The Lost Genre of the Travel Adventure

Review: Douglas Preston, 'The Lost City of the Monkey God'

Jungle in the Mosquitia region of Honduras / AP

Ever since the telling of stories began—ever since there was language, in other words—we've had tales of travel and adventure. Stories of a quest, and accounts of a man just trying to get home.

Lots of these are fiction or unabashed myth. But innumerable examples take the ostensible form of nonfiction: This really happened! I really went there! And from the Ancient Greeks and Romans to the Medieval wanderers, from Strabo's Geography (c. 7 B.C.) to Egeria's Peregrinatio ad loca sancta (c. A.D. 381), Western civilization has produced more than its share of these really-happened accounts of adventurous travel, complete with observations of the curious social behaviors, the little-known flora and fauna, found in distant places.

The modern form of the genre, however, proves a curiously English creation. Oh, every era has its travel tales, and every culture has its adventure stories. But just as there's a good case to be made that the British invented the modern idea of tourism, buoyed by their maritime dominance and victory over Napoleon, so there's a reasonable argument that the English language gave us a new form of travel and adventure writing. All those footloose young men—and some young women—were trained to write by their elite educations and hungry for adventure. Devotees of the cult of experience, they were bound to create something, and what they produced was a new form of an old kind of book.

The popularity of this adventurous style of travel writing lasted well over a century. It starts somewhere around the time of Sir Richard Burton's 1855 A Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage, telling the story of his sneaking into Mecca, and continues at least until Sir Edmund Hillary’s 1955 High Adventure, recounting the conquest of Mount Everest. If you want a classic of this travel-adventure genre, the place to start might be Peter Fleming's 1933 Brazilian Adventure. Or Robert Byron's 1937 The Road to Oxiana. Or Patrick Leigh Fermor's 1977 A Time of Gifts.

But if a classic of the genre is not what you're looking for, you can pick up a copy of The Lost City of the Monkey God, the recent non-fiction offering from the thriller and horror novelist Douglas Preston. The book relates Preston's adventures in the long hunt for La Ciudad Blanca, "The White City," a rumored archaeological site lost somewhere in the Mosquitia region of eastern Honduras.

A former editor for the Museum of Natural History in New York, Preston has been fascinated by the quest for the White City since the late 1990s, and The Lost City of the Monkey God incorporates articles he published on the topic in the New Yorker and National Geographic. As Preston tells it, the tale began in 1996, when he met an amateur archaeologist and documentary filmmaker named Steve Elkins, one of several people determined to find the White City in the wilds of Honduras. Financed by the real-estate developer Bill Benenson, Elkin eventually lit upon the idea of using lidar (radar joined to lasers) to map likely portions of Mosquitia from the air in 2012.

Sure enough, he found something in a valley the search had labeled "T1." Under the jungle were signs of urban squares, roads, even a ziggurat—the ruins of a culture that looked to have flourished around A.D. 750. Unfortunately, lidar from the sky isn't the same thing as archaeology on the ground. So Elkins and team hired a group of British ex-commandos to lead them through the jungle and down into the T1 valley. In Preston's telling, snakes and monkeys and jaguars populated their march, rain and dew soaked them, and the thick plants tried to block their way. But at last they broke through to find the ruins of, if not exactly a city, then a connected complex of villages. Carvings and remnants suggested a culture that collapsed later than the pictures had indicated, perhaps as late as the 1500s.

The question of who the builders were remains unanswered. Clearly influenced by the Mayans, they seem just as clearly distinct: a lost Mesoamerican culture. Even their ruins tell us little. Built mostly with adobe and wood, the Mosquitia settlements simply didn't survive their abandonment, leaving nothing that resembles, say, the deserted Incan buildings of Machu Picchu.

From 2012 to 2015, the government of Honduras loudly promoted the discovery of the White City, hoping to increase tourism—much to the disgust of professional archaeologists and professional decriers of the least hint of old-fashioned Western imperialism. American amateurs, marching through a third-world jungle like some sad imitation of Indiana Jones? The denunciations from American and European academics came pouring down. Preston gives over far too much of The Lost City of the Monkey God to score-settling and defense of his friend Steve Elkins, to the point of fisking professorial Facebook postings. Brazilian Adventure, this is not.

Preston, like the Honduran tourist industry, elides the distinctions needed to understand the legend of the lost city. In the 1520s, Hernán Cortés mentioned that he had heard reports of wealthy settlements in Honduras. He said nothing of white buildings or a monkey god, however. Those elements wouldn't enter the story until the twentieth century. In 1927, Charles Lindbergh claimed to have seen a "white city" while flying in Honduras—the same year a European scholar mentioned that a rubber prospector had told him of stumbling on white ruins in the jungle. Then, in 1939 an adventurer named Theodore Morde announced that he found the City of the Monkey God; Honduran ruins carved with representations of a strange divinity. Morde died before he could lead an expedition to the site he alone knew.

Gradually, these stray rumors merged, creating the archaeological legend that motivated such efforts as the failed 2009 expedition chronicled in Christopher Stewart's book Jungleland (2013). Preston may be right that Elkin has finally and definitively found the reality behind the myth—if we're willing to accept that the settlement for which everyone was looking lacked all the mythopoeic reasons they were looking for it: Cortés's great wealth, Lindbergh's white walls, and Morde's monkey god.

Along the way, Preston and others in the expedition contracted leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasitical infection of the jungle. His suffering and recovery through harsh medication fill pages of The Lost City of the Monkey God, and not unreasonably, given the book's structure as an adventure/travel tale. Unfortunately, the disease also becomes the occasion for the loosest kind of speculation, with Preston using his own sickness as grounds for supposing that some unknown (possibly Spanish-caused) epidemic destroyed the civilization that had once settled the valleys of the Mosquito Coast.

For all that the novelist tries to structure his nonfiction as a fiction thriller, akin to his novels, the narrative just doesn't want to go along. The book drags, the asides range from the petty to the potted, and the payoff—the real discovery of the Lost White City!—is never quite delivered.

Maybe we can no longer do old-fashioned stories of adventurous travel, the nonfiction genre that reached its peak with the British adventurers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Maybe travel writing has descended into nothing more than delicate cultural observation and careful apology for being a tourist. Maybe we can't produce a book like The Road to Oxiana or A Time of Gifts anymore.

Certainly Douglas Preston can't, however much he wants to.