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The South American Handbook: Don’t Go South Without It
by Dan Buck (Peru 1965–67)

      ONE DROWSY AFTERNOON a quarter-century ago in Caracaraí, Brazil, on the upper reaches of a tributary of the Rio Negro, I was waiting for the next barge to Manaos. An elderly German couple stepped off the daily bus from Boa Vista carrying a small suitcase, a camera bag, and the South American Handbook. The next day a Dutch couple appeared, on the first leg of a journey around the continent. Propped on the dashboard of their dusty Volkswagon Sirocco was the South American Handbook, with its trademark red cloth binding and gilt lettering. Those scenes have been repeating themselves for more than 75 years, ever since a British steamship company decided to get into the guidebook trade.

      An English Publication
      The SAH was launched as a successor to the Anglo-South American Handbook, a vade mecum for commercial travelers begun in 1921 by William Henry Koebel, a prolific writer of the period on topics Latin American. After Koebel’s death, his guide was purchased by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Co., and it reappeared in 1924 as the South American Handbook. In 1929, a World War I veteran from Wales, Howell Davies, came on as editor, a post he held for a marathon four decades.
           During World War II, the SAH somehow scavenged enough paper to publish without interruption. Communications from its Latin American correspondents successfully evaded enemy torpedoes. The 1941 edition “owes its very existence to the efficiency of our shipping services,” Davies exulted, “and is, in its way, as positive proof of victory over the German submarine as anything that could be cited.”
           The Royal Mail ceased its passenger service to South America, and in 1971 John Dawson, the SAH’s printer, bought the guidebook, rescuing it from all but certain demise.

      From Sea to Air
      A new editor, John Brooks, entered the picture, and made a number of changes, chief among them a shift in focus from sea to air travel. He also jettisoned the red cloth binding in favor of a glossy pictorial cover. (The SAH, ever weight conscious, became a paperback in 2000.) Brooks, a banker by day and editor by night, stayed at the helm until his sudden death at age 62 in 1989, at which point the editorship was assumed by Ben Box, who has a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese studies from London University.
          Although airplanes displaced ships in the SAH’s attentions, other traditions were maintained and improved. Kept in the field was the army of “voluntary contributors,” as the SAH’s users are known, who had long peppered the editors with quirky, penetrating, caustic, and enthusiastic annotations. The earliest editions had relied heavily on dispatches from the Royal Mail’s network of agents, as well as on representatives of other businesses, and extracts from government publications and commercial journals. (The 1925 edition does carry one eyewitness account, from American explorer M. Richard Marsh, on the “presence of a blond Indian tribe with tawny flaxen hair and blue eyes in eastern Panama.” For reasons that remain obscure, explorers of the era sighted blond Indian tribes with alacrity.) Brooks not only beseeched his readers for contributions, he festooned the text with their notes, anticipating by several decades Internet chat rooms, and cited their names in tiny print in endless acknowledgments.

      Maps & More Maps
      With Box’s ascension, the selection of maps, long an SAH deficiency, grew dramatically. Early users had to make do with a single foldout map of all of Latin America. Now they can feast on a cartographic cornucopia: More than 200 maps, grids, and plans of countries, cities, zones, and trekking trails.
           Box and his editorial team have also presided over the guide’s greening, a reflection of the changing outlooks and interests of modern travelers. A passage in the 2001 edition on “Responsible Tourism” discusses the adverse effects tourists can have and cautions that not all travel agencies advertising themselves as green are in fact environmentally sensitive. This shift in outlook can be seen in the segment on Brazil’s Pantanal wildlife preserve (which was first brought to the SAH’s attention by alert readers). Several pages on touring the Pantanal, in the Mato Grosso region, are preceded by introductory remarks on flora and fauna, conservation, and choosing the right guide.

      With age has come virility
      If the patriarch of South American guidebooks is feeling its three-quarters of a century, it doesn’t show it. Indeed, it’s been remarkably virile of late, siring volumes on several of the continent’s individual countries. (In 1989, the SAH’s publisher, now called Footprint Handbooks, began issuing worldwide titles, from Tibet to East Africa and from Laos to Israel.)
      The South American Handbook and the Mexico & Central American Handbook, which was spun off in 1990, together approximate 3,000 pages (printed on what is proudly described as “our now-famous ‘bible’ paper”), as compared to the 1924 inaugural edition, which covered the same universe in a single volume one-fifth that length.
      A Book for the Pocket
      In spite of the handbook’s changes over the decades, its purpose remains much as its first editor, J.A. Hunter, envisioned, “a book for the pocket and the traveling bag . . . to bring to the eye that information that the traveler urgently requires.” Fortunately for the traveler, pockets have gotten bigger over the years.
           In some cases, required information has increased in complexity, though the working principle, “be alert,” is the same. The 1924 edition warned steamship passengers to be on guard with their luggage: “It might not be superfluous to mention the desirability of locking trunks and bags securely. In especial, personal baggage should not be delivered into the hands of shore touts without being carefully locked in advance.”

      Choosing the Right Mule
      The 2001 edition devotes two pages to “Safety,” cautionary advice on such perils as drugs, rape, and pickpockets. (Those specters undoubtedly existed in 1924, but they were not bruited about so openly.) Other topics have been overtaken by progress. “Choosing a pack animal,” a long-discarded section, was a must-read in 1924: “In all the Latin American Republics, it is necessary to use mules, donkeys. burros, and horses for certain journeys. The traveler should be careful in his arrangements. The horses and mules should be inspected. Choice is not always possible, but experienced travelers find that by insistence they are often able to obtain bestias of more endurance than others from the same owner.”
           The modern SAH has not a word on selecting mules (which are, in any event, now rarer than vicuñas) but tenders many paragraphs on car hire and motoring, motorcycling, and air travel, not to mention trekking, which though possible, was not a customary mode of locomotion for tourists in the 1920s.

      By 1973, the Age of Aquarius had caught up with the SAH. “It is regrettable, but nonetheless true,” the editors intoned, “that a prejudice has grown up among the authorities of several Latin American countries against young male travelers with long hair, beards, and hippy-style clothing.” Flower children were encouraged “to moderate their hair and dress styles.”

      Varying lodging
      In the good old days, it was the lodging that was slovenly, not the lodgers. Accommodations in rural areas fell into a sorry trio of categories: tambos, mesones, and fondas. Tambos, the best of a bad lot, were “small primitive inns.” The traveler was instructed to carry his own hammock, bed linen, mosquito netting, and tinned food. Mesones, or “taverns of an inferior kind,” were to be “avoided at all costs,” and fondas, an inferior version of a meson, “were still more to be shunned.”
           Huaraz, in Peru’s Callejon de Huayllas, had but two hotels — the Italia and the Ancash — worth mentioning in 1924 (what ranking they occupied in the three-tiered bad lot was not said). Today, more than 30 hostelries are recommended, ranging from the spiffy, Swiss-run Hostal Andino, to a slew of nice, noisy, charming, basic alojamientos favored by the trekking set. Huaraz merited only four lines in 1924. Today the attractions of the city and the villages and hiking trails of the surrounding cordilleras crowd 15 pages.
           In fact, the first SAH dispatched Peru in but 21 pages, half of which recited commercial regulations and inventoried natural resources, among them coca. Cocaine was confected at Huánuco, in the Huallaga River Valley. Most of the annual production, some 3,300 pounds, was exported to Japan. The most recent edition favors Peru with 215 pages (where one learns the whimsical fact that Peru is more than twice the size of France). The Huallaga Valley is still verdant with coca bushes, but the United States has supplanted Japan as the paramount cocaine importer.

      Seven Decades of Great Travel Writing
      Thin or thick, reportorial, whimsical, or edifying, the SAH down through its seven decades has been praised by such literary vagabonds as Graham Greene, Alastair Reid, Paul Theroux [Malawi 1963–65] (South American travel riled him, but he found the SAH an affable companion), and Michael Palin, who joked that he consulted the guide book as often as his hip flask.  Some years ago, ethnologist Karen Olsen Bruhns penned a more utilitarian testimonial: The “contents [are] extremely useful, but the book is just the right size and weight for killing errant cockroaches.”

      Daniel Buck, is a contributing editor of South American Explorer and a regular contributor to Américas. “The South American Handbook,” was originally published in the Winter 1998 South American Explorer in a slightly different form.