At 24, some five years before publishing his breakout book, Hell’s Angels, and nearly a decade before branding himself a “gonzo journalist,” the young Hunter S. Thompson was an anonymous freelancer looking to make a name for himself. The year was 1962. Fidel Castro had marched into Havana three years earlier, and the story of the decade — the expanding frontier of the Cold War — was playing out in Latin America. It occurred to Thompson that a hungry cub reporter could build a reputation covering it.
Thompson’s epiphany coincided with the launch of the National Observer, a mildly experimental weekly newspaper published by the Dow Jones Company. Thompson sent a letter introducing himself, said he was headed to South America, and got an invite to submit any stories he wrote along the way. He arrived in Colombia in May of 1962 and, over the course of the next year, traveled through Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Argentina, Uruguay, and Brazil. The Observer published some 20 of his stories from or about South America, most of which focused on the continent’s culture and politics, and on how these were affected by a Cold War–era U.S. foreign policy centered around aid and containment.
Six of Thompson’s South America pieces were anthologized in his 1979 collection The Great Shark Hunt (some in a slightly altered form); the rest have been essentially lost for more than 50 years, readable only in a few libraries’ microform collections of the Observer, which folded in 1977. I dug up the whole series while researching my book, The Footloose American: Following the Hunter S. Thompson Trail Across South America (get a copy here). From the outset, I intended to post the articles online somewhere following the book’s publication, so that other readers and researchers can easily access them — and now that the book’s been on shelves for a year, it seemed like time to make good.
As I write in the book — and as I’ve described in The Atlantic and elsewhere — Thompson’s South American reportage offers a glimpse at his emerging style. This is sharp, witty participatory journalism with a keen eye for the absurdities of South American life in the 1960s . The pieces are a mix of straightforward news reporting and more narrative, feature-style articles. The depth of insight into Cold War foreign policy is impressive, and the stories contain some memorable prose: the taxis in Quito, Ecuador, “rolled back and forth like animals looking for meat.” Asuncion, Paraguay, is “an O. Henry kind of place . . . about as lively as Atlantis, and nearly as isolated.” La Paz, Bolivia, meanwhile, offers “steep hills and high prices, sunny days and cold nights, demonstrations by wild-eyed opposition groups, drunken Indians reeling and shouting through the streets at night — a manic atmosphere.”
The Community Texts collection at archive.org now hosts a document with 18 of Thompson’s National Observer stories from South America, as well as hosting each piece for individual reading or download. Find them all right below.
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A profile of Colombia's U.S.-friendly president-elect.
On the divisive politics of sunny Aruba.
Thompson is marooned in Guajira, Colombia, smuggling capital of the Caribbean.
On the results of a surprising Peruvian election — and the military takeover that followed.
A day in the life of the American propaganda bureau in Ecuador.
On a pivotal Brazilian election and the lure of the populist left.
On tin miners' graveyards, violent strikers, and Bolivia's crippling reliance on resource extraction.
The Blancos and Colorados clash at the polls in South America's most developed democracy.
A selection of Thompson's (sometimes desperate) letters from South America to his editor.
Brazilians vote with the specter of revolution on the horizon.
Reporting on the beleaguered opposition to Paraguay's dictator, Alfredo Stroessner.
Reporting on a grudge, a rogue military, and a murder in a Rio de Janeiro bar.
Hyperinflation, labor strikes, and growing instability in Brazil.
On madness, paranoia, and bizarre happenings in the streets of La Paz.
Reporting on the military junta from gloomy Lima.
On the plight — and latent political power — of indigenous Andeans.
On cynicism and disillusionment (and drinking) among American expats in South America.
Hyper-inflation threatens to sink the Brazilian government.