Photo: Mayan ruins of Palenque

Mary Jo McConahay uncovers Maya riches, like those in Palenque, in her new book.

Photograph by Simon Norfolk, National Geographic Stock

By Don George

Book of the Month:

Maya Roads, by Mary Jo McConahay

Every once in a while I stumble upon a book that is so beautifully written and infused with so much intelligence and heart that it leaves an indelible mark on me. Mary Jo McConahay’s Maya Roads is such a book. In its hungry passion and wide-eyed wonder, it’s an extraordinary literary journey and a moving testament to a region and a life.

That region is the Maya tropical forest—once known as the Gran Petén—that extends from Petén in northern Guatemala to Chiapas in southern Mexico. As McConahay’s adventures demonstrate, this fecund jungle is home to a complex culture of Maya marvels, from intricately constructed and decorated stone buildings and temples to sophisticated astronomies and religious rituals.

McConahay gradually uncovers these riches over the course of her professional life. That journey begins in 1973, when, inspired by an exhibit in Mexico City’s National Museum of Anthropology, she impetuously sets out in search of Lacandón Maya Indians. She travels to the rainforest ruins of Palenque and beyond, past “impenetrable looking walls of trees” to the shore of a lake where she and a companion shoot off fireworks to let the Lacandón on the other side know they are there, and where they are welcomed and eventually taken farther through the “miasma of greens” to the village of Naha.

After two decades as a journalist and war correspondent, McConahay returns to the Gran Petén in the early 1990s. As she explores deeper, McConahay brilliantly evokes some of the region’s preeminent sacred sites: Bonampak, Uaxactun, Palenque, Tikal, Toniná. She helps us understand the Maya cosmology, the significance of the end of the Maya calendar on Dec. 21, 2012, and the Maya understanding of the interconnectedness of the world. She also reveals the dark side of the region, where a cycle of development, disenfranchisement, and death—fueled now by drug profits—seems to intractably endure.

But despite these daunting realities, McConahay’s enthusiasm shines through these pages, illuminating the Maya roads we would all do well to follow.

New-Book Roundups:

Mysterious Ways

Amateur chef and Perigord police chief Bruno Courrèges tackles the murder of a truffle expert in Black Diamond, Martin Walker’s third installment in his charming mystery series set in the French countryside. Against a much colder landscape, the debut novel White Heat, by M. J. McGrath, follows ex-polar bear hunter Edie Kiglatuk as she tries to uncover the truth behind the death of a hunter killed on the High Arctic ice—a journey that leads her through a web of corruption and international energy piracy.

Two for the Road

In Cocktail Hour Under the Tree of Forgetfulness, author Alexandra Fuller recounts her parents’ early married life together in Africa, moving from Kenya to Rhodesia to Zambia to escape war and personal tragedy, but always in love with the land. Osa and Martin, by Kelly Enright, is the true story of the adventuring filmmaking couple Osa and Martin Johnson who, from the 1910s through the 1940s, brought Africa and the South Pacific to the attention of millions of Americans.

One Last Thing:

Lessons from an Ageless Italian Village

Every time I visit Italy, I feel like the locals have mastered the fine art of living. Tracey Lawson’s lovely and lavish new book, A Year in the Village of Eternity, strongly reinforces this notion. The village of the title is Campodimele, a medieval hilltop town in central Italy that has been dubbed the “village of eternity” by the World Health Organization because its residents lead such long and healthy lives, many staying active into their 90s. Inspired by her own experiences while teaching English in Tuscany, Lawson traces 12 months in the life of Campodimele, showcasing the villagers’ cooking practices, wholesome ingredients, and everyday activities in their simple glory.

Don George has won numerous awards for his work as a travel writer and editor. He is the author of Travel Writing and the editor of eight literary travel anthologies, including Lights, Camera…Travel!, A Moveable Feast, and The Kindness of Strangers. E-mail Don at dgeorge@ngs.org.

Take a Nat Geo Trip

Select a destination or trip type to find a trip:

See All Trips »

Join Nat Geo Travel's Communities




Travel Photos From Your Shot

  • Picture of canoes on a dock in Alberta, Canada

    Your Canada Photos

    View scenes of Canada's city life and countryside—all taken by our Nat Geo photo community.

See More Your Shot Galleries »