Don’t Leave Home Without It

James Ferguson travels vicariously on the 75th anniversary of the South American Handbook


The year was 1921. Ireland had just been partitioned. Adolf Hitler had just become head of the Nazis in Germany. The US Marines were occupying Haiti and the Dominican Republic. Post-war and pre-Depression, it was a brief moment of economic boom. Nowhere more so than in Havana, where the “dance of the millions”, fuelled by a five-fold rise in world sugar prices, was filling the bars, brothels and casinos.

In London, the Federation of British Industry had a bright idea. As British exports to South America and the Caribbean were doing very nicely, why not produce a guidebook for businessmen trading across the Atlantic? Three years later, in 1924, the first edition of the South American Handbook appeared, written by W. Koebel. Priced at half a crown, it was subtitled South America in a Nutshell.

The idea seems to have worked, since this September sees the 75th edition of the South American Handbook, a guide that has never failed to appear each year with astonishing regularity. Even during the Second World War, the Handbook came out each autumn, duly updated, even though the editor allowed himself a mild complaint that U-boat activity in the Atlantic was complicating communications.

Mercifully, such problems do not plague today’s editor, whose main challenge is not predatory submarines, but the proliferation of information about South America and the Caribbean. The Handbook’s appeal has always been its comprehensiveness, but as more and more countries and regions join the global tourism market, the amount of data expands accordingly. From bed bugs in Bolivia to vampire bats in Venezuela, the Handbook aims to cover everything, including the things to avoid. Some 1,680 super-thin pages of small type contain just about all-known tourist information from the Guianas down to Tierra del Fuego.

The 75th edition contains a ringing endorsement from best-selling travel writer and former Monty Python man, Michael Palin, who recognises the Handbook’s heroic effort “to define and encompass the limitless potential of a vast and tantalising area”. He carried the book with him and consulted it every night for two and a half months while travelling in the region, “and I wouldn’t do that for anything else except my hip flask.”

The Caribbean first made an appearance in the fourth edition of the Handbook (1927), primarily because several shipping lines were stopping at the islands en route to South America. The guide remarked that the main thoroughfare of Bridgetown, Barbados, “contains buildings of some architectural pretensions”. In similarly patrician tones, it advised potential tourists that “buses at quarter-hour intervals afford the principal means of conveyance from Trafalgar Square to the various out-districts.” Round tours of Kingston, Jamaica, could be made by electric tramway, while the editor recommended a train ride to Spanish Town. In an age predating political correctness, the book noted rather disparagingly that in Curaçao “a patois is used by the lower classes”.

Prices, of course, were somewhat lower than today’s. The Hotel de Paris in Port of Spain, which boasted a “large modern restaurant lounge for ladies”, offered dinner for $1 and “moderate rates”.

It was in 1970 that the Caribbean became a permanent and important feature of the Handbook, included, wrote the editor, because the advent of long-haul flights had put tropical holidays within reach of a growing number of people. The reports on the islands are enthusiastic in tone. Trinidadian cuisine is endorsed as “excellent”; “and, wonder of wonders, very few visitors suffer from that ‘tummy upset’ which so often spoils a holiday in other parts of the world.” Prices still seem relatively attractive, as $15 would get you a room in the Trinidad Hilton.

Eventually the Handbook was to become unmanageable as a single volume, and the Caribbean Islands (as well as Mexico and Central America) became handbooks in their own right. This year, the Caribbean Islands Handbook also reaches a significant milestone with the publication of the tenth edition.

Each of the ten volumes has been edited by Sarah Cameron, who admits that the task of revising and updating the 1,000-plus pages can be a daunting one. She and her partner, Ben Box (who edits the South American Handbook as well as a country-specific volume on Brazil) face a formidable and immovable calendar of deadlines. The books have to be finalised by June for their September publication date; this means full-time editing from December until June, with only the autumn set aside for travel to the region itself. But, fortunately, there is also a network of correspondents in individual countries and islands, who send updated reports on everything from railway timetables to waterski facilities. Add to this the approximately 1,000 letters which come in from independent travellers each year, and it is possible to sympathise with Sarah’s feeling of foreboding at the mounting in-tray.

The art of updating a book like the Handbook lies in a judicious mix of pruning as well as adding. But even with a regular weeding out of irrelevant information, the amount of data just keeps on growing. “Hence,” says Sarah, “the reason for our new single-country handbooks.” These include the major countries of South America, Cuba and a whole range of Middle Eastern, African and Asian titles.

The best part of the job, naturally enough, is the travel, and Sarah, Ben and their two children have done a fair amount of it in the interests of research. Sarah is diplomatically hesitant to mention a favourite Caribbean destination, but is prepared to recommend St Lucia’s Anse Chastanet resort “without the slightest reservation”. Having travelled with young children, she is aware of the “quality of sand” criterion (Montserrat pre-volcano) as well as the importance of “responsible tourism”.

“The Handbooks appeal to independent-type travellers,” she says, “the sort who want to climb the Pico Duarte in the Dominican Republic or stay in a peso hotel in Cuba.” But the books are not just aimed at backpackers, she’s quick to point out. Today’s equivalents of the 1921 businessmen will also find the practical information they need for a successful journey.

Seventy-five years old and still going strong, the Handbooks seem to have moved with the times while keeping a reassuringly distinctive identity. You’re very unlikely to be misled into a bad hotel or second-rate restaurant, but if you are, you can always seek revenge by writing to the editor and adding to that annual ordeal of paperwork.