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Whether you found this list searching for books set in South America before a trip or are participating in our Book Voyage reading challenge, we have a variety of fiction and non-fiction book recommendations set across the South American continent.
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.
For many of us, our introduction to South America came from learning about the tropical rainforests of the Amazon Basin. The Amazon covers about 40 percent of the continent (an area roughly the size of the 48 contiguous United States). Despite once being even larger, the Amazon remains the world’s largest rainforest. It’s also one of the most biodiverse places on Earth.
Unlike the Amazon rainforest, 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. The mountains stretch all along the western edge of the continent, from the northernmost coast to the southern tip.
The Incan Empire was established in Peru in the 1400s, then expanded to include parts of five other present-day countries. It 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. The connection 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, or 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.
As always, you are welcome to choose any book about South America that you’d like. 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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Throughout the list, we noted the books currently available as part of Kindle Unlimited Subscriptions.
The Invisible Life of Euridice Gusmao
By Martha Batalha
It’s the 1940s and Euridice has a typical life of a woman from that era. She is expected to be an obedient and traditional housewife. While she is passionate about both cooking and sewing, her dreams go far beyond caring for her own family. She starts several secret projects, like making recipe books, as she tries to make a business for herself. However, her husband forbids her from using her talents. On top of that, a gossipy neighbor is spreading rumors about Euridice.
Her sister, Guida, also has challenges, despite escaping her family expectations and eloping with a medical student years earlier. Suffering and pain eventually cause her to return home with her young son. Euridice takes them in, and together the sisters learn to be independent and make the most of their lives.
by Yamile Saied Mendez
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 avoid upsetting her abusive and short-tempered father.
When her team qualifies for a major South American soccer tournament, Camila dreams that her talents will 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. Then, to make things even more complicated, the boy Camila once loved (who has become an international soccer player 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.
Out of the Silence: After the Crash
by Eduardo Strauch
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 endurance test. 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 physically and emotionally.
This book is available with Kindle Unlimited as of 9/20/22.
by Jennifer Steil
Orly’s father plays viola in the Philharmonic, her mother is an opera singer, and she lives a peaceful, music-filled life in Vienna. However, it's the 1930s and Hitler is rising to power in Germany. As part of a Jewish family, she’s aware enough of his threat to dream up imaginary worlds with her best friend but has no idea how bad things will get.
Then, in 1938, the Germans arrived. Orly’s family is lucky enough to secure a refugee visa that will take them to a totally new world - the Bolivian Andes. As the town of La Paz, Bolivia grows with fellow refugees, Orly’s family tries to adapt to life in the mountains, even as they dwell on the music careers, family, and friends they were forced to leave behind.
The Book Girls Say…We were surprised to learn that Bolivia accepted over 20,000 Jewish refugees between 1938-1940, largely thanks to a tin exporter. While the country of Bolivia was in political turmoil and much of South America supported Europe’s fascist leaders, La Paz and Cochabamba became an unexpected saving grace (although not a welcoming utopia) for countless families that may have otherwise fallen to Hilter’s concentration camps.
by Carolina De Robertis
Perla Correa is a young woman who grew up as an only child in a privileged Buenos Aires family. Argentina was 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.
The Puma Years
by Laura Coleman
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. It was 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.
This book is available with Kindle Unlimited as of 9/20/22.
by Isabel Allende
This book is told in the form of a letter written by 100-year-old Violeta as she reflects back on her life and the tragedies she overcame. Violeta was born in 1920, as the world was trying to recover from World War I, and just as the Spanish Flu began to take hold in South America. But that won’t be the only pandemic she encounters during her long life.
From the Great Depression to the fight for women’s rights and from drug cartels to lovers this fictional but raw book looks into all aspects of Violeta’s lifetime.
The Book Girls Say…Isabel Allende’s first book, House of Spirits is another good choice set in Chile. It is a sweeping epic that follows three generations of Chilean women through good times and bad. Spanning WWI through the 1970s, Allende illuminates the history, political unrest, and cultural richness of 20th-century Chile. HEADS UP: House of Spirits includes depictions of rape, abortion, and sexual contact between an adult and a young child.
Treasure of the World
by Tara Sullivan
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.
Fruit of the Drunken Tree
by Ingrid Rojas Contreras
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 Bogotá's 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.
Turn Right at Machu Picchu
by Mark Adams
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.
On a Night of a Thousand Stars
by Andrea Yaryura Clark
This split timeline book tells the story of one family in both 1998 and the 1970s. Father Santiago Larrea is now a wealthy Argentine diplomat living in New York with his wife, Lila, and daughter Paloma. Their life seems perfect until an unexpected party guest from Santiago’s past makes a comment that visibly shakes him. The cryptic comment makes college student Paloma curious about her father’s past in Argentina.
Paloma has the perfect opportunity to learn more when the family heads to Buenos Aires for Santiago's UN ambassadorial appointment. She meets an Argentine student, Franco, who is an activist in a group for children of the Desaparecidos, those who were “disappeared” by the regime during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 70s. Paloma’s research not only leads her to question her own family and identity, it also puts her life in danger.
The Book Girls Say…For another look at Argentina in the 1970s, check out Hades, Argentina. It is about a medical student named Tomás who has a crush on passionate Isabel. Unfortunately, she’s in a group of young insurgents fighting back against an oppressive regime, and people like her keep being “disappeared” by the government.
The Air You Breathe
by Frances de Pontes Peebles
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 a love of mischief and music, and they become fast friends.
Over the years, their shared passion for music draws them closer, but is also the source of their rivalry. One has a beautiful singing voice, and the other has 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 the "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 unexpectedly.
State of Wonder
by Ann Patchett
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 rainforest. 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.
The Seven Sisters
by Lucinda Riley
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.
Dancing with the Devil in the City of God: Rio de Janeiro
by Juliana Barbassa
Written by a native of Brazil and a prize-winning journalist, this engaging non-fiction looks back at a city filled with unfortunate poverty and corruption as it prepared to host huge international events - the 2014 World Cup and the 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.
The Book Girls Say...For a different non-fiction look at Brazil, try Fordlandia, which is the true story of Henry Ford's jungle community in Brazil.
The Sisters of Alameda Street: A Novel
by Lorena Hughes
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.
Four women in the town have names starting with the letter A, and she knows one of the four is her mother. 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.
The Queen of Water
by Laura Resau and Maria Virginia Farinango
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 get from her dream to the new reality she desires?
The Woman from Uruguay
by Pedro Mairal
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.
by Carolina De Robertis
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 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.
A Luminous Republic
by Andrés Barba
While this book was written by a Spanish literary star, it’s set in a small rainforest town in Argentina. Thirty-two seemingly feral children appear in the town, speaking an unknown language. Their presence begins to send the town into chaos as they start stealing food and money, but soon escalate to more violence. Worse, some of the town children begin to join them.
The book is told from the point of view of a social worker trying to track down where the children came from, where they are staying, and how to help them before the city collapses.
The Book Girls Say…This short book (208 pages) is a dystopian fable, so perfect if you love that genre. Skip it if you prefer upbeat reads.
by Henri Charriere
Setting: FRENCH GUIANA
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.
The Girl With No Name
by Marina Chapman & Lynne Barrett-Lee
Written with the assistance of a ghost-writer, this memoir tells the true story of Marina Chapman, who was abducted when she was five then abandoned deep in the Colombian jungle. Her survival is miraculous and happened with the assistance of a group of capuchin monkeys. She instinctively followed their lead, eating what they ate and coping their actions to stay safe.
Five years later, she had become feral, no longer having the ability to speak or any other sense of being human. When she was 10, a group of hunters found her and took her to the lawless city of Cucuta. Instead of saving her, they sold her to a brothel.
However, her will to survive had long been honed, and the story of how she reclaimed her life and place in society is fascinating.
The Book Girls Say…Some readers question whether Marina remembers her whole story accurately, and it’s impossible to know for sure. However, most agree that it’s a compelling and page-turning book that takes you to vastly different sides of Colombia - the jungle and the city.
The Girl from the Sugar Plantation
by Sharon Maas
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.
At the Tomb of the Inflatable Pig: Travels Through Paraguay
by John Gimlette
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.
The Inheritance of Orquídea Divina
by Zoraida Córdova
This dream-like novel goes back and forth in time from Montoya family matriarch Orquídea’s fascinating, yet difficult, past to the present day in which she is dying and has called her four descendants home to receive their inheritance.
None of the descendants know why Orquídea refused to ever leave her home in Four Rivers, so when they’re called home, they hope to leave with answers. Seven years in the future, you’ll see how Orquídea’s deathbed gifts have granted blessings. However, a hidden figure is in the backyard trying to destroy everyone in Orquídea’s family line. To save what remains of their family, four descendants travel to Ecuador to find Orquídea’s buried secrets.
The Book Girls Say…This book relies more on magical realism and fantasy than we normally include in Book Voyage challenge selections, however, magical realism is a very traditional component in South American literature. The book has been described as fairytale-like, ambiguous, and unexplained, so it’s perfect if you’re okay being along for a ride. However, not the best pick if you prefer linear plots and reality-based reads over fantasy.
by John Gimlette
Setting: SURINAME, FRENCH GUIANA, GUYANA
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.
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