Spark Your Curiosity With These 10 Books Set in South America

by | Oct 12, 2022

Scenic Arenal volcano in Costa Rica, Central America

Last updated on November 9th, 2022

Featured image: A volcano in Costa Rica, where Karen Swan’s  “The Secret Path” takes place | Photo by Galyna_Andrushko on Envato

Plan new adventures with these great reads 

By Tina Hartas, TripFiction

We hope this choice of books captures the heart and soul of the countries in this incredibly culturally rich and beautiful part of the world. We have chosen a variety of genres for broad appeal and hope we can introduce our readers to the capturing a sense of place through the eyes of an author.

Map of South America Books
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1. The Penguin Lessons by Tom Michell

Argentina

Tom Michell is in his roaring twenties: single, free-spirited and seeking adventure. He has a plane ticket to South America, a teaching position in a prestigious Argentine boarding school, and endless summer holidays. He even has a motorbike, Che Guevara style. What he doesn’t need is a pet. What he really doesn’t need is a pet penguin.

Set against Argentina’s turbulent years following the collapse of the corrupt Perónist regime, this is the heart-warming story of Juan Salvador the penguin, rescued by Tom from an oil slick in Uruguay just days before a new term. When the bird refuses to leave Tom’s side, the young teacher has no choice but to smuggle it across the border, through customs, and back to school. Whether it’s as the rugby team’s mascot, the housekeeper’s confidant, the host at Tom’s parties or the most flamboyant swimming coach in world history, Juan Salvador transforms the lives of all he meets – in particular one homesick school boy. And as for Tom, he discovers in Juan Salvador a compadre like no other…

The Penguin Lessons Book Cover

Watch: The true story of Tom Michell and Juan Salvador the penguin, as read by Bill Nighy.

2. Portrait in Sepia by Isabel Allende

Venezuela

Best-selling international author, Isabel Allende tackles her homeland head-on in this staggering, epic romance.

‘Portrait in Sepia’ is both a magnificent historical novel set at the end of the nineteenth century in Chile and a marvellous family saga peopled by characters from ‘Daughter of Fortune’ and ‘The House of the Spirits’, two of Allende’s most celebrated novels.

As a young girl, Aurora del Valle suffered a brutal trauma that has shaped her character and erased from her mind all recollection of the first five years of her life. Raised by her ambitious grandmother, the regal and commanding Paulina del Valle, she grows up in a privileged environment, free of the limitations that circumscribe the lives of women at that time, but tormented by terrible nightmares.

When she finds herself alone at the end of an unhappy love affair, she decides to explore the mystery of her past, to discover what it was, exactly, all those years ago, that had such a devastating effect on her young life.

Richly detailed, epic in scope, this engrossing story of the dark power of hidden secrets is intimate in its probing of human character, and thrilling in the way it illuminates the complexity of family ties.

Portrait in Sepia Book Cover

3. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett

Brazil

There were people on the banks of the river. Among the tangled waterways and giant anacondas of the Brazilian Rio Negro, an enigmatic scientist is developing a drug that could alter the lives of women forever. Dr Annick Swenson’s work is shrouded in mystery: she refuses to report on her progress, especially to her investors, whose patience is fast running out. Anders Eckman, a mild-mannered lab researcher, is sent to investigate.

A curt letter reporting his untimely death is all that returns. Now Marina Singh, Anders’s colleague and once a student of the mighty Dr Swenson, is their last hope. Compelled by the pleas of Anders’s wife, who refuses to accept that her husband is not coming home, Marina leaves the snowy plains of Minnesota and retraces her friend’s steps into the heart of the South American darkness, determined to track down Dr. Swenson and uncover the secrets being jealously guarded among the remotest tribes of the rainforest. What Marina does not yet know is that, in this ancient corner of the jungle, where the muddy waters and susurrating grasses hide countless unknown perils and temptations, she will face challenges beyond her wildest imagination. Marina is no longer the student, but only time will tell if she has learnt enough.

Editor’s note: State of Wonder was our December 2021 Book of the Month. Learn more here. 

State of Wonder Book Cover

4. Invisible Country by Annamaria Alfieri

Paraguay

From the author of City of Silver, a beautifully rich and puzzling historical mystery set in Paraguay, 1868. A war against Argentina, Brazil, and Uruguay has devastated Paraguay. Ninety percent of the males between the ages of eight and eighty have died in the conflict and food is scarce. In the small village of Santa Caterina, Padre Gregorio advises the women of his congregation to abandon the laws of the church and get pregnant by what men are available. As he leaves the pulpit, he discovers the murdered body of Ricardo Yotte, one of the most powerful men in the country, at the bottom of the belfry.

There are many suspects: Eliza Lynch, a former Parisian courtesan who is now the consort of the brutal dictator, Francisco Solano Lopez, and who entrusted to Yotte the country’s treasury of gold and jewels; Lopez himself, who may have suspected his ally Yotte of carrying on an affair with the beautiful Eliza; Comandante Luis Menenez, local representative of the dictator, who competed with Yotte for Lopez’s favour, and a wounded Brazilian soldier who has secretly taken up with one of the village girls.

Lynch is desperate to recover the missing gold, and the comandante is desperate to prove his usefulness to Lopez. To avoid having an innocent person dragged off to torture and death, a band of villagers undertake to solve the crime, including Padre Gregorio, the village midwife, her crippled husband returned from combat, their spirited daughter, and a war widow. Each carries secrets they seek to protect from the others, while they pursue their quest for the truth.

Lyrical, complex, and meticulously researched, Annamaria Alfieri’s Invisible Country is an ingenious cross between Isabel Allende and Agatha Christie.

Invisible Country Book Cover


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5. The Secret Path by Karen Swan

Costa Rica

Your Costa Rican adventures starts here….

At just twenty years old, Tara Tremain has everything: she’s a trainee doctor, engaged to the man of her dreams – a passionate American biology student called Alex Carter. But just when life seems perfect, Alex betrays her in the worst way possible.

Ten years later, she’s moved on – with a successful career, good friends and a man who loves her. But when she’s pulled back into her wealthy family’s orbit for an unmissable party in the heart of Costa Rica, she finds herself flung into crisis: a child is desperately ill and the only remedy is several days’ trek away, in the heart of the jungle.

There’s only one person who can help – but it’s the man who shattered her heart a decade before. And how can she trust him, of all people?

Secret Path Book Cover

6. The General in his Labyrinth by Gabriél Gárcia Marquez

Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela

‘It was the fourth time he had travelled along the Magdalena, and he could not escape the impression that he was retracing the steps of his life’

At the age of forty-six General Simón Bolívar, who drove the Spanish from his lands and became the Liberator of South America, takes himself into exile. He makes a final journey down the Magdalene River, revisiting the cities along its shores, reliving the triumphs, passions and betrayals of his youth. Consumed by the memories of what he has done and what he failed to do, Bolívar hopes to see a way out of the labyrinth in which he has lived all his life. .

The General in His Labyrinth Book Cover

7. Death in the Andes by Mario Vargas Llosa

Peru

In an isolated community in the Peruvian Andes, a series of mysterious disappearances has occurred. Army corporal Lituma and his deputy Tomás believe the Shining Path guerrillas are responsible, but the townspeople have their own ideas about the forces that claimed the bodies of the missing men. This riveting novel is filled with unforgettable characters, among them disenfranchised Indians, eccentric local folk, and a couple performing strange cannibalistic sacrifices. As the investigation progresses, Tomás entertains Lituma with the surreal tale of a precarious love affair.

Death in the Andes is both a fascinating detective novel and an insightful political allegory. Mario Vargas Llosa offers a panoramic view of Peruvian society, from the recent social upheaval to the cultural influences in its past.

Death in the Andes Book Cover

8. The Layover by Lacie Waldon

Belize

After ten years as a flight attendant, Ava Greene is poised to hang up her wings and finally put down roots. She’s got one trip left before she bids her old life farewell, and she plans to enjoy every second of it. But then she discovers that former pilot Jack Stone–the absurdly gorgeous, ridiculously cocky man she’s held a secret grudge against for years–is on her flight. And he has the nerve to flirt with her, as if he doesn’t remember the role he played in the most humiliating night of her life. Good thing she never has to see him again after they land….

But when their plane encounters mechanical problems, what should have been a quick stop at the Belize airport suddenly becomes a weekend layover. Getting stuck on a three-hour flight with her nemesis was bad enough. Being stranded with him at a luxury resort in paradise? Even with the sultry breeze and white sand to distract her, it will take all the rum punch in the country to drown out his larger-than-life presence.

Yet the more time Ava spends with him under the hot Caribbean sun, the more she begins to second-guess everything she thought she knew about him…and everything she thought she wanted from her life. And all too soon, she might have to choose between keeping her feet on the ground and her head in the clouds….

The Layover Book Cover

9. The Sly Company of People Who Care by Rahul Battacharya

Guyana

A twenty-six-year-old Indian journalist decides to give up his job and travel to Guyana, a forgotten colonial society of raw, mesmerizing beauty. But he is not just seduced by the country: he is also captivated by the feisty yet fragile Jan, and together they embark on an adventure which will take them into a new country and change both their lives. In his dazzling and ambitious debut novel, Rahul Bhattacharya has captured the heady adventures of travel, the overheated restlessness of youth, and the paradoxes of searching for life’s meaning in the escape from home.

His narrative harks back to the works of Sir Walter Raleigh, Evelyn Waugh, Edgar Mittelholzer, Wilson Harris and VS Naipaul who have been meserised by the lure of travel – often fictional, but very real.

The Sly Company of People Who Care

10. Into the Jungle by Erica Ferencik

Bolivia

Lily Bushwold thought she’d found the antidote to endless foster care and group homes: a teaching job in Cochabamba, Bolivia. As soon as she could steal enough cash for the plane, she was on it.

When the gig falls through and Lily stays in Bolivia, she finds bonding with other broke, rudderless girls at the local hostel isn’t the life she wants either. Tired of hustling and already world-weary, crazy love finds her in the form she least expected: Omar, a savvy, handsome local man who’d abandoned his life as a hunter in Ayachero—a remote jungle village—to try his hand at city life.

When Omar learns that a jaguar has killed his four-year-old nephew in Ayachero, he gives Lily a choice: Stay alone in the unforgiving city, or travel to the last in a string of ever-more-isolated river towns in the jungles of Bolivia. Thirty-foot anaconda? Puppy-sized spiders? Vengeful shamans with unspeakable powers? Love-struck Lily is oblivious. She follows Omar to this ruthless new world of lawless poachers, bullheaded missionaries, and desperate indigenous tribes driven to the brink of extinction. To survive, Lily must navigate the jungle–its wonders as well as its terrors—using only her wits and resilience.

Into the Jungle Book Cover

Watch: Erica Ferencik, author of “The River at Night,” talks about her new book “Into the Jungle.”:

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Tina Hartas studied History of Art and German at University and went on to do an MA in Conservation of Fine Art. She has always loved reading and travel and has delighted in reading novels set in any given location. On a trip to Vienna 15 years ago it proved virtually impossible to trawl the internet and find a book set in the city. Thus the concept of TripFiction was born.

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