22 Ambassadors Recommend the One Book to Read Before Visiting Their Country

These recommendations come from the Conde Nast Daily Traveler Newsletter:


We’ll Always Have Paris

If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.
–Ernest Hemingway

I am the most fortunate of persons: I have traveled to Paris on multiple trips. When I was studying French in college, I didn’t bother to learn the personal pronoun versions (tu, toi) of vous as I was quite sure that I would never know anyone that well in France. Now I find that my halting French at least gets me out of the starting gate. I can order sardines in a markets, like the charming Marche des Enfants Rouges–so named as it inhabits a former orphanage where the children where required to wear red.

In previous posts on Paris and France, I’ve covered several titles. A new one to me is the very popular The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, about a sad man who has mourned a broken love affair for 20 years. I’m grateful to my friend Andy for treating me to this novel. He calls himself a “literary apothecary,” and has an uncanny ability to pair books with readers to help them mend. When he finally reads his lover’s letter after two decades, Monsieur Perdu (appropriately lost in French) cuts loose his boat-based bookstore on the Seine and proceeds by waterway to the south of France to find out what happened to his love.

Along the way, he passes through some of my favorite countryside, the Luberon and coastal village, Cassis. It is a charming, four-hankie kind of read.

I also picked up Hemingway’s nostalgic A Moveable Feast (1961), in which he looks back on his time in Paris.

It was a lovely guidebook to his haunts: walks in the Luxembourg Gardens; drinks and writing at Les Deux Magots; his residences in the 5th arrondissement near Monde L’Arabe and the ancient Roman amphitheater, in Arenes de Lutece (39 rue Descartes and 74 rue Cardinal Lemoine). According to my dissertation advisor, Dr. Dorys C. Grover, the story about a hungry Hemingway hunting pigeons in Luxembourg Gardens and hiding them in the baby carriage is apocryphal. I trust her.

It was a return to a writer whom I’d admired greatly when in junior high through college—perhaps not so much now. The novel The Paris Wife from Hadley’s point of view was enlightening, and I reported on it during an earlier sojourn in the City of Lights. I also stopped by Shakespeare and Company, the groundbreaking bookstore founded by Sylvia Beach. She loaned books to Hemingway and other authors. He returned his; apparently Henry Miller did not.

Yet another novel to consider set in this time period is Francine Prose’s Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932 (2014), which was shortlisted for the National Book Award. Although overpopulated with characters, none of which is sympathetic to the end of the narrative, the book offers insight into alternative lifestyles in Paris pre-World War II and the disastrous circumstances of France’s cooperation with the Nazis. It also includes vignettes of real people such as Josephine Baker and characters that mirror actual people such as Henry Miller.

In addition, I read a couple of American expatriate memoirs—women who had fallen in love and remained in the country. French Toast by Harriet Welty Rochefort was just okay while the more recent Lunch in Paris: A Love Story with Recipes by Elizabeth Bard was more satisfying, if also a bit more narcissistic.

Although not fiction, David Leibovitz’s L’Appart: The Delights and Disasters of Making My Paris Home, is anticipated, due out this fall. I’m a big fan of his The Sweet Life, essays about moving to Paris.

Having visited Paris before, we now seek the out-of-the-way experience: the Musee des Arts Forains (a delightful 3-hour experience of historic carnival/carousels in the Bercy area); a walk on the Promenade Plantee (think NYC’s Highline Trail); the little known Musee Trente (artwork from the 1930s); biking on the newly-pedestrianized highway by the Seine using the bike-sharing Velib service; an after hours concert in Notre Dame.

No matter how many times we visit the home of the Eiffel Tower, we never run out of activities or books to read.









Death Valley Days and Books



I blame 1950s television. When my family acquired a TV in the latter part of the decade, one of the shows we watched was the popular western, Death Valley Days, hosted by the likes of “Old Ranger,” Ronald Reagan, Robert Taylor, and Dale Robertson, and even for one year—while Reagan ran for governor—a woman, Rosemary DeCamp. Weekly, the 20-Mule Team harnessed up to bring housewives the important Boraxo laundry detergent–the show’s sponsor–to do the hard work of keeping the family clothes clean. Historically, the mule teams pulled two massive wagons of borax plus a third wagon with enough water to supply both animals and drivers for the ten-day, 165-mile grueling trip.

My image of Death Valley was all about alkaline wastelands like Badwater Basin, the lowest point in the U.S.A.

But Death Valley is so much more than salt flats. We found colorful, geologically diverse slot canyons, snow-capped peaks, and the extraordinary Zabriskie Point. Hiking was extraordinary.

When we weren’t on the trail, we hung out at the historic Furnace Creek Lodge, a high-end accommodation with a price that is only justified through its stunning palm-studded gardens and silky water swimming pool.

What to read when in this unique national park? The pickings are, frankly, slim. Let’s start with Badwater (2013). Move over forensic anthropologist Gideon Oliver (Aaron Elkins’ amateur detective). Enter forensic geologists Cassie Oldfield and Walter Shaws, the product of author Toni Dwiggins’ series. Radioactive waste and terrorism link up to provide some terrifying moments in a narrative that delivers plenty of local color.

Frank Norris’ novel McTeague (1899) features a cruel dentist who eventually kills his wife and then escapes to Death Valley. According to The Writer’s Almanac, “the book galvanized readers and critics, some of whom called it ‘stomach-crunking’ and ‘vulgar.’” Norris is in the family of naturalistic writers. I recall one of my English professors explaining the difference between realism and naturalism: realism is when the author describes the street scene and everyone and everything in it; naturalism is when the author describes what is in the gutter.

Wanderer in the Wasteland (1923) by Zane Grey is the story of a young man, Adam Larey—a real greenhorn—is betrayed by his older brother, Guerd, a gambler. Adam shoots his brother and escapes to a mining town and later the desert—Death Valley—where he grows into a responsible adult, a person respected in the West. He falls for a woman in Death Valley who is married to a despicable husband. Classic Zane Grey. The landscape—magnificent yet hostile–is a featured character.

For the real story of the lowest and hottest point in the United States, check out Death Valley in ’49, the memoir of William Lewis Manly, one of the survivors of a wagon train that thought it could take a short cut. When the travelers were finally rescued, the story is that they looked back and said, “Goodbye, Death Valley.”

Other possible books  include Ghost Riders in the Sky: The Story of Stan Jones, the Singing Ranger; Death Valley Scotty by Mabel; Jack Longstreet: The Last of the Desert Frontiersman; and the more recent Daniel Arnold’s Salt to Summit: A Vagabond’s Journey from Death Valley to Mount Whitney. A poem about Jack Longstreet is on display at the wonderful Ash Meadows National Wildlife Refuge near his cabin, which includes a separate section of the Death Valley National Park.

Andrew Jackson Longstreet

Notched his gun for each man killed

Local sheriffs were not thrilled

Five grooves placed upon that gun

Jack regretted only one

Built a cabin in Ash Meadows

To hide out from the posse fellows

Stones piled high to save his head

From pistols spinning white-hot lead.

This poem is but one treat in the under-rated Ash Meadows.

What looks like scrub desert is punctuated by blue pools of lively, tiny Pupfish, an endemic species that has survived in spite of living in harsh conditions. (Check out

SaltCreek pupfish

Salt Creek, DVNP

another variety of Pupfish in Salt Creek in Death Valley.)

We were walking along one particularly lovely creek where we found a sign that in the recent past, the wetlands were scheduled to be developed for condos and casinos. Thankfully, a protest saved the area. Edward Abbey put it succinctly in his Desert Solitaire, “There is no shortage of water in the desert but exactly the right amount, a perfect ratio of water to rock, water to sand. There is no lack of water here unless you try to establish a city where no city should be.”

In addition to the geologic wonders of Death Valley, the environs include some funky stops: the Amargosa Opera House and Hotel, founded by Marta Becket, a NYC showgirl whose car broke down in the desert in the 60s and who lived and performed here until her recent death in early 2017. (Check out her story and obituary here: http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-marta-becket-20170201-story.html.)

Tecopa features Death Valley Brewing in town and China Date Farm a few miles distant, down a rather awe-inspiring road to the oasis where delicious dates and hiking trails can be found. Seriously, try the date milkshake after returning from a walk in the canyon.

Then there is Goodwell, an open-air museum and sculpture garden in the ghost town of Rhyolite, where one historic home is constructed with bottles. Seriously, Belgian artists have created sculptures of The Last Supper, a mosaic couch, and a larger than life prospect with a penguin(?) in this desert setting. http://goldwellmuseum.org/.

Goodwell is between Death Valley and Pahrump, a gateway to the park with a really decent winery and restaurant.

Death Valley and its environs might be considered a wasteland by some, but it’s a remarkably diverse landscape and a delight for a mid-winter escape.

Coda: En route home, we stopped at Eli at the Northern Nevada Railway Museum, where we were treated to a terrific tour by curator Sean Pitts. Overnight at the All Aboard B&B and Cafe was a fitting complement. Not a bad way to spend a Spring Break.

Eli RR


Mansfield, Ohio: Literary and Conservation Mecca

Mansfield, Ohio doesn’t immediately rise to the top of a list of literary meccas, but, rather surprisingly, it has two notable entries. The first is Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Sprisonhawshank Redemption, which is set in Maine but filmed at the Ohio State Reformatory. The popular film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman is represented in 14 Hollywood filming sites along The Shawshank Trail, a drive-it-yourself tour.

Most notable on the trail is the historic prison, a reformatorywardendining for boys housing 1900 inmates, built in the early 20th century. A sign above a classroom door reads “Ohio’s University of Second Chances.” While the Warden’s Dining Room is decorated splendidly, the bone-chilling cellblocks are not so inviting.

leslie-redTourists can have their photos snapped with life-size cardboard cut-outs of the actors or sit at the warden’s desk where he would have seen the cars coming up the lane to arrest him for financial fraud.

Malabar Farm, south of Mansfield, provided sites for the film, too, including its rustic Pugh Cabin, where the film opens with Andy (Tim Robbins) sitting in his car contemplating his wife’s betrayal. The famous oak tree along Pleasant Valley Road where Red (Morgan Freeman) looks for the treasure that Andy left him is rather crumpled after a storm in 2011. The farm itself is home to the second notable literary connection in Mansfield: Louis Bromfield. Winner of the 1926 Pulitzer Prize for his novel Early Autumn, Bromfield was a prolific author of more than 30 books, both fiction and nonfiction. He lived in France between the wars, authoring The Farm (1933), a multi-generational story of an Ohio farm that called to mind fond memories of his own childhood. Returning to Ohio to avoid the coming war, he purchased several farms to combine them into Malabar, a name derived from his travels in India. With funds from his best-selling novels and the films made from them, he termed his buildings “the MGM cattle barn” and “Twentieth-Century Fox sheep barn” as he wrote in his 1943 memoir Pleasant Valley. Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall spent their honeymoon at Malabar.

While Bromfield’s novels are not well known now, his influence as a conservationist and farmer is still felt. With the Depression and its devastating Dust Bowl still disturbingly close, Bromfield took worn out farms and began implementing French agricultural practices. Following in Thomas Jefferson’s philosophy, Bromfield writes that “A good farmer must be many things—a horticulturist, a mechanic, a botanist, an ecologist, a veterinary . . . but knowledge alone is not enough. There must be too that feel of all with which Nature concerns herself” (148). This short video provides an overview of Bromfield, the farm, and sustainable practices.

To find Bromfield’s books and other area authors, visit the excellent Main Street Books: “Real Books, Real Readers, Real Local.” Nearby is the bench where Brooks, a released inmate from Shawshank Prison fed the birds. And after that, hop on the historic Carousel to grab the brass ring in downtown Mansfield, a town that exceeds expectations.


Biking, Walking, and Reading Vancouver (British Columbia)

Stanley Park in Vancouver is a delight, a joyride for a bicyclist. I rented a bike from a nearby shop and took off on a counter clockwise path that traces the seawall. The 9 km ride was so much fun that I did it a second time. The trail goes by several landmarks, including a 1972 sculpture that is Vancouver’s version of Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid: Girl in a Wetsuit. The path passes by Brockton Point Lighthouse, gives a glorious view of Lions Gate Bridge high overhead, and reveals Siwash Rock around a bend. The Nine O’Clock Gun occurs early in the path, a cannon placed in the 1890s, and shot at nine pm each night so that ships could set their chronometers.

Nine O’Clock Gun is also the title of two novels, the first written by Roland Wild (1952) and a more recent gumshoe detective novel by Jim Christy (2008). 9oclockGun

The book by Wild begins with 80-year-old Neil McKay, a Scottish immigrant, reflecting on his life in Vancouver from the late 1880s to post-World War II. In so doing, he traces the history of the city from its start as Gastown (created by “Gassy” Jack), then to Granville, and finally to Vancouver. Ever wonder why Vancouver is not on Vancouver Island? Blame the owners of the Canadian Pacific Railroad. When they pushed the transcontinental railroad through, the government of British Columbia acceded to their wishes to rename the city for Captain George Vancouver, much to the dismay of the inhabitants of Vancouver Island, already named for the 18th century explorer.

Wild’s novel begins on Howe Street; as it happened, I stayed in a hotel located on the same avenue. Recognition of places within a narrative is one of the real treats of reading literature set in the locales where one travels. The statue of Gassy Jack and the Steam-Powered Clock in Gastown mean more after reading pleasurable titles set in the area.

Granville’s name resides now on an island, where a fabulous public market offers local food, arts, and crafts. Another Granville is the main character in The Silk Train Murder (Klondike Era Mystery Series, 2007) by Sharon Rowse. Set in 1899, it features a little known historical factoid, that the silk imported from China to make its way to the eastern seaboard was more valuable than gold and required special train cars for transport—trains that needed protection, and thereby hangs the tale.

For a more contemporary look at Vancouver, read Stanley Park (2001) by Timothy Taylor, that follows the trials of chef Jeremy Papier, whose new restaurant Monkey’s Paw Bistro is on the brink of financial ruin. Surely Kiwi Frederique, a bleeding-edge restaurant critic who appears late in the narrative, is one of the best creations by a novelist. Taylor’s satiric and often comic critique of contemporary cuisine is biting and fun. A subplot involves Jeremy’s anthropologist father, who is living in Stanley Park to study the homeless. Yet another subplot focuses on the unsolved murder of two children whose bodies were uncovered in the park.


Bill Reid Sculpture at MOA

Vancouver offers much to see and do: take the charming ferries on False Creek from the city to the market on Granville Island; visit the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia to view the grand totems and Bill Reid’s wonderful centerpiece sculpture of Raven creating the world; follow up with a visit of Reid’s Art Gallery downtown (readers can see his illustrations in Raven’s Cry, a novel by Christie Harris about the Haida of Queen Charlotte’s Island); dine at one of the many restaurants in Yaletown. yaletown

Two used bookstores deserve mention: MacLeod’s and the Paper UmbrellaShopHound, both with helpful staff, and both located on Pender Street. The street is also home to the charming Umbrella Shop (with two other locations, one on Granville Island). In business since 1935 in a city where people own multiple umbrellas, The Umbrella Shop is a delightful stopWeeds. And then there is Weeds, a chain store devoted to the bud.


Walking the streets of Vancouver or biking its 28 km seawall are enhanced by reading these novels to get a sense of its past and present. For more great reads set in Vancouver, check out this article, “Top Ten Books about Vancouver,” by George Fetherling, Vancouver Sun, April 8, 2011: http://www.vancouversun.com/news/books+about+Vancouver/4524537/story.html. Next up on my reading list: Legends of Vancouver by E. Pauline Johnson, a free e-book that recounts Squamish legends in the prose of the time (1911).



Tuff City Books: Tofino, British Columbia

IMG_3133Tofino, British Columbia is literally the end of the road—Highway 4—on Vancouver Island, but until 1961, no road existed. All transportation was by boat. Now, the village of 2000 has been discovered, featured in travel magazines for the best surfing in North America, demonstrated by Surf Sister, an outfit that specializes in getting more women on boards.


IMG_3142The Pacific Rim National Park provides short (1-2K) hikes, but these are eclipsed by the dramatic, privately developed (by Oyster Jim) Wild Pacific Trail that starts near the “other” town on this western coast: Ucluelet. Stunning old growth cedars and rockIMG_3143y headlands look out onto the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” The lighthouse, celebrating its centenary, was erected the year after a four-masted steel boat sank within sight of shore in 1905.



Revolution Market

Fresh seafood can be found in the fish & chip joints (e.g, Wildside Grill) and the upscale restaurants (e.g, Wolf in the Fog, Shelter)—even gooseneck barnacles. The hippie holdover culture is also evident in such places as Revolution.

Whale and bear watching trips are common on board charter boats, and up to 100 people a day may take the boat ride to Hot Springs Cove for a 2K boardwalk hike followed by a mellowing dip and then lunch at the seasonal Copper Rose docked at the government wharf.

By the way, almost all hikes are on boardwalks. The Wild Pacific Trail is an exception as is the Tonquin Trail near Tofino.

It’s only natural in such a watery environment that boat books triumph. A lusty, funny memoir by Andrew Struthers, The Last Voyage of the Loch Ryan (2004), integrates his own story with lore from Torino and the surrounding towns and villages. It’s a great way to learn about Tofino, its surfing devotees, and the characters who populate the place. Why is there a metal truss around the Elk Cedar near Jamie’s Whaling Station? Struthers reveals the back-story on this and many more insider facts. He is also the award-winning author of The Green Shadow, which recounts the tussle between environmentalists and business interests in the 1990s. His latest book, Around the World on Minimum Wage, includes some Tofino stories.

Chasing Clayoquot (2004) is a transcendental meditation by David Pitt-Brooke on the Clayoquot Sound on a monthly basis, twelve essays for the year. We kayaked on the Sound, finding osprey, juvenile Bald Eagles, stars, bull kelp, and burrowing cucumbers—as well as industrial barges.

IMG_3100Typically, my travel books are e-editions, easier to pack and carry, but for this trip, I could not resist supporting Mermaid Tales Bookshop. With an excellent selection of local books, it also has a fine stock of books overall as well as whimsical kites.

Tofino attracts interesting individuals, and many of them seem to have finally written the books inside them. Several that follow are self-published. It’s grand that people can get their work out to audiences, but sometimes the lack of professional editing does show.

Tofino and Clayoquot Sound: A History, by Margaret Horsfield and Ian Kenn

Voices from the Sound: Chronicles of Clayoquot Sound and Tofino, 1899-1929 by Margaret Horsfield

Road’s End: Tales of Tofino


Salt in Our Blood

Clamming Up (Kate O’Malley Series Book) by Lee-Anne Stack


The Wild Edge

Women of the West Coast

Silent Inlet

Murder in Parksville; Confusion in Tofino by Jennifer Lafortune

The Sobo Cookbook (from the restaurant of the same name)

Children’s Books:

May Leads the Way: Trouble Near Tofino (featuring the dog, May the K9 Spy, Book 3), by KC Frantzen and TW Vanya

The Oyster that Looked at the Sky by Darcy Dobell

It’s no wonder that Tofino with its dramatic shoreline, thick forests, and beautiful Sound—coupled with the culture of First Nations and a working community—increasingly is becoming a  vacation destination.

IMG_3140 IMG_3126



Sintra, Portugal: Medieval Gem


Palace Kitchen

SintraPena palaceclockSintrapalaceSintra, Portugal, a short drive or train ride from Lisbon, is a hidden gem. The medieval hillside town served as the summer residence of royalty, and not surprisingly, several palaces are in evidence and can be visited. But surprisingly, one of the royal retreats, Pena Palace, is a fantastical place, like something out of Disneyland with its bright turrets and mountaintop location, surrounded by lush gardens and park. It overlooks the more historic Moorish Castle.

Other palaces to visit: Monserrate Palace, Seteais Palace, Quintada Regaleira and the Sintra National Palace. Gardens and parks welcome walkers and picnickers. Although the roads are narrow, it’s a very walkable town, and tourists can divert into parks if traffic gets a bit hairy.

What to read while staying in such a magical place? Eça de Queiroz was one of the sintrabookcoverleading writers of the late 19th century, admired by French writer Emile Zola. His Mystery of the Sintra Road is available as a free ebook, and it was also made into a film in 2007. A romantic whodunit, the novel is also satirical of society of the time. I found it reminiscent of Wilkie Collins’ novels, such as Woman in White.

Visitors to Sintra will find many establishments named after Lord Byron, who greatly admired the town, so much so that he described it as “glorio41UKiT2dUSL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_us Eden” in his Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage.

Sintra is well worth a multiple-day visit. Avoid being a day-tripper and take in the delights of the town with its stunning vistas, horticultural havens, and healthy walks.


Navigating the World – Portugal Explorers

One of my favorite historical novels is Anya Seton’s Katherine, the story of Katherine Swynford, mistress of John of Gaunt and eventually his third wife. John is the father of Henry Bolingbroke, who took over the throne from the ineffectual Richard II, as Shakespeare so beautifully demonstrated. 220px-Filipa_lencastre

Phillipa tomb

Tomb of Queen Philippa and King Joan in an unusual affectionate pose.

Another child of John of Gaunt, Phillipa, became in her own right one of the most influential monarchs in history when she married Joan III (John) of Portugal. Thought to be too old a bride at 27, Phillipa of Lancaster actually turned a political Anglo-Portuguese alliance into a love match. The king gave up his mistress and devoted himself to his family. Phillipa was well educated herself and ensured that her offspring were similarly schooled. Four sons had significant impact on the history of Portugal, but none more than Infante Henry.

Henry’s 14th-century childhood is illustrated in the lovely children’s book, The Miracle Dogs of Portugal, about the canines famous for their prowess in helping fishermen. They actually herd fish into nets! (The book also mentions that a Portuguese Water Dog lives at the White House, the photogenic “Bo.”)

The Infante Henry grew up believing in the importance of intellectual inquiry in all areas, but particularly in science and navigation.


AlbuQuerque, explorer

IMG_2743Could it be possible to establish a trade route to the Orient? What lay beyond the western shores of Europe? Henry’s work led to the important voyages of Christopher Columbus, who was from Santos, the Portuguese island close by Madeira; Vasco da Gama, who established a trade route around the Cape of Good Hope to India and Asia; Ferdinand Magellan, whose expedition circumnavigated the globe. There is also Afonso de Albuquerque, whose name eventually “landed” in New Mexico. No wonder Henry’s 19th century biographers dubbed him “The Navigator.”


Henry “the Navigator”

Lisbon’s Marine Museum documents this glorious history well. Henry’s statue graces the entry. It is backed by an important map of the world illustrating the Pope’s division of the world into two parts: Spain would have ownership of all lands west of a certain latitude in theIMG_2741 Atlantic; Portugal was given lands east. Only Brazil extended into Portugal’s legitimate territory, explaining why it is the only South American country that speaks Portuguese. The Museum of Fine Arts includes works from the countries explored (and exploited). For instance, Japanese screens depict Portugese visitors in fancy European garb.

Road Works that illuminate this important history of Portugal include the comprehensive Prince Henry “the Navigator”: A Life by Peter Russell (2001), Portugal’s Golden Years: The Life and Times of Prince Henry “The Navigator” (2006) by Carlos B. Carreiro, and The Last Crusade (2011), Nigel Cliff’s award-winning account of da Gama’s discoveries.


Tower of Bellem, set mid-river, which was a beacon for sailors leaving and returning.

The monument of discovery, a site close by the popular Tower of Bellem (Bethlehem), includes sculpted depictions of Portuguese explorers.


Philippa on the Discovery Monument

Only one woman is included in this group of men: Phillipa of Lancaster. She is deserving of a fine biography. It’s a book I’d certainly put on my Road Works list.

Awakening the Mayan Past — In Mexico


Tulum Iguana

Digging up good literature about ancient Mayan culture is about as difficult as uncovering the ruins overgrown with jungle trees and plants. Some 3,000 Mayan cities have been identified by archaeologists, and 300 have been excavated, but even there, only partial excavations have occurred, resulting in about one percent on view.


Temple of Masks at Kohunlich (close-up on the right)


Previously, RoadWorks visited important Mayan sites such as Copan, Tikal, Palenque, and Chichen Itza. This trip took us to the crowded seaside site of Tulum, overrun by cruise boat tours, but also to the quiet and more notable sites of Dzibanche and Kohunlich some hours away from Tulum nearer to Chetumal and the Belize border. These were easily accessible from the wonderful resort where we stayed for a week: The Explorean Kohunlich. Frankly, we did not know these locations prior to our visit as they don’t have the press of a Tulum or Copan, but they are significant. Dzibanche, for instance, features not only extensive ruins but also a troop of boisterous Howler Monkeys, and the quieter Spider Monkeys. Kohunlich is well regarded for its Temple of Mascaderos—stunning figureheads that retain their ancient coloring.

Dzibanche Temple


What to read to enhance these site visits? By far, the best fictional treatment I found was The Well of Sacrifice (1999) by Chris Eboch. Although marketed as a teen novel, it’s a good read for adults, too. The actual well of sacrifice is located at Chichen Itza, a cenote—a deep pool of water surrounded by limestone. Archaeologists in dredging the well have found traces of human remains as well as precious objects such as jade. The cenote plays an important role in the narrative as a power-hungry priest seeks to take the place of the recently-departed king. For anyone who stands in his way, he tells the people of the city that the gods have ordered a sacrifice. In this way, he removes his rivals, one in particular, Smoke Shell, a young warrior who is enormously popular. Well_cover_from-210

His sister, Eveningstar Macaw, is the main protagonist of the novel, a teen who is knowledgeable of jungle plants and herbs that she gathers for her mother, who is a healer. Will Eveningstar be able to avenge her brother’s death and save the city? That’s a secondary concern as the book’s primary benefit is in revealing day-to-day Mayan life. Admittedly, even scientists do not know exactly what happened in everyday life since the cities were abandoned centuries before, around 900 CE, but murals provide some clues. The author uses what is known to good effect. The Mayan civilization believed in human sacrifice and even blood-letting among its own people; as a result, some scenes can be graphic although nothing in comparison to violence in contemporary films.


Remnants of a ball court, a crucial site in The Well of Sacrifice, where captives play for their honor–and then proceed to their death or to slavery.

The Mayan culture was popularized in the mid-nineteenth century by American John Lloyd Stephens and his artist partner, Frederick Catherwood. Their collaborative work, Incidents of Travel in the Yucatan, is in public domain and still reads very well due to Stephens’ clear prose and Catherwood’s detailed drawings. This 1848 book was very influential in revealing Mayan cities and creating expeditions to unearth them. Contemporary novelist Eboch acknowledges that debt. (By the way, Catherwood’s home in Merida is open to the public.)

A “juvenile book,” The Search for the Silver City: A Tale of Adventure in Yucatan (1893) by John Otis, who penned almost 200 “boys’ books” in the style of Tom Swift or The Hardy Boys, follows two teens who are marooned on the Yucatan after the family yacht catches fire. Along with an engineer who survives, they run into an ex-pat, who has located a lost Mayan city, and who is determined to steal some of its gold and silver. Exploitation of native people reminds us that at one time such colonial attitudes still reigned even centuries after Cortez’s destructive path.

These three books are all available in electronic form, which makes packing much easier. Another possibility is a historical romance by Barbara Wood, Woman of a Thousand Secrets (1999). Frankly, it’s too much romance for my reading tastes. Scott O’Dell, a prize-winning author for young readers, published three novels about classic period Mexico. The first, The Captive (1975), focuses on a Spanish Jesuit, who is taken by Mayans. Unfortunately, it is not in e-book format. His other two novels focus on Aztec and Incas. Likewise, Daniel Peters weighs in with three hefty novels, each focusing on the three major cultures: Mayan, Inca, and Aztec. Another young adult novel is Marc Talbert’s Heart of the Jaguar (1995). I wish I had found Marella Sands’ novels on Tikal before visiting there: Sky Knife (1997) and its sequel Serpent and Storm (2001).

Moving on to other major tribes of Mexico, Colin Falconer’s The Feathered Serpent (not to be confused with the Scott O’Dell novel of the same name) focuses on the Malinali, the Aztec woman—a slave to Mayans—who became the mistress of conqueror Cortes. Gary Jennings’ popular Aztec series offers hefty reads. Simon Levack has a mystery The Demon of the Air (2005) that also centers on Aztecs.

National Geographic offers this list of best books about Mayan culture: http://travel.nationalgeographic.com/travel/best-maya-books/

By the way, several books about Mayan prophecy circa 2012 came out about that time. These were not of interest to me.