South American Handbook (Footprint)
Article Words : Thomas Rees | 07 March

The time traveller's guide to South America

To celebrate the 90th anniversary of Footprint's South American Handbook we pick the most fascinating extracts from editions across the decades

Winner of a 2014 Wanderlust Outstanding Achievement Award, The South American Handbook published by Footprint Travel Guides, is 90 years old this year. To mark the occasion, the Footprint team have released a facsimile of the very first edition, published in 1924.

Filled with insights into 20th century travel, scattered with wonderfully archaic prose and delightfully outdated advice, the very first handbook includes information for explorers and globetrotting businessmen and features beautiful adverts from the period.

The South American Handbook has been an invaluable companion to many of the Wanderlust team over the years (including on the trip to the Galapagos in 1992 which saw Wanderlust schemed up) and the publication of the Anniversary Edition inspired us to indulge in a spot of time travel. Mining the Footprint archives, we've compiled a list of intriguing extracts from handbooks past. Presenting...

The time traveller's guide to South America

Where to stay:

Guidebook writers in the '20s didn't think much of the continent's accommodation options and travellers are warned to expect the worst...

“The tambos are small primitive inns found in villages through which a traveller passes [...] They present sometimes the only means of obtaining shelter overnight. [...] Tinned food may advisably be carried as an emergency ration. The Mesones are taverns of an inferior kind, [and] should be avoided if possible. The Fondas are similar to the Mesones, but still poorer and still more to be shunned.”

Even hotels of the decade are damned by faint praise...

“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 Eastern Europe, but they are better than most expect.”

Getting around:

Overland journeys in the 1920s were similarly fraught, with authors warning that...

“the roads are generally suitable for ox-carts, mules, or in rare cases for motor-cars.”

And adding...

“In all the Latin American Republics, it is necessary to a greater or lesser degree to use mules, donkeys, burros, and horses for certain journeys.”

By the 1930s things have picked up...

“It cannot be too clearly understood that it is possible to travel with the utmost safety and comfort in the developed parts of the South American continent. The services along the frequented routes are as well organised as in Europe.”

And by the '40s, travel is a relative doddle...

“Many of the republics have excellent road systems for motor traffic.”

Come the '70s backpackers are exploring the continent, swelling the ranks of boat-tripping businessmen and would-be investors. But if you're traversing the continent on a shoestring you're warned not to be too miserly...

“Budget travellers should not try to hitch-hike without offering payment.”

The locals:

Female travellers in the '20s are told to prepare for a little unwanted attention...

"Manners are different in Chile, and on the fashionable promenades youths stare at ladies as they pass, and make audible remarks on their appearance. This is not rude according to the Chilean canons, but rather correct conduct."

What to pack:

Always a predicament. Travellers in the '20s embarking on river journeys are advised that...

“gloves to protect the hands against mosquitoes while on deck; high shoes to protect the ankles, and a gauze canopy for the face and neck should be carried. To ward off mosquitoes, oil of citronella, sparingly applied to the exposed parts of the skin, is very effective.”

They're also urged to remember their “coloured spectacles as a protection against sun-glare”

And to beware local washerwomen...

“One reason for taking a good supply of linen is the wear and tear on such articles by laundering. In the more remote places primitive methods of washing are used, with detrimental effects upon one’s apparel.”

More, sound advice is provided for travellers in the 1930s with a comprehensive passage on tropical headgear...

“A Panama hat is the most suitable headgear, but a soft felt hat should also be taken for high altitudes. A travelling cap is useful. In certain parts a sun helmet or solar topee is useful.”

1930s travellers should also take care not to be upstaged by fashionable locals...

“South American ladies dress with elegance, and [...] lady passengers are well advised to take new and becoming clothes.”

'50s guides offered reassurance for nervy visitors commenting...

“There is no need to carry weapons of any kind, and, in fact, these are better avoided.”

While '70s readers are advised against louche dressing...

“It is regrettable, but none the less true, that a prejudice has grown up among the authorities of several Latin American countries against young male travellers with long hair, beards, and hippy-style clothes. Young people of informal dress and life-style may find it advantageous to procure a letter from someone in an official position testifying to their good character.”

And '90s visitors get tips on blending in and avoiding taunts...

“Buying clothing locally can help you to look less like a tourist.”

“Men wearing earrings are liable to be ridiculed in more ‘macho’ communities."

Food and drink:

In the 1930s most gastronomic guidance centres around health. First and foremost, visitors are advised to go easy on the pink gin...

“Alcoholic liquors should be rigidly avoided until after sunset.”

Though even then, travellers could find a few home comforts abroad...

“Afternoon tea, made as it ought to be made, is obtainable in all the principal cities.”

In the 1960s caution is still advised...

“Be careful of the food: ‘Boeuf tartare’ should definitely be avoided.”

But by the 2000s travellers are being encouraged to make the most of the continent's culinary offerings...

“Food in South America is enticingly varied; try ceviche, raw fish marinated in lemon juice and chilli."

Health:

Sobering advice on tropical diseases is given by handbooks across the decades. '70s travellers are told to...

“Remember that Rabies is endemic in Mexico & South America so avoid crazy-looking dogs.”

A window on world history:

Charting the rise of a continent, '50s guide books comment...

“The two world wars had a profound effect in shaping the emergence of Latin America. Crops have been diversified; manufacturing industries have been developed; there has been a steadfast attack on illiteracy.”

And by the 1960s...

“Probably no part of the world is changing so rapidly, in detail if not in the large, as Latin America."

Lest we take modern day convenience for granted, remember that even in the 1980s...

“There is as yet no easy, cheap way of flying directly to Latin America from Europe.”

90 years of authoritative guides:

Last but not least is the history of the handbook itself.

There are some humbling references to dedicated authors from the '40s...

“Handbooks, like human beings, have their significant dates. This is the Twenty-First Annual Edition of THE SOUTH AMERICAN HANDBOOK. It has, that is, come of age. Five of its editions have been produced during a world war – no less than a quarter of its existence spent in wrestling with exasperating paper shortages and delay, to which must be added the constant threat to its life-line of necessary information by U-boat pack, and of physical extinction by bomb.”

While the 1970s was time for looking to the future. In the 50th Edition of the guide the authors said...

“We should like to undertake to our readers that the Handbook will continue to maintain and improve, during its next half-century, the standards that we believe have characterized it during its first fifty editions. Both publisher and editor wish to assure their public that their intention is to maintain an institution that will last until its centenary in 2024 – and beyond.”

A fitting statement on which to end. So here at Wanderlust, we ask you to raise your Martini glasses, doff your sun helmets and drink to another 90 years of the South American Handbook!

To see a collection of beautiful handbook covers and vintage adverts from across the decades visit our image gallery.

For more information on the guide and to buy a facsimile copy of the first edition see the Footprint website.