Walking the Americas by Levison Wood

Following on from his two wildly successful walking travelogues, Wood delivers yet again an imminently likeable and interesting book which charts his 2,900km journey through Central American highlands, jungles, remote wilderness and urban ganglands. This time, he is accompanied the entire way by his Mexican friend, Alberto, who provides a more consistent counterpoint to his own experiences and ensures that Walking the Americas is a worthy addition to the Levison Wood book stable.

Those who have read Wood's previous books will be aware of a prior (unwritten, as yet) adventure he undertook when driving an ambulance 16,000km from the United Kingdom to Malawi. It was on this journey that his fashion-and-fruit photographer friend Alberto first mentions the idea of a road trip from his home town in Merida, Mexico all the way to South America. As they say, good things usually take time and so it is some six years later that Wood makes good on his promise and reconnects with the recently divorced Alberto to set off and walk the spine of Central America.

Of course, it wouldn't be a Levison Wood journey if there weren't dangers.  This time the all too real dangers consist of amoebic, bacillus and viral diseases, venomous and crushing snakes, poisonous spiders and frogs, giant wasps, crocodiles and freshwater sharks. Even some of the trees pose a serious threat such as the chechem tree, also known as black-sap poisonwood. Then there are the acts of God: hurricanes, volcanoes, earthquakes and floods. And if mother nature doesn't seem fit to ruin his day, then Wood and his travelling campanion also face a decent chance of being stabbed, murdered, kidnapped, hijacked or experiencing any number of other drug/gang related means of violence. One can only imagine the eye-watering cost of Wood's insurance premiums!

As Wood and Alberto navigate their way down from Mexico through Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and western Panama they then are faced with having to find a way to become the first people since the 1970s to legally cross El Tapon, also known as the Darien Gap. Consisting of primitive swampland and forest, for a distance of 160km the Darien Gap holds at bay the world's longest "motorable road", the Pan-American Highway, and preventing it from connecting South America to America forcing people to circumnavigate this terrestrial stretch by sea. 

The Darien Gap is probably best known due to the Marxist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC) insurgents who commit kidnappings and murders whilst waging war against the government of Columbia. Tom Hart Dyke & Paul Winder's Sunday Times Bestseller, The Cloud Garden, provides a good detailed account of the nine months that they were held hostage by FARC guerrillas in 2000 and backed up by the recent death of Swedish backpacker Jan Philip Braunisch in 2013 at the hands of FARC, illustrates just how dangerous Wood's journey is.

Wood injects more humour into Walking the Americas than his previous two books, as well as including a small amount history. However, do not expect to come away with a head full of knowledge of Curzon, Colombus, Stephens and Catherwood or indeed the Aztec and Mayan civilisations that preceded their arrival. Instead, his book focuses very much on the events and encounters that occur along the path of their journey, of which there are plenty.

Wood describes the awe of cenote (cave) diving and in "finding" his own pyramid site, alongside the beauty of the countryside through which he traipses. In the next breath he then wonderfully describes the apprehension of catching lifts with "narco strangers" and then walking through the ganglands of San Pedro Sula, a city which, until recently, was the murder capital of the world where 6,000 homicides were committed annually. He also writes of the sadness of the appalling immigration camps visited that are crammed full of people trying to escape their own countries, from places as far afield as Africa and the Indian sub-continent, for a better life in the United States.

Walking the Americas continues to mark both a sameness and evolution in Wood's writing. Sameness, in that the story hinges around a central walking theme and continues to be told in an uncomplicated and extremely easy to read writing style. Evolution, in that more of Wood's personality is incorporated into his storytelling. As mentioned, there is more humour and, at least initially, more of an effort to incorporate some history. But, in his own words, "This book doesn't intend to present a comprehensive geo-political narrative, nor does it intend to cover the vast history of this complex and often misunderstood region. It is, instead, a tale of adventure in the modern age". And whilst the book doesn't match the magnificence of Walking the Nile or indeed reach the heady heights of Walking the Himalayas, it still delivers on its promise as a damned fine adventure story.

3 and a half stars out of 5

Credit: Banner photo by Christopher William Adach