¡Viva South America! by Oliver Balch

Viva South AmericaAdmittedly I wasn’t sure what to expect from this book. It’s rare that I buy a brand new book (I usually buy second hand from Oxfam bookshops), and the amount of choice in the travel literature section can be quite overwhelming. I chose this one due my current interest in the South American continent; this book brought together many of its countries under one key theme and looked as though it would focus on a different cultural aspect in each.  I didn’t know what to expect because I can have mixed opinions of travel writing. Books can have fascinating content, but sometimes the writing style can be slow or too factual, meaning they don’t hold my interest or I can’t get into them. An example of this would be Paul Theroux’s Dark Star Safari; I’m sure this is a great book, but the opening chapters didn’t keep my attention.

¡Viva South America! documents the travels of a British journalist living in South America as he journeys around the continent in the footsteps of the revolutionary leader Simón Bolívar. Journalist Oliver Balch visits ten countries in total, meeting the local people and getting involved in traditional customs, such as hunting with Ecuadorian tribes and experiencing religion in Peru. He really gets under the surface of each country he visits; he interviews a farmer displaced from his land in lawless rural Columbia, and visits women forced to work the streets in Chile. The personal stories in each chapter are gripping. The insight into different lives is both fascinating and emotional, as it is difficult to believe the hardships some people encounter within their daily life. It isn’t all disheartening though; the author also learns street dance for a Brazilian festival, and gets involved in projects helping disadvantaged children into education in the favelas of Rio.

Balch takes the reader on a visual journey throughout South America whilst analysing the impact Bolívar had on each country and its people. Bolívar played a key part in the continent’s struggle for independence in the nineteenth century; he is widely considered to be one of South America’s most influential figures, laying the foundations of democratic ideology in much of Latin America. History merges effortlessly with the present day as Balch compares Bolívar’s revolutionary style with Venezuela’s ex-president Hugo Chavez (published before his death in 2013), and Cuba’s Fidel Castro. Chavez adopted many of Bolívar’s ideals within his own political reign, and Balch examines how modern day Venezuela has fared under socialist rule. Even though politics is one of the book’s key themes, it doesn’t overwhelm it; the mixture of politics and everyday life makes for an interesting read, and I found I wanted to learn more about South American governance.

I enjoyed this book as I found it genuinely interesting. Admittedly the reader may need to have a prior interest in either the travel or political genre, but I think it will also appeal to anyone interested in the current affairs of the wider world. The conversational tone used by the author and the personal stories in each chapter make the book an engaging read. I would recommend this book to anyone wanting to gain an insight into South American culture, as the visual description really brings the continent to life.


For more recommended travel reads, please click here.

One thought on “¡Viva South America! by Oliver Balch

  1. Pingback: India Rising by Oliver Balch | A Dingo Ate My Jandal

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