Guide for Greenhorn Travelers: This Quixotic Travelogue-Hailed as the First South American Guide Book-Gives Practical Details for Journeying along the Royal Mail Route from Buenos Aires to Lima in the 1770s

Article excerpt


When planning a cross-country trip in South America, don't reach for the Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, or South America on a Shoestring. All they will tell you is that (in the words of one of them) "Things change, prices go up, schedules change, good places go bad, and bad places go bankrupt. Nothing stays the same."

It might make more sense to take along a travelogue or even some travel fiction as inspiration rather than instruction. Che Guevara's Motorcycle Diaries captures a young person's love for the open road with the wind in his face and little money in his pocket better than any other. And the always grumpy Paul Theroux's Patagonia Express unveils the reality of rail travel: hurry to board only to halt interminably between stations.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Night Flight a fictional story based on his experience flying the mail across the Andes, will have you biting your nails, wishing you had taken the bus instead. Thornton Wilder's novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey begins, "On Friday noon, July the twentieth, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and precipitated five travelers into the gulf below." Then again, maybe it is safer by airplane.

Another sure cure for the armchair travel bug has to be Aime Tschiffely's Southern Cross to Pole Star, the account of his first horseback ride ever--all the way from Buenos Aires to Washington, DC! Why stop in Lima, he asked himself, when another 30 months and 10,000 miles of untrod trails beckoned?

But in none of these books will you find such practical details as the price of a meal in Salta, how best to avoid bedbugs in Sucre, or in which language a gentleman should address the senoritas of Cuzco. For a little instruction, and a lot more inspiration, one would have to consult the very first guide book to South America ever written, which also happens to be a little-known classic of picaresque literature in the mold of that lodestar itself, Don Quixote.

One would have to read El lazarillo de ciegos caminantes, ["Guide for Blind Travelers" or as the author suggests in his introduction, "Guide for Greenhorn Travelers"] by the pseudonymous author Don Calisto Bustamante, alias Concolorcorvo, who posed in print as a Cuzco-born Indian guide. The true author was later revealed to be Don Alonso Carrio de la Vandera, the newly installed Spanish postal inspector, who based his account on his inaugural inspection tour from November 1771 to June 1773 along the full length of the royal mail route from Buenos Aires to Lima.


The Spanish Grown was then in the process of reorganizing its postal system, a network of authorized inns and mule stables. This was to facilitate affairs of state, but Concolorcorvo anticipated the nature of modern tourism long before it became the leisure time industry of today, writing that "the post houses serve not only for such serious matters but also for the convenience and diversion of curious travelers who wish to see the great fiestas." Even now, major hotels and others like them make more money from tourists than from business travelers.

Like his model--might one say, his hero?--Don Quixote, Concolorcorvo speaks in a tone of high seriousness about silly matters, as a kind of holy fool slapped in the face by reality, "If the common, or shall we call it popular, opinion were true, that the words, 'traveler' and 'liar' are synonymous," Concolorcorvo writes in his tongue-in-cheek prologue in the ways of the road, "then the reading of fables should be preferred to that of history."

"Travelers, and here I come in are with respect to historians just as guide books to the blind ... I make no pretext in placing myself among these because my observations have been reduced to to inexperienced travelers an idea of the road from Buenos Aires to Lima, with a few remarks which may be useful to travelers and of some succor and comfort to persons destined for positions in this vast viceroyalty, and for this reason the title given to this little treatise will be El lazarillo de bisonos caminantes ["Guide for Greenhorn Travelers"]. …