Walking in the Footsteps
of Michel Peissel: Part Two

by Mari Pintkowski

The lure of the Caribbean coast and small rural Mexican pueblos was becoming part of a dream that Wendy Morrill could not let go of. In 2005 and 2006, she and her 65-year-old father began taking extended "beach hikes" that included the coastal area from Puerto Morelos to Playa del Carmen that would eventually develop into a dream of following in the footsteps of Michel Peissel. In 1958 this young French university student became the first white man to set foot in the state of Quintana Roo and walk along the coast from Playa del Carmen to the southern border where he crossed into Belize.

After reading Peissel's book describing his adventure, "The Lost World of Quintana Roo," Wendy embraced his vision to walk the Caribbean coast of México. Her father was eager to join his daughter the following spring. But for Wendy, the long winter nights in Maine were spent pouring over Internet sites, including the aerial views of the shoreline on the LocoGringo site, travel books like "Yucatan Adventure Guide" by Bruce Concord and topographical maps of the coastal area of Quintana Roo, just south of the popular tourist destination of Cancún, in preparation for their departure in May 2007. She confirmed her suspicion that the coastal terrain was not composed totally of white, silky sand; in fact, only 40 percent is sand and the other 60 percent is made up of coral, limestone and rock that borders an environment of tropical vegetation.

"I actually began to tear out pages from books, copy Internet articles and cut out the important parts, and clip maps and put them each into Ziploc bags. I estimated from our past years' experience that we could cover approximately 15 miles a day of this 120mile journey each year. I used topographical maps to figure out where we might spend each night, and then researched lodging options, but made no hotel reservations ahead of time. We had hoped to stay in economical beach cabañas rather than tourist hotels. We each included a hammock in our backpacks that could always be tied up between two palms if the need arose."

Training for the hike was second nature to both Wendy and her dad who live very active lives. Wendy, having spent seven years in the U.S. Navy said, "Boot camp will get anyone into shape and set exercise as a priority for the rest of your life." When the snows began to melt in March, Wendy did add walks in the slushy snow to her regular exercise routine to simulate walking in soft beach sand.

As May approaches each year, Wendy and Richard prepare their packing list, confer and help each other downsize the contents to be included in their backpacks. Their goal is to carry no more than 15 pounds. From bathing suits to mosquito nets, each item is tightly rolled and placed in their packs. "We devise clever weight-saving ways to carry essentials like duct tape and dental floss. I wrap some tape around my pens and dental floss around my toothbrush. I put small amounts of antibiotic and hydrocortisone creams into sterile microfuge tubes that are left over in the labs where I work. Other than trail mix from home, we rely on the generosity of local people, along with restaurants and stores that pop up on the route, for our next meal. We each carry three liters of water, and again are appreciative to locals who generously replenish our sources along the way. Other than water, our main supply of hydration is wild coconuts. We use my machete to open coconuts that we reach on trees and drink the water and eat the meat."

In 1958, when Michel Peissel walked the shores of the Mexican Caribbean, there was no one on the beach but bandits, Maya coconut plantation workers and chicleros (a crusty group of workers whose job it was to collect sap from the sapote trees that was used to make Chiclets gum), so he christened this land "the lost world."

Today the coast of Quintana Roo from Cancún to Tulúm is known for its crystal-clear, turquoise waters, lined by beaches of fine, white sand, punctuated by coves, bays and islands, with a backdrop of lush, tropical jungle vegetation that offers glimpses of archeological treasures. What Wendy saw was a world inundated with large hotels, condominiums, restaurants and stores that cater to tourists and the building industry, so she dubbed her Web site/blog "the found world of Quintana Roo."

To pass the royal city of Tulúm that is perched on top of limestone cliffs overlooking the cove that the Maya referred to as Zama, "place of the dawning sun," they hired a fisherman. While out at sea, Richard noticed one lone ruin on the north end that did not seem to be part of the main tourist attraction.

"Dad was determined to change plans and have the Maya boat driver drop us on the nearest beach. When we stepped on the shore, we could see cliffs to the south, and miles of wild, deserted beach to the north. Dad, behaving like a mountain goat scaling and climbing these cliffs, shouted to me not to put my hands in the holes in the rock for fear that a scorpion or snake might be living inside. This is exactly where our water ran out and we had to turn to Mother Nature to share her coconuts."

However, the coastal area south of Tulúm still offers many miles of "wild," thick jungle growth inhabited only by geckos, snakes, tropical birds and members of the insect world.

“In 2008 my father and I stayed at the Cuzan Guest House in Punta Allen. Lily, the owner, was able to connect me over the marine radio to the owner of Casa Blanca Fishing Lodge. Tom owns the only establishment on a private island on the Santa Rosa Peninsula that is located between two bays. The only way to reach the island is by boat or plane. Because I worked in the School of Marine Sciences Department at the University of Maine, and do presentations to children in Maine schools, we were able to get permission to visit the area. Not only did Tom give us the "go ahead" to visit the ruin sites of Tupac and Chac Mool, but he furnished us with a truck, driver, two kayaks, a guide and breakfast at the lodge. We had hired Antonio, a Maya fisherman in Punta Allen to take us to Santa Rosa Peninsula and he was gracious enough to wait all day as we explored the sacred island. In return, Tom requested that I mail him a copy of our slide show, and to further show our gratitude, I had my son's fourth-grade class write thank-you letters to Tom."

The travelers weren’t without Montezuma's Revenge or the gruesome effects of the scorching sun that can reach 104 degrees Fahrenheit at mid-day. After the visit to Santa Rosa Peninsula, Wendy and Richard had finished the coastal hike for that year and were ready to depart from Punta Allen just as tropical storm Arthur was rolling in. Both hikers were suffering from the effects of their journey and Wendy became worried about her dad who was still sick in bed, so she decided to visit the local medical clinic. The doctors-on-call examined her, discussed her dad's symptoms and prescribed medication. Their total bill at the clinic, including medication for both of them, was only $17.

"After analyzing the possibilities of the infection, we think the revenge came from either brushing our teeth with tap water in one very bad cabaña, or the day the Mexican family, picnicking on the beach, offered us ice from their cooler."

The thought of that "cheeseburger in Paradise" was driving the adventurers north to Cancún. The sky opened up and soaked the little coastal pueblo as they waited outside the entrance to Punta Allen for a ride to Tulúm. They heard a faint voice yelling at them from one of the casitas nearby. Gerardo invited them into his house to wait out the torrential rainstorm. His two small children were not at home, but he offered Wendy and Richard their two cartoon character towels to dry with. While Richard was keeping an eye out for a vehicle heading north, Wendy soaked up information from Gerardo about the coastal terrain that would be valuable for the next year's hike. The storm continued to rage on when Charlie, a guide at one of the hotels in town, stopped and offered them a ride. Surprisingly, Charlie's wife was from the state of New Hampshire, only hours from their home in Maine. Before leaving, Richard invited Charlie and his family to stop by their house in Maine for an old-fashioned New England lobster dinner the next time they were in the States. Not only did they leave with wonderful memories of kind locals, but with a few shells from Gerardo's collection to share with school children in Maine.

The stories they collected along the five-year journey are way too numerous to share in this article, but these few snippets might whet your appetite for adventure and leave you wanting to dig deep and wonder if you have the stamina and courage to embark on an adventure of your own creation. One day soon, I hope to sit down with Wendy and Richard and ask about the raft they built to get across a large inlet; the ship washed up on shore at Puerto Morelos that they climbed into using an abandoned oil drum; the 10-foot wall of the cruise ship dock at Majahual that security told them they could not go up; the Corona tent on the beach in the middle of nowhere filled with cold drinks; the bugs in her pancakes at a popular beach restaurant; and the long detour that was required because the staff at Yal-Ku lagoon would not let them walk along the rocks that border their property to reach the beach. If you are itching to read more, Wendy is in the process of transcribing the journals she and Richard kept for her Web site.

One of the favorite true stories that intrigues the children Wendy gives presentations to is about the possibility of a Maya Curse. Two weeks after the adventurers returned from Chac Mool, the sacrificial site, Wendy was diagnosed with a kidney stone AND her father had poison ivy all over his face, caught pneumonia, and a Cadillac converter fell off the shelf at his work and cut his leg. He needed 28 stitches ... was it a Maya Curse or just a bit of bad luck?

"The ordinary traveler, who never goes off the beaten route, and who on this beaten route is carried (guided) by others, without himself doing anything or risking anything, does not need to show much more initiative and intelligence than an express package." (Teddy Roosevelt, 1913)

Wendy and Richard truly are not the ordinary travelers and have risked much to follow a dream. Good luck with your upcoming adventure to begin on May 21, 2010.

If you want to meet Richard and Wendy before they depart on the last stretch of their five-year journey, join us for breakfast at 7 a.m. on the 22nd of May at El Faisan y El Venado in F. Carrillo Puerto.

Mari Pintkowski and her husband, Lou, have an elegant jungle B&B in Macario Gomez at km 20 off the Cobá Road, www.laselvamariposa.com. To read more of Mari's stories about their adventures, get a copy of her book "Embarking on the Mariposa Trail" on www.amazon.com.