These days, you can get almost all the information you need from the internet. So why would you waste space carrying around a huge guide when you are backpacking South America? First of all, a guide is great resource to have even before you travel! Use it to plan your trip, and keep it on your nightboard to keep you motivated while you are saving up money for your adventure.
Second, the guide is always a great backup to have in situations where internet or other resources aren’t available. How much should you pay for a taxi from the airport to the city? Where is there a hostel in this god-forsaken town where I am the only English speaking person in miles range? It’s always a good thing to have a guide as backup, even though you might not use it every day!
There are loads upon loads of guides for backpacking in South America. Some cover the whole continent, others cover only countries, cities or islands in greater detail. What kind of book you should buy depends on how your trip is laid out. Are you planning to stay in only one country? Or only one city? Or are you planning to do the whole caboodle? If you are planning to do a large trip covering more than one country.
I would advise you to only bring a “bible” guide that covers it all. Carrying around too many books will take up to match space and bring a heavy load on your back. There are mainly 3 Guides that are recognized as backpack south America bibles.
Lonely planet - South America on a Shoestring:
South America on a shoestring is definitely the most popular book to bring to South America, and also that book that goes as “the bible”. The book covers the whole South America with information on everything from big attractions to restaurants in a small outback town. Lonely planet books are known to be very good on accommodation, restaurants, things to do, and so forth.
Drawbacks are that the book gets a bit dry with only text and no pictures, and also the historical and details on locations can be a bit thin. Still this Is one of the better books on South America, and the book you will see the majority of people are carrying around.
Rough Guide to South America on a Budget:
The rough guides are the new modernized version of Lonely Planet. While Lonely Planet focus on pure quality information, Rough Guides are heavier on readability and visual enjoyment. The positive sides with RG are the Top-todo lists for countries, inspiring pictures and good detailed historical and guide information to places. Negatives are that it lacks some on the resource side. Many of the listings seem to be outdated, and hostels/restaurants might be closed down or moved. Rough Guides are a very good book for those who prefer visual reading enjoyment and good background and historical information.
Footprint South America Guide:
Footprint is the old dog in this competition. Back in the 70s; Footprint were topping all the travel guide lists. After a few years in the dark, they are now fighting to regain their position as top dog. And the new 2010 edition surely is a new good breeze, however it still has a few important flaws. Footprints new book is heavy on good detailed information on all the major places and in many cases it also covers the minor cities in much greater detail then the other two.
Footprints major drawbacks are some unnecessary mistakes that should have been fixed before publication. Many of the maps are incorrect and some of the basic resource sections are outdated. They have done a good job fixing up many of the mistakes in the new 2010 edition. This book is in many cases better than the two others, especially on information on places and attractions, however the book still has some flaws, especially on maps and locations that need to be fixed for this book to be top notch again.
When you are going to pick out the book that fits you the best, you should really consider what you will be using the book for. Are you planning to only use it as resource for restaurants, hostels and directions? Or do you also like to read information about cities, countries and so on.
Figure out what you want and pick the guide that fits you the best. And last, if you are planning to backpack South America in the near future, you can never buy your guide early enough. Once you buy it you are one step closer to your dream of backpacking around South America!