If you have ever wanted to visit the Mexican Caribbean, or even considering retiring or living in Quintana Roo, this book is a must read. This book tells of a young Frenchmen’s journey and quest down the Mexican Caribbean from Cozumel to Belize in 1958. The book is not published anymore, and a friend gave me his old copy to read, and it was fascinating.
At the ripe old age of 21, back in 1957, Michel Peissel gave up his Wall Street activities & went off alone to the Mexican jungles of the Quintana Roo territory where he discovered several Mayan cities lost for over 400 years. This seething jungle was the site of one of the highest civilizations ever achieved by humanity. The Mayan Indians have ruled the jungle there for 3700 years. Those Mayas still living in the jungle today preserve the physical type but have almost no memory of their vanished splendor. With colossal innocence and no food or gun (he even loses his shoes & knife), he staggers down 250 miles of Mosquito Coast discovering town after lost town which archaeologists had missed from their planes and boats. The largest town he investigates turns out to be an enormous architectural complex almost a mile square, which he describes at thrilling length. He relates his nearly constant fright with much wit & irony.
Through a strange set of circumstances, Peissel’s fate led him on a solo walk through the dense jungles and thick mangroves from Xpu-Ha (just south of the future Playa del Carmen) to Belize.
After graduating from Harvard in 1958 Peissel planned a six-month sabbatical in Mexico before entering graduate school for a business career. After meeting a German writer in Mexico City, however, he became fascinated with a little known territory in the Yucatan, Quintana Roo. Peissel headed first to Merida, then Progresso, where he chartered a boat to Cozumel. From there he planned to sail down the Quintana Roo coast. On arriving in Cozumel he hired two young Mayas in an 11-foot vessel with a bamboo mast and a rag as a sail to take him to the Quintana Roo mainland.
After a harrowing eight-hour crossing, they arrived at a small coco plantation (cocal) at Xpu-Ha. Exhausted, Peissel fell asleep and missed the second half of the journey on the Maya sailboat, which left him with a fateful decision – how to get to Chetumal in a land with no roads and virtually no people? After being abandoned, his only hope to exit the jungle was to travel on foot from cocal to cocal, relying on the assistance of the Mayas who lived there for food, water, and direction.
Wearing only sandals, he began his 200-mile journey through dense jungle and mangrove swamps. He was chased by chiclero bandits and encountered Chan Santa Cruz Indians, who until then killed any white man on sight as the Caste War of the Yucatan had ended just 20 years earlier. He partook in religious ceremonies with indigenous Mayas and stumbled onto unknown pyramid sites. Peissel became the first person known to walk the coast of Quintana Roo, arriving in Belize 40 days later.
In 1962, four years after his first excursion, Peissel made a return trip to this coast and found “many things changed.” In 1974 Quintana Roo became a state of Mexico and shortly thereafter the Mexico Tourism Council devised a project for a planned resort community, which became Cancun.
Since I live in Mahahual, and on the same coastline that the author walked and had his experiences, I could not put this book down. I have lived in Quintana Roo and Belize and this book described the area which I am very familar with as it existed almost 70 years ago today. His description of all the people and Mayan ruins along the coast that he encountered I found fascinating. I can imagine all the turmoil and strife he must have encountered, because even today a lot of the Mexican Caribbean along Quintana Roo, is still sparsely inhabited.
He even visited Mahahual, Rio Indio, and Ubero Playa (now Uvero Beach, a tourist spot), and describes what they were like in 1958. In fact he describes his walk and trek from Punta Herrero to Xcalak and describes an abandoned cocal settlement, Guadalupe (which would in the future become Mahahual).
He also mentions Banco Chinchorro and the waters around it that are full of old shipwrecks, and of all the dangers of sailing the area. He spent five days in Rio Indio due to weather, and explored a lot of the area known today as Costa Maya, and was the first white man in history to do so. He also goes into vivid detail about the cocoanut plantations that existed along the coast from what is today Mahahual all the way down to Xcalak.
His journey through Quintana Roo ends in Xcalak, not long after a hurricane destroyed most of the village. He spends some time in Xcalak before he makes the final part of his journey to Belize, (then British Honduras). In 1958 Xcalak was the only point of civilization on the whole Quintana Roo coast. The first thing he had back in civilization was a cold Pepsi, which trust me I can relate to. His description of Xcalak in those days is not to far from what it is today, a final outpost before Belize.
I enjoyed this book so much I was in the car with my boss, from Mexico, and as I started to tell him about the book,he told me he has heard of the book, and has wanted to read it for years. He told me that he was aware of the journey and the guy who wrote the book is kind of a legend around this area.
In 2011 Michel Peissel died in his sleep in Paris at age 74. Peissel’s book was a life changer for me and countless others who were lucky enough to locate a copy.
Thanks for reading, and if you can find a copy of this book it is a must read if you are interested in the Mexican Caribbean.
Stewart Rogers USA-South Carolina