Trip ReportHONDRAS AGAIN
Honduras, overland trip with Shawn, Mino, Monchito, and Me ( april 2016)
Shawn and I reached La Ceiba and headed towards Jorge’s office. We planned on spending the night there and buying groceries for the trip. Our timeframe was tight and we needed to get to Moskitia the next day. We struck out trying to rent a 4x4 pickup, and walked back to Jorge’s to scheme. After hours of discussions and much help with Mino calling acquaintances we hired a local with a large dodge ram and convinced him to take us to Tolito.
Our starting point is the end of a road at the confluence of the Rios Paulaya and Tolito. Our driver had never been there and didn’t have a clue on how to get there. We did.
It is a full day drive and I was worried the driver would give up on us and turn around. He didn’t and near Sico we picked up a family of Moskito Indians wanting a ride to Copen. Shortly after an iguana ran across the dirt road. Immediately all the Indians and our driver bailed out of the car after it. Hopping over a fence it was caught quickly. The negotiations then ensued on who got to keep the lizard. Everyone wanted it (our driver, the Moskito Indians, and me). Hollering ensued and the price ended at 500 lempiras for the Indians to keep it. “Free ride for them but 500 limps for keeping the iguana” said our driver. Deal done.
Our driver had no clue of where we were going and I tried to raise that question a few times. I was noticing pine trees as we rumbled along, and I kept pressing the issue. Finally I get through to him and we backtrack. I was looking for support on my navigational suggestion and Shawn and Mino just looked at me. They had no clue where we were.
We pulled up to a ranch and asked if we could set up hammocks in their yard. Porfilio is the ranchers name, and I had met him a year before. His wife stated, “I never thought you would come back… your feet were dead”. They were happy to see us, and provided a great meal and a mule for the next day. “Aside from you we have not seen a gringo visit in 30 years and he came by helicopter”. The wife stated that there mules were all sick.
I brought pictures of their ranch as a gift, and included some pictures of my farm. The language barrier was still there but it opened up the owner even more. Porfilio gave me a tour of his cheese making operation, and we tried to talk about farming.
Porfilio offered us a mule and a cowboy to carry gear the initial 30 miles. Our cowboy was young, mid teens and was not much for conversation. Shawn and I got a bit ahead of Mino and Monchito at the last house up the rio Tulito. We sat in the shade wondering where they were. A man on a mule named Kevin rode down a hill curious about the gringos. He spoke some English and I asked where he was from. He said, “near Copan Ruinas”. I said, “do you know Lloyd?” He looked baffled and said “yes”. I said Lloyd is my uncle. A big smile emerged from his face and I asked if he lived along the Sesesmil river and he smiled even wider. We were now friends. I then asked if Herman was home (last house in the upper Tolito.) He wasn’t sure but was very confused how I knew his neighbors. He looked at me differently after that statement.
Copan Ruinas is an 18-20 hour drive from this village on the Rio Tolito, small world.
We walked up to Herman’s house and asked his wife if she had seen anyone pass. A confusing conversation ensued and we left more confused. Mino and Monchito were somewhere behind us but we wanted to make sure they hadn’t passed us. We crossed the Rio Tolito and waited with our mule driver. Our mule-man was out of his known realm and I was pointing the route out. A new slash and burn on the ridge is where we needed to go but he wasn’t convinced. We waited, and Shawn was keen to keep moving. I was too. After an hour Mino and Monchito showed up after taking a wrong turn downriver. We all knew we had 20 miles farther to go and wanted to keep moving.
The mule Porfilio lended us was a bit rank. He threw his pack 5 times throughout the day. I can’t blame the mule though, the paths/routes we were traveling would make a Wyoming cowboy say, “hell no with my livestock”.
After a long 30 mile day we reached the Rio Platano. Too tired to make a proper camp we all set up our hammocks and hacked out areas not really caring about anything. Our mule driver left before light had returned.
The next morning we traveled down the Rio Platano. After a couple miles we ascended an unnamed tributary from the south. Mino has labeled this area “confusion ridge” based on our prior trip trying to navigate it. The confusion came from two lost compasses, a broken GPS, and an incomplete map. It went much smoother this time. We made camp at 3:00pm along an unnamed tributary to Rio Chilmeca.
We navigated a few waterfalls and crawled over numerous downed trees following this small tributary. At one point I smelled something rotten. I crawled out of the creek and searched a small bench nearby. It was a white-lipped peccary killed by a jaguar. The kill was only a couple weeks old with the bones almost dissolved by the jungle creatures. The skull and teeth were about the only remains left. Punctures at the base of the skull is what showed who had killed it. I pulled the tushes out for a souvenir.
The amount of wildlife is remarkable in this area. Hundreds of Mealy Parrots, Macaws, and Monkeys. I have always had trouble sleeping in this valley. There is just so much wildlife day and night. This is the realm where modern human sign is no longer evident.
We continued south the following morning, following this unnamed tributary to the Rio Chilmeca. The smell of tapirs filled the air. They have a barnyard smell, and are more easily heard than seen.
Reaching the confluence of Rios Chilmeca and Chilmeca we set up camp. Camp looked the same as we had left it in August. Last year I had explored the smaller Chilmeca valley and wanted to check out the big Chilmeca this time.
Shawn and I hacked upstream from Chilmeca camp for a few hours. A few old machete cuts blended into the flourishing flora. I took lead and he decided to follow. Whenever I lost sign of a cut I would holler at Shawn and we would spread out, to find another limb cut by a machete. It was tricky to follow and after a few slow hours we gained more confidence. I love tracking stuff and had to figure out why some Indian was heading that way. It was going in the same direction for the day’s plan of exploration.
I spoke to Shawn, “this trail doesn’t make sense, no hunting or fishing around here, but it is going where we want. We should follow it”. Then I added, “maybe it goes to a huge pile of gold or cool archeological site being poached by the Pech”. We both laughed at the absurdity.
We came across an old Pech Indian camp (some sticks and a platform for sleeping). It still made no sense on why people would have come here. They weren’t hunting or fishing. Searching it for clues a large broken metate was near the fire pit. They were here for something.
The machete cuts got harder to follow as we entered a canyon. We abandoned the woods and traveled/swimming up river. At 1:00 pm we stopped at a large pool swam to cool off and ate some snake jerky for lunch. We needed to turn around and head for camp (it gets dark at 6:00 pm here).
I love snakes but my Indian friends sister was just killed by a fer-de-lance. Fer-de lance was on the menu. Smoked slow over the fire it tastes like salmon or anything smoked.
We were both tired but I proposed lets follow the river for a couple more bends before we turn around. After we hit the turn-around time I asked Shawn to give me a few minutes and I will catch up.
He headed towards camp, I was just wanting to go to the bathroom!
I tried to catch back up, and got confused. Shawn walks a lot faster when pointed towards home. I didn’t know that, and spent some time trying to figure if I had got ahead or was I still behind. I was still convinced he was ahead but scratching my head where he was. There was a big bend in the river. I followed the river around the bend with a 200 yard stretch of straight stream on the other end. No Shawn! I was thinking I will be murdered by Katie for taking a poop in the woods (and losing her husband).
I figured Shawn was fine and decided to walk into the jungle “real quick” to check out a random brain thought. I did, and 100 yards in I threw my pack down and sprinted down-stream. Sprinting is difficult around there, but I found Shawn ¼ mile downriver.
Shawn was tired, but I yelled loud enough or maybe he trusts me to turn back. Either way he headed back.
I rarely use a machete when exploring, and it took a minute to find my quick path. I like to be quiet and see critters. We reached my backpack I left and I asked if it “was worth the hike back?”
As I recall Shawn said “good grief” then speechless. In silence we examined the 1000’s of stone carvings.
The site appeared to be a burial from a still unnamed culture. As I was photographing a macaw headed metate Shawn hollered, “over here!” I walked 30 feet towards him and another site of hundreds of very small metates were piled up. I was simply shaking my head in amazement.
I felt like trying to put a number on them. I was using a technique for rapidly assessing birds or antelope. Counting a small area and extrapolating the rest. I kept hitting the number 600 for exposed metates. But if you kicked the leaves back hundreds more were lying in wait.
After catching our breath we headed back towards camp. I had noticed a Supa Palm downriver with ripe fruit. I spent 3 hours trying to get the fruit and managed to put 30 supa spines in my hand before knocking the fruit off. The spines are numerous and nasty on this palm. After retrieving 8 pounds of nuts I walked back to camp and rousted Shawn to help knock 20 more pounds out.
We were excited with a backpack full of supa, then walked into camp to see Monchito holding a female Crested Guan. I asked “did you shoot it in the head”? He said, “no, I shot it in the eye”. Nothing like a jungle made slingshot being handled by an Indian.
The Guan provided two meals including unlayed eggs we found while butchering.
I had a strong talk with Mino and Monchito about killing stuff. They had mentioned an Ornate Hawk Eagle they almost killed. I stated, “don’t kill the eagles”. Mino responded that “you eat the barba, eagles also kill, what is the difference”. I said, “fair enough, just don’t kill any eagles while we are here”.
My strong talk never really got through. Mino mentioned smuggling guns from the USA into Honduras, and has constantly asked me to bring him a shotgun. I responded that you brought one down years ago. He said, “I had to get rid of it”. I asked “why?” Mino said it starts with, “shooting chickens, then dogs… then people. I knew I wanted to shoot people. I had to get rid of it”. I thought, huh, no gun for you. To take a man’s life is nothing to these guys. It happens frequently in HN.
We spent several days exploring out of our upper Chilmeca camp. The Chilmeca valley lays good but is encircled by extremely rough jungle clad mountains. After satisfying my itch from this camp (and looking at the calendar) we needed to head north. We loaded up with supa nuts, wild cacao, bananas and fer-de-lance jerky.
Being the dry season the Rio Chilmeca was too low to float. We debated on building a raft but all agreed it would be a waste of time considering the water levels, and started to hike down river. Last year we had descended this river on a balsa raft we built. We didn’t have a clue of what we would run into. It showed by taking us 12 hours to navigate it.
This trip we made it down the Chilmeca to the Rio Platano in 8 hours and daylight to spare for making a proper camp! This leg of the trip almost ended in disaster 2 minutes from camp. Monchito started hollering from the back of the line. I ran back and he pointed out an irate 11 inch hog-nosed viper we must have stepped on. I have never seen a snake so pissed off it could throw his entire little body airborne when it struck. We laughed off the close call and took some pictures. A bite probably would not have been deadly but would require some serious attention, and we were days away from that.
We hacked downriver and waded other spots. A few areas we swam. I decided to cut across a bend in the river. I waited and signaled to Shawn and Mino and entered the jungle. Shawn and Mino both hollered, asking if the route looks good. I replied “not sure”. I went across the bend uneventfully and got back into the river, thinking they were following. I found a gravel bar and had a snack while walking back and forth curious about the tracks I saw. Fresh Tapir, a jaguar a few days old, peccary, brocket deer… After 20 minutes I started to wonder where the hell they were. I whistled, no reply. I waited 15 minutes more thinking they were just taking a break. Then I got anxious. I don’t like to sit around especially when I know what lays ahead. I dropped my pack in a conspicuous place and trotted back up river and then back across the bend I had cut. I saw tracks downstream from my last sighting of them and then wondered if I had ran past them while they headed my direction. I went back to my pack and scratched my head about it.
I finally realized Mino had probably led them overland without looking for me. I walked back and forth over the ¼ mile two more times to make sure. Then put the pack on and started hauling ass down river. The next ½ mile I followed the river walking the gravel bars for sign. I wasn’t worried about my situation but again I was thinking about Shawn et al. and hoping nothing had happened. I couldn’t figure out why they would simply keep walking without any knowledge on me. After 45 minutes traveling downstream and seeing no sign, I swim across a large pool in the river and see fresh people tracks on the sandbar. I recognized all the tread patterns and felt very relieved, then pissed off.
I doubled my speed again following the tracks. After an hour I catch up to them. I was boiling mad and had just traveled 3 miles using everything I had from tracking to worrying on where they had gone, while running through untraveled jungle with a 65 pound pack.
Mino asked, “where were you?”. I layed into Mino, Shawn looked scared at my outburst, while Monchito was laughing. After I was done with my speech, Mino responded, “I didn’t know where you went but I know you know were to go”.
This was Shawn’s first jungle trip and he had dived in knowing nothing of these jungles. My indian friends I guess had seen no worries in me vanishing for a few hours in partially unmapped territory. I could take it as a complement they were not worried about me but wanted to keep Shawn moving, knowing I would show up.
I asked, “what if I got hurt upstream? When would you turn around to look for me, would you go all the way to the Rio Zorrillo? I just spent tree hours looking for you”. Mino, replied, “you got hurt upstream?” I said NO… never mind”. Monchito was almost on the ground laughing, and Shawn was as bewildered as ever. My Honduran friends mentality on guiding is a bit different than can be expected from me.
I calmed down and we all agreed not to leave a party member behind in the future. I was yelling because I was mad but also I had to speak above the roar of the rapids we were standing in. This conversation occurred as we stood at the entrance to the “black hole”. The rio Chilmeca enters a slot canyon that took us 5 hours to negotiate 300 yards last year. It is intimidating but as we now know quite safe if you can swim with a full pack on.
Literally we were all cooled off floating through the darkness for several minutes. Watching the overhanging walls and jungle block out the sun, hollering at each other and slinging waterlogged packs around rapids. We put it all behind us. I guess I admitted to myself that if sh#t hits the fan Mino is heading home. Now I knew that.
We reach the Rio Zorrillo and make camp ¼ from the mouth with the Rio Platano. From here we plan on ascending the Zorrillo to the headwaters. I have done this route at break neck speed last August. Now we knew the route, and it would go, we took a more leisurely pace. We spent three days to reach the divide with the Rio Cuyamel. Don’t confuse leisurely as slow. Shawn remarked as we both collapsed after reaching the divide, “you did that in two days?” I replied, “yup, but it wasn’t fun.”
30 minutes after dinner everyone was asleep. Typical, and I headed out to find some fireflies. I hiked back up to the divide and frustrated myself by not being able to catch anything. Hiking back towards camp I spot a large firefly flying towards a tree. The tree was set up like a Tarzan movie with a couple giant vines. I crawled up the tree 30 feet somehow intercepted the bug while unscrewing the vial lid with my teeth. Probably the dumbest maneuver I have made in the jungle. Success! I had previously spent the night here and never saw one firefly.
With fireflies galore we were leaving the virgin jungle. I warned Shawn the next day would be tough but we should be able to find a mule to carry our packs. After 5 hours we did. We checked the other four houses and no one was home. One individual apologized and wanted to help. He has a small shack high in the Rio Cuyamel drainage. He greets us with coffee and asked if we wanted milk in it. Mino said yes. He shakes a loop and it takes awhile for him to rope a milk cow. He remarked, “I am not a good cowboy”. As we converse he pulls the cow close and snubs it to a post. Without breaking conversation he reaches under and squirts some fresh milk into the coffee. The calf was still suckling another teat. It was foamy and had to swipe off some cud or manure.
Our friend said two hours downhill is a nice red house. He is a preacher and might have a mule. We reach the house and only see three young boys peeking at us as we knock on the door. Finally the eldest kid opens up. We ask about mules. He was hesitant but said they have a “macho”. A macho is a male mule term that Hondurans use. Shawn and I sat back and let Mino keep negotiating. The other children got braver and started to walk outside. Shawn sat down with a few of them and showed them pictures of themselves. They were all smiling and became friends quick. Our 13 year old mule driver decided he would catch Macho and get our packs to Las Champas.
We were very thankful. Our little muleteer was suddenly very curious and spouting rapid questions as we headed downhill. He said he had never seen a gringo and haven’t ever heard of one coming through the Cuyamel. At the Rio Paulaya we unloaded the mule and gave him 800 limps. Shawn asked what he would do with the money. He stated, “it is my money, I will do what I want to”. I gave a thumbs up and we all thanked him while sharing some food.
We still had a bit of a walk to cross the Paulaya and reach Las Champas. The water levels were low. I was reminiscing on how bad my feet were this time last year. I felt tired but my hooves were still great!
We crossed uneventfully but consciously I knew how close to a road I was and wanted it over. I was tired. We reach the main dirt road and decide to hitchhike east. Easier said than done. We waited 3 hours and not one car passed.
We passed the time giving English lessons to a group of kids that were curious. A little girl ran home and brought a notebook out so she could remember. Mino spent a lot of time writing any phrase down and translating. I saw a boy trying to lasso something. I pulled some cord from my pack, tied a hondo, and gave a lesson on how to rope a horse. The old Hullihan! It went over good and I was surprised when I caught one on the first throw. After that they seemed more interested in the compass I had hanging from my pack.
A kid around 10 years old driving a backhoe was the only road traffic we saw. He passed us several times and was driving way to fast. A big smile and wave as he tried to regain control bumping past us.
Finally a large pickup coming the wrong direction stops. We inquire and he states, “spend the night at my house and I can take you tomorrow to Tocoa”. We hop in, wondering if it is a good decision. He is traveling west not east. We reach his house and it is very expensive compared to the surroundings. I start to wonder if he is a cartel guy. Our driver explained that he transports diesel every day from Tocoa to the gold mines outside of Champas. With hammocks in his yard and a hope our guy followed through we made it back to Ceiba.
Until next time…
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