Andean Odyssey: A Conversation with Michael Jacobs
For those who have travelled extensively throughout South America, the astonishing majesty of the continent’s Andean mountains is surely etched in the imagination. From the lush jungles in northern Colombia and the lunar salt plains of the Bolivian heartland, to the snow-covered peaks of Argentina’s southernmost tip, the breathtaking diversity of the world’s longest, and perhaps most glorious, mountain range is as wondrous as its history is rich. The mountains have served as the backdrop for the rise and fall of great civilizations, offered scientific discoveries that changed the face of human understanding, inspired masterworks of art and literature—not to mention political revolution—and have witnessed centuries of unspeakable slaughter.
Michael Jacobs’ Andes, an account of the author’s journey across South America by way of the 4, 500 mile-mountain chain, is as expansive and enthralling as the geography it covers. Beginning in Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela and finishing up in the heart of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego, Andes masterfully details the history, art, geography, personalities, and politics that have defined and been given shape by life in the region.
I recently spoke with Jacobs about his book and the art of writing on the road, Latin American politics, the legacy of Bruce Chatwin in Argentina, and what lies ahead for one of the truly great stylists of the modern travel memoir.
I was hoping we could begin by discussing what compelled you to undertake the arduous task of journeying across the entire length of South America’s Andean spine.
I was first drawn to the Andes by childhood tales of my English grandfather, a railway engineer who worked in Chile and Bolivia. When following in his footsteps to those countries, and experiencing the extraordinary contrasts between, say, the Atacama Desert and the ice fields of Patagonia, I thought how wonderful it would be to follow the whole length of the world’s longest mountain range, and see such an unparalleled range of extreme and spectacular landscapes. I also conceived the idea of following the mountains as if unraveling the course of a human life, beginning in the Tropics, where the German scientist Alexander von Humboldt had located the life force, and ending south of Tierra del Fuego, where Humboldt’s great pupil Darwin believed that life barely existed at all.