This article is from the November 2000  The Mexico File newsletter.
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Book Review
Mexican Travel Classics Re-Read

Reviewed by Gale Randall

Gale Randall is a Mexicophile hailing from Palo Alto, California. She reviewed books in the June 2000 issue of Mexico File.  

Quest for the Lost City: A True-Life Adventure, by Dana and Ginger Lamb, Santa Barbara Press, 1984.

The Lost World of Quintana Roo:
An Adventurous Quest for Mayan Ruins on the Untamed Coast of Yucatan
, by Michel Peissel, Dutton, 1963.

A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Journey, by Sybille Bedford, Dutton, 1986. 

Like old friends you can reconnect with after a lapse of time, travel classics are those narratives that just seem to get better with age, tomes to be read and savored, and read again. What follows is a review of some of my favorite Mexican travel narratives.  

The erstwhile survivalists of the popular TV series Survivor might pick up a few pointers from Dana and Ginger Lamb, intrepid explorers, anthropologists and authors of Quest for the Lost City: A True Life Adventure. With $10.16 in their pockets and only basic gear in their packs, in 1937 the Lambs set out from Santa Ana, California, for the distant and unexplored jungles of Chiapas and northern Guatemala. Traveling by foot, horseback, canoe and a burro‑powered model T Ford named Croupy, they trekked down the west coast of Mexico, crossing the Sonora Desert and thousands of miles of mountains, rivers and jungles in search of a so‑called lost Mayan city in the “Forbidden Land” of Chiapas, and an elusive Golden Library purportedly discovered by a pilot who’d crash landed in the area (reference to this pilot’s find is made in A. Hyatt Verrill’s, They Found Gold). Living off the land, and enduring more than one bout with malaria, along the way the Lambs meet bandits who become their friends, hermits, hunters and an isolated Stone Age tribe of Lacandon Maya. All this at a time when Acapulco was the only resort of any size on the coast, and long before the age of the jumbojet, mega‑resorts, the Zapatistas and, yes, the Internet.  

Skirting around Acapulco, they visit Mazatlan, old San Blas, and numerous unnamed coves and lagoons, regrouping in Tehuantepec before heading into Chiapas. After two years into their expedition, the Lambs make contact with a small tribe of Lacandones in the Chiapas jungle, a people who’d never before seen a cup, a spoon or a machete. Eventually invited to live among these friendly people, they’re instructed in every facet of the Maya’s daily lives and religion: “Chan and Kintun spent long, patient hours teaching me which arrows to use for what prey, how to outwit the wily squirrel circling the trunk of a jungle tree, how to take advantage of the inevitable curiosity of monkeys, and how to freeze into stone before the stare of a wild‑eyed deer. I learned to travel through the densest jungle swiftly and without sound and, most important of all, without leaving a trace of my passing.... Ginger was going through a similar school: learning to pick the wild tree cotton and weave it into cloth, to fashion cooking utensils of clay, to cook a Maya menu, and to twist tough fibers into cords for the making of hammocks and stout foraging bags. Even as I became a man of the tribe, she mastered the art of doing a woman’s work in a primitive woman’s world.”

I'll leave it to the reader to discover whether the Lambs actually found their lost city, or the legendary Golden Library. First published in 1951, Quest was reissued in 1984, with a foreword by Dorothy Mitchum. Enchanted Vagabonds, an equally compelling account by Dana Lamb, concerns an earlier canoe trip the couple made along the Pacific coast all the way south to Panama. Then a rugged and sparsely populated part of Mexico, in the late fifties the Yucatan’s easternmost territory of Quintana Roo was primarily inhabited by isolated Maya enclaves working cocals (coconut plantations), occasional fishermen and hermits, and a rough lot of hard‑living chicleros (chicle gatherers).  

It’s into this strange and exotic world that Michel Peissel, the young French explorer and author of The Lost World of Quintana Roo, wandered when he set out in 1958 to explore and map the territory’s lost Mayan ruins. Abandoned by boatmen who’d promised to take him part way down the coast, and wearing only sandals to protect his feet from rocks, snakes and scorpions, he chose to walk the entire route south from Puha to Belize. Pursued by murderous bandits, and nearly starving on a diet of turtle eggs and what meals he could find at cocals, on this expedition he nonetheless managed to uncover 14 hitherto unknown ruins, in addition to visiting known sites like Tulum. Reaching the jungle‑enshrouded ruins of San Miguel de Ruz south of Tulum, he muses: “In the sunset the ruins were a spectacular sight, particularly the tall pyramid which loomed above the palm trees as if guarding both the sea and the lagoon, a majestic sentinel, a proud landfall of the ancient Mayan kingdom.... [Here] I felt like a conquistador, in my own way, and the delight at being the first foreigner to set eyes on such marvels made me rapidly forget the dangers and hazards of the trip. Still today these impressive visions haunt me, the majestic structures of Chunyaxche, the mysterious temples in the mangrove swamps, and now the grandiose city of the cocal called San Miguel de Ruz, a city whose Mayan name has long been lost.”    

Returning to the area in 1961, he finds a changed coast, changes not entirely to his liking: – a camp for wealthy fishermen had been built at Boca de Paila, planes from Merida had begun flying in tourists to Tulum, and a mumps epidemic – potentially fatal to Indians – had swept through the coastal villages of the once fearsome Chan Santa Cruz Maya, a people who on his earlier trip had become his friends. One wonders what Peissel would make of Quintana Roo today, with the flossy resort‑city of Cancún spreading its tentacles out to the smaller Playa del Carmens and Akumals, and the legions of day‑trippers routinely bused in to Tulum. Ruined? Perhaps. Forever changed, for sure.  

A novellike memoir, British writer Sybille Bedford's A Visit to Don Otavio (originally titled The Sudden View) follows the meanderings of two women, Doña Sibilla, as the Mexicans call her, and her friend E., on the tourist track of post‑World War II Mexico. Taking in Mexico City and such watering holes as Cuernavaca, Patzcuaro, Guadalajara, Guanajuato, and Puebla, the pair stop for an extended sojourn at a glorious hacienda at Lake Chapala, the focal point of the narrative. Interspersed with musings on Mexico’s complicated and murky history, Don Otavio is chock‑a‑block with amusing vignettes on contemporary life in the country. Of a second‑class bus ride to Patzcuaro, the narrator writes: “A well‑grown sow lies heaving in the aisle. My neighbour has a live turkey hen on her lap and the bird simply cannot help it, she must partly sit on my lap too. This is very hot. Also she keeps fluffing out her surprisingly harsh feathers. From time to time the bird stands up. Supported on six pointed claws, one set of them on my knee, she digs her weight into us and shakes herself.... On my other side stands a little boy with a rod on which dangles a dead, though no doubt freshly caught fish. With every lurch of the conveyance, and it is all lurches, the fish, moist but not cool, touches my bare arm and sometimes my averted cheek.” In Guadalajara the ladies meet up with a nephew named Anthony, who’s wrangled an invitation to the Villa El Dorado at San Pedro Tlayacan, Chapala, a  retreat owned by a certain Don Otavio XXX, a young man with “one of those inherited handsome faces of Goya’s minor courtiers,” who turns out to be one of the kindest men the narrator has ever met. Life at this lakeside paradise becomes so pleasant it’s hard for the trio to leave, but leave they must, after becoming enmeshed in the intrigues of both Otavio and his large extended family, and Chapala’s eccentric early expat community. The narrative winds down at Puebla, where Bedford devotes several pages to a visit to the notorious Secret Convent of Santa Monica, a place officially closed in 1857 but rediscovered as a functioning entity as late as the 1930's.

Like her predecessor, the early travel writer Fanny Calderon de la Barca, whom the author often quotes, Bedford is fascinated by Mexico’s convents: “The convent had gone underground, literally into the walls and cupboards of a block of houses in a central street of Puebla, and functioned as a religious community for seventy‑eight years. During this time the nuns, being of a cloistered order, never emerged. A number of Puebla families were in it; and these helped the nuns in the comings and goings of the priests and the disposals of the dead. They supplied them with food and – it sounds incredible – with novices. In fact, when after three‑quarters of a century the Convent came again into the open, the number of its actual and professed members had increased from fifty to some eighty. On this scene of unfathomable human faith and fortitude, now gaping tourists and village women are made to proceed on hands and knees through double‑bottomed sideboards and factitious bookcases into a kind of catacombs where they blurb or giggle over immured skeletons and a conjurer’s altar.” 

Don Otavio, Quest for the Lost City and The Lost World of Quintana Roo have unfortunately all gone out of print, but hopefully you’ll be able to find copies of these marvelous tomes through your local library, inter-library loan or an online bookfinder. 

© 2000 Gale Randall