The best books on South American history

Who am I?

I lived in Peru for five years, working as a writer, filmmaker, and anthropologist and have travelled extensively in South America, voyaging 4,500 miles from the northern tip of the Andes down to the southern tip of Patagonia, lived with a recently-contacted tribe in the Upper Amazon, visited Maoist Shining Path “liberated zones” in Peru and later made a number of documentaries on the Amazon as well as have written a number of books. Historically, culturally and biologically, South America remains one of the most interesting places on Earth.

I wrote...

Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries

By Kim MacQuarrie,

Book cover of Life and Death in the Andes: On the Trail of Bandits, Heroes, and Revolutionaries

What is my book about?

The Andes Mountains are the world’s longest mountain chain, linking most of the countries in South America. Kim MacQuarrie takes us on a historical journey through this unique region, bringing fresh insight and contemporary connections to such fabled characters as Charles Darwin, Che Guevara, Pablo Escobar, Butch Cassidy, Thor Heyerdahl, and others. He describes living on the floating islands of Lake Titicaca. He introduces us to a Patagonian woman who is the last living speaker of her language.

We meet the woman who cared for the wounded Che Guevara just before he died, the police officer who captured cocaine king Pablo Escobar, the dancer who hid Shining Path guerrilla Abimael Guzman, and a man whose grandfather witnessed the death of Butch Cassidy.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus

Why did I love this book?

If you want to start your study of South America and the Americas from the beginning (pre-European contact), this book does a great job of painting the big picture while at the same time puncturing the numerous myths that have been built up since 1491 about what the Americas were like prior to Columbus’ arrival. The next best thing to taking a time machine back there and flying over the area yourself.

By Charles C. Mann,

Why should I read it?

8 authors picked 1491 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NATIONAL BESTSELLER • A groundbreaking work of science, history, and archaeology that radically alters our understanding of the Americas before the arrival of Columbus in 1492—from “a remarkably engaging writer” (The New York Times Book Review).
Contrary to what so many Americans learn in school, the pre-Columbian Indians were not sparsely settled in a pristine wilderness; rather, there were huge numbers of Indians who actively molded and influenced the land around them. The astonishing Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan had running water and immaculately clean streets, and was larger than any contemporary European city. Mexican cultures created corn in a specialized…

Book cover of Columbus: The Four Voyages, 1492-1504

Why did I love this book?

If you want to understand how both South America and the New World were “discovered” by Europeans, which had nearly the same effect on Native Americans that a meteor did on the dinosaurs, there’s no better way to understand it than to journey along on Columbus’ four voyages and be there when he and his crew set ashore. Columbus set foot on the northern part of South America on his third voyage, visiting the coast of what is now Venezuela. Bergreen’s book does an admirable job of introducing you to the man whose voyages would ultimately affect millions of people. This is the closest anyone will ever get to being on board as an entirely New World first hove into sight.

By Laurence Bergreen,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Columbus as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

He knew nothing of celestial navigation or of the existence of the Pacific Ocean. He was a self-promoting and ambitious entrepreneur. His maps were a hybrid of fantasy and delusion. When he did make land, he enslaved the populace he found, encouraged genocide, and polluted relations between peoples. He ended his career in near lunacy.

But Columbus had one asset that made all the difference, an inborn sense of the sea, of wind and weather, and of selecting the optimal course to get from A to B. Laurence Bergreen's energetic and bracing book gives the whole Columbus and most importantly,…

Book cover of Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent

Why did I love this book?

A classic book that weaves together the history of how Columbus’ arrival in the Americas set the stage for the mining of the New World by European and other colonial powers--for its gold, silver, cacao, cotton, rubber, and coffee--and for how that impacted the people who lived there. A brilliant synthesis of the many forces that were unleashed by the joining of the Old World and the New.

By Eduardo Galeano,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Open Veins of Latin America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since its U.S. debut a quarter-century ago, this brilliant text has set a new standard for historical scholarship of Latin America. It is also an outstanding political economy, a social and cultural narrative of the highest quality, and perhaps the finest description of primitive capital accumulation since Marx.

Rather than chronology, geography, or political successions, Eduardo Galeano has organized the various facets of Latin American history according to the patterns of five centuries of exploitation. Thus he is concerned with gold and silver, cacao and cotton, rubber and coffee, fruit, hides and wool, petroleum, iron, nickel, manganese, copper, aluminum ore,…

Book cover of Bolivar: American Liberator

Why did I love this book?

In 1813, a rather obscure Venezuelan colonel began a military campaign that ultimately liberated six countries from Spanish rule, putting an end to Spanish control of much of South America that had begun with Pizarro’s conquest of the Inca Empire nearly three centuries earlier. Arana’s book tells in vivid detail how the revolutionary events unfolded and does an admirable job of bringing to life this talented and charismatic liberator.

By Marie Arana,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Bolivar as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The dramatic life of the revolutionary hero Bolivar, who liberated South America - a sweeping narrative worthy of a Hollywood epic.

Simon Bolivar's life makes for one of history's most dramatic canvases, a colossal narrative filled with adventure and disaster, victory and defeat. This is the story not just of an extraordinary man but of the liberation of a continent.

A larger-than-life figure from a tumultuous age, Bolivar ignited a revolution, liberated six countries from Spanish rule and is revered as the great hero of South American history. In a sweeping narrative worthy of a Hollywood epic, BOLIVAR colourfully portrays…

Book cover of Forgotten Continent: A History of the New Latin America

Why did I love this book?

The author spent many years in Brazil and Peru, editing the Americas’ section of The Economist and knows the region well. He does a great job of providing the reader with a broad, contemporary view of modern-day Central and South America, weaving together their many historical threads. If you want an insider’s account of Latin America by someone who thoroughly knows the area, then this is the book for you.

By Michael Reid,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Forgotten Continent as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A newly updated edition of the best-selling primer on the social, political, and economic challenges facing Central and South America

Ten years after its first publication, Michael Reid's best-selling survey of the state of contemporary Latin America has been wholly updated to reflect the new realities of the "Forgotten Continent." The former Americas editor for the Economist, Reid suggests that much of Central and South America, though less poor, less unequal, and better educated than before, faces harder economic times now that the commodities boom of the 2000s is over. His revised, in-depth account of the region reveals dynamic societies…

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Interested in Latin America, South America, and explorers?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about Latin America, South America, and explorers.

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