Book Reviews
The Ruta Maya
Best of Mexico

Sacred Monkey River

by Christopher Shaw

Review by Walter Martin

Carl & Lorena

I was just on your site and didn't see my favorite new book about Mexico. Sacred Monkey River: A Canoe Trip with the Gods is the real thing.

In 1997, Christopher Shaw, an ex-river guide and writer from the Adironadacks of northern New York put two canoes and all his gear in and on a beat-up Nissan Sentra and drove to Chiapas. The book he brings back from that culturally, historically, and politically complex place is important and profound.

Shaw paddled from the headwaters of the Jatate River, through the heart of Zapatista country to the ruins at Yaxchilan on the Usumacinta River, where threats by murderous bandits downstream forced him to cut his run to the Gulf of Mexico short. Shaw went looking not for a first descent, a trip to a particular destination, or some other gringo dream, but rather to understand the place from the perspective of a paddler, to see the country at "canoe speed," as the people of the place do and have for thousands of years.

As Shaw guides you down the rivers, sometimes serene and sometimes violent, but always beautiful, you want him to realize his goal; to understand the place from a basic and ancient perspective, the stern of a canoe. His writing is refreshing and skilled. The prose is crisp and a bit musical without seeming affected. The characters he meets and experiences he has along the way keep the book moving. His knowledge and research on the history of the region are deep and wisely placed in the narrative so you always has a sense of where you are, geographically and historically.

Travel writing of this sort is, I'm afraid to say, a dying breed. Shaw's fusion of excitement, history, a personal quest, and real perspective and understanding of the place as something much more than merely a Discovery Channel destination or subject of a BBC report, all draw you into the book with eyes wide open and leave you with enthusiasm to learn more. The Washington Post called Shaw's book, "brainy and brawny tinged with refreshing humility."

I second this description and endorse it as an important description of Chiapas and the people who live there but also as a model of travel writing to be followed.

Sacred Monkey River
©1972-2000 by Carl Franz & Lorena Havens
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