For a general primer on South America, Paul Theroux's Old Patagonian Express: By Train Through the Americas provides a beautifully written account of his travels throughout the continent. Bruce Chatwin's In Patagonia offers an alternate take on the Patagonia region covered in the Theroux work.
If you're interested in a scholarly read, pick up John Charles Chasteen's Born in Blood and Fire: A Concise History of Latin America. The book only begins with the arrival of the Europeans in the Americas, but it gives a good overview of the diverse regions of Latin America.
Every traveler to Latin America should read Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire This astonishing book tells the history of the Americas via poetic prose and a unique style that redefines the form, function, and potential of nonfiction history.
If you'd like a visual overview of South America, The Motorcycle Diaries, which chronicles a road trip taken by a young Che Guevara, is a good bet.
Argentina -- For a review of the country's history, try Nicolas Shumway's The Invention of Argentina. Argentine historians Jorge B. Rivera and José Gobello are instrumental in helping demystify modern Argentina. Their books are difficult to find in English; if you read Spanish, try Gobello's Crónica General del Tango. Jorgelina Corbatta offers the best account of Argentina's "dirty war" under the military dictatorship from 1976 to 1983 in Narrativas de la Guerra Sucia en Argentina.
Jorge Luis Borges sits at the top of Argentine fiction writers; read Collected Fictions for an overview of his work. Manuel Puig's Kiss of the Spider Woman and Julio Cortázar's The Winners are good picks for more contemporary Argentine writing.
Maria Luisa Bemberg is probably the most famous of late-20th-century Argentine filmmakers and specialized in period dramas; she's known for Camila and Miss Mary. The Official Story, by Luis Puenzo, and The Night of the Pencils, by Hector Olivera, are two powerful dramas about the military dictatorship. Man Facing Southeast and The Dark Side of the Heart are two compelling movies by Eliseo Subiela. The Italian neorealist style of filmmaking is a strong influence in Argentine cinema, and nowhere is it more evident than in the movies of Pablo Trapero, such as Crane World and El Bonarense. Blessed by Fire, by Tristan Bauer, is possibly one of the best movies made about the Falklands War, while grifter movie Nine Queens, by Fabian Bielinsky, is so good that it was remade in Hollywood.
Unfortunately, Hollywood's take on Argentina is not so illustrious. (The less said about Alan Parker's Evita, the better). The best foreign movies about Argentina are those that make the setting speak for itself -- two great examples of this are Happy Together, by Wong Kar Wai, and Tango, by Carlos Saura.
Of course, tango will always be associated with Argentina, but the country has lots more to offer music lovers. Rock nacional is the mainstream take on western pop, and quarteto and folklorico is what gets the locals dancing in the provinces, usually with the aid of a guitar, violin, and occasional synthesizer.
Bolivia -- The Fat Man from La Paz, edited by Rosario Santos, is a collection of contemporary short stories by Bolivian writers. The stories provide readers with a vivid picture of life in Bolivia. Che Guevara spent his last days on the run in Bolivia. There are several books detailing his journey. One of the best accounts is the Complete Bolivian Diaries of Che Guevara and Other Captured Documents by Ernesto Guevara and Daniel James.
Herbert S. Klein's Bolivia: The Evolution of a Multi-Ethnic Society does an excellent job of delving into the government, economics, and history of Bolivia. Klein also touches on art, architecture, and societal relations. For more information about the sophisticated pre-Inca Tiwanaku culture, your best bet is Alan L. Kolata's The Tiwanku: Portrait of an Andean Civilization.
For insight into the hard-knock mining life in the mines of Potosí, the documentary The Devil's Miner follows a 14-year-old boy as he works long hours to support his family in nothing less than appalling conditions.
The music of Bolivia's Aymara and Quechua Indians defines the country's sound, and dozens of small folk groups have had international success in North America and western Europe, such as Grupo Aymara, Los Jairas, and Bolivia Manta. Quechua singer Luzmila Carpio's records Kuntur Mallku and Arawi have also earned international praise.
Brazil -- There is no single good general history covering Brazil from 1500 to the present. Colonial Brazil, edited by Leslie Bethell, is a scholarly but readable account of Brazil under the Portuguese, while Peter Flynn's Brazil: A Political Analysis covers political history from the birth of the first republic to the close of the second dictatorship. For a fascinating introduction to an entire range of topics in Brazil, pick up the excellent anthology Travelers' Tales: Brazil, edited by Annette Haddad and Scott Doggett. Tristes Tropiques is a classic work of travel writing by the great French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss.
Until he passed away in 2001, Bahian novelist Jorge Amado was considered a serious candidate for the Nobel Prize. His greatest novels include Dona Flor and Her Two Husbands and Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon. In a previous generation, Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis wrote fiercely ironic novels and short stories, many set in Rio towards the end of the 19th century. His works available in English include The Epitaph of a Small Winner. Brazil's greatest social realist is Graciliano Ramos. His masterpiece Barren Lives is considered one of Brazil's finest novels.
Brazil has a long and impressive history of filmmaking, including a number of films by directors who have moved back and forth between Brazil and Hollywood. Hector Babenco is best known in Brazil for Carandiru, his excellent film about life in a São Paulo maximum security prison. North American audiences are more likely to have seen his work in At Play in the Fields of the Lord or Kiss of the Spider Woman. The granddaddy of Brazilian crossover hits has to be Black Orpheus, a 1959 retelling of the myth of Orpheus and Euridice, set in a poor neighborhood in Rio during the glorious nights of Carnaval. If you're interested in learning about Rio de Janiero's favelas, we recommend watching Fernando Meirelles's City of God.
Ever since Vinicius de Moraes and Tom Jobim penned the bossa nova hit "The Girl from Ipanema," Brazil has been a player on the international music scene. Bossa nova and samba were hot in the '50s and '60s, Tropicalismo -- spearheaded by Brazil's megastars Caetano Veloso and Gilberto Gil -- was popular in the '70s. One style that did make it out of Brazil (and maybe shouldn't have) to briefly dominate the dance floors of the late '80s was the Lambada. In the past 10 years, samba has also made a strong comeback, with dozens of clubs opening up in Rio and São Paulo, and pagode (a type of samba) bands like Revelação selling double platinum.
Local sounds encompass much more than samba and pagode, though, with Brazilian artists playing everything from rap, funk, jazz, and rock to regional rhythms such as the swinging afro-axé pop in Salvador and the fast maracatu in the Northeast. Then there are the regional trends that almost never make it to the rest of the world, among them the uniquely Brazilian country sound known as sertanejo. Likely the most unlooked-for trend is the mania for forró that has recently swept the country. A happy, upbeat, accordion-infused brand of country, forró began in Brazil's poorer northeastern regions, and came to the big cities as poor Nordestino migrants made their way south. And then there's brega, a kind of glam version of forró, with over-the-top costumes and shamelessly sentimental lyrics.
Chile -- A quick, comprehensive guide to all things Chilean, Susan Roraff and Laura Camacho's Culture Shock! Chile, explains Chilean etiquette and culture. For history and a look into the Pinochet legacy that came to define modern Chile, try the following books: A History of Chile, 1808-1994 by Simon Collier and William F. Sater; A Nation of Enemies: Chile Under Pinochet by Pamela Constable and Arturo Valenzuela; and Chile: The Other September 11 by Ariel Dorfman et al.
Chile boasts two literary Nobel Prize winners, Gabriela Mistral and Pablo Neruda; however, most North Americans are probably most familiar with the Chilean export Isabel Allende, whose popular novels such as Of Love and Shadows and House of the Spirits have been made into major motion pictures. Her more recent books My Invented Country and Inés of My Soul, are great pretrip primers.
The Pinochet regime placed various limits on artistic liberties, which resulted in a dearth of mainstream cinematic production in the country during much of the late 20th century. At the moment, Chileans are renowned for preferring imported American movies (Hollywood movies that have been filmed or set here include The Motorcycle Diaries, The Quantum of Solace, and Missing) to home-grown independent productions. However, the success of Sebastian Silva's film La Nana (The Maid), which received international recognition at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, seems to have ushered in a new era of cinematic pride and could be the start of a movie industry renaissance.
Nueva Canción (New Song) is the most significant musical genre in Chile born in the rebellious 1960s. These lyrical songs first became popular in both Chile and Argentina via the work of troubadours Atahualpa Yupanqui and Violeta Parra. Today, the folk group Illapu, which excels at Andean instrumentals and salsa-tinged ballads, is perhaps the most popular band in Chile. Other popular bands include the heavy rock band Chancho en Piedra, as well as indie rockers Los Bunkers and pop stars La Ley, who enjoy a high profile in both the U.S. and the U.K.
Colombia -- John Hemmings's The Search for El Dorado gives readers insight into the history and conquest of Colombia by the Spanish. For a general overview of Colombia's economy, government, history, geography, destinations, people, and more, try Colombia, a Country Study Guide, by USA International Business Publications, which is updated yearly and aimed at businesspeople. To understand the political crisis and never-ending civil war in Colombia, try Colombia: Fragmented Land, Divided Society by Frank Safford and Marco Palacios; The Making of Modern Colombia: A Nation in Spite of Itself by David Bushnell, Georg Wilhelm, and Friedrich Hegel; or Bandits, Peasants, and Politics: The Case of "La Violencia" by Gonzalo Sánchez.
Colombia's -- and all of South America's -- premiere literary figure is Nobel Prize winner Gabriel García Márquez, known for novels such as Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude, both of which are widely available. Vivir para Contarla, the first volume of his three-part autobiography, is now available in English as Living to Tell the Tale.
Maria Full of Grace offers an engaging glimpse into Colombia's drug-running culture. La Vendedora de Rosas (The Rose Seller), directed by Victor Gavida and featuring real-life street children as actors, depicts life in the Medellín tough comunas (shanty towns). The 2008 movie, Travel Paraiso, tells the story of a middle class young man who arrives in New York as an illegal immigrant and touches on aspects of Colombian-American culture in New York. The 2007 movie Satanas details the story of Elisio, a Colombian Vietnam veteran who murders dozens of people in an angry rampage.
Due to European, indigenous, and African influences, Colombian music is varied and well known throughout Latin America. Drums dominate the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and stringed instruments such as the harp and guitar dominate the Andean highlands. Colombia's most well-known artists are the pop stars Shakira, Juanes, and Carlos Vives, all of whom have had international hits. Those wanting a more "authentic" taste of Colombian music will want to check out Carlos Vives' latest album "Clasicos de La Provincia II," featuring vallenatos, Colombia's most popular music style. Salsa lovers will also want to get a hold of one of Joe Arroyo's many CDs.
Ecuador -- Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands have captured the imagination of many North American and British writers. Herman Melville's Las Encantadas is a collection of various pieces from the 19th century that provide descriptions of the islands themselves, the inhabitants, and the whalers who passed through the area. Kurt Vonnegut's Galápagos is a hilarious story about human evolution. It starts off with a story about a small group of people who are shipwrecked and forever stuck on a small isolated island in the Galápagos. It then follows the evolution of these people for a million years into the future.
If you're interested in learning about how Charles Darwin formed his theory of evolution, you should pick up Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle or his Origin of Species. Michael H. Jackson's Galápagos: A Natural History is the best authority on the natural history of plants and animals in the Galápagos.
For contemporary naturalists, the best all-purpose field guide for those visiting Ecuador is David L. Pearson and Les Beletsky's Traveller's Wildlife Guide: Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. For a quick, simple, and concise history of Ecuador, try reading In Focus Ecuador: A Guide to the People, Politics, and Culture by Wilma Roos and Omer Van Renterghem. Linda Newson's Life and Death in Early Colonial Ecuador looks at the native people living in Ecuador in the 16th century and discusses how they were affected by both the Inca and Spanish conquests.
Ecuador has a small but budding film industry, but little that has enjoyed any international fame. The 2003 blockbuster Master and Commander does feature some excellent location shots of the land and seascapes, and flora and fauna, of the Galápagos Islands. Perhaps the most relevant film for English-speaking visitors is the 2005 docudrama End of the Spear, directed by Jim Hanon. Although filmed mostly in Panama, this movie tells the tale of the 1956 Waoroni killing of five missionaries in Ecuador's Amazon basin. The movie even includes cameos by several of the surviving members of the missionary families and members of the Waoroni tribe involved in the events.
Ecuador's music scene is dominated by contemporary imports from around Latin America, the United States, and Europe. However, throughout the country, you'll find discs and performances by a variety of homegrown traditional groups, playing a wide range of folk styles. The traditional music of the Andes features wind instruments such as the guaramo horn, the pifano and pinkullo flutes, and rondador (panpipes), supported by percussion. Its distinctive pentatonic scales give it a very haunting feel, and you are likely to hear familiar melodies if you happen upon any Andean bands, either playing in peñas (bars) or on public plazas.
Paraguay -- Augusto Roa Bastos is Paraguay's most famous modern novelist and poet. Son of Man and I the Supreme are historical works that piece together the country's traumatic past and earned the exiled writer the Cervantes Prize in 1990. Other writers to look out for are Josefina Pla and Gabriel Casaccia.
Paraguayan film was in the doldrums for much of the 20th century, in part because of the repressive censorship of the Stroessner regime. In recent years there have been some signs of a renaissance, most notably in a beautifully shot rural drama called The Paraguayan Hammock (2006) by director Paz Encina. The most famous blockbuster to be set in Paraguay (it was also shot in Brazil and Argentina) is the epic, award winning The Mission (1996) with Robert De Niro.
Paraguay's most well-known type of music is Guarani folklore. This music has a strong colonial influence and is most notable for the use of giant harps that date back to the 17th century.
Peru -- Perhaps the classic work on Inca history is The Conquest of the Incas by John Hemming, a very readable narrative of the fall of a short-lived but uniquely accomplished empire.
Mario Vargas Llosa, Peru's most famous novelist and a perennial candidate for the Nobel Prize, was nearly elected the country's president back in 1990. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter is one of his most popular works; The Real Life of Alejandro Mayta is a dense meditation on Peruvian and South American revolutionary politics that blurs the lines between truth and fiction; and Death in the Andes is a deep penetration into the contemporary psyche and politics of Peru. Another side of the author is evident in the small erotic gem In Praise of the Stepmother.
For a glimpse into Peru's recent political history, check out the documentary film The Fall of Fujimori.
There is evidence of music in Peru dating back 10,000 years, and musical historians have identified more than 1,000 genres of music in the country. The música folclórica that emanates from high in the Andes Mountains is known for its use of the quena (pan flute), played like a recorder; charango (from the lute family); and mandolin. The distinctive sounds of this Peruvian music were widely sampled in the Simon and Garfunkel classic "El Cóndor Pasa." That song was based on a melody by a Peruvian composer, Daniel Alomía Robles, who himself had appropriated a traditional Quechua huayno folk melody.
Along the coast south of Lima, black Peruvians created a unique mix of African rhythms and Spanish and other European influences, called música criolla, in which percussion is fundamental, in addition to strings and vocals. The music is frequently blusier than its jazz-inflected Afro counterparts that developed in Brazil and Cuba. Nicomedes Santa Cruz, Perú Negro, Eva Ayllón, Chabuca Granda, and Susana Baca are a few of the stars of Afro-Peruvian music.
Uruguay -- Lawrence Weschler reports on Uruguay's "dirty war" in A Miracle, A Universe. Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano examines the consequences of colonialism and imperialism in Open Veins of Latin America. Blood Pact & Other Stories is one of the few collections of beloved writer Mario Benedetti available in English. A good place to start tackling the work of essayist José Enrique Rodó is Ariel.
The movie State of Siege gives a compelling account of Uruguay's "dirty war" and the kidnapping of CIA operative Dan Mitrione.
Tango is an important musical form in Uruguay, and the country lays claim to being the birthplace of Carlos Gardel, the renowned tango artist. The country is also known for candombe, a popular form of African percussion music involving groups of drummers who spontaneously gather on street corners every Sunday evening in Montevideo.
Venezuela -- Perhaps no piece of literature is as closely associated with Venezuela as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's 1912 The Lost World, which is set in an area modeled after Venezuela's Amazonas region. The Lost World has spawned numerous imitators and literary offspring, and has served as the model for a host of films, including Jurassic Park.
Anyone with even the slightest interest in Venezuelan literature should start with Rómulo Gallegos's 1929 classic Doña Bárbara, a tale of love and struggle on the Venezuelan plains. Gallegos was a former president and is widely considered the country's principal literary light. Also of interest are Gabriel García Márquez's The General in His Labyrinth, a fictional account of Simón Bolívar's dying days, and Isabel Allende's Eva Luna, which is set in a town based on the Venezuelan city of Colonia Tovar.
For a glimpse into one of the darker sides of present-day Venezuela -- and Latin America, in general -- try to see the film Secuestro Express, which tells the story of an "express kidnapping" in downtown Caracas, within the context of the country's current political and social situation, or Mariana Rondón's award-winning Postcards from Leningrad, which deals with the lives of a couple of children growing up amongst the revolutionary guerrilla movement of 1960's Venezuela.
If you want to take home some Venezuelan music, look for discs by pop crooner Ricardo Montaner, or salsa legend Oscar D'León
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.