Adventure Travel, Adventurer, Alberto Caceres, Belize, Central America, Channel4, Colombia, Costa Rica, Darien Gap, Explorer, Guatemala, Honduras, Levison Wood, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Travel writing, Walking the Americas, Yucatan
Twelve months ago, I sat in my living room in Sydney, staring at the messy and unco-ordinated furniture around me. They were assorted mismatched bookcases and shelves that I had collected over the years from various friends and family who no longer had use for them. Then I looked at the rest of my flat and wondered if I had the patience for home renovations (I don’t). In the end, I settled for new bookcases to replace old sagging ones that were struggling with the weight of their loads and a new double recliner (by the way, it was a very comfortable spot from which my best friend and I watched Walking the Nile together).
At about the same time, on a continent far, far away, British explorer Levison Wood was dealing with his own renovations of the seventeenth-century house in Hampton Court he had bought after returning from the Himalayas. Escaping from the sounds of hammer and drill, Wood went for a stroll in the Hampton Court Palace gardens (personally, I rather enjoyed the Palace Maze). From his telling of the history of the architecture of the Palace, Wood segued into the stories of seventeenth-century Scots trying to build an empire of their own and finding the region we now know as Central America. Imagine for a moment if the Scots hadn’t given up the jungle four hundred years ago – we might find some colourful kilts instead of huipils!
So, while a team of workmen were pulling apart and reconstructing his house, Wood plotted his next adventure. And thus, Walking the Americas was born. Off to Mexico he went, joined by an old friend, Alberto Caceres – a fashion photographer he had met some years earlier. A fashion photographer? Knowing how to use the right f-stops and applying the rule-of-thirds for perfect composition were not going to save you from poisonous snakes, tarantulas and crocodiles, not to mention the long list of tropical diseases that could kill you in the most excruciating and disgusting way.
Nevertheless, no matter that Caceres had never done a walk before, his sense of humour, street smarts and wit saved the day on many occasions throughout the trip, even if he failed to charm a few stubborn horses. His optimism and boundless energy made me smile, and his excitement at going on this adventure was exactly how I felt even as a reader: ‘I feel like James Bond going on a mission.’
The attraction for Wood to explore Central America on foot became clear pretty quickly. Wood and Caceres – the two amigos – met plenty of locals curious as to why they were walking (no, their car didn’t break down) and where they were walking to. Many shared their personal stories about their lives, homes, families, offering them food and shelter oftentimes when they needed them most. One showed them hidden pyramids not even marked on Google Maps; another guide took them into a cenote, or sinkhole, in Yucatán where ancient Mayans sacrificed human and animal offerings to their gods. With an estimated six thousand cenotes and only a few hundred of them having been explored, diving down there must have been a sight to behold.
In Belize, Wood sought out an old Army trainer who provided a refresher on jungle survival training. He gave them lessons on how to build and find shelter from the endless rain, “jungle shopping” for food (fancy a meal of termites?), avoiding deadfall from the trees and the safest spots to camp in case of flash floods. They barely missed Hurricane Earl which had left a path of destruction on the small Caribbean country. Pretty sure there must be a book somewhere that lists all the things that can kill you in a jungle.
As the pair continued their journey into Guatemala and Honduras, they came across dangers of a more man-made variety. Drug smuggling and gang-related murders were commonplace and in full view of the police who were either a part of the problem or had long given up on trying to stop them. Money and corruption were the keys to survival. In contrast, Nicaragua with its active volcanoes seemed almost a safer place to be compared to the dangers of gun-toting gang members.
The closer to South America they went, the more my heart sank as they encountered streams of illegal migrants heading in the opposite direction. For decades, millions of migrants would flee their homes each year in Central and South America for economic hardship. Makeshift tents in migrant camps that had sprung up in Costa Rica, a country that took pride in being one of the happiest countries in the world, offered little respite for those who survived the treacherous jungles and lawlessness of the Darien Gap and the dangers of walking along the Pan-American Highway.
Having recently watched “The World’s Most Dangerous Journey”, a documentary on the dangers of the Darien Gap – the untamed jungle between Colombia and Panama – it was hard to imagine just how hard life must be at home for them to take these kinds of risks. They were all heading north in search of “the Great American Dream”. The recent election of a new President with a tough stance on illegal immigration in America will not deter them. Even as Alberto attempted to make jokes about climbing walls and fences, the reality was that many of those who they encountered on this journey may never make it all the way.
Since completing his four-month journey, Wood has been kept busy facing curious strangers of another kind: journalists and fans all clambering to find out where he will head to next. It made me think of weddings where family and friends demand to know when the babies will come moments after vows have been exchanged. Admittedly, I devoured Walking the Americas in just over a day (my mother told me I should savour each word when I read), I do wish there was more, but reading is much easier than writing or having to do the walking.
Let’s give the man a break to enjoy his new home and find somewhere to put his new collection of fossils and artefacts from Central America (I’m still curious to know what Customs officials at Heathrow think of his luggage). Perhaps one day, when there is no more room at the house, there will be a Levison Wood Wing at the British Museum where we can all gawk at this treasure trove and pretend, if only for a few short hours, that we can all be Indiana Jones.
Having recently taken home the prestigious Edward Stanford Travel Awards’ Adventure Travel Book of the Year for Walking the Himalayas, Levison Wood is currently on a month-long speaking tour across the U.K. to promote Walking the Americas. Alberto Caceres will soon be heading back to London to join his friend and who knows, he just might join Wood on stage and provide a demonstration of his newfound survival skills for the audience. And if he ever decided to give up photographing supermodels, I bet Channel4 would be happy to commission a road trip show starring Levison Wood and Alberto Caceres. Here’s a suggestion: Lev and Beto Down Under.
Walking the Americas is published by Hodder & Stoughton UK.
Photos by Levison Wood and Simon Buxton.
If you live in the UK, you can catch the companion series on Channel4.
For more information on the work that UNICEF is doing in Honduras, you can read about Lev’s visit to one of the refugee camps during his expedition here.
If you’d like to read a little about Wood’s earlier exploits, you can find them below: