The Lost World of Quintana Roo

by Jeanine Lee Kitchel

Lost World of Quintana Roo cover
Today’s Cancun radiates luxury, tourism and all things civilized. But just 45 years ago, according to author Michel Peissel who walked the land, Quintana Roo was “the most savage and wild coast on the American continent.” It was a territory with no government, no laws, no roads; accessible only by sea or on foot.

In 1958, this was how Peissel, a 21-year old Frenchman and author of the now out-of-print book, The Lost World of Quintana Roo, discovered it. 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.” Who knows if Peissel, now in his late 60s and living in France, has been back since then? 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.

So the place Peissel so vividly described now IS the lost world of Quintana Roo. But through the pages of his book, this world yet unexplored lives on.

(Jeanine Lee Kitchel lives in Puerto Morelos. Her non-fiction travel memoir, Where the Sky is Born: Living in the Land of the Maya, is available locally and through Contact Jeanine at