Most people travelling to South America will probably imagine themselves trekking through dramatic landscapes, scrambling over the remains of ancient civilizations, or paddling through crystalline waters on picture postcard beaches, but there is another landscape of vast dimensions in South America which no traveler should ever miss – the world of literature. With numerous Nobel laureates and internationally recognized household names originating from this continent, we think that the best way for any reader to experience the magnitude of this world is to get lost in a library for a few hours maybe even a few days. So let us take you by the hand as we guide you through our five favourite guardians of South America’s most treasured tomes.
There is no denying the visual parallel between the library and Sauron’s tower in Mordor as its three black asymetrical boulder-like buildings loom over Medellín’s Santo Domingo neighbourhood, but it is a house of learning rather than evil. The library is located in an area which just ten years ago was considered one of the most dangerous in Colombia and it forms part of a city-wide regeneration project which aims at not just storing endless volumes, but at providing programs, cultural activities and services for the residents of Medellín. You can hike up the hill, but we recommend taking in another of Medellín’s attractions, the Metro cable-car, and enjoying the beautiful panoramic views on the way.
San Francisco Monastery
For any real bibliophiles out there, this beautiful library is unmissable. You can find it in the heart of the historical centre of Lima. It is one of the oldest libraries in South America, the convent opened in 1672 and it has about 25,000 antiquarian volumes, some of them dating back to before the conquest. Some of its treasures include the first Spanish dictionary published by the Royal Spanish academy and paintings from the schools of Zurbarán and Rubens.
Royal Portuguese Reading Room
Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
This architectural gem may seem familiar to any of you who have visited Lisbon, as the façade was influenced by the Manueline architecture apparent in the city’s Sao Jeronimo monastery and was actually shipped over from Lisbon. Aside from housing the biggest collection of Portuguese works outside of Portugal, the dramatic beauty of the high vaulted reading room cannot fail to inspire any visitor to immerse themselves in the vast Lusophonian literary world, symbolized in the rare exemplars they hold, such as one of the first editions of Os Lusíadas, the epic poem by Portugal’s Shakespeare, Camões.
National Library of the Argentine Republic
Buenos Aires, Argentina
As the biggest library of the “literary capital of South America”, Buenos Aires, this library proudly sits high in its most recent home, the historical barrio of Recoleta. The building may perhaps strike some observers as a “sore thumb”, a brutalist twentieth century scoff at its elegant Parisian Haussmann–like surroundings, but any architecture buff will recognise the seminal importance of the building. The library has positioned itself as a cultural and intellectual centre of Buenos Aires, and its success can be partially attributed to Argentine literary giant, Jorge Luis Borges, who was director here for almost twenty years.
Now we realize that the small scale and the mobile nature of this library means that it may not be easy for our beloved readers to track down, but it’s such a great concept that we’re left with no choice but to include it in our top five.
Biblioburro was a plan hatched by Luis Soriano when he saw he could put some idle donkeys to greater good. Armed with a placard saying Biblioburro (literally “book-donkey”) and a couple of trusty asses he has been bringing library books to underprivileged villages in Colombia for the last fifteen years. His movable library has inspired books and documentaries, but it is the appreciation of the readers that keeps him going. While Biblioburro doesn’t have the legacy of Nobel laureates writing in its non-existent wings, a cutting edge design or hundreds of years of age, it could be the starting point for the next García Marquez and is certainly a stimulus for further great ideas. Biblioburro may just be our favourite library of the bunch.