Book Review: The Last Days of the Incas

There are many books written on the Incas, and it can be a challenge sifting through the Last Days of the Incasplethora of books out there.  Perusing  Kindle samples (which I love) helps but can sometimes take time. However, this book, The Last Days of the Incas by Kim MacQuarrie, pulled me in immediately. Part of my rationale for choosing this book over the many other books was that it was not written by explorers claiming to have found Inca ruins, and MacQuarrie is a four-time Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and an anthropologist.  If you have any interest in what happened to the Incas, the brutal takeover by the Spanish as well as three American explorers of Peru, this is a well researched and written book with a focus on the thirty-six year war between the Incas and Spanish.

MacQuarrie’s detailed account of the events during this war is woven into a fascinating story.  The book kept my attention throughout the roughly 540 pages as it reads more like a novel and has a number of interesting characters- the brutal and ruthless Pizarro brothers, the Inca emperors, Pachacuti, Manco, Atahualpa and his brother, Huascar.   And there is an added bonus towards the end of the book where MacQuarrie transitions from the thirty-six year war to the trials and tribulations of three American explorers (Hiram Bingham, Gene Savoy and Vincent Lee) who rediscovered various Inca ruins.  This section of the book was another fascinating read about the cutthroat explorer business.  This is a must read, in my opinion, for anyone planning to visit Cusco, Peru and the Inca trail and ruins.


Turn Right at Machu Picchu

If you are planning at trip to Machu Picchu or just have interest in the site and the history of its rediscovery, Turn Right at Machu Picchu may be a good read for you.  It is a light-hearted, humorous story of a travel writer’s (from Outside magazine) re-creation of Hiram Bingham‘s orginal expedition to Machu Picchu. A lot of the non-fiction on the site are a bit dry, including Hiram Bingham’s book which outlines his expedition.  This read is very much like something from Bill Bryson (of A Walk in the Woods fame). It is light and fast and provides a lot of great facts on Machu Picchu, Hiram Bingham, as well as the ongoing disputes between Yale University and the government of Peru over artifacts that were removed from the country and are currently in Connecticut.

61xBs3M4xeL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_While the book describes the author’s multiple expeditions to Machu Piccu, surrounding ruins, and the Inca trail, it also provides a lot of information and strong arguments that discredits Hiram Bingham as the discover of Machu Picchu (think Columbus and the Americas).

It wasn’t my favorite book but it is a fast and entertaining way to get more information on Machu Picchu and the history of its rediscovery. It is definitely worth a read if you are at all interested in the topic.

If you are interested in our short expedition on the Inca Trail, check out our blog post here.

Dirty Secrets, Dirty War

Here is another good book for those interested in understanding Argentina’s dark history, and specifically, the Dirty WarDirty War from 1979-1983.  Dirty Secrets, Dirty War: The Exile of Robert J. Cox is the story of Robert Cox, the editor of the English language newspaper, The Buenos Aires Herald, during this time.  It is a biography written by Cox’s son so it offers a single perspective and one that is biased for sure. However, it provides a lot of context around the politics of the time in Argentina as well as details of an extraordinary human-rights crisis that is well worth understanding.  The Buenos Aires Herald was the only newspaper in the country that defied government censors and wrote about the heart wrenching stories of the “disappeared”.  Incredibly, Robert Cox risked his life and safety of his family for years to be one of the few voices to make the atrocities known within Argentina and around the world.  Ultimately, his defiance forced his exile.

The book can be a bit repetitive in spots, and the information sometimes feels a bit disorganized, but the story is gripping and the heroics of Cox make it a compelling read. This is a war that needs to be understood and remembered.

Miracle in the Andes

Wow – this is an inspiring story. Many of you likely know the story of the plane crash in the Andes in 1972 that was popularized in the book and movie, Alive. What you may not recall is the plane was carrying a ruby team from Uruguay over the Andes to play a match with a team from Chili.  The book was written by an English historian and biographer who interviewed the survivors and rescuers – it  was quite well received and is an excellent read.

Miracle in the Andes: 72 Days on the Mountain and My Long Trek Home was written by Miracle_in_the_andes_bookcoverNando Parrado, one of the survivors and one of the two people that trekked out of the Andes on their own to find help.  It is a fascinating and gripping tail which adds a lot more context than Alive. Much of the book details the absolutely incredible trek to safety. After surviving a plane crash and then 2 months in the mountains with little to eat, two of the players hike from 12K ft up  and over a peak at  17K ft and than 70 miles down in artic conditions with only street cloths, ruby cleats, and snowshoes fashioned from seat cushions. Their climb traversed walls of snow, vertical ice climbs, and a technical descent that would challenge professional climbers with crampons and ropes.


It is truly unbelievable and inspiring. Its a great motivational story to stick in the back of your head for your own climbs or bad days.  The later part of the book details Nando’s views on atheism and coming to terms with survior’s guilt and the loss of his sister and mother who were also on the plane.

Its very worthy of a few hours.

Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron

When visiting the Recoleta Cemetery where the graves of Argentina’s powerful are located including Evita Peron’s, it was interesting to see all the flowers and handwritten notes for a woman who was a very controversial figure in Argentina.  Today, 68 years after her death, she still evokes a lot discussion and emotion from people.


Her husband, Juan Peron, is infamously credited with totalitarianism and bankrupting a rich country.  At the time that Peron became President of Argentina in 1946, Argentina was the richest country in South America and one of the richest countries in the world.  Britain owed Argentina $2B after WWII.  Interested to learn more about South American politics and this female icon of Argentina, I read Evita: The Real Life of Eva Peron by Nicholas Fraser and Marysa Navarro.  Evita published an autobiography before she died in 1952, but I was looking for a third party perspective.  Eva Peron.jpg

This biography is a fast and engaging read about Evita- the person, the actress, the wife of Argentina’s President, Juan Peron, women’s rights and political activist.  Maria Eva Duarte (Evita) was a poor and illegitimate child.  In 1935, she left home at sixteen traveling to Buenos Aires with aspirations to become an actress.  Before marrying Peron, she became one of the best paid, radio soap opera stars.  However, controversy surrounded Eva while she was an actress as well.   Since actors and actresses were paid poorly at that time in Argentina, prostitution was a common way to supplement one’s income.

Early in her career, Eva had no interest in politics.  However, at a festival to raise money for victims of an earthquake in Argentina, Evita and Peron met.  Then, she marries Peron after living with him for a period and becomes First Lady of Argentina at 26.

At the start of her role as First Lady, it appears she struggled, and it took her some time to mature into the position.  Once she matured into the role sometime after an historic trip to Europe, Evita developed some missions and fought for women’s suffrage and the poor.  In 1947, Argentine women were finally given the right to vote after a series of bills failed from 1911 to 1946.  (Women’s right to vote in the US was ratified in 1919.)  Then from about 1946 until she died in 1952, Evita worked tirelessly for the poor.  Initially, she distributed clothes and food to the poor, and eventually, leveraged her position to secure donations from workers and companies, to the point, where a sizable Foundation (estimated at over $3B pesos or over $200 million at the exchange rate at the time) was established.  In 1948, the Maria Eva Duarte de Peron Foundation was created and given legal rights by her husband, the President; however, the name was eventually changed to Foundation for Social Assistance.  The achievements of the Foundation are significant.  For example, 12 hospitals and 1,000 schools were built in the poorest areas of the country.  Evita took a very personal and hands-on approach to the Foundation and engaging with the people. There is one story about a visit she made to a poor neighborhood where she is approached by a crying women with eight children asking for a home.  After Evita verified the women was in need, a check was written for a home and basic necessities for this family. Unfortunately, the achievements are not without controversy, especially in terms of how the money for the Foundation was acquired.  There were allegations of extortion.  Many other interesting details, some controversial and some not, about Evita and her husband are covered in this book as well.

Nonetheless, the way in which the book is written makes for a quick and enjoyable read (if sometimes general and high level) about a fascinating woman who played a substantial and controversial role in Argentine history.  Unfortunately, she was likely not able to achieve her full potential. She died at the very young age of 33 after suffering from cancer.


Departing at Dawn: A Novel of Argentina’s Dirty War

A bike ride past a mass grave in downtown Buenos Aires and a short conversation about “disappearing” people by drugging them and then tossing them from planes over the Rio de la Plata had my head reeling wanting to understand more about Argentina’s Dirty Way during 1976-1983.  A quick search on Amazon yielded many non-fiction and Spanish titles but not a lot of English literature on the subject. It is surprising there is no “Killing Fields” equivalent story that humanized the events and brought them to light with a global audience.  Perhaps, there has not been enough time.  Some of the gruesome activities of the war have only been relatively recently uncovered.  There are still weekly  protests by the mothers and grandmothers of many of the victims. Or maybe it is still too dangerous to talk fully about what happened. During trials as late as 2007, judges were threatened, key witness have gone missing.  Indeed, criticizing the government and exposing injustices is still very dangerous in Argentina.  Just last week, facts emerged that indicate a prominent lawyer, Alberto Nisman, making a case against the government was killed by the state a year ago.

41brWiyv5kL._SX342_BO1,204,203,200_However, I did find “Departing at Dawn” which detailed one family’s plight during the “Dirty War”. It follows the life of a young med-school student whose activist boyfriend is killed and who is force to flea the country to avoid persecution.  It is a fast read and a story that grabs you quickly. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of details on the war (although the afterwords and notes provide a lot of good information in very consumable format), but you do get a good perspective how everyday people were impacted during those years.


If you are all interested in the subject, this is a worthwhile and quick read.  As for myself, I have 3-4 more Kindle samples loaded up and am starting to plow through some of the non-fiction texts out there on the subject.

The Covenant- South Africa

During the Footsteps to Freedom tour that we took in Cape Town, I asked our guide ( who was very knowledgeable about South African history) for book recommendations on ThecovenantSouth Africa.  The first book he rattled off was The Covenant by James Michener.  This coupled with the same recommendation from my husband, I was sure I could not go wrong reading this voluminous, historical fiction novel spanning prehistoric times to the 1970’s focused on South Africa . Given the recommendations from great people coupled with our fondness for South Africa, I will try to be objective here, but a warning my judgement might be a little skewed. 🙂

Michener’s writing style makes learning South African history a pleasure even though the book is quite long- about 1250 pages. He weaves a fascinating story of multiple generations of families from diverse, ethnic backgrounds  and includes beautiful descriptions of this gorgeous country- e.g. Karoo, the veld, etc.  Some real characters that were influential in South African history are also included- e.g. Jan Smuts, Cecil Rhodes, Paul Kruger, Gandi, etc. Although I thoroughly enjoyed the book, the midsection and the subplot were a little too lengthy and less interesting due in part to the superstitious elements which did not resonate with me.  The book demonstrates the heinous consequences of people incorrectly interpreting religious books ( interesting given the parallels with present day).  And the stories and examples used to describe how ludicrous the apartheid system was is well-done and poignant. This is a must read for anyone planning to visit and/ or wants to understand the complex and interesting history of South Africa including some of the drivers behind the reprehensible apartheid system (although the book is long and a little slow in the midsection).

The Glass Palace

A friend recommended The Glass Palace when we were out to dinner this past glass palacesummer, and we were talking about what books should be on the reading list for our travels.  And when I put out the plea for book recommendations, she reminded me of this book, and I am glad she did.  It is a great read.

The historical fiction novel covers a large geography including Thailand, Burma, India, Malaysia and Singapore. The novel weaves in some interesting historical pieces of information:

  1. Burma’s royal family and how they were exiled to India by the British
  2. The impact British rule had on Burma versus India
  3. How WW II shifted power in Asia and the fall of the British Empire

What I enjoyed more about the book were the characters and relationships that developed and evolved, at times in depressing and surprising ways.  Yet, despite hardships and different priorities, some friendships lasted a lifetime.

The one downside is that the novel tries to cover so much ground- about 150 years worth of history starting around 1885-and it felt like some subplots were skimmed over.  Nonetheless, a great read for those interested in historical fiction about these countries or just a great story about a individuals and their families struggling to live and survive at a difficult time in history, especially for Burma and India.


Good Reads: Hemingway and Pigs

Our short trip to Spain was mostly about regrouping and sorting out some visa issues for next year’s travels. It was also a good excuse to do some reading on the country and what better way than a classic Hemingway and a book on swine.

51YECFM808LThe Sun Also Rises is one of Hemingway’s well known, early classics that launched his writing career.  A review would be pretentious but I will say it was a great read, and I recommend it, if you like his stories.  It is set in Paris and Spain with copious amounts of drinking, bull-fighting and, in classic Hemingway fashion, tortured souls.




511kUXZ9GkL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_Lesser Beasts, A Snout-to-Trail History of the Humble Pig was something completely different.  This non-fictional work charts the history of the pig and human relationships.  It is a fascinating read and a must if you are curious about history, the food chain and pork belly…or you find yourself in Spain surrounded by cured jamon.  It is filled with so many interesting factoids that are typically not part of history books.

  • Pigs and pork were a destabilizing political force during the Roman rule as pigs provided a means for the poor to cultivate their own food source.
  • Pig drives were more prevalent than cattle drives during the expansion of the Western States.  It is suggested that the West would have taken at least 100 years longer to develop without them.
  • 20K pigs roamed Manhattan in the late 1800’s.
  • The Chinese symbol for pigsty and outhouse are the same….for an obvious and disgusting reason. Enjoy your bacon.

Two Different Perspectives on the Vietnam War

Catching up on more book reviews.  Here are a couple more on Vietnam.

We were absolutely smitten by Vietnam and its people.  Our visit has been one of the highlights of our trip so far. This is a bit of a surprise to me.  We had heard great things and had considered visiting 20 years ago, but it was hard to think about the country without being influenced by the history and the war. From a perspective within the States, Vietnam was demonized in the 70’s, the war was sensationalized by Hollywood in the 80’s and 90’s, and  school history books provided, at best, an incomplete view.

Visiting the country, meeting veterans in the countryside,  exploring their museums, and reading more has helped to understand more. One could study this country and the war for a lifetime without getting all the answers. There are certainly no lack of good books and movies on the Vietnam war. Unfortunately, tragedy and suffering can be just the catalyst for compelling stories, literature and art. I certainly do not profess to be an expert on the subject, but here are two more books that helped me explore the subject a bit more.


Tim O’Brien has been writing books on the war for 40 years and has won awards and many accolades for his writing.  It is said that a large part of his first book was written while he was over there in foxholes.  The Things They Carried was originally published in 1990 and was considered for the Pulitzer.  It is an interesting set of short stories that hang together and highlight the mental and physical challenges of US soldiers (based on his experiences over there).  The stories are chilling and emotional and provide insights into the inner most struggles and thoughts of the US soldiers.



When Heaven and Earth Changed Places is a fascinating read and highlights the struggles of the war from the Vietnamese people’s perspectives. Many in Vietnam were just as conflicted and confused about the war as those outside the country, and while most Vietnamese wanted independence, many from the same communities and families differed greatly about how to achieve it. This is the story of a women living in a border town during the war – caught between the North and South. It is an amazing story of struggle and perseverance.  Well worth the read to get a not so common perspective of the war.