This article is from the May 2001 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Book Review
Sacred Monkey River

 by Christopher Shaw. New York: Norton, 2000.

reviewed by Ron Mader 

Ron Mader lives in Mexico and travels frequently throughout the Americas. He hosts the award_winning website – – and is the author of the Exploring Ecotourism in the Americas Resource Guide. 

Ready to explore one of the world's most intriguing regions? Take your trip with Christopher Shaw who introduces readers to the Usumacinta River and its magnificent watershed that stretches across the Mexico_Guatemala border in his new book, Sacred Monkey River. 

Subtitled “A Canoe Trip with the Gods,” this notable book traces the author's canoe trips running the great river. Unlike many adventure travel narratives in which the author plunges into an unknown terrain, Shaw aims for comprehension rather than searching for misadventure. The result is an account which combines the best of travel literature and environmental reporting. 

Few travelers opt for the watery path, particularly with the threat of hijackings and shootings in such a remote area. But Shaw, an accomplished river guide and an enthusiast of the Maya culture, will not be deterred. “In classical art, two gods pictured as canoeists, accompanied travelers on both actual and metaphysical journeys,” Shaw explains. “Both gods paddle the souls of the dead to the Otherworld and the cosmic canoe –  the Milky Way – across the sky.” 

Shaw also connects with the environmentalists in the region, including Fernando Ochoa and Ronald Nigh –  two pioneers in developing sustainable agricultural practices in the region. The book is a veritable “Who's Who” of the region. Meet Scott Davis of Ceiba Adventures, Maya scholars Linda Schele and David Freidel, Moises Morales, the owner of El Pachan, and Victor Perera, author of The Last Lords of Palenque. 

The book is divided into 12 chapters and boasts the 1953 Franz Blom map of the Selva Lacandona on the inside book cover. What would be useful additions would be a map of the author's expeditions and an index of places and names. Sacred Monkey River deserves a long shelf_life and it will no doubt be consulted for many years by travelers and environmentalists alike.

Excerpts from Sacred Monkey River 

Recent Americans –  those of us whose forebears crossed the oceans in the past five hundred years –  have lost the connection to the past and place that galvanizes many traditional communities. Yet the longer we stay here the more that world imprints itself on our psyches. 

The Usumacinta has been photographed from space, the images magnified and pored over by governments and non_governmental agencies – and prospective looters – looking for ruins, ancient roads, canals and raised beds, mineral wealth, illegal logging and settlement.... At least from on high, it has been reduced to a sum of known quantities. But in its essence, its nature as a place apart, it remains a dimly perceived and shapeless expanse.

Oddly, nobody I talked to mentioned the possibility of small, economical “run of the river” hydro plants for communities in the selva, the kind that wouldn't require huge dams, wouldn't result in siltation, evaporation, habitat loss or lost tourist dollars. The government and agencies like USAID and the World Bank smiled on the massive projects, it seemed. 

In almost every Mayanist's eschatological scenario, humans had populated the watershed so thickly by the eighth century that the forest had become a patchwork. The resulting climate changes and erosion depleted poor rain forest soils. Food demand outstripped the productivity of both the Mayas' sophisticated slash_and_burn agriculture and their elaborately maintained system of aquatic raised beds. Eighth_century burials show a widening nutritional gap between the elite royal classes – the ahuas –  whose skeletons remained robust, and the common folk, whose remains grew smaller and showed signs of malnutrition. Wars ensued. The people lost faith in their rulers and abandoned the cities. Their populations returned to a sustainable level. It meant that large sections of the Lacandon forest and the contiguous forests of Peten and southern Yucatán were already mature second_growth, second chance wilderness long before Cortes hacked his way from Tenosique to Honduras in 1525. Classical culture had to decline in order for the ecosystem to recover.