15 BEST Books on Guatemala: Read Before You Go!

by | Apr 6, 2022 | Books, Guatemala

I’d never heard of this bloody place Guatemala until I was in my seventy-ninth year.” – Winston Churchill

Over the past 5 months, I’ve been traveling around Central America, and during that time I’ve read 15 books about Guatemala. Before I even stepped into the country or opened a page on one of these books, I’m ashamed to say that I knew pretty much next to nothing about the country.

I am still by no means an expert on Guatemala, but after 15 books, I can at least say that I am no longer ignorant of the country and of my own country’s (the U.S.) role in the coupe of 1954, the 36-year civil war, and the current drug trade and violence in the country. It has been an enlightening journey. I’d always known the United States was no angel internationally (and domestically), but what it has done to Guatemala fills me with a whole new level of shame, guilt, anger, and sadness.

I hope more Americans take the time to read at least one of the books on this list and learn about not only Guatemala’s history and culture but also their own history.

For those of you traveling to Guatemala, I also hope that you take the time to read one or two books on the country. It’ll make your experience visiting Antigua or Lake Atitlan or Flores or Rio Dulce even more special than if you hadn’t read anything about Guatemala.

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In This Post, You’ll Find…

  1. The Art of Political Murder
  2. The Beast
  3. Bitter Fruit
  4. Central America’s Forgotten History
  5. The History of Violence
  6. The Mayans Among Us
  7. I, Rigoberto Menchu
  8. Silence on the Mountain
  9. Antigua Guatemala: Its Heritage
  10. The Jungle of Stone
  11. Incidents of Travel
  12. Lonely Planet: Guatemala
  13. Harsh Times
  14. Long Night of White Chickens
  15. Mr. President

Best Nonfiction Books on Guatemala

Most of the books I’ve read on Guatemala focus on 4 common themes: the 1954 coup, the civil war, and the current issues of crime and migration. To understand the roots of the civil war, start with learning about the American-orchestrated coup of Guatemala’s second democratically-elected president, Jacobo Armas. A couple of really good books cover the event well: Bitter Fruit (nonfiction) and Harsh Times (fiction).

The best books on Guatemala, though, are on the war itself. My favorite book, Silence on the Mountain, will help you understand not only why the war started but also why it was lost. I, Rigoberta Menchu is a heartbreaking book on what life was like before and during the civil war for the Maya people, probably the ones who suffered the most during the war.

For more of a focus on post-war Guatemala, I highly recommend The Art of Political Murder, The History of Violence, and The Beast. The first one is on how Guatemala is dealing with the human rights abuses from the war. The last two are written by Oscar Martinez and cover the issues of Central American migration and crime.

I have not included books on the ancient Maya. There have just been too many that have been written on the topic to include here, so I’ll be writing another article on those books. However, I have included two terrific travel books on the two earliest archaeological explorers (John L Stephens and Catherwood) who visited Guatemala in the 1840s: Jungle of Stone and Incidents of Travel.

1. The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Bishop

By Francis Goldman (2008)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“The report concluded that the Guatemalan Army and associated paramilitary units, such as the rural civil patrols, were responsible for 80 percent of the killings of civilians, and that the guerrillas had committed a little less than 5 percent of those crimes.”

On April 26, 1998, Bishop Juan Gerardi, one of Guatemala’s leading human rights activists, was found bludgeoned to death in his garage. Just two days earlier he had released a human rights report implicating the military in the murder and torture of 200,000 Guatemalans during the country’s civil war. Not trusting the police to do a thorough and honest investigation of his murder, the church conducts its own investigation.

This book is about the events leading up to the murder and the subsequent investigation and trial that took over 9 years before a verdict was finally announced.

The Art of Political Murder is a fascinating book on the war, the war’s victims’ search for justice, Guatemala’s justice system, and the church’s different factions and role in the war and human rights.

Read it if you’re interested in learning about post-civil-war Guatemala and the tragic events of Gerardi’s death.

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2. The Beast: Riding the Rails and Dodging Narcos on the Migrant Trail

By Oscar Martinez

My Rating: 6 out of 5 stars

“There are those who migrate to El Norte because of poverty. There are those who migrate to reunite with family members. And there are those, like the Alfaro brothers, who don’t migrate. They flee.”

I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve told to read this book. Written by El Salvadoran journalist, Oscar Martinez, The Beast is named after the train that Central Americans ride on top of as they make their way through Mexico to El Norte.

However, the book is about the total experience of Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorans, and Nicaraguans traveling from the southern border to the northern border of Mexico. It’s not about what happens to them while in U.S. custody or the ill-treatment they face there. No, it’s about how Mexico treats them. It’s the abuse, robberies, assaults, mutilations, rapes, abductions, mistreatment, and deaths that Central Americans experience at the hands of Mexican authorities, police officers, immigration officials, cartels, criminals, and even average Mexicans.

Over several years, Martinez traveled with the migrants during their trip through Mexico. He walked with them through some of the most dangerous areas of Mexico (Chiapas, Oaxaca, Veracruz, Chihuahua), road 8 times on top of the Beast, visited them at migrant shelters, interviewed the women who ended up as prostitutes in the bars along the southern border sometimes not of their own volition, talked to undercover agents and American border guards, and wandered the streets of Mexican towns that were completely under cartel control.

There are just some books that you need to read to put your life into perspective and to make you realize and appreciate how damn lucky you are to not have to leave your country to survive.

This is one of the best books I read in 2022.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

3. Bitter Fruit: The Untold Story of the American Coup in Guatemala

By Stephen Shlesinger and Stephen Kinzer

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Guatemala has now become a test for John Kennedy’s favorite axiom, ‘Those who make peaceful change impossible make violent change inevitable.’”

Every American should read this book because I am pretty sure that only 1% of Americans know about what their government did in Guatemala in the 1950s.

Bitter Fruit is about the 1954 U.S.-orchestrated coup of the democratically-elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. Many scholars of Guatemalan history see this event as the catalyst for the civil war.

Arbenz tried to solve Guatemala’s problems of economic backwardness, inequality, and poverty through social and economic reform including a land reform bill that would redistribute uncultivated land from the rich and foreign corporations to the landless poor.

The American company, the United Fruit Company, saw Arbenz as a threat to its profits and the U.S. government saw him as a threat to capitalism and its control over Central America.

As a result, the U.S. government orchestrated a coup and then replaced him with their own puppet, Castillo Armas. Economic and social reforms were rolled back and many people on the left were imprisoned or murdered.

Bitter Fruit looks at whether Arbenz was really a communist, whether it was necessary to overthrow him, and what the ramifications were for Guatemala.

Read Bitter Fruit before plunging into any of the other books on Guatemala. It’ll make understanding them so much easier.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

4. Central America’s Forgotten History: Revolution, Violence, and the Roots of Migration

By Aviva Chomsky (2021)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“If we erase important parts of our own and Central American countries’ histories, we can believe that they are simply, inherently, ‘shit-hole countries’ (as President Trump suggested in early 2018), filled with ‘criminals’ with ‘blatant disregard for our border & sovereignty.’”

Why does Guatemala suffer from so much poverty, inequality, and violence? Why are so many Guatemalans risking their lives to make it to the U.S.?

In Central America’s Forgotten History, Avila Chomsky explains the roots of these economic and social problems plaguing the region, and why so many people from these countries think that the only solution is to migrate north.

The book is divided into 3 parts. Part 1 is an excellent overview of the history of the region since the Spanish conquest. It explains the difference between the colonialism that took place in Central America and that which took plan in the United States.

Part 2 was for me the best. It consists of 5 chapters. Each chapter focuses on the history of Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador since the 1960s.

Part 3 felt repetitive. Here the author covers the response in the United States to the civil wars, the migration crisis, and U.S. immigration policy, including that under Donald Trump.

This is an incredibly eye-opening and enlightening book on a region of the world that I knew nothing about before I visited it in 2021. I don’t think I’m unique as an American. Every American should read this book to understand what their country has been doing in Central America, especially since 1954.

However, it’s not a perfect book. I believe that Chomsky is correct in saying that the U.S. is partly responsible for the poverty, inequality, and violence facing Central America today. However, I don’t think she presented her argument very convincingly. She needed to use more detailed examples and a less emotional tone.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

5. A History of Violence: Living and Dying in Central America

By Oscar Martinez (2016)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“Ninety percent of the cocaine that arrives in the United States passes through Guatemala.”

I read A History of Violence while traveling through Central America, and it scared the bejesus out of me! I couldn’t look at the region in the same way as BEFORE I read it. It opened my eyes to a lot of sh$t that goes on in Guatemala that as a privileged tourist, I had remained blissfully unaware of–the violence, the tortures, rapes, murders, extortions, thefts, kidnapping, sex trafficking, and corruption.

Martinez explains a lot about who controls the drug trade in Guatemala. Is it gangs like in El Salvador or is it organized crime families like in Italy or cartels like in Mexico? Or is it the military? What role do the Mexican cartels play in Guatemala? Where in Guatemala is it the most violent? Where do the narcos operate? How about sex trafficking? Where in Guatemala are women held against their will and forced into prostitution?

I hope more travelers to Guatemala read this book. But don’t let it scare you away from traveling to the country.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

6. I Rigoberta Menchu: An Indian Woman in Guatemala

By Rigoberta Menchu and Elisabeth Burgos-Debray (2010)

Translated by Ann Wright

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“My name is Rigoberta Menchu. I am twenty-three years old. This is my testimony. I didn’t learn it from a book and I didn’t learn it alone. I’d like to stress that it’s not only my life, it’s also the testimony of my people. It’s hard for me to remember everything that’s happened to me in my life since there have been many very bad times but, yes, moments of joy as well. The important thing is that what has happened to me has happened to many people too: my story is the story of all poor Guatemalans. My personal experience is the reality of a whole people.”

One of the most heartbreaking and emotionally riveting books about Guatemala is the life story of Rigoberta Menchu, the Guatemalan Maya activist who won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1992. She did not actually write the book herself. Instead, she told her story to an anthropologist, Elisabeth Burgos-Debray who then wrote down what she had said.

The book covers a lot of ground. The first few chapters focus on the beliefs and customs of the K’iche’ Maya including marriage, birth, child-rearing, family, religion, and government. In the rest of the book, Rigoberta tells the story of her family and how they lost their land, found a new village, worked on the cotton farms for little money, and then fought back when their land was taken from them again. It’s easy to be moved by Rigoberta’s description of what her family went through.

Once you’ve read this book, you’ll understand why the Mayans went to war with the government.

Be aware that there are a few factual errors. In the book, Rigoberta says that she never went to school, but in fact, she attended 2 private schools on scholarship. The second untrue part is the way one of her family members died.  I still recommend reading it, however.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

7. The Mayans Among Us: Mayan Women and Meatpacking on the Great Plains

By Ann Sittig and Martha Florinda Gonzalez (2016)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“Many of them quickly find out that life in cities such as Miami, Houston, Chicago, or Los Angeles is too expensive, that there are too many other immigrants grappling for the few jobs that the undocumented can do. However, they often have a relative who tells them about the “good life” in Nebraska, where there are numerous rural cities with meatpacking plants needing low-wage laborers, so they relocate. It is easy to stay once they arrive; they are met by the familiar sight of the corn that has been the center of their daily sustenance, growing as in the Guatemalan rural highlands. The fields filled with corn, the open skies and clean air, and small city living, with few people, all remind them of home.”

Nebraska has a large community of Maya women and men from Guatemala who work in the meatpacking industry. One of the authors, an anthropologist originally from Nebraska, interviewed several Maya women and 1 Maya man about their lives back in Guatemala, their reasons for coming to the United States, and their lives in the meatpacking industry in the U.S. The other author is a Guatemalan Mayan Q’anjob’al who emigrated to the United States.

These are ordinary indigenous Guatemalans. Their lives aren’t as sensational as Rigoberta Menchu’s is. None of them participated on the side of the guerillas in the civil war. However, their stories are still fascinating. You’ll learn about why many of them felt compelled to leave their families and take the dangerous journey across Mexico and into the United States.

The most interesting person in the book is the man and his description of life in the military. I’ve often wondered what it was like for the Maya to serve in the military and fight against other Maya. You can find books in which you from the voices of the guerillas and the officers of the army but there aren’t any or many in which you get to hear from the ordinary Maya soldier. What did he think of the war? How was he treated by his superiors? Why did he join the army? Or was he forced to join?

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

8. Silence on the Mountain: Stories of Terror, Betrayal, and Forgetting in Guatemala

By Daniel Wilkerson (2002)

My Rating: 6 out of 5 stars

“Long before any houses burned, there had been a law that could have made a difference in Guatemala. Or rather there had been a law that, for a brief two years, did make a difference—such a difference that even after it was revoked and its authors were in exile or unmarked graves, it continued to shape the way Guatemalans understood their place in the world. The law was Decree 900, the 1952 “Law of Agrarian Reform.” Its overarching aim, set forth in its opening paragraph, was to “overcome the economic backwardness” of the country and “improve the quality of life of the great masses.” Whether it could have achieved these ambitious ends will never be known. In 1954, the CIA toppled Guatemala’s reform government. A military regime took power. The reformers were driven underground. And the country began its long, terrifying descent into a state of lawlessness, cruelty, and despair.”

Silence on the Mountain is my favorite book on Guatemala. It helped me understand the country more than any other book on this list because it tells the story of Guatemala not from the perspective of those in power but from those who experienced the war firsthand: the poor farmworker, the plantation owners, the average people of the small towns and cities, and the guerillas.

In 1993 the author, Daniel Wilkerson, is in Guatemala on a traveling scholarship. One night at dinner with an elderly professor and his wife, he hears a story about the burning down of a coffee plantation belonging to the wife’s family. The story sparks his curiosity, so he travels to the wife’s farm to find the truth behind the fire. As he settles into the community around the farm and interviews people, he realizes that there is a bigger story than just the fire. His investigation turns into a search for the reasons why the Civil War happened and why it was lost.

The writing is superb. There’s a nice flow to it and you find yourself transported to Guatemala and you become invested in the mystery.

I’d read Silence on the Mountain in companion with Bitter Fruit, Harsh Times, or Central America’s Forgotten History and I, Rigoberta Menchu.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

Best Travel Books on Guatemala

9. Antigua Guatemala: Its Heritage

By Elizabeth Bell (2013)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

This is a good book if you’re traveling to Antigua, and you’re interested in history and architecture. I used it when I was there. The book tells the history of Antigua and the stories behind many of the monuments, ruins, churches, and historic buildings.

The author is an American who has lived in Antigua for 35 years. She is active in the historical preservation of the city and runs fabulous cultural tours of the city. The tour is worth it! You can book her tours here.

What you won’t get is up-to-date travel information on where to eat and stay, how to get places, and how much attractions cost.

The writing is a bit dry but it’s still a good companion to a travel guide or blog.

If you’re a Kindle Unlimited subscriber, you can get the book for FREE. You can also get a FREE trial subscription to Kindle Unlimited.

Buy it on Amazon

10. Jungle of Stone: Jungle of Stone: The Extraordinary Journey of John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and the Discovery of the Lost Civilization of the Maya

By William Carlsen (2016)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

              “Que bonito es el mundo;

              Lastima es que yo me muera.”

              “How beautiful is the world;

              It’s a pity that I must die.”

Jungle of Stone is one of my top 10 travel books. Carlsen tells the life story of two amateur archaeologists, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, and their two journeys through Central America and Mexico in the 1840s.

On their first trip starting in 1839, Stephens and Catherwood traveled on foot and by donkey and horse from Belize to Guatemala and then down to Honduras, where he “discovered” the ruins of Copan. He then returned to Guatemala finding himself in the middle of a civil war before he traveled down through El Salvador and Nicaragua. Then back again to Guatemala and up through Mexico to the Yucatan where they visited Palenque and Uxmal.

Stephens then wrote 2 books describing his journeys and they both became best sellers. You can read the original, Incidents of Travel 1 and 2, or you can read an easier and more enjoyable version of their travels by reading this biography of the two explorers. I read all 3 books with Jungle of Stone first, which helped me get through Stephens’ books.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

11. Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and the Yucatan

By John Stephens (1848)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

“I was beginning a journey in a new country; it was my duty to conform to the customs of the people; to be prepared for the worst, and submit with resignation to whatever might befall me.”

Every Mayanist, myself included, keep these often reprinted masterpieces on his bookshelf in a place of honor, since they mark the very genesis of serious Maya research. I never get tired of rereading my own copies. There is always something fresh to find in Stephens’ delightful, unpretentious prose, and inspiration in Catherwood’s crisp engravings.” – Michael Coe

A book for those who LOVE travel books, archaeology, and history. Written in the 1840s, Incidents of Travel was written by John Stephens and illustrated by Frederick Catherwood, two amateur archaeologists. It’s about their journey in 1839 and 1840 through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Mexico in search of archaeological ruins.

It was an incredible adventure. The two explorers went up and down volcanoes and mountains and through forests and jungles all while fighting ticks, garrapatas, and mosquitoes. They were constantly ill from malaria and constantly running into trigger-happy guerillas and underpaid soldiers. They did all this while a civil war was going on in Central America.

Stephens and Catherwood are about as close as you can get to a real-life Indiana Jones. Reading about what life was Guatemala was like in the 1840s was also fascinating.

However, it wasn’t an easy book for me to get through. Stephens is no Hemingway. The writing is dense and wordy. The sentences are long and so complicated that you need to do linguistic gymnastics to decode them. He describes leaving one place without telling his readers where he’s headed next. Stephens is also a man of his time, meaning he’s well…a racist.

I read the biography of Stephens and Catherwood, Jungle of Stone, first before Incidents of Travel, and I think it helped me get through Stephens’ book.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop.org

12. Lonely Planet Guatemala

By Paul Klammer, Ray Bartlett, and Celeste Brash (2023)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I recommend buying Lonely Planet’s Guatemala book if you’re planning on traveling, studying, or living in Guatemala. It covers both the well-trodden tourist destinations like Antigua and Lake Atitlan in depth. But it also covers less-visited places like Quetzaltenango and Huehuetenango. The book is also a good introduction to the history and culture of Guatemala.

The 2023 edition has a revised design. I have only used the old version. However, reviews on Amazon and Good Reads have been overwhelmingly negative. Most reviewers said the new version lacks details like the old version.

No travel book is perfect, but Lonely Planet’s Guatemala is probably the best there is.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop

Fiction Books Set in Guatemala

13. Harsh Times

By Mario Vargas Llosa (2022)

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

“When all is said and done, the North American invasion of Guatemala held up the continent’s democratization for decades at the cost of thousands of lives, as it helped popularize the myth of armed struggle and socialism throughout Latin America. For at least three generations, young people killed and were killed for another impossible dream, still more radical and tragic than the dream of Jacobo Arbenz.”

I was looking forward to reading Harsh Times when it first came out. I love the writer, Mario Vargas Llosas’ other books and I love historical fiction. Fortunately, the book did not disappoint. It’s truly a wonderful book that made the events of 1954 come alive for me.

The historical novel is about the 1954 United States-led coup of Guatemala’s democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz. Many people consider his overthrow the catalyst of the 36-year civil war in Guatemala and all the other wars in Central America that followed. It proved to those who lacked power and wealth that the only way to change the unjust and exploitive system and racist society in Central America was through radical ideology and war.

The book’s scope covers more than just the coup. It also tells the story of the man whom the U.S. installed in Guatemala as their president, Castillo Armas, and what happened to him.

The writing is terrific. Even if you’ve read Bitter Fruit, the story is still engrossing as Llosa highlights some of the key and eccentric players who were involved in the events of that time.

Being familiar with the events of 1954 before reading Harsh Times will make it easier and more enjoyable to read. I think Llosa assumes his readers already know about the coup. You can get some background knowledge on the events and people by also reading Bitter Fruit or Central America’s Forgotten History.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop

14. The Long Night of White Chickens

By Francis Goldman (1992)

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Have you ever fallen in love with a book in its first few pages only to fall out of love the more you read? That’s how I felt with The Long Night of White Chickens. The first quarter of the book is brilliant. However, the last three-fourths was slow and meandered. In the end, the book was good but not great.

Flor de Mayo is a Guatemalan orphan who at 14 years old is sent to work in the United States for a Guatemalan-American family. Instead, the father, a Jewish-American, sends her to school to get an education while still washing the family’s clothes and cooking their dinner. She ends up graduating from Wellesley College. She then returns to Guatemala to run an orphanage. One day, though, someone murders her. Rumors are spreading that she was involved with stealing babies from poor Guatemalans and selling them overseas.

Unfortunately, as the book progresses, it no longer is about who murdered Flor but instead about who Flor is. That is not a bad thing, but just be aware that the book isn’t a murder mystery. Instead, it jumps back and forth between Flor and her strange relationship with the Guatemalan-American family (Is she a servant or is she part of the family?) and the people she left behind who are trying to make sense of who she was.

I liked the book but it also frustrated me as well. It’s probably a book more for those who live in Guatemala or who’ve spent a lot of time there and want to know the country better.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop

15. Mr. President

By Miguel Angel Asturias (1946)

My Rating: Haven’t Read it Yet

Mr. President is the Nobel prize winner, Miguel Angel Asturias’s masterpiece. Set in an unnamed country presumably Guatemala in the early 1900s, a ruthless dictator is plotting to get rid of his political opponent and maintain his hold on power. The dictator is supposedly based on the real-life president, Manual Estrada Cabrera who ruled Guatemala from 1898 to 1920. Asturias uses humor to highlight the psychological effects of totalitarianism on society.

A new edition of Miguel Angel Asturias’s masterpiece, Mr. President, is being released in July 2022. I’m hoping to read it when it comes out. I tried reading an older edition, but I was turned off by the poor quality of the e-book edition, so I stopped. Given his status as a Nobel Prize winner, it is one book you should read if you’re interested in understanding Guatemala more deeply.

Buy it on Amazon | Buy it on Bookshop

Final Thoughts

Finding books about Guatemala in English wasn’t that easy. I am sure there are even better ones written in Spanish but not yet translated into English.

There are so many books on this list that I love. I don’t think I’ve read so many 5-star books on a country before. Definitely, Silence on the Mountain, Harsh Times. Jungle of Stone, The Beast, and Central America’s Forgotten History are my favorite books.

Let me know if you’ve read any of these books and what you think of them.

If you know of any other books about Guatemala that are missing from this list, let me know in the Comment Section below.

Thank you!

Safe travels and happy reading!

Wanna get free books?

There are so many different ways to get FREE books. My favorite way is to sign up for a FREE trial of Kindle Unlimited or sign up as I’ve done for a monthly subscription. Even if you’ve already done a FREE trial, Amazon usually gives you a chance to do another one the following year.

Another great way to get FREE books is to do a FREE trial of Audible Plus or Audible Premium. You get one or more free audiobooks. Even if you’ve done a FREE trial once, you can usually try again the following year.

Another great way to borrow books for FREE is to visit the website, Openlibrary.org.

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books on Guatemala
15 Best Books on Guatemala


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About The Bamboo Traveler!

Welcome to The Bamboo Traveler, a travel blog dedicated to helping those travelers who want to dig deeply into the history, heritage, and culture of a place. Whether it’s through the pages of your passport or the pages of a book, I’ll help you travel the world and uncover the history, culture, food, architecture, and natural beauty of some of the world’s most fascinating places.


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