This book was my Sancho Panza during a year-long backpacking trip through Latin America, but it's an insult to the ghost of that long-suffering compañero to lend the book his name, since it was nowhere near as faithful as he was. I bought this based on the strong reputation it carries here and learned too late I'd been hornswoggled.
... 1. Nice hard cover and binding - the book is durable. It's also reasonably sized and portable.
... 2. Good breadth of information in terms of cities/towns to visit; seems to include places farther off the so-called "Gringo Trail".
... 1. The quality of the detailed information varied by author. Argentina and Chile, for instance, were not bad, but Colombia and Bolivia were often poor. This would probably not be worth mentioning if the latter wasn't so consistently flawed. I cite a precise examples for Colombia, which I even have page-numbers for as I noted them in moments of lucid fury:
...... (A) "Eating" in Bogotá, p. 909: "Moros y Cristianos" is priced as a "one fork" (under $6) restaurant, but the plates are about $13 apiece; "Rock and Pizza" simply doesn't exist; and "Sopas de Mama y Postres de Abuela" is a chain spread throughout the city that is only open from noon to 4 PM - one would think a small detail like "only open for lunch" would be mentioned somewhere in the suspiciously saccharine review of the place.
...... (B) Transport to Volcán del Totumo, p. 950: The guide mentions a bus from the terminal to Galerazamba that leaves in the "morning". What time in the morning? And how do you get back to Cartagena from there? The answers to such questions are left as exercises to the reader. Tours to Totumo, it says, will cost "more", but roughly how much more is again an unimportant detail (if you're curious, it will only be a buck or two, so you're better off going with one, unless you thrive on DIY adventure and stress).
...... (C) Side trip to Minca, p. 961: The village is mentioned as a good place to visit but no information is given about how to get there. Turns out you have to catch a car at the corner of C11 and Car12, and it's $6000 COP to do so. Why was this information missing?
... 2. No Spanish/Portugese phrasebook. What __is__ there in the way of language prep, the "Second Languages and Anomalies" section (p. 44), is useless if you don't speak the languages, and superfluous if you do.
... 3. Descriptions of places lack structure and read like rambling reminisces of a grandparent, relying on vague, subjective descriptions, as well as undefined terms such as "high/low season" (it doesn't help knowing that prices are half off in "low" season if there is no definition of what months that actually falls into). A place will be described in the review as "recommended" -- golly! and here I was, naïvely assuming that if a place were listed in the guidebook, it was ipso facto recommended. But does the hostel have internet? Is it free or pay-by-the-hour? Is there a kitchen? Is breakfast included and if so, is it bread and jam or something substantial? Such things, which happen to be more useful and important than subjective descriptions like "good value", were usually only mentioned as afterthoughts, if at all.
... 4. No place in the book for jotting notes. The page-formatting is claustrophobic, and the lack of a few blank pages to record recommendations or directions proved frustrating.
... 5. Finally, and perhaps decisively, the book is rammed with advertisements. I noticed that every place that had a large advertisement was also listed as a recommended site. To the book's credit, these places didn't seem to receive preferential treatment in the reviews. It's also possible that the publisher refuses to recommend bad places even if these places are willing to pay for advertising. Nonetheless it's a conflict of interest, and gives the book more of a Conde Nast feel than it otherwise might have.
Some of the negatives are part-and-parcel of the print guidebook business -- for instance, places can go out of business very suddenly after a book is published, leading to inaccuracies at no fault of the authors. I noticed the same problem with the Central America on a Shoestring LP guide I had -- mediocre and gimmicky as it was, though, in all honesty it was slightly better than this book was -- undoubtedly due to the fact that it appeals directly to a budget traveler and can therefore meet the demand more precisely, while this is forced to be all things to all travelers, and therefore more limited in its depth.
Which leads me to the conclusions:
... 1. If you're going to make a trip somewhere, spend a few months doing your research ahead of time using the internet and a notebook. The information you retrieve in this manner will be just as - if not more - accurate than what you find in guidebooks like this, and will certainly be more current and detailed. If you want a general overview of a place, you can always browse old editions of the guidebooks at a library.
... 2. If you're going the hostel route, always ask other travelers for recommendations; if you can get local advice, that's obviously nice, although most locals in places like South America usually don't have the luxury of doing much travel (and what they do see is just as touristy as what you'll see).
... 3. When arriving at a new city or town there are almost always tourist offices that hand out free maps. These are always better than the maps in the guidebook and they're free. In the event that the town you're in doesn't have a tourist office (e.g. Puente del Inca in west Argentina), that's because it's too small to need one.
Should you be pressed for time and desperate for the sort of safety net a guidebook provides, this book serves as well as any other -- although, as I've taken pains to point out, that won't always be a good thing.