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With the October 2004 review, we began rating the books on the basis of one to four trowels; 
one trowel= don’t bother, to four trowels= run right out to your local book store and buy the hard cover!

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Rio Pasion by James Luceno

Reviewed on: August 1, 2021


Ivy Book:  New York
1988 (pb)

In late 1988, early 1989, and then again in late 1992, early 1993, I co-directed a caravan of tourists from the upper Midwest through the mountains and jungles of southern Mexico, from Oaxaca to San Cristobal de las Casas to Yaxchilan to Palenque.  Our itineraries closely followed the trail of erstwhile tour guide Matt Terry in the 1988-published adventure-thriller Rio Pasion.

The action begins in politically unstable 1982 Guatemala, a country in which brutal guerilla fighter vie with equally brutal government forces and assorted drug-smuggling gangs for control.  Matt and several indigenous employees of Puma Tours—a company dedicated to “adventure-oriented trips into the wilderness-- are whiling away the empty hours at the company’s tour lodge on the Pasion River near the border with Mexico in western Peten Department (province); Guatemalan violence has nearly destroyed the tourist industry, not to mention indigenous settlers and archaeologists studying the territory originally settled by the Maya, and then abandoned around 1000 AD.  In fact, recent reports told of an archaeologist kidnaped by the rebel leader Raphael Aguilar, whose fighters were looting a Mayan site the archaeologist was excavating!

With work so scarce, Matt leaps at the opportunity to act as guide, along with Puma employees, brothers Paolo and Emil, for a young American couple, Billie Westphal and her husband Neil.  They had been traveling for six weeks, through Yucatan to Belize to the fabulous Mayan site of Tikal in Guatemala, where they had learned it was possible to go downriver into Mexico to visit Yaxchilan and Palenque.  Matt begins to harbor suspicions about the truthfulness of his clients as they navigate the Rio Pasion to its convergence with the north-flowing Usumacinta, once the inland trade route of the ancient Maya.  Billie hints at carrying an object, neither guns nor antiquities, that she must keep hidden from the authorities.  Smitten by Billie’s beauty, charm and unabashed sensuality, Matt agrees, against his better judgement, to act as her accomplice.

After visiting Yaxchilan, they continue to Palenque, when, while camping on the banks of the Usumacinta, they are attacked by night marauders and Billie and Neil are brutally murdered, while Matt and his two colleagues are beaten but left alive.

From this point on, Matt finds himself caught in a maelstrom of danger and intrigue.  The Palenque police doubt his story of a nocturnal attack and official inquiries ascertain that Billie and Neil were not who they claimed to be and were involved in much more than sightseeing tourists.  Far from being the innocents abroad they claimed to be, Billie and Neil had criminal records back in the States, but their latest gambit—the acquisition of a priceless Mayan artifact—proved to be their undoing.  Guerilla fighters, looters, collectors, rogue archaeologists, gun runners and arms smugglers, and even highly-respected museums—all scrambled for artifact and most seemed willing to kill for it.  And Matt Terry found himself in the middle of the deadly tug of war.

Rio Pasion is full of high-octane adventure and derring-do, but it sets itself apart from the run of the mill adventure yarn with its lovingly vivid description of the people, topography and ambiance of southern rural Mexico, and deftly weaving the archaeological history of Mexico into the narrative.  Readers of a certain age may find themselves smiling at references to Tom Sellick, John Belushi, Saturday Night Live’s halcyon days (or nights), and Tikal as a setting for a “Star Wars” scene!

One of the poignant incidents in this tale of high adventure finds Matt taking the wife of a slain innocent caught up in the firestorm to Na Bolom, a research center and sanctuary for the Lacandon Maya, established by archaeologist Franz Blom and his wife Trudi, a journalist and environmental pioneer.   I had the great honor to visit Trudi Blom, who was then in her late 80s or early 90s at Na Bolom twice during my Mexico adventures.  I shall never forget that experience.

Four trowels for this blast from the past.

Postscript:  This review is dedicated to the memory of my compadre, David Brye.  For nearly a decade we conducted tours of all the regions of Mexico, as well as Belize and Guatemala.  While we thankfully never had to contend with looters or guerilla fighters, we did offer people great adventure and travel experiences second to none.  His memory, and the memory of those tours will live with me forever.