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It’s no secret that South America is full of hidden gems and off-the-beaten-path travel destinations. But with the unending pandemic and social unrest in the region, it has been difficult to visit them. Luckily, these books set in South America will take you there, at least virtually, in the meantime.
The books below are set in different South American countries and are not limited to Spanish-speaking territories. This list also includes books set in Brazil, the largest country on the continent, whose language is Portuguese. The books are also grouped into three genres: fiction, mystery and romantic stories.
Some books here will take you back in time to understand a country’s past and make sense of its social unrest. Others will help you understand the social class of a bygone era, evoking a sense of wonder in you. A few books dive into platonic friendships while taking you to town and country. A book will take you to a cocoa plantation in Ecuador. Another will take you to the Patagonian mountains, delighting your senses with the cool breeze. A few books will take you to the Amazon rainforest to see what it’s like – the plants, wildlife and people, while another will transport you to a remote jungle forest in Bolivia.
Let’s explore what the continent has to offer with these books set in South America. ¡Vamos!
Fiction books set in South America
Hades, Argentina by Daniel Loedel
Tómas Orilla is guilty of having played a role in Argentina’s “dirty war” in the 1970s. In this period of Argentine history, many people died. So Tómas runs away and starts a new life. He now lives in New York as Thomas Shore, but his past in Argentina continues to haunt him, especially the girl he once loved. In this book, he again takes a trip to Buenos Aires to relive the past, ruminate, and make peace with what he did during the turbulent war.
Although the book’s subject matter is dark, it makes me want to book a flight to dreamy Buenos Aires, learn more about her history, and see the places the character visits.
It Would Be Night in Caracas by Karina Sainz Borgo
It’s a book of fiction that might as well be true. We all know that Venezuela is currently going through a crisis. Its citizens face a difficult life due to uncertainty and poor economic prospects, and the situation is exacerbated by its dictatorial president.
Borgo relies on this event: in Caracas, it’s total dystopia. The demonstrators are killed. There is violence in the streets. And its protagonist, Adelaida Falcon, flees the country. This is a book that stays with you long after you read it.
But don’t let the above deter you from visiting the country. Venezuela is a secret corner tucked away in South America (its tourist attractions are amazing!), free from violence and crime. Unfortunately, it is extremely dangerous to travel there at this time, according to the government’s advice. Hopefully it would be safe in the future.
The Air You Breathe by Frances de Pontes Peebles
Set in 1930s Brazil, the book follows 9-year-old Dores, who is a poor orphan who works on a sugarcane plantation, and Graca, the plantation owner’s daughter. Despite the huge difference in social class, they become best friends. But like other friendships, theirs has many problems. Eventually, they become each other’s rival.
I love the theme of the book: friendship and its many challenges. The book delights readers with descriptions of the periphery of Brazil and Rio de Janeiro in the 20th century.
Mysterious books set in South America
Twenty After Midnight by Daniel Galera
Four friends, Andrei, Emiliano, Aurora and Antero, were very successful in their prime. They’re the cream of the crop in Brazil in the 90s, and they had this little magazine. However, when that ended, their friendship also turned sour. Years later, Andrei is killed, forcing the other three to relive their pasts, find out what really happened, and see if the friendship is still worth saving after decades.
Twenty past midnight transports readers to the Brazilian urban scene.
Elena Knows by Claudia Piñeiro, translated by Frances Riddle
This list wouldn’t be complete without the addition of one of Argentina’s finest detective novel authors. In the airy city of Buenos Aires, Elena’s daughter, Rita, mysteriously dies. The police say she killed herself, but Elena knows there’s more to it than meets the eye. She thinks there’s foul play in her daughter’s death. Although embarrassed by her Parkinson’s disease, she undertakes to conduct her own investigation.
The book has been shortlisted for the International Booker Prize 2022.
The Spanish daughter of Lorena Hughes
Set in 20th-century Ecuador, this follows Maria Purificacion “Puri” de Lafont, who learns of her recently deceased father’s secret inheritance: a cocoa plantation in Vinces, Ecuador. Puri is supposed to inherit it from him.
From Spain, she leaves for Ecuador. While on a ship, however, Puri is mysteriously attacked. She survives, but her husband, Cristobal, dies. Apparently, there is someone in her family who does not want her to inherit what is hers. To be safe, she disguises herself as Cristobal, and she must continue this subterfuge until she arrives in Ecuador and finds out who the culprit is.
It works well for those who like stories filled with drama and intrigue.
In the Jungle by Erica Ferencik
Nineteen-year-old Lily wants to leave the United States. When a teaching job in Bolivia falls on her, she seizes her chance and flies to Cochabamba. This work, however, is a wet squib. So Lily takes another gig there to make ends meet. Then one evening, she meets a local named Omar, an Amazonian, in a bar. And the two soon fall in love.
But a terrible incident in Omar’s village in the Ayachero countryside forces him to return there, and Lily follows him.
I particularly enjoyed the descriptions of the jungle and the people who live there. The dangers of the location offer another kind of mystery.
Romance books set in South America
Love and Shadows by Isabel Allende
This is the second novel by one of Chile’s most prominent writers. Of love and shadows was published in 1984 and takes place under the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet.
It follows Irene Beltran, journalist, and her husband, Francisco Leal, photographer. The couple investigate a young girl suspected of having magical powers. Instead, they uncover an atrocity committed by Pinochet’s brutal regime. Although the book looks a lot like a mystery, it actually focuses on the romance of the two protagonists.
Rock and a Hard Place by Andrea Bramhall
This bizarre romance is set in the mountains of Patagonia and follows Jayden, a mountaineer. When an avalanche descends Mount Everest, however, it gives up. Meanwhile, Rhian is in charge of marketing. When a reality TV project about mountaineers falls on her, she takes advantage of it. And so the two cross paths, slowly developing a slow-burning romance.
When you’re in the middle of nowhere, let alone the cold mountains of Patagonia, some things can bloom in unexpected ways.
Amazon Lily by Theresa Weir
First published in 1988, this one takes place in the Amazon rainforest. It follows Corey who travels to Brazil to run errands for his church. Asher, a pilot, takes him there; he is in Brazil to look for his brother who disappeared a few years ago. At first, they seem to hate each other as Asher gives Corey a cold shoulder. But eventually, their romance grows.
Amazonian lily is so atmospheric. Although I haven’t been to the Amazon rainforest, reading the book really makes me feel the vibe. The storytelling is top notch and the romance is the icing on the cake.
I hope these books set in South America will be enough to quench your thirst for travel, fuel your wonder, and ignite your curiosity.
If you want to ride up north and take a trip to North/Central America instead, here are 5 historical fiction books set in Latin America and 100 must-have Latin American books for your enjoyment!