Thursday, August 2, 2018


            B. Traven was long a cult figure by the time I stumbled onto his legendary adventure novels about Mexico when I traveled the gringo trail in the 70s. It seemed everyone on the road in those days had a copy of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre stuffed into their backpack alongside a Spanish-English phrase book.

            B. Traven’s books were required reading for anyone traveling south. Most of his novels, written between 1926 and 1952, were set in Mexico. His themes paralleled what was happening in that country during those traumatic, revolutionary times.

            The tales were part adventure, part historical fact, couched in fiction, all taking place south of the border in a very different land. Secondly, his Mexico was a place where abandoned gold mines and bandits still existed. His Mexico was peppered with anarchy and rebellion. His Mexico had spice.


            Best known to American audiences because of the film The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Traven most likely would have remained unknown if John Huston hadn’t turned the iconic greed and gold novel into a silver screen classic starring Humphrey Bogart as down-on-his-luck prospector Fred C. Dobbs.  Two scenes come to mind:  Bogart going mad, and the other sports one of cinema’s immortal lines, shouted by bandits on horseback imitating federales, “Badges? We don’t need no stinkin’ badges!”

            By the 1930s, Traven’s work was published everywhere else in the world but England and the US, in dozens of languages, but not a word in English until Alfred Knopf republished The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1935. His body of work wasn’t published in the US until the 60s. Today, Traven’s books have been translated into 30 languages, sold more than 25 million copies, and are required reading in Mexico’s schools.

            Because he lived in Mexico 35 years, Traven’s work evolves the grit and reality of Mexico: He watched his adopted country adapt to a string of dictators and revolutions. His tales dish out depth and emotion, with a sizeable serving of the oppression of the lower classes thrown in.

            His epics read as though inspired by stories he could have heard while sitting in some outback cantina in a dusty pueblo anywhere in Mexico; or maybe he drew on his own slices of Mexican life that occurred while living there till his death in 1969. Or his supposed death . . .


            At this point, I must explain that B. Traven was as much a character as those he created in his novels.  The jury is still out on his true identity. B. Traven was a pen name. At a Traven conference just 20 years ago at Penn State, scholars still debated what the “B” stood for, and if his nationality was German, English or American.

            Traven’s biographers consider several possible identities: Either he was born in Chicago in 1890, to Swedish parents, and spent his youth in Germany where he started writing anarchist literature under the pen name Ret Marut, moving to Mexico in the 20s. Or he was Otto Feige, born to a German pottery worker.  After traveling widely in his youth, he worked as a manual laborer and actor, and then edited an anarchist journal in Germany before heading to Mexico. In the most recent scenario, presented by professor Michael L. Baumann, Traven was neither Marut nor Feige.  Baumann suggests, in his 1997 book, Mr. Traven, I Presume, that Traven could have usurped the real Traven’s identity and continued on with this man’s work, since his German published books were written in two distinct handwritings and full of “Americanisms.” Baumann also asserts that given what background was known of Traven, he should have been a much older man than the corpse claimed to be his after his 1969 death in Mexico.

            In his biography, John Huston adds another question mark to the Traven identity search. While filming The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Huston invited the author to come to the set, but he declined, sending instead his “agent,” Hal Croves.

            “Croves,” Huston wrote, “was a small, thin man with a long nose,” and carried a letter for the director explaining that Traven could not show up; Croves would answer all pertinent questions. “He had a slight accent. It didn’t sound German but certainly European.  I thought he might very well be Traven but out of delicacy, I didn’t ask.” 

            It wasn’t until Traven’s death in 1969 when a photo of the author was published that Huston confirmed Croves was, in fact, B. Traven.
            On Mexican government immigration documents from the 1930s, Traven claimed to have entered Mexico through Ciudad Juarez in 1914.  He settled first in either Tampico or Chiapas—there are mixed accounts on this—writing stories he sent to German publishers under the name B. Traven.  His first published book was The Death Ship, a story of an American sailor who loses his birth certificate and with it his identity and is forced to take a job shoveling coal on a ship destined to go down for insurance money.

            According to one biography, Traven wrote about social justice, cruelty, and greed from the very beginning.  In the 1930s he moved near Acapulco. Around this time his books were banned by the Nazis.  Between 1931 and 1940 he published six of his Mahogany, or Jungle, Series, which included:  The Carreta,  Government, March to Monteria, Trozas, The Rebellion of the Hanged and General from the Jungle.

            These books chronicled the Mexican Revolution between 1910-1912 and lamented the plight of the indigenous people of Chiapas who worked like slaves in the mahogany forests. In Rebellion of the Hanged, he tells how one man is duped into working in the monteria where mahogany is harvested when his wife becomes ill. Before it’s over, the man’s wife has died but the he has signed a contract with the mill—a deal with the devil.  His struggle to stay alive in hellish conditions is duly recorded in Traven’s prose.
Upon Traven’s death in 1969 his ashes were scattered over Rio Jatate in Chiapas, and his widow, (translator Rosa Elena Lujan) was instructed to reveal that B. Traven was in fact Traven Torsvan Croves, born in Chicago in 1890 and naturalized as a Mexican citizen in 1951. However, in a later interview with The New York Times in 1990, his widow stated Traven told her he had been Ret Marut but she could tell no one until after his death due to his fear of extradition to Germany for his anarchist leanings.

Traven’s true identity is not important. He said so himself. But in reading his novels about a very real Mexico, truths are uncovered through his gripping adventure tales.  The original anarchist, it’s easy to see why he was so embraced by the 60s generation.

Who was B. Traven? As he said himself, “My life belongs to me—only my books belong to the public.”  According to his widow, he said, “I am freer than anyone else, free to choose the parents I want, the country I want, the age I want.”

No matter who the real B. Traven was, his works—still relevant decades after publication—speak for the man behind the mystery.

Monday, July 16, 2018


Were they pyramid builders? Astronomers? Lords of the jungle? High priests and shaman? Mathematicians?
After years of studying the Maya, I believe—aside from those glorious pyramids— they’ll most be remembered for their stargazing abilities. The Maya were called naked-eye astronomers.
Say what?

The Maya were stargazers for a reason. First and foremost they were mathematicians who painstakingly followed and kept detailed records on the position of the stars and planets day by day, year by year, century by century. Without the use of anything other than the naked eye, they recorded these precise calculations for more than a millennium. They kept track of the night sky in paper-bark books called codices. (Sadly, all but three were burned by Spanish priests in an effort to purge the Maya of their “pagan” beliefs). And through this precise nightly recording of the sky’s movements, they were able to simulate what we today can do in the blink of an eye with a telescope. The Maya viewed the Milky Way as the world tree, their Ceiba. The Ceiba was considered the Maya tree of life—the tree that holds up the world.

But to the Maya, the Milky Way was more than that familiar smudge across the sky we see each night. The Milky Way was also the Sac-be or road to the underworld for dead souls as well as the path for those souls to the sky. It was their River Styx. Without the Milky Way, dead souls couldn’t find their way and would be caught in a forever limbo.

So Maya astronomers were left with the weighty job of deciphering how each star and planet would align. It was their destiny to forever record the nightly movement of the stars so that those departed could find their way to the underworld.

Even though all but three of their paper-bark books were destroyed, additional proof in this theory of the Milky Way and the world tree’s importance is carved onto the glorious sarcophagus lid of Pakal, Palenque’s greatest ruler.If you've never been to Palenque, go. To me, it is the most spiritual and mystical pyramid site, off the beaten track and not an easy journey. But once there, it’s like Hawaii with pyramids in a lush jungle setting with a smattering of near Asian style structures. The Asian influence makes one wonder. But back to the sarcophagus lid—it shows the king descending down the world tree into the jaws of the underworld, or Xibalba, to his death. Descending the stairs to Pakal’s musty tomb is a journey in itself. And as an aside, Pakal’s tomb was discovered by accident in 1952 by famous archaeologist Alberto Ruz when a worker noticed holes in a floor slab. When lifted, it showed a stairway filled with rubble that took three years to clear. But Pakal’s tomb, and the discovery of the king’s bejewelled death mask, made those efforts worthwhile.
Palenque was also the site of the famous Palenque Roundtable in the mid-1970s where more than twenty of the world’s foremost archaeologists came together and broke the Maya code.  At that meeting, they deemed that the greatest portal to the underworld was found in the night sky, and it related back to the Maya creation myth. Now having the ability to read the Maya stelae (carved concrete like slabs placed in front of every pyramid), these archaeologists decided the myth portrayed the Milky Way, as a tree, to be the centre of their universe, dating back to their creation myth in the Popul Vuh.
Have I lost you yet?

But not only did the Maya gaze at the stars so that they and their rulers could find the starry path to the underworld, They monitored the planet Venus to decide when to make war on fellow Maya city-states, and when to plant their crops, specifically maize.
So determined were the Maya to follow this star-earth continuum that many pyramid sites, such as Chichen Itza’s Temple of Kukulkan, are aligned to certain astronomical specifics. Each spring and autumn equinox, the sun casts its shadow onto this Chichen Itza temple due to its place in the heavens, the building’s position, and the Maya’s precise calculations, configured centuries ago, for for this event. The sun’s shadow creates the illusion of the serpent’s body (the temple sports a huge serpent on each of its four corners) slithering down to the base of the staircase, finishing at the serpent’s mouth at ground level. Again, if you’ve not yet been to Chichen Itza, go. Other sites also are clearly aligned with these spectacularly coordinated spectacles, not unlike sunrise at Stonehenge. One wonders, how on earth did they do it? But they did.


So who were the Maya? To me, they will always be stargazers who tamed the night skies long before modern man/woman would have thought it even be possible to do so. Had any more than three of the thousands of paper-bark Maya books burned been saved for posterity, what other wonders would we have discovered? Though they were an early civilization, they were one with extraordinary powers to delineate not only the position of the planets and when full eclipses would occur, but they also created an intricate system of calendars (twenty-eight in all) that, some scholars say, coordinate as accurately as our calendar does today. When the Maya calendars were compared for exactness against a modern day computer, scholars found only a slight difference in accuracy. All done without a slide rule, calculator or telescope.
Naked eye astronomy.
It worked for the Maya. And if this article doesn’t inspire you to go to the nearest pyramid site and stare at in wonder, I have failed to do my job.

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Nancy Drew Author Had Connections to Maya Pyramids and Central America

(Photo from Jennifer Fisher, founder of Nancy Drew Society, of The Secret of the Old Clock).

     Who of us girls, as young teens, did not love Nancy Drew? The sleuth with a voracious appetite for getting into scary trouble, being at the center of crime scenes and mysteries? Who taught us how to signal SOS with a tube of lipstick, break out of a window using spike heels, and to always keep an overnight bag in the car, just in case?


     For years I thought Carolyn Keene was Nancy's author but later discovered that was a pen name for Mildred Wirt Benson who would write 135 books and 23 of the first Nancy Drew detective tales that came to shape Nancy's "steely bravery" according to an article by Jennifer Fisher in Zócalo. Benson's image of Nancy would create "the tenacious, bold and independent heroine we have come to know." The real author of our favorite "girl" detective was an Iowa homegrown born in 1905, daughter of a country doctor, and the first student—male or female— to earn a masters degree in journalism from University of Iowa (later home to the Iowa Writers Workshop). For fifty years Benson worked in journalism when not penning famous mysteries, covering the courthouse beat and crime and corruption at The Toledo Blade and The Toledo Times.


     As a child Benson was an avid reader of children's classics. Her first short story, "The Courtesy," appeared in St. Nicholas, a children's magazine, and won her second place in a monthly contest. Finding Iowa too dull for a woman with an agenda, she ventured to NYC and landed a job with an icon in publishing, Edward Stratemeyer. Fortune Magazine said of Stratemeyer in 1934, "As oil and gas has its Rockefeller, literature has its Stratemeyer."
     Stratemeyer published The Bobbsey Twins and The Hardy Boys and famously hired ghost writers for a flat monthly fee. Benson's pen name remained a mystery until the 1970s when researchers discovered Benson was the Oz behind the curtain. During the Great Depression and WWII, parents were candid with their children, according to Fisher's article, and didn't hide life's gravities. Enter Nancy Drew, a new kind of heroine for a new age of young girls. Stratemeyer penned a three-page outline for Benson and depicted her as an "up-to-date American girl at her best—bright, clever, resourceful, and full of energy."


     In 1973, Benson wrote an essay about her famous heroine, stating Nancy was treated as an equal by her father and by many in law enforcement and she never gave up when the going got tough. Her spirit struck a chord. Nancy Drew personified "the dream image which exists within most teenagers," Benson said. According to Fisher's article, this 1930s teen remained culturally relevant for more than 80 years, even as young women's roles changed dramatically. Mothers and grandmothers passed the books down to their daughters. "Women still tell me how they identified with Nancy Drew and that Nancy Drew gave them confidence to be whatever they wanted to be," Benson told an interviewer in 1999.


     But Benson, perhaps, was her own best role model for the very Nancy Drew we all came to love. She trained as a pilot in the 1960s. Traveling solo, she flew down to Guatemala to view ancient Maya pyramid sites. She traipsed through crocodile-infested rivers and hacked her way through jungles with a machete. In a particularly harrowing very Nancy Drew like experience, she was even locked inside a room in Guatemala by locals who thought she knew too much about criminal activity in their town. Channeling Nancy, she overpowered one of her captors and escaped. "Like any good sleuth," Fisher goes on to explain, "she later returned to Guatemala to learn more about what had happened to her."


     In the 1990s, twenty years after dedicated Nancy Drew lovers had discovered Keene's real name and ID'd Mildred Wirt Benson as Drew's creator, Benson donated a series of papers she'd written about her heroine, along with her trusty Underwood typewriter used for creating Nancy, to the Smithsonian where it sits to this day. And finally, the mystery author got public credit in her native Iowa in 1993 when the University of Iowa had a Nancy Drew Conference. That same year, she was named Person of the Week by ABC's Peter Jennings.

     Asked later if she would ever give up writing, Benson said, "The undertaker will have to pry me away from my typewriter." That's pretty much what happened. At 96, in 2002, she was sitting at her trusty Underwood when she died.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


      My introduction to Frida came through an arts lecture given by a Kahlo authority whose name I no longer recall. I was writing for an indie newspaper in a California college town and that was my feature assignment for the week. The lecture included a slide show of Kahlo’s works. Needless to say I was intrigued, mesmerized—at times startled—by her work. I loved the colors, her style, the woman (Frida) as center of the universe. Two words described her—No fear.


     And then there was the Mexico connection: Her flamboyant, indigenous clothing, her raven hair parted in the middle, either pulled back in a tight bun or gloriously wild, the artsy jewelry. She appealed to me in all her gutsy wonder. I was not alone. She appealed to everyone, though long had she lived in her husband and mentor’s shadow. By the 1970s, Frida was breaking out and breaking the mold. She was becoming, dare I say it, as popular as her famous husband, painter, muralist and revolutionary, Diego Rivera.


Frida became an icon because the world was finally ready for her. A strong woman who stood equally alongside an alpha male, years his junior, but as powerful in her way as he was in his. Rivera had prompted her, mentored her to continue to paint. A star was born. Did she overshadow her husband? Who can determine which painter held more power? That so many Kahlo paintings were self-portraits, that in itself was a symbol of a different spirit. She had been through hell and back (maybe Never back) beginning with suffering through polio and at eighteen, being hideously injured in a trolley accident in Mexico City. She wore a metal body brace her entire life. Her poor tortured frame would not allow her fractured body to push out a baby. And each time she became pregnant, not only did she lose the baby but her body suffered immeasurably due to the added pressure on her lower torso. But that didn’t stop her from portraying her suffering in her artwork, for all the world to see. In a way, suffering was the gateway to her art.


Though she never carried a child full term, as an artist – she pressed on. Years later, when I owned my bookstore in Puerto Morelos, Mexico, her paintings hung front and center on the walls. My favorite was Frida in the jungle with the monkeys. Love you, Frida. You have been an icon for decades – why? Not only because of your immense artistic talent, but also because of your staunch independence, your genius, your anarchistic politics, your free spirit, your shock value, and your bravery. And because you resonated with a spirit that became a universal spirit. Thank you for the beauty and the pain you portrayed and were not afraid to share. We love you Frida.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Alma Reed and Felipe Carrillo Puerto: Tragic Romance of the Yucatán

     Felipe Carrillo Puerto, Yucatan’s progressive governor of the Yucatan, and San Francisco journalist Alma Reed are two names forever linked to Yucatan history.  Their romance fueled pages in newspapers on both sides of the border, but the unlikely outcome of their very public romance enlisted all the elements of Greek tragedy.

            Reed was born in San Francisco and became one of the city’s first women reporters.  An advocate for the poor, Reed assisted a Mexican family in commuting the death sentence of their 17-yer old son in 1921.  The story was picked up by the Mexican press and due to heightened publicity, Mexico President Alvero Obregon invited Reed to visit his country.


     As a stringer correspondent, she reported for The New York Times and was sent to meet Edward Thompson, the leading archeologist excavating Chichen Itza.  During the visit, Reed met Felipe Carrillo Puerto, dynamic governor of the State of Yucatan.

     Carrillo had commissioned a road to be built from Merida to Chichen Itza, opening the budding archeological site to both tourists and scientists.  To commemorate the event, he’d organized a welcome ceremony inviting North American journalists and archeologists.


     At the ruins, Reed interviewed the famed Thompson who had gone to Yucatan specifically to excavate Chichen Itza. Thompson took a liking to Reed and divulged he had in fact dredged Chichen Itza’s sacred cenote, garnering gold and jade jewelry and ornaments he’d taken from the sacrificial victims. Astonished by the enormity of Thompson’s admission, like the true-born paparrizis she was, Reed asked Thompson to sign a confession, which he did.

            After Chichen Itza, the assembled entourage went on to Uxmal.  During this leg of the journey Reed and Carrillo got acquainted.  Reed was fascinated with the charismatic Carrillo who had been called both a Bolshevik and a Marxist for his sweeping reforms.

     In her interview with the governor, Carrillo explained Yucatan had been inhabited by a handful of powerful families dating back to 1542 when Merida was founded. These wealthy landowners were basically slave masters, and notorious for their cruel treatment of the Maya.


            In 1910 Carrillo had fought alongside Emiliano Zapata in Central Mexico. From their association he took Zapata’s battle cry, Tierra y Liberdad, (land and liberty) for his own.  Back in Yucatan, Carrillo claimed part Maya, part Creole heritage and began his reforms by setting up feminist leagues in Merida that legalized birth control and the first family planning clinics in the western hemisphere. As governor he seized uncultivated land from powerful hacendados and distributed it to the Maya, stating it was their birthright. He built schools. He reformed the prison system.

            No small wonder Reed named him the Abraham Lincoln of Mexico.  As a liberal she agreed with his reforms. And besides that, she was smitten.  But as a divorceé and Catholic, she tried to ignore the feelings she was developing for the married father of four.  She left for the US, vowing never to return, hoping to severe ties in what was becoming amor calido (romance of the steam).

            Two months later, however, The New York Times sent her packing back to Mexico to cover the archeology scandal that involved Edward Thompson and the Chichen Itza cenote.  She had a job to do.

     On her second round in Mexico, both Reed and Carrillo’s feelings couldn’t be ignored.  In the ultimate taboo, Carrillo divorced his wife to become engaged to Reed.  He even had a romantic love song composed for her, still popular today, La Peregrina (The Pilgrim).

     It seemed a match made in heaven.  The two idealists prepared for their wedding that would take place in San Francisco.  Reed hastened back to the U.S. to make arrangements before her permanent move to Mexico.


     Shortly after her departure to the US, however, another revolution seemed imminent.  Fighting had broken out in the Yucatan, and henequen planters and hacendados were trying to overthrow Carrillo.  President Obregon’s right hand man, de la Huerta, was opposing him and because Carrillo backed Obregon, he was at risk.  Carrillo was forced to find guns to fight both the planters and de la Huerta’s forces.  And to make matters worse, he now had a $250,000 reward on his head.

     To secure the guns and ammunition they would need to do battle, Carrillo went by night to the Progreso coast with three brothers and six friends as guards.  Just as they waded out to the launch that would take them to New Orleans where they’d acquire firearms for their revolution, a Navy captain signaled to soldiers lying in wait on shore.  The soldiers rowed out and captured Carrillo who told his small group not to fight, but to go peacefully.

     De la Huerta’s forces took them back to Merida, jailed them for the night and planned an arraignment in the morning.  Carrillo refused to make a plea. He was, after all, governor of the state, and refused to recognize a kangaroo court.  He was condemned on Janurary 3, 1924, and taken to Merida Cemetery where he, his brothers and friends were lined up against the wall to await the firing squad.  The first round of volleys was sent over their heads; the soldiers didn’t want to kill them, so fiercely local were the Yucatecans to Carrillo.

            The commander shouted that those soldiers were to be shot, and over the dead bodies of the first soldiers, Carrillo, brothers and friends were executed as they stood with their backs against the cemetery wall.


     In San Francisco, Alma Reed had been alerted that trouble was at hand. She heard the news shortly afterwards that Carrillo had died in the Yucatan, a martyr’s death,  at 49.

     Reed insisted on returning to Merida to see the spot where Carrillo fell.  She stayed but briefly in the Yucatan, and on arriving back to New York, was sent on an assignment to Carthage to explore ancient ruins.  She would never re-marry. Her reporting life eventually took her back to Mexico where she helped establish the artist José Clemente Orozco.

     One of Reed’s fears was that President Obregon had a hand in killing Carrillo.  He had, after all, assassinated Zapata after luring him to a truce meeting along with Pancho Villa.  Reed thought Carrillo’s radicalism may have aroused opposition from the Mexican president, but she could never prove the link.

            The pueblo of Chan Santa Cruz, south of Tulum, changed its name to honor the Yucatan governor, and now goes by the name Felipe Carrillo Puerto.  Alma Reed died in Mexico City, November, 1966, while undergoing surgery.  She was 77.

Jeanine Kitchel is the author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, and the upcoming nonfiction book, Maya 2012 Revealed, Demystifying the Prophecy, and coming in April: Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.  Contact the author through her website,

Saturday, February 3, 2018

Stephens and Catherwood Take the Maya World: Review of Jungle of Stone

IN 1839 an energetic American writer and a talented British artist, adventurers to the core, braved the jungles of Yucatan, Guatemala and Honduras and became the first English speaking travelers to explore this region originally known only as Maya.

Though a lawyer by profession, John Lloyd Stephens fell hard for archeology after a two-year sabbatical took him to Europe and the Mediterranean in the mid-1830s.  After trekking through deserts and ancient pyramid sites he came away fueled with a desire for more of the same. Simultaneously he discovered he could write and was dubbed “the American traveler” after he penned his first best seller about Egypt’s pyramids, the Nile, Petra and the Holy Land.

British artist Frederick Catherwood gained his footing during the “Egyptomania”
craze that hit London in the 1820s. A bit older than Stephens, he reached Egypt and the Nile in 1823 and discovered he had an uncanny ability to portray ancient monuments and archeological digs with great accuracy. Egypt was the start of an odyssey that in the end would take him to Copán and Palenque, Uxmal, Labna, Chichén Itzá and beyond.


Serendipity brought the adventurers together in London, and shortly afterwards.
Stephens received a special ambassadorship to Central America from President Martin Van Buren to negotiate treaties with several Latin America countries.
Stephens immediately contacted Catherwood and asked him to come along for the ride. After political issues were settled, they’d go exploring for ancient ruins.

The duo headed south and after an intense journey through war torn Guatemala and Honduras, Stephens finished what he could of his diplomatic workload. It was time for exploration with their first destination Copán. Spurred on by a letter written to the Spanish king about ancient sites with large stone structures from an explorer named Deigo Garcia de Palacio three hundred years earlier, Stephens and Catherwood followed the trail of Central American patriot Colonel Juan Galindo. Galindo had discovered the archived letter and traveled to both Palenque and Copán in 1834. Stephens and Catherwood would arrive five years later after pouring over sketchy site coordinates from Galindo’s report made to higher-ups.


Galindo believed whoever built these stone monuments had been an advanced civilization, and the artisans who created the works did so without iron tools. The monuments were covered in hieroglyphics and he conceived it was phonetic writing, which proved accurate, though it would take more than a hundred years to confirm his theory. He believed the site was the seat of a great power, a large population and a people advanced in the arts. The site had a grand plaza that could compete with the coloseum of Rome, he said. He emphasized that local inhabitants had little knowledge of the site’s history. And unbelievably, the account that pushed Galindo to explore Copán had accumulated dust in the archives of a Spanish court for more than three centuries. This mysterious and intriguing report was the reason Stephens and Catherwood found themselves in the depths of a Honduran jungle.

Because terrain in southern Mexico, western Guatemala and Honduras is a thick tangle of vegetation filled with rain forests and swamps, parts of the land were a mystery even to the Maya who lived there. Locals had no explanation for the stone blocks and imposing structures and knew nothing of their creators. So dense was the jungle that Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés passed within one hundred miles of Palenque in the early 1500s, never learning how near he was to a massive pyramid site. (The classic Maya collapse occurred around 900 AD).


Galindo’s revolutionary view of an ancient sophisticated civilization with no ties to their Northern European brethren fell on deaf ears. Early explorers of Palenque in 1787 insisted it had classical Roman and Greek influences, speculating somehow one of these cultures had crossed the Atlantic, conquered the native locals, built the structures, never to be seen again. Another explorer said it had to be the work of the Lost Tribe of Israel’s doing, underscoring how hesitant each and every western explorer who came in contact with the Maya was to give an advanced indigenous culture its due. 

These discoveries continued to baffle western intellects and religious scholars alike. The existence of vast sophisticated cities hidden in the middle of Central American jungles threatened the biblical order of the known world. Where did these people come from and how old were their cities? One explorer, a crazy outlier named “Count” Jean-Frederic Maximilien de Waldeck, made an accidentally correct claim when he stated Uxmal was at least one thousand years old, basing his claim on the concentric tree circles he counted from a tree that implanted itself in the building’s entryway after it was already in ruins.

It would take Stephens and Catherwood, seasoned with their old world explorations, to examine the evidence at the sites and forge a new, correct narrative.


Though Stephens’ written descriptions of the sites were detailed and informative, it was Catherwood’s otherworldly sketches that would forever change the way the world viewed the mysterious, previously unknown Maya culture. On their first week at Copán, Catherwood would toss out countless attempts at capturing the Maya stelae (stones with hieroglyphs) that he found. At first his western mind could simply not contemplate, then draw, what he was seeing. To him, a western European, the gigantic Copán sculptures, some four to five meters high, were so profoundly different than the antiquities of the mideast that he had a difficult time rendering them. The two veteran travelers who had toured the wonders of Egypt knew they were in the cross hairs of an incredibly advanced civilization and they were now on “new ground” as Stephens wrote later in Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatán, his best seller about the Maya world.

To capture the soul of the sculptures and to assist himself in so doing, Catherwood took photos with his Camera Lucida, the precursor to a modern camera, then from those drawings, he attempted to re-draw what he saw.  Though it took him many tries, a slight shift in his perspective broke through and with powerful persistence, he finally got it right. He filled page after page with drawings rich in detail of the unfathomable hieroglyphics, monuments, sculptings. His drawings would prove so accurate that long into the future, archeologists would be able to read them when they finally broke the Maya code in 1976 at the famous Palenque Round Table.

But at the time, to convince an uncertain world of what they were seeing, it would take not only the stark beauty of Catherwood’s detailed drawings to put Copán, Palenque and other Maya sites on the map, it would also take Stephens’ energetic and romantic prose to seal the deal.

Copán and Palenque were just the beginning of Stephens and Catherwood’s Maya explorations. They would go on to view forty-four sites in all, many detailed in Jungle of Stone. The struggles they endured to bring this discovery to the world hit them hard. Both were forever plagued by side effects of malaria and other diseases contracted while chasing pyramids.


Even if you’re not in the mood for a long read, Frederick Catherwood’s incredible sketches shown in the book, many in color, make Jungle of Stone worthwhile. It’s available at Alma Libre Bookstore in Puerto Morelos, 360 pesos.

Jeanine Kitchel, author of Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, has a new novel out this April, Wheels Up—A Novel of Drugs, Cartels and Survival.