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When I travelled around Europe, I found the Europe on a shoestring guide to be really helpful, so when I decided to visit South America I immediately bought this book to help me with my planning.
I bought the 11th edition, published March 2010 and really liked the colour section at the start, including a map of the continent and a series of photos of 'South America Highlights' which made me want to go everywhere! The next section contains some suggested itineraries which are really helpful in planning a trip and getting a feel for how far you might be able to get in a certain time frame.
The book is split into sections, covering a country per section. At the start of each country there's a short overview covering things such as the language spoken, a rough idea of the exchange rate (obviously these are always changing!) and an estimate of the budget you should have per day while in the country. There's then some information about the country including a bit of history, which I found to be very interesting. There's also sections about the culture, religion and the environment so you get a good feel about the country as a whole.
Each country has loads of information about cities to visit and the main sights and attractions. There's loads of city maps as well as maps of the country or region to help see where places are in comparison to each other (which is really useful when planning where to go next). The section I found to be most useful was called "getting there and away" at the end of each city which had details of where the bus station/airport etc are and the number of hours the bus would take. The only problem was, that between the book being researched and the time I was travelling, it seems that the bus prices in Argentina had gone up considerably, so I'd advise using those prices with caution!
There are loads of recommendations of places to stay, although I generally use internet sites to research this so can't really comment on how good these recommendations are, although they do give prices here so it's helps get a rough idea of prices for accommodation. The recommendations for places to eat in the guide were really good and I ate a lot of tasty food by following a few of the recommendations.
It's a definite must for anyone planning a big trip to South America. It's packed full of so much useful information and helped me so much with deciding on where to go.
South America on a shoestring is part of lonely planet's regional guides for those travelling on a budget and I used the 10th edition, published March 2007 which is the most up-to-date version for my trip around that continent this year.
The guide starts with an overview of the continent, from popular intineraries, maps, a brief history and culture section and the basic environment and environmental concerns that can be found in South America. Setting the scene like this is a good way to introduce people to the continent and even those who are already more familiar with parts of it this section provides a broad covereage of common themes in South America and where the places can vastly differ.
The guide then deals with each country in turn which are set out in alphabetical order and the country chapters are indicated by a shaded block so you can quickly find the appropriate chapter when dipping in and out of the book. The countries covered in the guide are Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, The Guianas (French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname), Peru, Paraguay, Uruguay and Venezuela-so the whole of the continent although the detail that each place is explored in depends on its size and if it is a commonly visited country. I found it easy to locate the area that I was trying to get information on.
I find the layout of the guide extremely easy to follow with each country and place having the same structure and order. Each of the countries start with a bit on their history, culture and environment and then when dealing with an individual city or attraction there are clear descriptions of each things and then practical information on how to get there or on to the next place. I like that it starts with the background of a place as it helped me to fit the country into the continent and the world structure and also means there is no excuse for a traveller to not have at least a basic knowledge of the place. Compared to the Rough Guide which has a history section tucked away at the back I find the lonely planet design more user friendly-I don't tend to want a separate section for these details but read them along with whatever country I am going to next. Personally I find lonely planet guides easier to use than the other big market guides but this may be partially due to the fact that I am used to their design and layout. I do find their transport sections much more useful than those of Rough Guides as it is at the end of each place not just a general transport section for the end of each area.
South America on a shoestring also provides a good number of maps for each place, particularly the cities which are very useful. Often when there isn't enough room to provide information in the guide it will point out where you can get some more. Overall though I am impressed with how much they manage to squeeze into one book.
I found that the prices were relatively accurate with a slight increase in the average price being only due to normal inflation. Given that when I was using the book it was around 2 years since it had been published this was quite reasonable. The only country which their prices were vastly wrong on was for Argentina which has suffered a small crisis and 30% inflation over the life of the guide and so not really their fault that the prices had all changed quite a lot.
So far for the positives of the guide. Unfortunately I believe that this guide could be vastly improved.
Firstly the most important criticism is that some very important details are left out or badly explained. Some of the maps miss out things such as the bus and train station, or there is simply a note saying 'bus station 10km north'. The written section then doesn't always have information on how to get from the station to the areas of town with hostels etc. Such details can be very important when you arrive somewhere and can't afford a taxi, much more crucial than listing 10 bars or restuarants which you can easily get from the hostel or by just walking around the neighbourhood.
On a personal point I found that 'on a shoestring' can be a misleading title. There is no doubt that the guide is aimed at backpackers rather than package holiday or wealthy tourists but I felt that it often seemed to be catering for a richer class of backpacker than myself. Obviously I wouldn't expect the guide to tell you how to hitch and live off the land but I would expect it to explain the cheaper ways to do activities and not just have the more expensive side of the hostel world which I feel it focuses on. As a case in point in the machu picchu section it explains the treks and the train up to the ruins both of which require a substantial amount of money but completely fails to explain the route that many backpackers take with local buses to a nearby town and then the local train (something which cuts the cost of the trip by around $200). Perhaps the LP authors don't want to spoil such alternatives but when they are widely known about it seems an oversight to miss them out and appear to promote the more expensive options.
Another negative point of the guide is how popular the series has become. It is admittedly a bit of a catch-22 situation for the guides as they have become so popular that their guides are of less use, particularly if you don't want to follow a crowd of other western backpakcers. Nowhere in Lonely planet is likely to lead you to a secluded hideaway or unusual places as even if there were such places in the guide to start with they quickly become (too) popular. South America on a shoestring is definitely in this bracket as it is a common backpacker destination and a huge chunk are carrying this guide on their back. This is the main reason that I would say not to base an entire trip around the guide, regardless of how useful or not the book is.
The book is necessarily limited in its coverage of each country as it is already around 2 inches thick and would become impractical if it was any longer. It is obviously less detailed than the individual country books but very useful to have as it avoids having to carry many books (very impractical) or pick up new ones for the following country which can leave you without one for a while, likely when you are new to a country and stressed in need of a map. As I am also of the opinion that guides should be used only as a starting point and so I believe that this guide is ideal for a multi-country trip.
The book is also reasonably durable and other than dirt and looking worn at the corners it stands up quite well to being bashed around a backpack for months or years!