The South American Handbook, begun in 1921 as the Anglo-South American Handbook (before the Royal Mail Steamship Company privatized it in 1924), has been one of the most talked about, written about, and longest continuously published guidebooks in the world. The guide doesn’t have the commercial appeal of Lonely Planet South America, but everyone from Graham Greene to Michael Palin have raved about its resourcefulness. The pages are full of info and bible thin, which is only partly why sometimes the guide is compared to “that other bestseller.” It doesn’t tell you so much of where to go like most of the other guidebooks as much as it tells you of what is there. On my first trip to South America, this is the guide I carried with me.
The original guide was meant to inspire British traders in South America, but now in the 86th edition, the Handbook has spawned an entire Footprint imprint of hundreds of guides that span the globe and a growing presence on the web and in digital media. Ben Box, the editor of the handbook for several decades now, was kind enough to grant us an interview.
1.) New World Review: What began your fascination with Latin America?
Ben Box: When I started freelance writing in 1980 I was working primarily on Spain and Portugal, with a little of Latin America thrown in for good luck. Then my wife, Sarah, and I went on holiday to Mexico, a trip from Mérida to Mexico City. That’s where it all began, with the heat and the Mayan architecture of the Yucatán peninsula. At more or less the same time I started reading Latin American writers like Miguel Angel Asturias and Gabriel García Márquez. After 30 years, I am still learning.
2.) NWR: How did you first get involved with the handbook?
BB: One of the first jobs I was given as a freelance writer was proofreading work on the South American Handbook. Sarah’s boss was John Brooks, the editor of the Handbook, and he gave me the opportunity. In a short time he asked to me become more involved in the book until, by 1989 we were collaborating together on it. Sadly, he died suddenly that year and I stepped into his editor’s shoes.
3.) NWR: Why is the SA Handbook unique? Why does it have such a loyal following?
BB: A couple of things set the Handbook apart. The first is that it is updated annually. It tries to keep up with where people are traveling at the same time as giving direction. Secondly, since the 1970s it has forged a strong bond with its readers by encouraging them to write to the publishers telling of them of their experiences, suggesting changes that might be made to the book, correcting errors, and so on. A forum several decades before the internet commandeered the term – one of John Brooks’ many innovations. This created a kind of Handbook family, every letter-writer thanked personally. Electronic communications, while making it much easier to send in notes and queries, has perversely reduced that intimacy because the tendency is to write a couple of lines here and there, on the road, as opposed to composing a journal specifically for the Handbook to plunder, be it in a note book or on reams of toilet paper, to send in at the end of the journey. All the same, people still write, mostly in a complimentary way, and long may that continue.
4.) NWR: How has the guide changed over the past 86 editions?
BB: The earliest editions of the Handbook were owned by the Royal Mail steamship company and aimed to give voyagers the full run-down on how to travel and do business in South America. With the onset of flights (from flying boats and airships to the first jets) the book began to reflect the growing speed of travel, but also as the 1960s turned into the 1970s and the Gringo Trail became an established route the emphasis began to move away from purely business travel to an alliance between business and backpackers. More and more, the information coming in from independent travelers influenced the content of the book until, in the 1990s, the publishers, now Footprint of Bath, UK, used the Handbook as the model for a growing range of titles on worldwide destinations. By the 2000s, Footprint covered more than 150 destinations, with an expansion of the range to include thematic guides on subjects such as surfing, snowboarding, travel with children and city breaks. As the list grew, so design and format developed too, to encompass a house style and image. This meant that the Handbook also changed to fit into that. After a spell in paperback, the entire Footprint range has returned to the size and hardback format that characterized the title from the outset. Despite all the physical changes, though, the spirit of the Handbook and of the series as a whole remains unchanged: see question 6…
5.) NWR: How is the Handbook being taken into the Internet Age?
BB: Footprint has just launched a new website in May 2010: see www.footprinttravelguides.com. There are going to be lots of new developments around that, so best to follow the new site. But on there you’ll find digital products and Footprint’s Twitter, Facebook, Flickr and video pages.
6.) NWR: The handbook is often called the “traveler’s bible.” How closely do you feel a traveler should follow the text of a guidebook?
BB: It’s always flattering to be associated with the “bible”, but I don’t think that guidebooks are there to be followed religiously. They are a starting point, giving the reader the basis on which to make sound choices and to strike out on their own. The text should be founded on good research and a thorough knowledge of the area being described, it should benefit, too, from a consistent authorial voice, but it’s impossible to remove all subjective judgments. And clearly some readers will prefer the style of one series to that of another. Fair enough; to my mind the best thing any guidebook can do is encourage people to enjoy their travels and to share their experience with that of the people whose country they are going to. The information in the book is included in good faith, not as a matter of dogmatic principle, just as we accept that, when travelers write to us, they write in good faith, too.
7.) NWR: How often do you travel in Latin America now?
BB: Once or twice a year.
8.) NWR: How has South America changed since you began writing about it?
BB: Where to begin? Politically and economically there have been huge changes since the 1980s, although the overriding gulf between wealthy and poor has not really diminished. Back then some of the biggest problems were foreign debt and several countries’ efforts to rid themselves of dictatorships. Now environmental issues head the list of concerns, along with international trade and the alignment of South America to blocs which have, shall we say, a different outlook from the old influence of the US.
For the traveler things have changed enormously (there’s a nice article in Journey Latin America’s Papagaio website). So many things have improved in line with greater investment in infrastructure – well, in roads anyway and therefore in buses. The same can’t be said for railways, unfortunately. And the whole rigmarole surrounding changing money is so much easier now that you can use ATMs almost anywhere. Hotels and hostels have also seen dramatic changes, with the range on offer so much wider than before – from boutiques to LGBT-friendly to party places. Whereas vegetarians found life very difficult in South America, nowadays in tourist centres at least, meat-free eating is much less of a problem. Then there is the shift in emphasis towards green/eco/responsible travel, the availability of volunteering opportunities, career break tourism and the growing scope of adventure sports. The same has been happening the world over, naturally, but it’s all with a South American twist. One other change that I have noticed is that people are not content with a holiday that is all on one level; they want variety, the ability to mix-and-match activities and experiences.
9.) NWR: Do you have a favorite place in South America? Favorite country?
BB: No, I have no preferences. I like it all. But to that I would add that I have made some great and truly generous friends everywhere I have been.
10.) NWR: If you have one bit of advice for anyone traveling in South America what would it be?
BB: Simple: learn some Spanish or Portuguese before you go.
Click here to purchase the South American Handbook 2010: 86th annual edition.
Writer and photographer Nicholas Gill is the editor/publisher of New World Review. He lives in Lima, Peru and Brooklyn, New York. His work has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CondeNast Traveler, National Geographic Traveler, Afar, and Penthouse. Visit his personal website (nicholas-gill.com) for more information.