For many of us, our first introduction to South America likely came from learning about the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin, which now covers about 40 percent of the continent (an area roughly the size of the 48 contiguous United States). It once covered even more of the land. Not only is the Amazon the world’s largest rainforest, but it is also one of the most biodiverse places on Earth. In contrast to the Amazon rainforest, which is one of the wettest places on Earth, Chile’s Atacama Desert is the world’s driest non-polar desert. Additionally, South America is home to the world’s longest mountain range – the Andes – which stretches all along the western edge of the continent, from the northernmost coast to the southern tip.
The Incan Empire, which was established in Peru in the 1400s and expanded to also include parts of five other present-day countries, is the most well known of South America’s indigenous cultures, but many other indigenous societies also call this continent home. The indigenous populations of South America continue to have a strong influence on the human landscape of this continent. Although nearly half of the indigenous people now live in urban areas, they maintain a deep connection to the physical environment, which is manifested through their religious beliefs, cultural celebrations, and political actions.
The term Latin America generally refers to the entire region south of the United States in which Spanish, Portuguese, and French (all Latin languages) are officially spoken. The countries of Latin America span both the North American and South American continents. The seven countries often referred to as Central America are on the North American continent and will be covered by next month’s Book Voyage reading list. This month our book recommendations cover the 13 countries of South America, including: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Paraguay, Peru, Suriname, Uruguay, and Venezuela.
PS: You can read all about the Book Voyage challenge, find new book lists each month, and download your free printable map book tracker, with a color-coded map of each region here.
As always, you are welcome to choose any book set in South America that you’d like, but we’ve compiled some highly recommended reads to get you started. Our list of books set in South America includes a wide variety of non-fiction, memoirs, historical fiction, and contemporary fiction. Several of the novels on the list feature elements of magical realism, which is a prominent subgenre in Latin-American literature.
Books Set in South America
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In 1972, a plane carrying an Uruguayan rugby team crashed in the Andes mountains of Argentina. For the next 72 days, the teammates suffered a harrowing test of endurance. Among the survivors was a young architect named Eduardo Strauch. Four decades after the tragedy, a climber discovered Strauch's wallet near the memorialized crash site and returned it to him. That gesture compelled Strauch to finally break his silence and write this memoir about the life-changing events that tested him both physically and emotionally.
In this Own Voices YA novel, Camila is an Argentinian teenager with a passion for soccer and the talent and skill to go far in the sport, but her parents don't know anything about it. At home, Camila lives in the shadow of her rising-soccer-star brother and is constantly striving to be a model daughter. She does her best to meet her mother's expectations, and to avoid upsetting her abusive and short-tempered father.
When her team qualifies for the South American soccer tournament, Camila dreams that her talents earn a scholarship to a North American university. But her parents wouldn't knowingly allow a girl to play fútbol, and she can't play in the tournament without their permission. To make things even more complicated, the boy Camila once loved (who has become an international soccer star playing in Italy) is back in town.
Camila will be forced to face her secrets as she tries to make her way in a world that doesn't value her dreams and ambitions.
Perla Correa is a young woman who grew up as an only child in a privileged Buenos Aires family. Argentina is still reeling from the military dictatorship of the 1970s and 80s and the war in which thirty thousand people simply "disappeared." Perla understands that her polished mother and a straitlaced naval officer father were on the wrong side of the conflict, but when ghosts of the past open her eyes to her beloved father's role in the heinous war crimes, she is forced to question everything.
The Book Girls Say... As is common in Latin-American literature, this novel contains some elements of magical realism, but the issues the book deals with - including a dark period of Argentina's history and struggles with family and identity - are very much real.
Set in a desolate and impoverished Bolivian silver mining community, this middle grade fiction tells the story of twelve-year-old girl Ana. She bravely volunteers to take her eleven-year-old brother's place when their father demands that he begin working in the silver mines despite his illness. Ana gives up her dreams of school and a future outside of the mining village to protect her brother from the dark and dangerous mines, but the men who work there see her as a girl who is just in their way. When a tragic accident happens, Ana is forced to muster the courage to survive and find a way to save her family.
The Book Girls Say... Although it's written for a younger audience, this beautifully crafted 400-page novel will be equally eye-opening for adult readers. The author also wrote Golden Boy, one of the popular books from our Africa reading list.
In her early twenties, Laura lacked direction and decided to quit her job to embark on a backpacking trip in Bolivia. She found herself at a wildlife sanctuary on the edge of the Amazon jungle filled with over a hundred lost and hurt animals, and an equally complex cast of employees and volunteers. Laura was assigned to work with a puma named Wayra.
Set against the backdrop of deforestation, the illegal pet trade, and forest fires, this memoir explores what happens when two creatures in need of rescue find one another.
The House of the Spirits is a sweeping epic that follows three generations of Chilean women through good times and bad. Spanning WWI through the 1970s, through the Trueba family, Allende illuminates the history, political unrest, and cultural richness of 20th century Chile.
This novel includes elements of magical realism, which is a prominent subgenre in Latin-American literature. Allende is considered a master of this genre, and the magical elements are woven into this story in such a way to make readers believe and leave you questioning what is real.
HEADS UP: This book includes depictions of rape, abortion, and sexual contact between an adult and a young child.
The Book Girls Say... The House of the Spirits is the very first novel from acclaimed author Isabel Allende. Two of her other books, although written decades later, are essentially prequels to The House of the Spirits. Daughters of Fortune and Portrait in Sepia trace the history of earlier generations of the Trueba family, from the mid-1800s to the early 1900s. Allende also authored Eva Luna.
This book weaves together a series of short stories about nine Chilean women who all have one thing in common - their beloved therapist named Natasha. The women range in age and race, and represent a wide variety of Chile's cultural and social groups - from housekeeper to celebrity television personality. In addition to learning about their personal triumphs and tragedies, we also see how each woman's life has been touched by major political events.
The Santiago sisters lead carefree lives in a gated community in Bogotá - a protective bubble that shields them from the political upheaval and violence terrorizing the country in the 1990s. Outside of their neighborhood walls the world looks very different, including the constant threat of kidnappings, car bombs, and assassinations.
When Chula and Cassandra's mom hires a live-in-maid from Bogotás guerrilla-occupied slum, seven-year-old Chula is eager to understand more about Petrona's world. The story is told from the alternating perspectives of Chula and Petrona, providing two very different coming-of-age stories that become inextricably linked. As each girl's family struggles to maintain stability amidst escalating conflict, they will be forced to choose between sacrifice and betrayal.
This classic novel takes place in an unnamed Colombian city near the Caribbean Sea between the 1880s and the 1930s. In their younger years, Florentino and Fermina fall passionately in love. Florentino is left heartbroken when Fermina instead chooses to marry a wealthy doctor. For the next half a century, Florentino builds a successful business career and fills his time with 622 affairs. But throughout all this time, he remains in love with Fermina. When her husband dies, Florentino attends the funeral, and after more than fifty years he once again declares his love for Fermina.
HEADS UP: Some reviewers argue that this novel depicts "obsession described as love" and raise concerns that it romanticizes rape culture. Also note that this book includes sexual encounters between an adult and an underaged girl.
The Book Girls Say... This novel is slow and descriptive. The characters and very well developed, but skip this one if you're looking for a quick read. Gabriel Garcia Marquez is also the author of One Hundred Years of Solitude, which is considered a classic of the magical realism genre.
Mark Adams spent his entire career editing adventure travel magazines, but he had never done anything adventurous. That is, until he decided to recreate a controversial 1911 expedition to Machu Picchu.
In 1911, a young Yale professor named Hiram Bingham III climbed into the Andes Mountains of Peru and "discovered" an ancient city in the clouds - what we now know as Machu Picchu. Of course, this Incan citadel had long been known to the villagers of this region (the ones who showed Bingham the way), but its discovery was officially credited to him when he cabled the United States to report his archaeological finding. Despite finding something that was never actually lost, Bingham did turn the world's attention to Machu Picchu and Incan history and helped to inspire the Indiana Jones stories. But Bingham's legacy is also shadowed by allegations that he stole historical artifacts.
Fast forward a century to 2011, Mark Adams decides to find out the truth about Bingham's discovery for himself. The not-so-adventurous adventure writer set out to retrace the famous explorer's steps through the Andes and to write about Bingham's work, 500 years of Incan history, and his own experiences along the way.
This book is the resulting travelogue, which vibrantly describes Peru's gorgeous landscape, from the Inca capital of Cusco to the ruins of Vitcos and Vilcabamba. Adam's journalism background is evident in his writing style and meticulous research, but this book is also a humorous and entertaining, light read.
This historical fiction, which opens in 1930s Brazil, is about the friendship of two girls who come from two different worlds. Nine-year-old Dores works in the kitchen of a sugar plantation, and Graça is the spoiled and ill behaved daughter of the wealthy sugar baron. Despite their differences, the two share loves of mischief and music, and they become fast friends.
Over the years, their shared passion for music draws them closer together, but is also the source of their rivalry. One has a beautiful singing voice, and the other a gift for lyrics - a natural partnership. But only one of them is destined for stardom.
This book will transport you from the streets of Rio de Janeiro's famous Lapa neighborhood, to the Golden Age of Hollywood, and back again.
The Book Girls Say... Author Frances de Pontes Peebles was born in Pernambuco, Brazil, and is also the author of another highly rated novel that's also worthy of your consideration. The Seamstress is set in "lawless backcountry" of Brazil and follows the lives of two sisters - both skilled seamstresses - who long to escape their small town. When one of the sisters is abducted by a group of cangaceiros, their lives diverge in very unexpected ways.
State of Wonder is part adventure, part mystery. At the direction of the pharmaceutical company that she works for, Dr. Marina Singh travels deep into Brazil's Amazon rain forest. She is charged with uncovering what happened to her missing former mentor, Dr. Annick Swenson, who disappeared while developing a valuable new drug for women. Along the way, Dr. Singh will be forced to reconcile her own past.
The descriptions of the Amazon region, and the people who inhabit this remote environment, play important roles in this book.
Maia and her five sisters were all adopted as babies by their beloved father. Upon his death, all of the sisters gather together at their childhood home - a secluded castle on the shores of Lake Geneva in Switzerland. Each woman is handed a letter with a clue about her true heritage, and Maia's clue takes her across the world to another mansion in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where she'll begin to put together the pieces of her own story.
Maia's Brazilian journey will lead her to the story of her great grandmother, Izabela Bonifacio. Along the way, she'll learn about the legend of Rio's Christ the Redeemer - the 98-foot tall statue that towers over the city.
The story is told in a dual timeline between Maia's present day, and the Golden Age of Rio in the 1920s, where Izabela Bonifacio's father aspires to marry his daughter into the aristocratic class. But Izabela's life is forever changed when she convinces her father to let her travel to Paris with famous architect Heitor de Silva Costa to join him in her search for the right sculptor to complete his vision for Christ the Redeemer.
The Book Girls Say... This is book 1 in a series of 8, but it's the only book in the series set in Brazil. Each of the subsequent books follows the other sisters through different locations around the globe.
In 1927, Henry Ford, the richest man in the world, bought a tract of land twice the size of Delaware in the Brazilian Amazon. He planned to grow rubber, but the project rapidly evolved into a more ambitious attempt to recreate small-town America in the heart of the Amazon.
Fordlandia, as the settlement was called, quickly became the site of an epic clash between the car magnate and his knack for industrialized production, and the Amazon - the most complex ecological system on the planet. Ford's early success in imposing time clocks and square dances on the jungle soon collapsed, as indigenous workers rejected his midwestern Puritanism and turned the place into a ribald tropical boomtown.
The Book Girls Say... There is also a highly-rated middle-grade book about the rubber plantations of the Amazon called Journey to the River Sea.
Written by a native of Brazil and a prizewinning journalist, this engaging non-fiction looks back at a city filled with unfortunate poverty and corruption as they prepared to host huge international events - the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics.
While the book robustly covers the problems that plagued the city and the background that set the stage for them, it also focuses on the wide range of people dedicated to helping Rio de Janeiro achieve its potential.
Set in 1960s Ecuador, this novel has a bit of everything. It’s a historical fiction mystery, with the drama of a Latin soap opera and a side of romance. After her father’s suicide, Malena learns that the mother she’s never met is still alive in San Isidro, a quaint town tucked in the Andes Mountains.
Her mother is one of four very different women, whose names each begin with the letter A. To help her search and avoid rumors, Malena assumes a hidden identity as she investigates. However, forming relationships under false pretenses complicates matters more than she expected.
While this book is a work of fiction, it's largely based on the life of co-author Maria Virginia Farinango. She was born and raised in an earthen-walled dwelling within her Indigenous community in Ecuador. At only 7 years old, in the early 1980s, she was taken to work full-time as a house servant for a member of the ruling class - those who descended from Spain.
For most children of similar misfortune, their life is defined at that moment, and they are destined for a life of excessive work and abuse. But Virginia wanted more. Like Malala and Adunni in Girl with the Louding Voice, Virginia knows education is the answer. But how will she great from her dream to the new reality she desires?
Newly released in July 2021, The Woman from Uruguay was translated from its original Spanish and written by acclaimed best-selling Argentine author Pedro Mairal.
This short novel (156 pages) takes place over a single day, when an Argentine writer, Lucus, travels to Uruguay with a dual purpose. First, he wants to take advantage of the better exchange rate to pick up his $15,000 advance on his next novel. Second, he can't stop thinking about Magalí Guerra Zabala, the woman from Uruguay he met at a conference. With both relationship and financial problems at home, Lucus hopes this single day will help him change everything.
In 1977, Uraguay was under a dictatorship and militarized government. Homosexuality was brutally punished. Cantoras is the intertwining story of five women - Romina, Flaca, Anita "La Venus," Paz, and Malena - who find respite in each other as they try to live as their authentic selves. They form a deep bond after finding a nearly uninhabited cape, Cabo Polonio, where they can have sanctuary from the harsh world.
The novel follows the women and examines the concept of family over 35 years as they find both struggle and triumph. Readers describe the book as both heartwarming and heartwrenching, with the overwhelming mentions of it being an amazing and emotional read.
HEADS UP: This Book contains scenes of conversion therapy (shock treatments), rape, & suicide.
The Book Girls Say...The same author's debut novel, The Invisible Mountain, is also set in Uraguay and covers the lives of three women over three generations, covering 90 years. The book is heavy on Uruguayan culture, geography, and food.
This political thriller is set in 1992 Venezuela, as political newcomer Hugo Chávez stages a coup. Two spies with very different jobs have to figure out what this means for the region. Iván Rincón of Cuba is looking for a new rebel political ally, and US CIA agent Cristina Garza needs to cut the influence of Chavez to protect the region's vital oil supply.
With competing interests, Christina and Ivan's paths soon cross, and you'll be whisked into 1990s Caracas as they navigate through encounters with intrepid journalists, a drug lord, and of course, each other. While the book is fiction, it's based on real-life events and written by a Venezuelan journalist.
This book is available via Kindle Unlimited.
The Book Girls Say...Unfortunately, this book's female character is very one-dimensional, focused on her love life instead of the CIA spy work she should be doing. Let us know if you've read an excellent book set in Venezuela!
Initially published in 1968, this autobiography is a stunning non-fiction* tale of prison escape. In 1931, Henri Charrière was convicted of a murder he didn't commit in Paris. He was sentenced to the French penal colony of French Guyana in South America.
He became obsessed with escaping, but despite much scheming and bravery, he had many failed attempts. Henri was sent to an even more secure location, Devil's Island, to further deter his efforts. No one had ever successfully escaped Devil's Island, but that didn't impact his overwhelming desire to set himself free.
The Books Girls Say...Papillon is on the long side at 562 pages, but the audio is available free on Hoopla. People praise the suspense, adventure, and message of self-determination.
*In the 50 years since publishing, it has largely been determined that some of the stories were experienced by fellow inmates, not all by Henri as he writes them.
Although it works well as a standalone, this book is part of a historical romance series set in Guyana. Starting in 1934, the novel centers on Mary Grace, a young girl who is mixed race despite having two white parents. She's heard rumors of her ancestry throughout her life and wants to know the truth.
While she expects a life of loneliness, an affluent revolutionary, Jack, steals her heart. But soon, WW2 changes everything. Should they fight or follow their hearts? The book follows their journey all the way through the 1960s
The Books Girls Say...Aunt Winnie is featured in this book, and you can read more about her backstory in The Secret Life of Winnie Cox, which is set in 1910.
If you love off-beat travelogues, this may be a great pick! The author traveled to Paraguay three times over a period of 18 years and focused on discovering the unique history and attractions of the country. From learning about the dictators that have dominated the land-landlocked country and the harboring of Nazis to an unexpected Mennonite village, you'll finish this book with endless new knowledge about Paraguay.
Case Lee is retired from the Delta Force, but hired by a mysterious private client to investigate a rebellion in Suriname. He didn't expect to uncover a vast global conspiracy, with impacts much more extensive than he wanted. When he decides to return home, he discovers that he is now the target along with some of his former Delta brothers.
The Books Girls Say...Much of the book takes place back in the US, so despite the name, only a portion of the book is set in Suriname. However, it does give you a glimpse into a country that is rarely discussed in novels. If you're a big fan of military action/spy novels, this should be a solid pick, but if that's not your cup of tea, you may enjoy a different choice.
Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana make up 900 miles of rugged coastline tucked between Venezuela and Brazil in northeastern South America. Much of the region is still unexplored, with a lack of roads and frequent border disputes. Author John Gimlette spent three months on an expedition into the jungles and swamps of the countries.
Despite being relatively unknown, all three countries have a fascinating and international history with descendants of African slaves, Dutch conquerors, Hmong refugees, Irish adventurers, and Scottish outlaws. Wild Coasts explores both the history and current state of the region through the author's travels.
The Books Girls Say...If you enjoy this book and want to learn more, The Riverbones is a similar memoir with the author exploring only Suriname.