The most recommended books about Central America

Who picked these books? Meet our 29 experts.

29 authors created a book list connected to Central America, and here are their favorite Central America books.
Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

What type of Central America book?


Book cover of The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal, 1870-1914

Andrew R. Thomas Author Of The Canal of Panama and Globalization: Growth and Challenges in the 21st Century

From my list on the Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad.

Why am I passionate about this?

My twenty-five books have explored topics around global trade, transportation networks, security, and development. Prior to becoming a writer, I had a moderately successful global business career; that came with the opportunity to travel to and conduct business in more than 120 countries on all seven continents. Being American (by birth) and Panamanian (by marriage), the role of Panama and both the Canal and the Railroad in the history of the world always fascinated me. My most recent book on the present and future of the Canal and Panama has been the fulfillment of much passion and interest over many years.

Andrew's book list on the Panama Canal and the Panama Railroad

Andrew R. Thomas Why did Andrew love this book?

The earlier books on my list lay the foundation for McCullough’s masterpiece, which focuses on the French and American efforts at Panama.

While many readers interested in Panama and the Canal often start here, this book is best served at the end: like a great dessert and aperitif following a wonderful meal.

By David McCullough,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Path Between the Seas as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Describes all the events and personalities involved in the monumental undertaking which precipitated revolution, scandal, economic crisis, and a new Central American republic.

Book cover of Stuck with Tourism: Space, Power, and Labor in Contemporary Yucatan

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Author Of Beautiful Politics of Music: Trova in Yucatan, Mexico

From my list on falling in love with Yucatan’s ethnography.

Why am I passionate about this?

I grew up in Valladolid, a semi-rural city of Yucatan. My parents loved the history and archaeology of the Yucatan peninsula, which not long ago was a single cultural and linguistic entity. I grew up dreaming of becoming an archaeologist. With time, I became fascinated with people and sociality within and beyond Yucatan, so I became an anthropologist. I trained as an anthropologist in Mexico and Canada, and have done research in Canada, Italy, Mexico, and Spain. I live and work in Yucatan, as a professor of anthropology. Good ethnographies are what anthropology is about, and those I write about here are some of the best.

Gabriela's book list on falling in love with Yucatan’s ethnography

Gabriela Vargas-Cetina Why did Gabriela love this book?

In the 1970s, my parents took me and my siblings to the Camino Real, one of the first hotels ever built in Cancun.

We sat on canvas chairs on the beach and my dad played the guitar. Fiddler crabs walked around us, the stars shone brightly, and we enjoyed the music and the sound of crashing waves. Tourism and its evils, however, soon became a nightmare for peninsular Yucatecans.

Through the city of Cancun, the natural reserve Calakmul, the village of Tekit and the hotels in former sisal haciendas, this ethnography shows how, even when living standards improved, local people have become geographically immobilized and resource-impoverished.

The tourist industry is predatory. It destroys natural resources, transforms places into what the rich think of as paradise, and displaces and disempowers local people.

By Matilde Cordoba Azcarate,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Tourism has become one of the most powerful forces organizing the predatory geographies of late capitalism. It creates entangled futures of exploitation and dependence, extracting resources and labor, and eclipsing other ways of doing, living, and imagining life. And yet, tourism also creates jobs, encourages infrastructure development, and in many places inspires the only possibility of hope and well-being. Stuck with Tourism explores the ambivalent nature of tourism by drawing on ethnographic evidence from the Mexican Yucatan Peninsula, a region voraciously transformed by tourism development over the past forty years. Contrasting labor and lived experiences at the beach resorts of…

Book cover of Time Among the Maya: Travels in Belize, Guatemala, and Mexico

Ryan Murdock Author Of Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America

From my list on Central America.

Why am I passionate about this?

Ryan Murdock is Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Outpost, Canada’s national travel magazine, and a weekly columnist for The Shift, an independent Maltese news portal. His feature articles have taken him across a remote stretch of Canada’s Northwest Territories on foot, into the Central Sahara in search of prehistoric rock art, and around Wales with a drug squad detective hunting for the real King Arthur.

Ryan's book list on Central America

Ryan Murdock Why did Ryan love this book?

Far from being an extinct people swallowed by the jungle-like their famous temples, the Maya make up a significant percentage of the population of southern Mexico, Guatemala, and Belize, with vibrant ancient languages that are still spoken today. This beautifully written account of contemporary Maya culture will help you understand a remarkable people who explored the world through arithmetic and time.

By Ronald Wright,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Time Among the Maya as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

"Cut Stones and Crossroads" and "On Fiji Island" are previous books by Ronald Wright, author of this book concerned with the Maya, who in the first millennium AD, created the most intellectually and artistically advanced civilization native to the Americas. Despite a mysterious collapse in the ninth century and Spanish invasion in the 16th century, some five million people throughout Guatemala, Belize and south-eastern Mexico still speak Maya languages and preserve a Maya identity today. Ronald Wright set out to discover the roots of the Maya and the extent of their survival after centuries of invasion and a recent civil…

Book cover of Rural Guatemala, 1760-1940

James Dunkerley Author Of Power in the Isthmus

From my list on Central American history and politics.

Why am I passionate about this?

My passion for Central American politics and history derived quite directly from the conflicts in the region from the late 1970s onwards. Previously I had worked in Bolivia, where I had studied as a doctoral student, and although many people still view Latin American countries as pretty homogenous, I quickly discovered that they are very far from being so. I had to unlearn quite a bit and acquire new skills, although luckily, indigenous languages are really only dominant in Guatemala. Now we can be rather less partisan although many injustices remain.

James' book list on Central American history and politics

James Dunkerley Why did James love this book?

When McCreery’s book was published the literature on the region was overwhelmingly dominated by books on politics, with the great majority written from a left-wing perspective. Even long after the fighting has ceased, many in the global North had an unnuanced vision of rural society in which oligarchic landlords exercised feudal control over an undifferentiated ‘peasantry.’ This book shows that for decades an element of that vision was borne out in everyday life, but the volume also shows on the basis of outstanding research that rural Guatemala was dynamic, riven with class competition and negotiation, far from binary in its social structure, and possessed of a rich cultural life.

By David McCreery,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Rural Guatemala, 1760-1940 as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This comprehensive study of rural development in Guatemala extends from the late colonial period through the transformation of the economy by the introduction of larger-scale coffee production.

Book cover of A Book of Common Prayer

Siobhan Fallon Author Of The Confusion of Languages

From my list on war (that are not actually about war).

Why am I passionate about this?

I’m an American writer, Army wife, and occasional expat who has spent nearly a decade of my life living abroad (including Japan, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates), not to mention seven Army moves stateside. I love to read (and write!) books that explore discordance and dislocation, what it is like to be an American living overseas in a time of war, and how these things impact relationships with friends, families, and strangers, and our concept of “home.” My writing is often an exploration of the mundane mixed with the catastrophic. Oh, and I have a weakness for stray cats. Lots of stray cats.

Siobhan's book list on war (that are not actually about war)

Siobhan Fallon Why did Siobhan love this book?

As a military spouse who has lived abroad and is always a bit wary about my surroundings, so much about this uncomfortable novel resonated with me. Two American women become unlikely friends while waiting for an inevitable military coup in an unnamed Central American country. The older woman narrator, Grace, who has married into the ruling family, takes naïve Charlotte under her wing. Both women seem to connect over their background, dislocation, and fractured family life, but nothing is as it seems. The unreliable narrator, the political ugliness, and the encroaching war all make this a thrilling read. The reader never knows what poses the biggest threat to the female protagonists: ex-husbands, runaway children, or firing squads. 

By Joan Didion,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Book of Common Prayer as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A shimmering novel of innocence and evil: the gripping story of two American women in a failing Central American nation, from the bestselling, award-winning author of The Year of Magical Thinking and Let Me Tell You What I Mean

"[Didion's] most ambitious project in fiction, and her most successful ... glows with a golden aura of well-wrought classical tragedy.”  —Los Angeles Times Book Review

Grace Strasser-Mendana controls much of Boca Grande's wealth and knows virtually all of its secrets; Charlotte Douglas knows far too little. "Immaculate of history, innocent of politics," Charlotte has come to Boca Grande vaguely and vainly…

Book cover of Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

Roy M. Griffis Author Of The Old World

From my list on history that reads like the most gripping fiction.

Why am I passionate about this?

I love history that is about people. The discoveries they made or the adventures they had (or endured) are thrilling and fascinating, but it’s the people who make it compelling. From Ernest Shackleton dumping handfuls of gold on the ice to show his stranded men he was committed to getting them out of Antarctica alive, to a fussy young William Travis writing desperately for help that would never come, and being of the first to die during the attack on the Alamo…the best books make those events, the times, and the stakes very very real. And the very best histories give you the humanity of the choices and decisions that led them there.

Roy's book list on history that reads like the most gripping fiction

Roy M. Griffis Why did Roy love this book?

One of the real contagions of contemporary life (for anyone in any time, I suspect) is the way one can become complacent about the existence we are experiencing: we can take “what everyone knows” for granted. Like the Ferris Wheel, which was invented for the Chicago World’s Fair to outshine the previous Fair’s Effiel Tower. Now, any carnival midway or small circus has one. 

The same with many “ancient ruins.” Cruise ships stop at Minos or the Mexican pyramids for organized tours. But these places had been lost for millennia until they were re-discovered in the last 200 – 300 years. In Jungles of Stone, the initial discovery was almost an accident. Seen as an opportunity by Stephens and Catherwood, the magnificence and majesty of what they find converts their commercial enterprise into something more like a crusade. While the book recounts their arduous efforts to uncover the lost…

By William Carlsen,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

New York Times Bestseller (Expeditions) * THE "MASTERFUL CHRONICLE"* OF THE DISCOVERY OF THE LEGENDARY LOST CIVILIZATION OF THE MAYA--AN "ADVENTURE TALE THAT MAKES INDIANA JONES LOOK TAME"* In 1839, rumors of extraordinary yet baffling stone ruins buried within the unmapped jungles of Central America reached two of the world's most intrepid travelers. Seized by the reports, American diplomat John Lloyd Stephens and British artist Frederick Catherwood-both already celebrated for their adventures in Egypt, the Holy Land, Greece, and Rome-sailed together out of New York Harbor on an expedition into the forbidding rainforests of present-day Honduras, Guatemala, and Mexico. What…

Book cover of Lost Cities of North & Central America

Jerry Davis Author Of Amazing Mysterious Places: Geography Trivia Quiz

From my list on ancient mysteries that popular culture loves to explore.

Why am I passionate about this?

I’ve been an explorer since I was young. My first short trip was to Cahokia Mounds, a site so little is known about that researchers have yet to discover the name of the people who built the famous city of mounds. As I grew into an adult, I was drawn to visit the Pyramid of Chichen Itza in Mexico and Stonehenge in England. As a writer, I decided the one thing missing from the mysterious places field was a fun way to learn about them. So I wrote a mysterious places book in a trivia game format, as learning something new is always more fun when presented as a  game.  

Jerry's book list on ancient mysteries that popular culture loves to explore

Jerry Davis Why did Jerry love this book?

After reading Lost Cities and Adventures Across America, I was filled with a sense of curiosity about exploring and uncovering ancient mysteries.

David Hatcher Childress, an archaeologist and author best known for his Ancient Aliens show, takes readers to Mayan cities, ancient canal systems, megalithic monuments, and Guatemala's jungles. Childress is a superb storyteller and leads the reader's thorough exploration of mysterious places, making it a book I recommend to all who enjoy mysterious places.

By David Hatcher Childress,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lost Cities of North & Central America as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

From the jungles of Central America to the deserts of the southwest down the back roads from coast to coast, maverick archaeologist and adventurer David Hatcher Childress takes the reader deep into unknown America. In this incredible book, search for lost Mayan cities and books of gold, discover an ancient canal system in Arizona, climb gigantic pyramids in the Midwest, explore megalithic monuments in New England, and join the astonishing quest for the lost cities throughout North America. From the war-torn jungles of Guatemala, Nicaragua and Honduras to the deserts, mountains and fields of Mexico, Canada, and the U.S.A. Childress…

Book cover of Secure the Soul: Christian Piety and Gang Prevention in Guatemala

Chad E. Seales Author Of Religion Around Bono: Evangelical Enchantment and Neoliberal Capitalism

From my list on American evangelicalism and neoliberal religion.

Why am I passionate about this?

I've always been fascinated by the ways religion reconciles contradiction. Both of my parents were public school teachers in the panhandle of Florida, and I now work at a public university in Texas, yet the culture in which I was raised, of white evangelicalism, supported economic policies of neoliberalism that defunded public life. My interest in American religion is motivated by the question of why we participate in systems that harm us. This is an economic question, but sufficient answers must address the power of religion to shape what we see as morally good and bad. These books all do that.

Chad's book list on American evangelicalism and neoliberal religion

Chad E. Seales Why did Chad love this book?

No other book better encapsulates the evangelical spirit of neoliberal policies in the details of everyday life, including what it feels like to be arrested in the United States for being part of a gang, and ending up in a call center in Central America, only to be morally shamed for not working hard enough, as your corporate employer leverages the power of religion, and the threat of danger, to keep you trapped there. 

By Kevin Lewis O'Neill,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

"I'm not perfect," Mateo confessed, "Nobody is. But I try." Secure the Soul shuttles between the life of Mateo, a born-again, ex-gang member in Guatemala and the gang prevention programs that work so hard to keep him alive. Along the way, this poignantly written ethnography uncovers the Christian underpinnings of Central American security. In the streets of Guatemala City - amid angry lynch mobs, overcrowded prisons, and paramilitary death squads - millions of dollars empower church missions, faith-based programs, and seemingly secular security projects to prevent gang violence through the practice of Christian piety. With Guatemala increasingly defined by both…

Book cover of Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens

Markus Eberl Author Of War Owl Falling: Innovation, Creativity, and Culture Change in Ancient Maya Society

From my list on innovation in the past when this wasn't yet a thing.

Why am I passionate about this?

As an archaeologist, I love prehistoric things and what can I learn from them about the people that made them and left them behind. I study ancient Maya commoners in what is now modern Guatemala. Their material remains are humble but include depictions and symbols normally found in the palaces of Maya kings and queens. First I wondered and then I studied how the title-giving war owl fell into the hands of Maya commoners. By approaching this process as innovation, I discuss creativity in the past and cultural changes that result from it.

Markus' book list on innovation in the past when this wasn't yet a thing

Markus Eberl Why did Markus love this book?

Prehistoric people outside of Europe are often assumed to be "people without history," as anthropologist Eric Wolf called them. Simon Martin and Nikolai Grube's book is exciting because it uses the recent decipherment of Maya hieroglyphs to reconstruct the lives of dozens of Maya rulers. At least some of the millions of ancient Maya have now names and a history. Their great art and architecture can be linked to artists who made them and to nobles who commissioned them.

By Simon Martin, Nikolai Grube,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Deep in the dense rainforests of Central America lie the turbulent stories of the Maya monarchy, stories brought vividly to life in Chronicles of the Maya Kings and Queens, which is newly available in paperback. Describing many of their own discoveries, two of the world's leading experts in Maya hieroglyphs take the reader into a once-hidden history, setting out the latest thinking on the nature of Maya divine kingship, statehood and political authority, and describing all the most recent readings and archaeological finds. Chronicle of the Maya Kings and Queens combines groundbreaking research with a highly readable history, offering the…

Book cover of Whose Heaven, Whose Earth?

Theresa Keeley Author Of Reagan's Gun-Toting Nuns: The Catholic Conflict Over Cold War Human Rights Policy in Central America

From my list on Catholics who joined revolutionary movements in Central America.

Why am I passionate about this?

I am fascinated by the relationship between people’s religious and political identities. As a kindergartner, I heard about the hunger strikers at our local Irish Center, I was taught anti-communist songs at my Catholic Ukrainian school, and I listened as my dad explained Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers as we passed by the grapes while grocery shopping. Catholicism was not something I saw as just happening inside the walls of a church. It was about how one related to the world and was part of a global community. Those early experiences inspired me to become a human rights lawyer and activist, and later, a U.S. foreign relations historian.

Theresa's book list on Catholics who joined revolutionary movements in Central America

Theresa Keeley Why did Theresa love this book?

How did a U.S. priest and nun who went to Guatemala to convert the poor to “proper” Catholicism and to fight communism join a revolutionary movement?

The married couple Thomas and Marjorie Melville explain how they shared the anti-communist views of the U.S. government and the Catholic Church but living among the poor led them to question both institutions’ roles in supporting inequality in Guatemala. At the time of the book’s publication, 1970, the two were in jail as part of the Catonsville Nine. They, along with other Catholics, broke into a Maryland draft board and poured homemade napalm on stolen files to protest U.S. imperialism, including in Vietnam, and the Catholic Church’s support for it.