For better or for worse, Lonely Planet still rules the backpacker trail in Southeast Asia, the overland Africa trail, and the Gringo Trail in Latin America. You can plausibly argue that a traveler is better off carrying another guide for one of those regions, but reality is that their “…On a Shoestring” guides are popular because they do a pretty good job of getting you by on a journey involving multiple countries.
So it’s always a major deal when a new edition comes out, as the new one just did for South America on a Shoestring. As usual, it’s jam-packed with solid and updated information submitted by a grab bag of writers who worked on more focused books for the publisher. It’s not easy boiling any of these countries in South America down to the essentials while still being relevant, but they seem to have managed it well. I’m not using this from the road, but leafing through it for places I’ve been in the past two years, I found myself nodding along a lot and not much time disagreeing. As usual, the maps will get you where you need to go, there’s a good background summary, and plenty of informative extras that dig deeper.
The problem with a guide like this, of course, is the well-documented problem of creating a “Lonely Planet Trail” where everyone is staying at the same hotels or hostels and eating at the same gringo-slanted restaurants. If you do use this, remember the word “guide”in the compound word guidebook and be sure to strike out on your own more often than not.
Use the hotel listings as a pointer for a section of town more than a listing of where to stay. Go to the listed restaurants if you want some company and English conversation. Otherwise, spread the business around to others who didn’t get the golden coronation of appearing in the guidebook. Just because a restaurant is listed doesn’t mean it will be memorable and just because a place is not in there doesn’t mean it’s bad. With tens or hundreds of great restaurants in some of these places, no living soul can properly judge them all. Plus guidebook writers are notoriously short on research time these days–you’ll probably spend more time in some of the towns you visit than they did: they have to get on to the next place in a hurry or they’ll never finish.
Some travelers prefer the Footprint South America guide, which also has a new edition out, but I personally find the more in-depth coverage of some regions is canceled out by the lousy maps and the maddening format: I feel like I’m going to get a cramp in my arm from all the flipping back and forth and it takes me twice as long to find what I need. But that’s just me. Take a look at both and see which feels more comfortable to you.