Andes – Michael Jacobs

I proceeded without much optimism to the store and found him exactly where he was said to be. But he hadn’t got the key. His wife had it. He helped me track her down. She had the key, but had no idea how much she had to charge me for a European call. One of the many bystanders said the schoolteacher would know. We went to the school and interrupted the teacher in the middle of a class. She had a long talk with me about Spain. She too didn’t know what the call would cost. A discussion ensued, in which some of the school children joined in. The outcome was that I was going to be charged 60 cents a minute. We moved on triumphantly to the office. The phone was not working.

So I’ll open with the statement that this is probably going to be a ridiculous review. In a unintentional best of three, Michael Jacobs has won me over with Andes. I loved Ghost Train through the Andes, but struggled with The Robber of Memories and Jacobs is not far behind John Gimlette as my favourite travel writer (both have currently passed Paul Theroux). Jacobs is extremely likeable and honest and like Gimlette, has clearly done extensive research into the history of his route, there is a lot of Bolivar and Humboldt throughout, but the book wears this lightly. Flying into Venezuela he skirts in and out of the mountains, into Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina as he hops down the spine of the great range.

What’s so ridiculous about that, I know you’re thinking. In Ghost Train, Jacobs was clearly on a train, in the Robber of Memories, Jacobs was clearly on the River Magdalena. In Andes, it didn’t feel like Jacobs was in the Andes.
Now you’re thinking, yes, this is ridiculous, he clearly was in the Andes, and he clearly writes about it, the book, is called Andes. But at the end of the book, it felt like he dipped in and out of the Andes, purely because they were in between where he wanted to go, but perhaps that is the problem with travelling down a mountain range, you can’t really do it properly unless you’re a bird, or some kind of goat, or in this case Alpaca.

My brain blip aside, this is a thoroughly enjoyable book if you love South America, Mountains or Humboldt. Jacobs seems to have an extensive range of friends and contacts, so has plenty of people to meet and places to explore with them. At one point genesis founder and author Chris Stewart joins him for a time as they tramp around Peru, sometimes riding on Stewart’s celebrity and other times keeping it hidden. There are plenty references to previous wanderers down this part of the world, aside from Humboldt, including Isherwood and fleetingly, Theroux.

Despite he’s almost whirlwind tour down the chain there are times when the impact of the mountains is plain, never more so than the in the lives of the bus drivers who plough up and over or round these massive road blocks. I have been over them a couple of times in Peru, thankfully it was either dark or I was sat at the rear of the bus, so was happily oblivious to the precariousness of my journey. Indeed Jacobs dedications at the beginning of the book include the bus drivers.

There are times when coincidences or events are almost too perfect to be real, Jacobs loves setting up an encounter or an incident that allows him to reflect, but there are too few to really affect the reading, he is less grumpy than Theroux, has much more interest in the history, but still enough curiosity about the present to make an interesting read. Given the size of the book it is perhaps more for someone who really likes Mountains, or Humboldt, or South America, or all three. At the same time, reading the book will be a lot quicker, and safer than trying to traverse the whole chain yourself, so, well done Michael, and thank you.

When, in 1838, Darwin finally published an account of his journey on the Beagle, with its enthralled description of the Andean crossing, he timidly sent a copy, with accompanying letter, to the man whose spirit runs through the whole book, Alexander von Humboldt. Humboldt’s approbation was the greatest praise he could hope to get. ‘You told me in your kind letter,’ wrote the great German, ‘that, when you were young, the manner in which I studied and depicted nature in the torrid zones contributed towards exciting in you the ardour and desire to travel in distant lands. Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring.’

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