elliptical published version, with its tales of Butch Cassidy and the Welsh in Argentina. Paul Theroux famously complained that Chatwin never explained how he got from one place to another – which is actually the book’s great strength.

9. The Lawless Roads by Graham Greene

“How I loathed Mexico,” complains Greene in this travel book, the prelude to his infinitely superior novel The Power and the Glory, which covers much the same ground. He had much anticipated the journey, but found the reality a sad disappointment, talking of his “pathological hatred” for the country, with its persecuted priests and mules that left ticks in his buttocks. It can’t have helped that he didn’t speak more than a few words of Spanish. But amid the misanthropy are some sharp observations.

10. Keep the River on Your Right by Tobias Schneebaum

Schneebaum’s description of how he had lived for eight years with a Peruvian jungle tribe called the Akarama, participating in homosexual and cannibal rites, caused a sensation on publication. It blew away any last vestige of romantic mysticism about the lifestyle of such Amazonian tribes and hit the 1969 zeitgeist spot on. A generation reared on the ethos of the 60s could immediately see both the appeal and the challenge: it was one thing to survive the tribal excesses of Woodstock or Monterey, but in the jungle the drugs were tougher, the nakedness perpetual and you could no longer spend weekends back with your parents to rest up.


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