Foreign Travelers in Latin America

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Foreign Travelers in Latin America

European travelers began to write about their adventures in the New World in the seventeenth century. At first the writings were purely descriptive, although often colored by the specific interests of the writer. The genre provides a comprehensive introduction to every aspect of Latin America. There are literally thousands of books written by travelers who visited the region; the countries most frequently commented on are Mexico, Brazil, and Argentina. Some writers were experts on the area they describe; others digested their experiences in a day or two, just enough time to produce a generalized reaction to the little that they saw. Travelers who write books come from every walk of life: They are missionaries, soldiers, adventurers, artists, and scientists who reinforce their words with drawings and graphic material; others are businessmen, retired statesmen, venturesome women, novelists, photographers, and professional journalists dedicated to the area of travel.

One of the earliest chronicles of a European's sojourn in South America was written by an Austrian Jesuit missionary, Antonio Sepp, who traveled to Buenos Aires in the 1690s. He describes the arduous sea journey and the precariousness of the Spanish settlements he visited between Buenos Aires and Asunción, far up the Paraná River, in Paraguay. His text provides a colorful sketch of Jesuit entrepreneurship and effectiveness. In subsequent centuries botanists sketched plants, artists painted watercolors of local customs, and cartographers gradually adjusted the mythical boundaries of the New World to the reality that sailors needed for navigation.

At first, visitors concentrated on what they saw: the landscape, the vegetation, and the native population. As the Spanish occupation expanded, foreign writers began to concentrate on the ins and outs of Spanish occupation: the compounds of the different Catholic missionary groups, the search for mineral wealth, and the eventual competition between mainland Spaniards and their local offspring, often born of Indian or in some cases black mothers. Independence brought new viewpoints, and nineteenth-century economic expansion and population growth produced a wave of optimistic predictions from enthusiastic authors for a miraculous future, from Mexico to Argentina.

Books range from light, highly readable panoramas, such as the U.S. novelist Richard Henry Dana's To Cuba and Back: A Vacation Voyage (1859) or the British novelist Christopher Isherwood's revealing chronicle The Condor and the Cows (1949), to the more technical studies of U.S. Naval researchers who investigated the Amazon valley in the 1850s or Alexander von Humboldt and Charles Darwin's scientific reflections on their trips through different parts of South America. Stretching the genre, one could also include Herman Melville's Moby-Dick, the novelized version of his travels on a whaling ship, and Joseph Conrad's Nostromo and A Set of Six.

Internationally recognized statesmen such as Lord Bryce and Georges Clemenceau provided insights into their fields of interest, especially in terms of the geopolitical future of the hemisphere. Theodore Roosevelt related his adventures in the Amazon basin and anticipated an animated genre dedicated to the legends of the Amazon and the search for elusive city of El Dorado. Julian Duguid's Green Hell: Adventures in the Mysterious Jungles of East Bolivia (1931) remains a classic in the field, as does Peter Fleming's Brazilian Adventure, written three years later.

Patagonia was another region that fascinated writers and their readers. The 1977 best-seller In Patagonia, by the English travel writer, novelist, and photographer Bruce Chatwin, described with passion and insight the intimate details of an overland tour through Southernmost Argentina.

Mexico has been the prerogative of renowned English novelists, such as D. H. Lawrence, Aldous Huxley, and Graham Greene, who visited that country in the 1920s and 1930s and wrote sensitive accounts of their experiences. Lawrence Durrell and V. S. Naipaul have touched on Argentina in rather critical overviews, and Evelyn Waugh wrote about his three-month adventure in the backlands of British Guiana and Brazil in the early 1930s.

Businessmen have provided another point of view, sometimes euphoric and sometimes disgruntled, according to the personal experiences of each. John Foster Fraser wrote The Amazing Argentine in 1910: He, like so many others, predicted a brilliant future for the up-and-coming country. The Englishman Thomas A. Turner, by contrast, a self-proclaimed dyspeptic, criticized the Argentine's business customs and predicted a less prosperous future.

Another group of writers, less frequently encountered, who provide a parallel version of life in Latin America are the women travel writers. The Bostonian Charlotte Cameron wrote A Woman's Winter in South America in 1910, and Annie Peck produced The South American Tour in 1913. The books were designed to prepare a woman of means for the adventures she would meet in her sojourn in Spanish America. The Swedish traveler Dr. Hanna Rydh described her experiences a generation later in Argentine to Andes, continuing the tradition of women preparing women for the Latin American experience.

Many of the interpretations that the peripatetic travelers made were based, at best, on hearsay, and time has proved their lack of validity. Also, much of the material has become outdated and only retains its value in its contribution to a generalized understanding of time and place. John Gunther's classic chronicles of his world travels, based on well-researched and carefully edited views, are examples of practical travel writing that survives. In other cases, the writing itself is good enough to outweigh the errors in facts and interpretation.

There are a number of anthologies that include fragments of texts from the writings of a selection of travelers. Examples are Viajeros Extranjeros por Colombia, edited in Bogotá; La ruta argentina, compiled by Christian Kupchik; and Frank MacShane's Impressions of Latin America, which covers five centuries of travel by English and North American travelers, from Sir Francis Drake to Waldo Frank. Reading these anthologies provides a varied and anecdotal introduction to what has intrigued visitors and voyagers as they discover the idiosyncrasies of a world that is new to them. Travel writing often provides the reader with an awareness of the peoples of the region, their aspirations and frustrations that is complementary to the information found in more formal academic texts.

See alsoAmazon Region; Naipaul, V. S.; Patagonia; Travel Literature.


Cameron, Charlotte. A Woman's Winter in South America. Boston: Small, Mayward, c. 1910.

Dana, Richard Henry, Jr. To Cuba and Back: A Vacation Voyage. Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1859.

Díaz Granados, José Luis. Viajeros Extranjeros por Colombia. Bogota: Presidencia de la República, 1997.

Duguid, Julian. Green Hell: Adventures in the Mysterious Jungles of East Bolivia. New York: Century, 1931.

Fleming, Peter. Brazilian Adventure. New York: Scribners, 1933.

Green, Graham. The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journey. London: Longmans, 1939.

Herndon, William Lewis. Exploration of the Valley of the Amazon. Washington, DC: Taylor & Maury, 1854. New edition, edited and with a foreword by Gary Zinder, New York: Grove Press, 2000.

Huxley, Aldous. Beyond the Mexique Bay: A Traveller's Journal. London: Chatto & Windus, 1934.

Isherwood, Christopher. The Condor and the Cows. London: Methuen, 1949.

Kupchik, Christian, ed. La ruta argentina. Buenos Aires: Grupo Editorial Planeta, 1999.

Lawrence, D. H. Mornings in Mexico. London: Martin Secker, 1927.

McShane, Frank, ed. Impressions of Latin America: Five Centuries of Travel and Adventure by English and North American Writers. New York: William Morrow, 1963.

Merwin, Mrs. George B. Three Years in Chile. Columbus, Ohio, 1863. Edited by C. Harvey Gardiner. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1966.

Peck, Annie S. The South American Tour. New York: George H. Doran, 1913.

Roosevelt, Theodore. Through the Brazilian Wilderness and Papers on Natural History. New York: Scribners, 1914.

Rydh, Dr. Hanna. Argentine to Andes. London: Blackie & Sons, 1940.

Sepp, Anthony. An Account of a Voyage from Spain to Paraquaria. Nuremberg, 1697.

Waugh, Evelyn. Ninety-Two Days: The Account of a Tropical Journey through British Guiana and Part of Brazil. New York: Farrar & Rinehart, 1934.

                                   Edward L. Shaw

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Foreign Travelers in Latin America

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