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Best books on...Peru

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30 August 2012 by Alex Stewart

Below is our round-up of the best books on Peru to read before you go or whilst you're actually exploring the country.

Although the Incas never had a written language in the conventional European sense, a rich tradition of writing has grown up around Peru. Colonial conquistadors started the trend, chronicling their struggles, whilst latter day historians have presented the details from both sides. Since then explorers and travellers have documented their adventures and novelists have drawn inspiration form the country for some classic stories.


Lost City of the Inca jacket The Conquest of the Incas jacket The White Rock jacket

Hiram Bingham's account of his explorations and discoveries during the early years of the twentieth century, Lost City of the Incas (republished by Phoenix) should be the start point for any visitor to Peru interested in its history and archaeology. Slightly self-serving and designed to inflate the cult of Bingham, it nonetheless has a wealth of information and detail on some of the most remarkable discoveries in the Americas and is a rollicking good read. Bingham's book, Inca Land (National Geographic Society), is also worth a read. For a look at the man himself, try Chris Heaney's biography Cradle of Gold: The story of Hiram Bingham, (Palgrave Macmillan).

To fully understand the conquest and put the Inca civilization in context though, pick up a copy of John Hemming's seminal Conquest of the Incas (Macmillan), the definitive history of the subject and a superb work of narrative history. For a fascinating, more contemporary account of the mysterious Inca culture, their rise to power and downfall at the hands of the sixteenth century conquistadors, look out for Hugh Thomson's book The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland (Phoenix). His second book, Cochineal Red (Phoenix), is a tour through five millenia of Peru's turbulent history and looks at other pre-Columbian cultures that emerged here too. Kim MacQuarrie's The Last Days of the Incas (Simon & Schuster) is worth a follow up read for its rip-roaring style.

The Incas, Empire of Blood and Gold (New Horizons) by Carmen Bernand is a handy, pocket-sized introduction to the Incas and their civilization, whilst The Machu Picchu Guidebook (Johnson Books) by Ruth Wright and Alfredo Zegarra is a good commentary on the site and its key features.

Travel literature

Inca Kola jacket Three Letters from the Andes jacket Touching the Void jacket

The most widely read account of travels in Peru is the atmospheric Inca Kola by Matthew Parris (Weidenfeld and Nicholson), which is full of wonderful descriptions but is now a little dated. Three Letters from the Andes by Patrick Leigh Fermor (John Murray) is a slim but beautifully observed and elegantly written account of a trip by the master travel writer into the high Andes in 1971. Eight Feet in the Andes, Travels with a Mule in Unknown Peru (John Murray) is the inimitable Dervla Murphy's account of a journey during the early 1980s that's full of humour but is sadly unavailable.

If you're heading to the Cordillera Blanca or Huayhuash at all, then read Joe Simpson's compulsively readable account of surviving a mountaineering disaster, Touching the Void, (Vintage) which captures the harsh beauty of the mountains and tells a harrowing tale of survival against the odds. 


Death in the Andes jacket Lost City Radio jacket To the Last City jacket

Peru's leading novelist, Mario Vargas Llosa, writes extensively about Peru; start with Conversation in the Cathedral, The Time of the Hero or Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (all Faber & Faber) to gain an insight into everyday life as well as the political and historical events that have helped to shape Peru. His novel, Death in the Andes (Faber & Faber) deals with the Shining Path terrorists and this period of history. The Dancer Upstairs (Harvill) by Nicholas Shakespeare looks at a similar era but tells the fictional story of the actual manhunt for the Shining Path leader Abimael Guzman.

Travel writer, and Wexas Honoroary president, Colin Thubron used his personal experiences of trekking in Peru to inform his novel To the Last City (Vintage), about a journey to Espiritu Pampa, which is full of colour and sound and captures the experience well. Henry Shukman also penned a colourful account of a quest for a mythical city, The Lost City (Abacus), which is full of intrigue and adventure.

Daniel Alarcon, a rising star of the Peruvian literary scene and Santiago Roncagliolo are also worth looking out for; try Lost Radio City (Harper Perennial) and Red April (Atlantic Books) respectively.

Photographic books

Monuments of the Incas jacket Realm of the Incas jacket

Photographer Edward Ranney and historian John Hemming collaborated to produce a set of stunning black and white photographs and detailed text on Monuments of the Incas (Thames & Hudson). Machu Picchu, Unveiling the Mystery of the Incas (Yale) edited by archaeologist Richard Burger has some great photographs of the ruins and a detailed overview of the features and the site's significance.

The photographer Max Milligan lived in Peru for many years; his book Realm of the Inca (Idlewild) is a set of stunning photographs culled from his time there that capture the Cusco region, ruins and lives of the people who live there. 

Practical guides

Inca Trail, Cusco, Machu Picchu jacket Peruvian Wildlife jacket Birds of Peru jacket

Every major publisher has a guide to Peru and there are some strong titles available from Footprint, Rough Guides and Lonely Planet amongst others. If you're looking for a more detailled trekking guide to the Routes and ruins around Cusco, grab a copy of The Inca Trail, Cusco and Machu Picchu (Trailblazer).

Those interested in wildlife should start with the Bradt Guide to Peruvian Wildlife by Gerard Cheshire, Huw Lloyd and Barry Walker, which covers fauna found in the high Andes. Alternatively, look for The Travellers Wildlife Guide to Peru by Les Beletsky, a substantial tome that describes 500 of the most common mammals, birds, amphibians, reptiles and insects. Bird watchers should carry the Field Guide to the Birds of Peru by James Clements and Noam Shany or the Field Guide to the Birds of Machu Picchu by Barry Walker.

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