The continent according to

David Byrne

First it was the music, then the culture, cities and people. This is the story of the former Talking Heads frontman and his devotion to Latin America.

Text: Carola Reyes @la_caco


PHOTO: getty images


Bored with 1970s dance music, David Byrne (b. Scotland, 1952) began researching the rhythms of Latin America, and he became so enamored that these genres strongly influenced his first solo LP, Rei Momo (1989). The album – one of the strongest of his solo career – was dominated by sounds from cha cha, cumbia and merengue and featured collaborations with tropical stars like Celia Cruz.

But after his first solo concert in Buenos Aires, backed by a band made up of first-rate Latin American musicians, the former leader of the Talking Heads was surprised. The audience didn’t react the way he had expected. “I imagined I had made a big effort to import something that was already familiar or available in copious quantities, but it seems the world is not as simple as that,” he writes in Bicycle Diaries (Viking, 2009) a collection of stories from his travels to cities around the world, which he explores primarily on the foldable bicycle he has carried in his luggage for the past three decades.


Su libro Diarios de bicicleta (Reservoir Books) y la portada del álbum Rei Momo (1989), donde hace patente su gusto por los ritmos latinos.

David Byrne’s book Bicycle Diaries (2009) and the cover of his album Rei Momo (1989), which makes his love of Latin rhythms patently clear.

In the book, Byrne draws a number of conclusions from the places that he visits. He says that the mentality of our neighbors is reflected in the cities in which they live. “The Argentines tend to see themselves as more European, and by inference, as more sophisticated, than their Brazilian neighbors […] in general it is felt and seen in the architecture, cuisine, and clothing,” he reflects following a visit to Buenos Aires, “the Paris of the south,” and one of his favorite cities in the world. He loves its temperate climate and the right-angled order of its streets, perfect for getting around on two wheels: “Sometimes I can even move from neighborhood to neighborhood and stay almost exclusively within elongated parks or along the riverfront promenade.”

He compares the neighborhood of Recoleta to the Upper East Side of New York and the 16th Arrondisement in Paris: “Elegant, older European-style apartment buildings with ornate carvings; well-off patricians, mostly older women and gentlemen; fancy clothing boutiques; and upscale restaurants.”

Byrne enjoys hanging out with the locals, including a considerable number of artists: he had tea with musicians Mercedes Sosa and León Gieco and hit the town with rocker Charly García until dawn. Byrne was greatly impressed with the intensity that the people of Buenos Aires bring to their nightlife: “Late shows. People out ‘til morning light […] a vast majority of the restaurants are open until four a.m. […] the streets are packed […] the movie theaters have regular shows starting at one thirty a.m. […] a city of vampires.”



Paraty ( or Parati ),  a preserved Portuguese colonial and...

phOTO: getty images

Brazil: Jungle & Megalopolis

The musician’s adventures are also immortalized in a series of “virtual postcards” that he published on his blog in 2011, when he came to Latin America for a conference promoting the use of bicycles and sustainable transportation.

Byrne began his journey in Paraty, Brazil, which he found “charming, but pretty touristy.” He arrived during the Flip literary festival, one of many cultural happenings in this coastal town, which also hosts events dedicated to film, jazz and cachaça. He took the opportunity make a three-hour bike trek from the downtown to the waterfall at Cachoeira but didn’t want to jump in because the water seemed cold. On the way there, in the middle of jungle, he spotted a satellite dish. “Someone is managing to enjoy their telenovelas, even in this fairly remote place,” he observed.

His next destination was São Paulo, where he stayed in an area reminiscent of Beverly Hills, with properties protected by high walls. “You can’t see more than the tops of the houses, the tops of Corinthian columns or fake Tudor roofs,” he wrote.

While riding his bike, Byrne got lost and opted for streets near the main thoroughfares. That’s how he came upon the bustling neighborhood of Liberdade, a slice of Japan in the heart of Brazil, home to old buildings, squares and pedestrian streets. “I love the various lunch counter joints we passed everywhere. Inevitably, these use displays of colorful tropical fruits to entice you in. […] They feel comfortable and friendly,” he wrote.




phOTO: sebastián utreras

Chile: Dining & Design

On the morning that Byrne arrived in Chile, there was a 6.0 earthquake near Valparaíso. He saw that no one was fazed and learned that Chileans are immune to seismic activity. The street dogs also caught his attention: “These seem gentle – most simply lie around, peacefully.” The singer also enjoyed the catch of the day. “There is fairly abundant seafood in the Pacific coast of Chile, and the seafood menu is like a wine list. The fish are listed according to whether they are deep water, shallow water, river fish or caught around a group of nearby islands,” Byrne wrote. When searching for breakfast on a Saturday morning, he noted: “We made it all the way into the old city center and nothing was open, except a funky diner on Plaza de Armas. So that’s where we went.”

Before his bike rides, Byrne took the subway, which he found clean and peaceful. He biked through the neighborhood of Bellavista, which he described as an area filled with low buildings, restaurants and cafés, its houses notable for their tin roofs and Bavarian-style façades, the influence of German, Austrian and Swiss immigrants.

Other Byrne dining favorites in Chile include the restaurant The Clinic: “It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen anywhere else in the world.”



Lima - City Sights

phOTO: getty images

Peru: Surfing & Cebiche

In Lima, Byrne ate plenty of cebiche and took the bus from Miraflores to the city’s downtown. He was amazed by the public transportation that runs along dedicated high-speed lanes. He also took surfing classes at the Miraflores beach, “below a crumbly cliff that runs along the coast – exactly as in Santa Monica.”

Later, he sampled cebiche and other fish dishes at the small family restaurant Sonia: “Really nice and totally unpretentious,” he wrote, noting that, “they let us bring our bikes into the restaurant, and I don’t mean into a back room – into the restaurant proper.”
Another recommended spot is Rafael, which features a seafood menu with Japanese influences. The experience made a mark. “Really amazing food, one of the best meals I’ve ever had,” wrote Byrne, with a clear understanding of why Peru enjoys such prominent status in world cuisine. in


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