Travel Literature

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Travel Literature

Travel narratives, first-hand accounts of observations made while voyaging, began for Latin America in 1492 with Christopher Columbus, whose composition of letters and logbook carried this European literary genre across the Atlantic. As a region formerly terra incognita developed into various colonial and independent states, and as the era of discovery gave way to business, scientific, and finally leisure travel, the origins and professions of travelogue authors, as well as their narratives' purpose, style, and content, evolved.

Fifteenth-century travel narratives by Europeans primarily related tales of discovery and conquest in the Caribbean and mainland North and South America, prompting European audiences to reconsider their understanding of the world as well as to create governing policies. Columbus's logbooks, the Five Letters of Hernán Cortés, and accounts by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, Pedro Pizarro, Jean de Léry, and others provide detailed records of first encounters, exploration, and conquests from Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. Such narratives combined dramatic storytelling, often exaggerated feats of European military prowess, and native savagery. Their themes would become tropes of travel writing about the region: geography, indigenous customs, religions, politics, languages, commerce, agriculture, flora and fauna, and novel consumables such as avocados, tobacco, and cacao. Other accounts, such as conquistador-turned-Dominican friar Bartolomé de las Casas' scathing critique of Spanish treatment of New World residents, A Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1542), contributed to Spanish policies meant to mitigate abuses of conquered Americans as well as to the "Black Legend." Missionaries and explorers of the eighteenth century continued to write in this vein about unsettled territories.

When colonies were settled, travel writing became the purview of businessmen, immigrants, royal officials, and the few, mostly European, outsiders who reached Spanish and Portuguese America after monarchs forbade foreigners to travel to or reside there. There is also at least one Middle Eastern account, a manuscript by Elias Al-Musili, a Chaldean priest from Baghdad who visited Spanish America in the late seventeenth century. Spanish views can be found in manuscript letters, court records, official reports, and a few compelling published accounts—including the autobiographical adventures of Catalina de Erauso (1625), known to posterity as "the lieutenant nun" for having escaped a Basque convent and donned men's clothes to pursue a military career in the Americas, and the Lazarillo de Ciegos (1773), a tongue-in-cheek narrative in guidebook form published pseudonymously by a Spanish bureaucrat who traveled from Montevideo to Lima evaluating postal services. Foreign sojourners' tales emerge mainly from internal Spanish documents, such as British merchant John Chilton's Inquisition testimony regarding seventeen years as an itinerant merchant in sixteenth-century Mexico and Central America. The few published works were influential, including Thomas Gage's The English American (1648), which depicted Spanish America as ripe for invasion and was translated quickly into French, German, and Dutch.

Moreover, because Spain and Portugal never fully controlled the seas, around-the-world voyagers—including privateers William Dampier (1697) and Woodes Rogers (1712)—charted seacoasts from the Caribbean to the Magellan Straits and up to California, and published accounts about their interactions with settlers. Pirates, privateers, and buccaneers recounted natural histories and adventures—two examples are Sir John Hawking's True Declaration of the Troublesome Voyage (1569) to Guyana and the West Indies and Alexander Exquemelin's The Buccaneers of America (1684). Tales of shipwrecked sailors also made it into print as fact or fiction. Alexander Selkirk, marooned for four years on Chile's Juan Fernández Island and rescued in 1709 by Woodes Rogers, famously inspired Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe (1719).

By the mid-eighteenth century, a new breed of explorers emphasized the natural world in travelogues while continuing to write about politics, economics, and society, a trend that continues into the twenty-first century. Frenchman Charles de la Condamine joined forces with Spaniards Jorge Juan and Antonio de Ulloa to determine the length of a degree of latitude in Ecuador, producing scientific texts but also commentary on colonial society The most famous scientific expedition was the five-year voyage of Baron Alexander von Humboldt, a Prussian naturalist and explorer, with French doctor and botanist Aimé Bonpland. As related in their Personal Narrative (1814), the two navigated and mapped the Amazon and Orinoco Rivers, and traveled through Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba, and Mexico (1799–1804). Humboldt was also an astute observer of politics and society; his "Political Essays" on Mexico (1811) and Cuba (1826) remain important sources of information about Spanish American society on the eve of independence.

In the early nineteenth century, Latin American independence brought new travelers and new styles of travelogue in books and popular journals such as Harper's. Britons, French, and Germans, now welcome visitors, promoted economic development with, as Mary Louise Pratt puts it, "imperial eyes"—from exploiting mines to investing in industry to establishing railroads and canals—as well as querying the initial republics' failure to stabilize into "modern" productive societies despite an abundance of natural wealth. Sometimes their reflections, like British views of the Argentine gaucho, contributed, together with those of nationals traveling at home or, like Domingo F. Sarmiento, abroad, to discussions on national identity. North American travelers seeking fame, fortune, and adventure followed, writing accounts such as Anthony King's Twenty-Four Years in the Argentine Republic (1846). Women's travel narratives also multiplied: Mariah Graham's Journal of a Residence in Chile (1824) appeared soon after independence, followed by Fanny Calderon de la Barca's Life in Mexico (1843), and recuerdos de viaje (old women's memories) of women visiting their own countries such as Franco-Peruvian Flora Tristan (1838) and Argentine Eduarda Mansilla de García (1882). Scholarly travel narratives took an archaeological and anthropological turn, as John Lloyd Stephens, Gustav von Tempsky, and others reported on ancient ruins and indigenous peoples' customs; leisure travelers visiting for sport, health, and vacation observed the demise of slavery and advent of industrialization; and Protestant agents spread the Gospel in South America and recounted adventures on muleback. After midcentury, with steamship travel contributing to lower prices and shorter travel times, more individuals traveled and wrote up their experiences, resulting in an explosion in mediocre travel narratives.

The genre expanded further in the twentieth century, as transportation by automobile, bus, and airplane put many Latin American cities, mountains, forests, and deserts within relatively easy reach. Travel in twentieth-century Latin America produced focused narratives as compelling as Teddy Roosevelt's Through the Brazilian Wilderness (1914) and Zora Neale Hurston's Tell My Horse (1938) and more continental approaches, including Ernesto "Che" Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries and Paul Theroux's The Old Patagonia Express (1979). Photographs began to replace drawings to illustrate accounts. During the World War II era, texts and film travelogues, such as Donald Duck's virtual travels in Three Caballeros (1944), promoted tourism by showing Americans the friendliness and shared values of their southern neighbors, as well as ancient ruins, exotic dances, and relaxing beaches. Travel materials aimed at tourism ignored the vast Latin American wildernesses and metropolises, as well as the region's revolutions and social injustices, which were covered not by travel writers but by journalists such as John Reed in his Insurgent Mexico (1914). In the late twentieth century a new travel genre focused on internal personal growth and discovery, as in Mary Morris's Nothing to Declare (1988). In the early twenty-first century, individuals seeking to escape the beaten path by, for example, following the Inca trail or diving in the Yucatán's Cenotes, post pictures and comments on Web logs even before returning home. Although difficult to codify, this newest genre of travel writing about Latin America returns to familiar themes of discovery, exploration, and conquest—whether of constant external challenges such as mountain peaks and corrupt officials, or more contemporary ones including urban jungles and inner demons.

See alsoBlack Legend; Bonpland, Aimé Jacques; Calderón de la Barca, Fanny; Carrió de la Bandera, Alonso (Concolorcorvo); Columbus, Christopher; Cortés, Hernán; Díaz del Castillo, Bernal; Gage, Thomas; Gorriti, Juana Manuela; Guevara, Ernesto "Che"; Humboldt, Alexander von; Las Casas, Bartolomé de; Léry, Jean de; Martí y Pérez, José Julián; Roosevelt, Theodore; Sarmiento, Domingo Faustino; Tristan, Flora; Zárate, Agustín de.



Buchenau, Jürgen. Mexico Otherwise: Modern Mexico in the Eyes of Foreign Observers. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2005.

Hahner, June E. Women through Women's Eyes: Latin American Women in Nineteenth-century Travel Accounts. Wilmington, DE: SR Books, 1998.

Leonard, Irving A., comp., and William C. Bryant, ed. Colonial Travelers in Latin America. Newark, DE: Juan de la Cuesta, 1986.

Lockhart, James, and Enrique Otte, eds. and trans. Letters and People of the Spanish Indies, Sixteenth Century. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1976.

Mayer, William. Early Travellers in Mexico, 1534–1816. Mexico, 1961.

Núñez, Estuardo, ed. Antología de viajeros: Textos fundamentals sobre realidades peruanos. Lima: Biblioteca Nacional del Peru, 1994.

Szurmuk, Mónica. Women in Argentina: Early Travel Narratives. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 2000.


Erauso, Catalina de. Lieutenant Nun: Memoir of a Basque Transvestite in the New World, trans. Gabriel Stepto and Michele Stepto. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.

Farah, Caesar E., ed. and trans. An Arab's Journey to Colonial Spanish America: The Travels of Elias al-Mûsili in the Seventeenth Century. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2003.

Gage, Thomas. Thomas Gage's Travels in the New World, ed. J. Eric S. Thompson. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1981.

Secondary Sources

Bertrand, Michel, and Laurent Vidal, eds. A la redécouverte des Amériques: Les voyageurs européens au siècle des indépendances. Toulouse: Presses universitaires du Mirail, 2002.

Butler, Shannon M. Travel Narratives in Dialogue: Contesting Representations of Nineteenth-Century Peru. Ph.D. diss., Ohio State University, 2005.

Monteleone, Jorge. El relato de viaje: De Sarmiento a Umberto Eco. Buenos Aires: Librería Editorial El Ateneo, 1998.

Núñez, Estuardo. Viajes y viajeros extranjeros por el Perú: Apuntes documentales con algunas desarrollos históricobiográficos. Lima: Graf P. L. Villanueva, 1989.

Paravisini-Gebert, Lizabeth, and Ivette Romero-Cesareo. Women at Sea: Travel Writing and the Margins of Caribbean Discourse. New York: Palgrave, 2001.

Pérez Mejía, Angela. A Geography of Hard Times: Narratives about Travel to South America, 1789–1849, trans. Dick Cluster. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2004.

Pratt, Mary Louise. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation, 2nd edition. New York: Routledge, 2008.

Prieto, Adolfo. Los viajeros ingleses y la emergencia de la literatura argentina, 1820–1850. Buenos Aires: Editorial Sudamericana, 1996.

                                             Jordana Dym