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Next year, the South American Handbook — the longest-running guidebook in the English language — celebrates its 80th anniversary. As well as being a mine of useful tips for travellers, the books provide a fascinating insight into the changes that the continent has undergone and the transformation of tourism in the last century, says Dominic Hamilton.

From a businessman’s manual in the 1920s to the independent traveller’s bible of the new millenium, every year without fail, the South American Handbook has advised prospective visitors to on everything he or she would need to know. It has provided guidance to travellers both humble and illustrious: from Graham Greene to the thousands of pilgrims who hit the 'Gringo Trail' each year.

Over the years it has gone from a not-inconsiderable 700 pages to a door-stopping 1500-plus, filled with tips on what to pack and how to pack it, where to go, how to get there and what to see when you get there, to the best place to sit on a long-distance bus journey (on the driver’s side, towards the front). I. But look past this veneer of helpful hints and you can use the handbook to chart not only the development of the South American nations, but also the evolution of travel, and of travellers themselves.

Early editions seem comical to the modern reader. Take this advice on clothing: “Men do well to take formal clothes for functions, such as high hat and frock coat. Women can suit themselves in heavy and light wraps, but they will find use for attractive and styled dresses.” None of your Goretex, high-tech, breathable, UV-resistant, repellent-impregnated gear for these travellers. Excursions ashore were best done “in thin khaki breeches and shirt.” However, by the 1950s, it was no longer necessary to wear a ‘sun helmet,’ and “indeed the wearing of one by a foreigner creates a painful impression on the Brazilian mind. It is one of the few things that should be regarded as distinctly ‘not done.’” Women were also advised that “For formal occasions such toilettes are suitable as would be worn for similar gatherings at home.” The mind boggles at the thought of ladies setting off to South America dressed for an Edwardian garden party in Wimbledon.

Today, women travellers’ apparel today isn’t given any special mention — it would seem we are now aware and liberated enough for advice to be superfluous. The Handbook therefore restricts itself its packing advice to the practical and utilitarian: “A good principle is to take half the clothes, and twice the money, that you think you will need” and, amongst other things, “bring a universal bath- or basin-plug of the flanged type that will fit any waste-pipe (or improvise one from a sheet of thick rubber).”

Early editions are also stamped with the unquivering upper lip of the Brit abroad. The Handbook was, after all, conceived to encourage trade between Britain and the South American countries. In an itinerary given for sightseeing in Lima, after visits to museums, plazas, curio shops and palaces, tea is to be taken in the Hotel Bolívar at 3.45pm. In Belém do Para, at the mouth of the mighty Amazon, inter-war travellers were told “the English Chaplain of the whole Amazon Region, the Reverend A. Miles Moss, is a naturalist. His cure extends to Porto Velho, on the Madeira River, 2,000 miles distant.” Presumably one could call in for with the Reverend at 3.45pm sharp, too.

One might imagine there would be many more painful entries regarding ‘natives’ and indolent locals incapable of running their countries properly. So it comes as a surprise to find the following paragraph from the first edition:

The traveller is advised above all things to avoid patronising native people and criticising their conditions of living, entertainment, hospitality, and administration. An attitude of sympathetic appreciation of these countries and peoples, of the progress they have made, of the civilisation they possess, their resources and potentialities, and of what they have achieved culturally, as well as commercially, brings blessings upon both visitors and hosts.

It’s a far cry, to be sure, from the current Handbook’s page-long section on ‘Responsible Travel’ which ends with the pertinent question “Shouldn’t we provide an opportunity for future travellers and hosts to enjoy the quality of experience and interaction that we take for granted?” But it’s still reassuring to know that the Handbook, if not necessarily its readers, was sensitive to issues of patronisation and criticism by travellers from the developed world some 80 years ago.

When it comes to getting around the continent, things have altered considerably. Early editions contain an advice section on ‘Choosing Pack Animals’: “The traveller should be careful in his arrangements. The horses or mules should be inspected. Choice is not always possible, but experienced travellers find that by insistence they are often able to obtain ‘bestias’ of more endurance than others from the same owner.” If only the same were true of the buses of today! This said, at least the bus drivers nowadays don’t ask for loans, unlike the muleteers of the past. Faced with this predicament, the traveller was advised to regard these sums as “regular perquisites” that “should be granted cheerfully without expectation of repayment. The ‘peons,’ ‘mozos,’ or ‘cholos,’ who look after the animals are mainly patient and good-natured, and more can be had from them by considerate treatment than from harshness.”

The early editions also gave some detail of train transportation, probably the part of Latin American travel that has been most transformed. Today, on much of the continent, one only boards a train for its old-world charm or the dramatic scenery it passes, rather than to get from A to B in the shortest space of time. For example, Ecuador’s most famous length of track, which descends via several switchbacks past the ‘Devil’s Nose,’ is run pretty much for tourists these days; the train doesn’t really ‘go’ anywhere anymore. “Trains are now few and far between and certainly cannot be relied upon as the main means of transport,” to quote the 2004 edition. Buses and planes have superseded most of the rail system. As a visiting foreigner, this seems a huge shame; but for locals, journey times and costs have been cut thanks to the arrival of asphalt and decent suspension.

Lodgings too have evolved. Early Handbooks warn that “not many hotels in South America are as good in service, comfort, cleanliness, and food as the average high-class hotel in the large cities of the United States and Europe, but they are better than most expect.” Whereas current advice reads “For about US$10, a cheap but not bad hotel room can be found in most countries.” Admittedly this entry does come alongside a warning about “ubiquitous and unpleasant, but not dangerous” cockroaches.

Some of the hotel grandes dames are still there, such as the Copacabana Palace in Rio or the Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires, but most establishments haven’t faired so well. Brasília’s Hotel Nacional, spanking new in 1960, is now described as ‘cavernous and old-fashioned.’ Time spares no one.

Hotel infrastructure in South America has come a long way, but oddly, its development hasn’t always followed a logical path. In the 1930s, there were five hotels listed in Cuzco, and in the 1950 edition only three (in 2004, there are no less than 56 entries). No explanation is given for what happened to the other two. Nor is it clarified why the number of beds in the Hotel Macera in Arequipa in Peru declined from 100 to 80 over the same period. Did they fall off the building?

As well as charting these changes, the Handbook has chronicled nation-shaping events. Take its entry on the moving of Brazil’s capital from Rio de Janeiro to Brasília in 1960: “Such a superb act of faith has no precedent in history; it is not in the nature of governments to turn their backs on luxury and make for the wilderness. Brazil’s economic difficulties are many; much remains to be done before the plans drawn up for Brasília are fulfilled… but Brazil is not to be turned aside from its purpose.” However, the best-laid plans... etc. The Handbook notes the new capital’s population was set not to exceed half a million. It now stands at over two million, much of it in shantytowns.

The Handbook’s prism takes you back to by-gone eras: to a time when Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, was one of the most expensive cities in the world (and when average monthly rent was the same as the price of a cup of coffee today); to when Ecuador’s currency, the sucre, hadn’t succumbed to ‘dollarisation’; to when the Amazon and La Plata river basins were still “densely wooded” and roads through the jungle pencil lines on planners’ maps; to when megatropolises were as yet Fritz Lang figments of a far-distantfuture. São Paulo’s population in 1924 was under half a million. It now exceeds 18 million.

By the same token, one can’t help wondering what future editions of the Handbook will chronicle. 2024: cocaine is replaced by a new wonder-drug, and the bloody war in Colombia ceases. 2044: the South American nations finally form an economic block, with Brazil at its head, which rivals Europe and North America. 2064: oil reserves are exhausted; travellers are back to choosing pack animals and making loans to muleteers. 2084: the pith helmet comes back into fashion.

All material on all sites (unless otherwise stated) is © 1998-2007 Dominic Hamilton
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