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These Are the Best Travel Books, According to 9 Travel Experts

Caroline Howley

Manchester, UK

As the world stays still with many borders still closed, most of us are still only dreaming about travel. We’re all doing our part to keep those around us safe—wearing masks and social distancing— but we also want to be riding tuk-tuks down dusty tracks, meeting new friends, and drinking sundowners on paradise beaches. While leaving the country may seem like a pipe dream, you can, very easily, be transported to a faraway place simply by opening a book.

We connected with some of our favorite travel experts and asked them to weigh-in on the best travel books for our first-ever (and hopefully last) Quarantine Book Club. Here’s what they had to say:

The Shadow of the Sun by Ryszard Kapuscinski

“I picked this book up before a three-month trip through North and East Africa. I was after a bit of insight into Africa’s recent history, but it ended up being one of the best books I’ve ever read, travel or otherwise. Kapuscinski balances tales of bloody coups and vile despots with the subtle poetry of everyday Africa: the importance of shade cast by a tree, the irrelevance of rigid timekeeping. Part reportage, part adventure travelogue, part love letter, it’s essential reading, whether you’re going somewhere in Africa or not.”

Joey Tyson, Freelance Travel Writer

The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux

“Travel books are, predominantly, about places. That’s kind of the point. If you’re reading Seven Years in Tibet, you’re probably after some juicy Dalai Lama action. You want mountains. Maybe the phrase “the roof of the world”. The Great Railway Bazaar isn’t like that, because – while it recounts Paul Theroux’s famous rail journey from London to Southeast Asia and back again – it’s not really about anywhere. Theroux gives barely a second thought to the major cities he visits en route – four days in Kolkata are dismissed in half a sentence. Instead, the action happens on the move: drinking with an endless succession of misfits in the dining carriage; squeezing into the cramped bunk beds of a sleeper train; staring through the window of a crowded compartment. It beautifully sums up the unique blend of excitement and tedium that comes from spending days at a time on the road (or rail), and I love it for that. And also, I love trains.”

Phil Norris, Freelance Travel Writer

Running in the Family by Michael Ondaatje

“I first read Running in the Family — Michael Ondaatje’s (The English Patient) fictionalized memoir about returning home to Sri Lanka—smack dab in the middle of my first New England winter. When I opened the book, I was searching for warmth, and I found it through the delicious retelling of a childhood literally drenched in sweat (hey, equator!). I also found more: a story that skillfully ping-pongs between memory, unreliable history, contradicting accounts, maps, poetry and full-on magic to slowly uncover the—or I should say, one—narrative of his family. Ondaatje described the memoir as “not a history, but a portrait or gesture,” and in the end, you aren’t sure what’s real and what isn’t. But you’re left with an enchanting sense of place: smell, taste, and a sense of longing — for all the places you’ve been, and even the ones you haven’t.”

Leah Fishman, Travel Editor

Daughter of Fortune by Isabel Allende

Daughter of Fortune is the book that has most inspired my travels. Allende’s descriptions of the port town of Valparaiso are so evocative and the feeling of separation so heart-wrenching. It was years after first reading the novel that I traveled to Chile, but the emotive words from Allende’s prose came back to me as I stood on one of the hills in that exceptional city looking out to sea. Valpo remains one of my favourite destinations, with so much colour and interest around every corner. It’s not surprising that another Chilean literary great, Pablo Neruda, fell in love with it too.”

Emma Dodd, Freelance Travel and Swim Writer

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez

“This incredible novel offers nothing if not escapism! Set in the fictional town of Macondo, deep in the Colombian jungle, our story tracks the fortunes of the Buendia family over a century of turmoil in a country beset by the irresistible forces of revolution and globalisation. The magical realism style in which it is written makes the perfect introduction to Latin American literature, art, and culture, as well as an essential read whilst traveling South America. It’s an epic tale but the constantly recurring themes and enchanting use of language make this book impossible to put down.”

Tim Alderson, Travel writer, Manchester’s Finest

Before Night Falls by Reinaldo Arenas

“Before Night Falls is the dazzling, heartbreaking memoir of Cuban writer Reinaldo Arenas. From a childhood spent in superstitious rural Cuba and life as a struggling, persecuted creative in flamboyant Havana, to his daring escape and subsequent New York era, Arenas’ vivid writing makes you live his perilous journey alongside him. This high-voltage memoir is as beautiful as it is shocking, and it made me hungry for a taste of the Cuban culture and landscape Arenas so memorably described in this spirited account of his remarkable and difficult life.”

Caroline Howley, Travel Journalist

The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

“I am going to go with The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway’s 1952 novella written and set in Cuba. Cuba is one of my favourite places to visit, and I have become good friends with many who live there. I adore the Cuban people and have many friends who live there with whom I speak daily. The Cubans defy classification; they are stoic, they are good-humoured, they are vivacious, quarrelsome and hugely hospitable. This book gives an ineffable insight into the character of people of Cuba. As the News of the World strapline used to have it: “All Human Life Is Here.”

Eugene Costello, Travel Journalist

Crossing the Sands by Wilfred Patrick Thesiger

“In the 1940s, Wifred Patrick Thesiger traveled through the Empty Quarter desert (Saudi Arabia, Oman, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen). Thesiger is considered to be the last of the great explorers and his book ‘Crossing the Sands while walking the Empty Quarter,’ tells the tale of his adventures with traveling companions bin Kabina and bin Ghabaisha. He was also a skilled photographer. It was reading this book that set me on the path to become a travel writer and inspired me to keep on returning to The Middle East. I guess it was the thought of complete isolation from the outside world and experiencing cultures entirely different from ours.”

James Clark, Travel Journalist

The Castaways of Liguria by Emilio Salgari

“I read this book in my adolescence, when I lived in a remote town in central Cuba called Placetas. The vivid descriptions of remote places so different from where I was sparked my imagination and the desire to visit those places. I have since been fortunate enough to visit the regions depicted in the book, and more, and that has been one of the biggest pleasures of my life.”

Sergio Garcia-Gonzalez, Travel Expert

Coronavirus Q&A

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