Peru is home to some of South America's most iconic sights and symbols: the ruins of Machu Picchu, Incan fortresses, grazing llamas, and snow-capped peaks in the Andes. But lots of travelers don't know the stories behind the famous sites and beautiful landscapes. You could wait until you're already on Peruvian soil to page through a guidebook or leaf through a novel by a local writer—or, you could get ahead by starting a book or two before you leave home.
Checking out one of the following titles won't just get you in the right frame of mind for your trip: these books also provide valuable cultural and historical context that will make your adventures in Peru even richer and more memorable. And these books are great to have on hand when you're traveling from point A to B once you're in Peru—that is, if you can tear your eyes away from the majestic mountain views outside your window.
#1 Conversation in the Cathedral (Mario Vargas Llosa)
Mario Vargas Llosa is a living literary legend. The Peruvian-born writer won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2010, and he's authored dozens of novels, plays, and nonfiction books. If you're planning a trip to Peru, you'll want to check out at least one of them. And the perfect place to start is Conversation in the Cathedral, published in 1969.
Set in the 1950s, during the dictatorship of General Manuel Odría, the novel tells the story of Santiago Zavala. He's the intellectually gifted son of a wealthy industrialist, but his job is uninspiring: he writes a column for a local tabloid in Lima. He's increasingly cynical about the direction the country is going in under Odría's dictatorship. One day, he runs into Ambrosio, who was once his father's chauffeur. A lengthy conversation between the two men at a bar called La Catedral (The Cathedral) is the basis of the book. Their dialogue paints a picture of life under the dictatorship, and the ways the regime affected Peruvians from different walks of life, whether wealthy (like Santiago) or from the working class (like Ambrosio).
Have 24 hours to spend in Lima? Check out these recommendations for a perfect day in the Peruvian capital.
#2 Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time (Mark Adams)
Mark Adams' 2011 book Turn Right at Machu Picchu: Rediscovering the Lost City One Step at a Time is a New York Times bestseller. Given the number of curious tourists streaming into the lost Incan city every day of the week, it's easy to understand why. Adams goes deep into the history of the discovery of Machu Picchu, uncovering the real story of Hiram Bingham III — the American explorer credited with discovering the ruins, and criticized for stealing artifacts from the site.
The narrative switches back and forth between 1911 and the present day, following Bingham's journey and the author's own journey to Machu Picchu. Adams, unlike the explorers before him, had never even slept in a tent before attempting the trip. So it goes without saying that the modern-day story isn't just insightful about the practicalities of hiking the Inca Trail — it's humorous, too. History, mystery, comedy, and a real-life adventure all rolled into one: Turn Right at Machu Picchu is the perfect book to read before your trip to Peru.
If you're planning your own trip to Machu Picchu, take a look at this guide to organizing your adventure.
#3 The Conquest of the Incas (John Hemming)
Hemming's sweeping The Conquest of the Incas is a must-read for history enthusiasts. Long before Spanish explorers made it to Peru, they discovered the place we now know as Panama. The book starts with their initial colonization in Central America in 1513, revealing how Spaniards laid the groundwork for a massive expansion into the Americas, ultimately overtaking and obliterating the Inca civilization.
For important context when you're visiting Machu Picchu or any other Inca ruins in Peru, there's hardly a better book to read than this. The author, John Hemming, writes from a position of incredible knowledge and experience: he was an explorer himself, working for a Brazilian mapping agency as a young man. The book was first published in 1970, and he went on to become Director of the Royal Geographic Society in London from 1975 to 1996.
This book might leave you feeling inspired to follow in the footsteps of the Incas; try out this recommended nine-day trip along the Inca Trail.
#4 Deep Rivers ( José María Arguedas)
José María Arguedas' third novel won the Peruvian National Culture Award in 1959. The story follows Ernesto, a young man whose internal identity battle (he was raised in an indigenous setting, but enters a Catholic boarding school as a teenager) reflects the larger struggle between native and Spanish cultures in Peru.
You won't catch it in the English-language translation, but the author's prose fuses Quechua and Spanish, which is a feat in itself. Deep Rivers, while delving into serious social issues, is also considered to be a love letter to Peru's astounding natural beauty. Reading Arguedas' descriptions of Peruvian landscapes, you might be inspired to grab a notebook and write a few things down yourself.
#5 The Heights of Macchu Picchu (Pablo Neruda)
According to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Pablo Neruda was "the most important poet of the twentieth century — in any language." Neruda's musical language often serves as a celebration of landscapes, whether in the poet's native Chile or in Italy, where he lived in exile. Luckily, Neruda visited Machu Picchu, too — in October of 1943, to be exact — and felt inspired to write a long-form poem about it.
The Heights of Machu Picchu, first published in 1946, is a book-length poem. Divided into twelve cantos or sections, it follows the poet's journey to the Inca city. It's a journey that's both physical and internal: during the different stages of the trip, the protagonist recounts his romantic disappointments and ponders the significance of his life.
Arriving at Machu Picchu (about halfway through the epic poem, in the sixth canto), he's filled with joy and inspiration. He describes the splendor of the ancient city and admires the intelligence and diligence of the people who built it. As the poem continues, though, the poet is filled with despair as he considers his own existence. Like the Incans who built the settlement, he's mortal; only the landscape itself will live on.
The Heights of Macchu Picchu was later collected in one of Neruda's most important works, Canto General (1950). But it reads well as a standalone work, and it's a great one to throw into your backpack for a train ride (here are some great ones) or hike to Machu Picchu.