Rough draft...Feel free to make fun of grammar and such!
Monchito, Humberto, Jaguar man, Graham and me. Names and locations have been altered to protect these areas and my friends.
Due to weather conditions and getting my good camera wet, pictures are not of much quality. Also pictures from Graham and jaguar man are used.
I had been itching to get back to Moskitia but was looking for the right time. The dry season was arriving, but I was unconvinced with work and marriage schedules. Graham called me saying, “hey, we need to get plane tickets”. As I thought about this an email from the USA Ambassador for Honduras arrived. He wanted to introduce me to a Jaguar researcher trying to reach some remote valleys I know well.
I still scratch my head how a hillbilly from Tennessee knows these mountains and rivers better than anyone in Honduras. I was very hesitant to guide a stranger into this area. We facetimed frequently and I decided to let him join us.
My first route plan was to cross the entire region from north to south (from Rio Paulaya to Rio Patuca). Having an unknown partner I switched it to a route I had done a couple times previous.
Contacting some folk in HN, I learned my good Moskito indian friend had fled to the USA and was in Texas. I then asked two other friends who have explored with me in the past to join. They are Pech Indians and know the jungle well but haven’t ever been to this area. I convinced Humberto by telling him about archeological sites I could show him.
Humberto is one of a few Pech left in Las Marias. He pans for gold and hunts to make a living along the banks of the Rio Platano. He always asks me about his history as if I would know. Years ago, showing me petroglyphs near his home I noticed a very elaborate one I hadn’t seen before. He stated, “that is my petroglyph”. I laughed my ass off as he stared at me confused. He said, “I want to learn how my ancestors made these”. That is when I told him about a valley full of sculptures I want to show him. He was ready in La Ceiba when we arrived.
Along with a childhood friend from TN we gathered in Ceiba and did the grocery shopping for a 12-14 day walkabout in untraveled territory. I had brought down six pounds of jerky. It consisted of anything I could find in the bottom of the freezer, elk, deer, grouse, hog, pheasant, rattlesnake, snapping turtle, beef etc…
PANTHERA’s head guy, Franklin in HN, offered to give us a ride to Tulito, which is a huge deal to find transportation to this area. He is Honduran, but had never been to this part of HN, and was excited to see new territory. I still found it strange having to give directions and point out a hut (damn good food and always stop!) we could get food as we rumbled along for 12 hours (I don’t even speak Spanish).
After telling Franklin we, “DON’T TAKE THAT ROAD”. It was an old cutoff I tried years back in a rental, we headed up the Rio Sico Valley on the new road. Franklin was asking questions and if I had called the rancher in Tulito we hoped to camp at. I said, “No, they don’t have a phone, but have always been nice.” I think he may have been concerned about the Narcos and hoping we didn’t stumble into that.
Near Copen there was a van that had slid off the “road”. Stopping to offer help, all were quickly drenched by the rain. We got wet and muddy but got it out after 30 minutes, and continued on.
That afternoon we reach the end of the road and Porfilio’s Ranch. A kid opened the gate and let us in without asking anything. Coming unannounced we all were a bit nervous, but as I stepped out the wife (Blanca) ran up and said, “Hugh, you are back!”.
She immediately cleaned up all her bedrooms and cooked us dinner, and demanded we sleep inside. Blanca then got on the radio to ask folks, neighbors about could hiring a mule for the first 30 miles. No Luck on mules.
I always try and hire mules to help get into the jungle quick. We talked amongst ourselves and decided we may loose a day in extra walking but the gear isn’t that much. In the morning, Blanca was on the radio and cooking breakfast. We didn’t ask for either but she had decided she would help us.
Something strange was going on. I know Blanca had mules but her husband was out of town, yet she ordered me to sleep in the master bedroom while the family set up hammocks. The houses and huts nearby all had mules, hell there isn’t a road here (of course there are mules). As I got settled in bed writing notes, I was comforted that a rifle was left in the corner. I checked it to see if it was loaded, it was.
Backstory- A couple years previous when I stumbled into Porfilio and Blanca’s ranch, they stated I was the first gringo in 20-30 years to come here, and he came from helicopter. On Youtube I found a video from the HN government that shows a forceful removal of settlers in the upper Tulito. Watching it I realized, “holy crap I know those guys”. It occurred one month after my first “gringo visit”. Just upstream of their finca, many Hondurans have been slash/burning the jungle of the rio Platano Biosphere Reserve. I know both of the families removed. They are back. I have no dog in this fight. Who am I to tell these folks not to feed their family. If I were in there shoes I would be the biggest poacher around. I was worried they had associated my last visit with the arrival of soldiers 3 weeks afterword.
In the morning, Blanca had news a local was willing to rent mules to us. He asked for more money than any of us expected. We talked it over, negotiated, then decided yes. It had been pouring rain for two days, I wouldn’t hire out my livestock to travel in those conditions and trails.
The Jaguar researcher started lagging behind within a mile. We all slowed down to keep together. The weather was difficult and the mule driver had promised us one day walk (30 miles) before he turned home. Neither the mule driver or my Indian friends knew the route. We had some difficulty getting the mule through new slash and burn. I remembered the route that had been virgin jungle one year prior.
Progress was slow, and my head was clicking on how to get this back on schedule. The 30 mile one day to the Rio Platano was out of the question. Jaguar man and trail conditions had slowed us to a crawl. At a small creek we had lunch and I said, “we can’t make the Rio Camalotal either, but I know a spot one hour further. If our mule guys drops the gear we just need to hump it tomorrow.” Luckily our muleteer decided to continue with no extra cost the next day! I think he was curious of the route unknown to him.
Graham and I set up hammocks as Jaguar man told us we were doing it wrong. Ours were fixed and we ended up watching Jaguar man for 3 hours to set his. Jaguar man scowled at me for using a Cecropia tree and then lectured on how they have ants that will get you. As we ate dinner and were discussing what is going on with jaguar man, still trying to set up his hammock. He ended up tying his to a Cecropia tree, and ants flooded down on him. He was a walking disaster in this situation… (Just kick the tree a few times to see if has an ant colony)!
We packed camp early and reached the Rio Camalotal by noon. It was high from the rains and our muleteer was unsure. We ended up with 8 crossings and just walking the ponies down the streambed. Some areas we swam. The final crossing to gain a ridge had Monchito and me both confused. I waded across to a hollow on the far side but ended up swimming to reach it. I was one hollow too far downstream. The mule man was scratching his head about having this gringo guide him and refused to follow. Monchito was diving in the river trying to recover his dropped machete, he did! We quickly figured out the mistake and showed the muleteer the better crossing.
We ended up at the Rio Platano for a late lunch. Our mule Man was excited to get our crap off and head home. I was excited to get lunch done, repack, and head past the last poacher trails. The river was high but this was our mode of travel now. Jumping in we swam and waded spots. We entered an unnamed tributary to access the upper valleys we came to see. Jaguar man was still lagging way behind and causing delays, but as we had camp nearly set he walked in asking if we had seen the giant snake. I quizzed him and decided it was an indigo snake. Humberto, Graham and I set off down river to try and get pictures. We found it and the estimates on length are from 9-12 feet. Trying to take pictures, my camera was fogged up by humidity. I told Graham I am going to grab it. Unknown to me he was taking video as I screwed with this snake for 30 seconds. I don’t mind being bit by a racer or rat snake but when they get that large it makes you think twice. I had him by the tail a few times holding 7 ft of its body out of the creek. She turned around a few times and I relented. Longest snake I have messed with, my guess is 10 ft.
The night before ascending this unnamed tributary, I sent a satellite message to family saying, “Camped at these coordinates… All is good.” I turned the device off as soon as the message sent. The next morning, Jaguar guy asked me, “what the hell did you text last night?” His satellite device was full of messages from the USA Embassy, stating my device had sent out a SOS last night. We both checked my device and looked at messages sent and received. Nothing! I told him to respond that we are all okay, my device is malfunctioning and I will not turn on or send any further messages.
Unknown to us, the false SOS had assembled the Coast Guard, US Air force, and Honduran troops. While we used the other device trying to calm the situation they asked Jaguar man his security code. (all assumed some Cartel guys had us kidnapped). His security safeword/password was Fer de lance. That caused another sh@$storm. The assumption was then not only did the narcos have us but also a fer de lance has bitten someone.
I was fed up with this bull-butter as I packed gear and thought we had solved the problem. Jaguar guy was still concerned over the response the BS SOS had caused. Luckily he kept checking his device and we learned a USA and Honduran Helicopter filled with special forces and a medical doctor had been on standby for 12 hours. My friend in Ceiba had been instrumental on providing maps and showing them a gravel bar near the Camalotal that could be used to land. When I got home I learned much more. Everyone I know in Honduras and Tennessee had heard rumors of my capture/snakebite/death? I was eating oatmeal and smiling about the beautiful morning with no rain! No idea of the true extent of chaos it caused.
That day we ascended the tributary to its headwaters. I got confused at one point and spent 30 minutes being completely turned around. I had already labeled this area “confusion ridge” from my first time navigating it. None were happy in my lapse in navigation, but all were happy I was in front. I remember Jaguar man hollering as I corrected our course, yelling that “we are going the wrong way”. I glared at him and said, “follow me if you want to”. Having lunch at my former campsite Jaguar guy seemed relieved and confident we weren’t lost.
After watching Graham cut palm fronds to place below his hammock because of the mud, I thought, “huh, good idea!”. I grabbed my machete and hacked a few down. As I reached down and picked up the palm fronds I also grabbed a Fer de lance. I dropped everything while calmly saying, “Barba Amarilla”, to let everyone know. Humberto ran over (his sister was killed by one) and whacked it with his machete. The things that make yours fingers wiggle!
Following another unnamed tributary we quickly reached our camp at the confluence of rivers Chilmeca and Chilmeca (no typo). Campsite looked great and we saw no sign of any people traveling through this valley.
That night I quizzed Humberto on archeological sites. He explained about a canoe loaded with artifacts had past his house last year. As I explained the area I intended to explore the next day, to show him ruins, he became almost immobile.
He then stated, “tomorrow you must show me”. After a few hours of bush whacking and Humberto getting anxious I stopped and said do you see it? He said, “no”. I then walked him forward into a cache of metates that number in the thousands. My friend started taking pictures as Humberto sat on a log. I was curious to see the expression of a Pech (thought to be the forbearers of this civilization). As I wandered the site a downpour started. In pouring rain he sat on a log and repeated, “this is very special for my people…how did you find this?” I responded, “just wandered up this creek”. He asked again wondering if other Indians had guided me here? I laughed saying, “No, I wish!”
I spent the rest of the day looking around the site. Two caches of very small metates were found. Many had elaborate head carvings (eagles, owl, vulture, monkey etc..).
Back at camp, we had a few fish for dinner. Jaguar guy, I believe was feeling a little overwhelmed with our remote location, demanding more safety in travel. I told him I am going solo to an unnamed tributary in the morning. Graham and Moncho wanted to fish, Jaguar guy… was not sure about anything. I think he had read the book that was just released about this area. To comfort him I got maps out and showed him my intended route.
I walked solo the next morning intending to follow the plan. After messing with vines and vegetation in an unnamed tributary I took the map out deciding to head north to a different creek. It was an amazing valley. I captured a daytime firefly while eating lunch and noticed a limestone outcrop above. It was riddled with caves and the landscape surrounding is full of sinkholes. I collected some terrestrial snails and crawled in a few caves. The number of bats were amazing, but I was even feeling uneasy with how remote and off course I was. Heading back towards camp I got turned around briefly and had to slosh down a nasty little creek. Say what you want but it is difficult to walk through these woods and stay on course.
Back at camp Graham and Moncho had caught a few small Wapote (fish)! We needed to start north the next morning but the rain and river levels were making it tough. I was worried jaguar man would get himself killed.
He didn’t, but swimming a slot canyon with packs as it was pouring rain took 5 hours. I was adamant we speed up (not a good spot to be idle), but the physical nature of jaguar man made it a slow process. We got through and all our eyes were wide at what we just swam through. Better than sitting on a rock all night hoping the river doesn’t rise?
From there the rain continued as we reached the confluence of the Rios Chilmeca and Platano. As I studied a way to cross I heard a noise in my pack. It was my Satellite Messenger sending messages again (SOS)! After digging through my pack to find the device I spent several minutes responding to calls from the embassy. Assuring them I am okay. I was pissed off (at the device) and told them I am disabling this device, so don’t expect any more contact. After eight screws removed I had it incapacitated, unhooked the internal battery and put it back together.
Jaguar guy caught up to me at this point, asking how to cross the Platano. As he debated with Monchito and Humberto, I just waded out then swam the last 400 yards to the confluence with the Zorrillo. All followed shortly.
I floated down and saw smoke, poachers were camped at the confluence. Makes me laugh at what they think of a white guy swimming this swollen river in unmapped territory, walking up saying “howdy” then disappearing into the jungle. I recognized one of the guys and he laid low. Hondurans in this region don’t trust anybody, and figure I am out to turn them in. At the same time they think any gringo has power to legally screw with them. Interesting balance for handling situations.
Unlike the other rivers the Zorrillo was running clear and ankle deep. It changed that night as rain pounded us for hours. The next day we worked our way upstream for a few crossings. Jaguar guy wasn’t able to handle them. It had risen several feet.
After watching him wash downstream I made a decision to bypass the canyon. The only way around the rapidly rising creek was a mountain to the west. I studied the map again and said, “we climb this thing then drop down above the canyon”.
We did, and after climbing 1000 vertical feet and taking one wrong turn we had lunch at the summit. Jaguar man was whipped and all were looking at me for guidance. I was calm but inside extremely nervous about how to drop off the correct ridge. We walked the crest of the ridge a ways. My Pech indian friends were constantly asking where to go. I kept saying, “farther, if we drop off too soon we are still in the canyon”.
We ended up dropping down one hell of a ridge. The kind of ridge you can’t walk 2 ft left or right without a big fall. I was overjoyed that we met the river above the canyon with everyone okay, freshwater, and the best crossing I have could imagined. For hours I had internally questioned if I made the wrong descent route. I think I would have had a mutiny if that had occurred!
We got about 5 minutes further before the next crossing. The river was still rising and debris was coming down. Humberto attempted it and ended up swimming and luckily getting back to us. I said, “lets walk back a few hundred yards and make camp”.
The rain had really started coming down as we made camp. Moncho and Humberto worked for hours trying to get a fire going. No luck. Dinner was cold and consisted of tortillas and refried beans with a little of our remaining Honduran dry cheese. At least I could fill my water bottle in 8 seconds from the river coming off my rain fly!
Moral was low for all. Graham sat with me under my rain fly as we discussed our options. It was clear to both of us that if it keeps raining and the river keeps rising (or doesn’t drop), we will just hunker down a few days. It was too risky considering jaguar man’s abilities. That night the rain stopped.
The river was still very high in the morning but had dropped just enough to attempt a crossing. For the next ~8 crossings, we didn’t let Jaguar man attempt with his pack on him. Humberto or Monchito would cross, drop theirs, recross, then hold onto Jaguar man as one of us also threw a rope to help. We were all cussing (amongst ourselves) Jaguar man about the liability he had become.
Further up the drainage the crossings became more manageable. Jaguar still needed a person holding on to him for every one. Our nickname for Jaguar man had become Sesemete (Honduras’s Bigfoot). He is dang near 7 feet tall, hell he should be able to just step across the river! I joked with Graham, “You know why Sesemetes are so hard to find in the jungle… they ain’t very good at it!”
After ~20 more crossings with plenty of daylight left I said lets make camp. Jaguar man was going to get hurt if we kept pushing him. He was covered in scrapes bug bites and ticks. I never found one tick on me the whole trip. It was an evening ritual helping to examine his back and pull ticks.
The next morning as we packed camp I started off a bit before the others. I always use this time to walk very slow and quiet and hope to see some wildlife. 10 minutes from camp I see a Red Brocket Deer feeding just 20 feet in front. I stopped and watched her and then noticed a newborn spotted fawn stumbling around trying to figure out its legs. Momma deer then noticed me and was ushering her fawn away. It was a very special moment. If Humberto or Monchito were there we would have been having baby brocket for dinner. Glad it was just I watching.
We briefly stopped and looked around an arch site I found previously. Humberto insisted on me being in a picture with him holding a metate with an iguana head? I felt honored that he truly considers me a friend.
A short time later, I noticed a bone and some fur. I investigated further and found the skeleton of a Tayra. I was surprised I was able to tell immediately the species. Hell, I’ve never seen a Tayra skull! Jaguar man confirmed it when he arrived. A Tayra is a large mustelid, pretty much the jungle’s version of a wolverine.
Ascending further we reached a slash and burn in the headwaters of the Rio Zorrillo. The poacher camp was unoccupied and Humberto immediately started going through all the sacks looking for sugar (ours had all gotten wet and Pech can’t get enough of that stuff!). He found none and I persuaded him not to cut the few sugarcane nearby. Still grumpy about the lack of sugar, Humberto stuffed his pack with limes and lemons from the camp.
At the divide between Rios Cuyamel y Zorrillo we made camp. Jaguar man was absolutely whipped. He would literally collapse anytime we took a break (maybe that is why he was always covered in ticks).
. Antonio came trotting past again! I have run into him three other times near this location. We chatted and he said we should be able to find a mule and he would let the owner know we are coming. Jaguar man was thrilled beyond belief, while Humberto was quizzing Antonio if he had any sugar. A sack of sugar was produced and Humberto’s smile returned!
If I have learned anything from all these trips, it is to never cross a Pech Indian with lost bananas or sugar! On a previous trip while portaging a rapid the only item we carried was a clump of bananas as we lined all our gear down class V rapids!
Jaguar man demanded again I be more careful. In my head I thought, “have you ever been alone in the woods and punched a charging Lion in the face? I have, and that memory sticks in your head. I am glad it didn’t happen to you because you don’t have the guts to stand there and throw that punch.” What came out my mouth was, “yes, I am being careful, trust me”.
I suggested walking down to a house, as we assembled our campsite to negotiate for mules. Humberto and Monchito without hesitation, yelled, NO! they said the risk is not worth it. I may downplay the danger of some of these areas (people). In the past Mino once told me, “there is a reason many of these people live here, they don’t want to be caught. They know they are breaking the law.”.
In the morning we descended the Rio Cuyamel and made a fair deal with a family for 2 mules. It was a man I had talked to in the past and his wife gave us a huge meal of beans, cheese and tortillas. Traveling down the Rio Cuyamel we made a slight detour so I could deliver a gift to another family. I had rented mules from them in the past and had pictures of their family and children to give. I presented the gift and was a bit disappointed she didn’t even look at them, but got busy making coffee for us. Not sure how I had kept the pictures dry! They remarked again that I am the only gringo they have seen in the Cuyamel.
After dropping down to the flood plains we tried to find a place to cross the Rio Paulaya. Due to the rains it was very high and muddy. We didn’t want to risk the swim but our Muleteer wanted to get to Las Champas. As we sat on the bank with our unloaded gear he decided to swim his mules across. The current was very strong and sent them rapidly downriver. One of the mules got its foot caught on something and went underwater. Graham and I sprinted down the bank thinking, “oh crap!” if this mule dies our friend may treat us differently. The mule surfaced and eventually made it across albeit hundreds of yards downriver.
In the meantime we were hollering back and forth to a guy that had a boat on the other side. He had to run to the store and find some piece of equipment to make the engine run. We sat there a couple hours coming up with our own theories of the world while watching from afar a half dozen Hondurans work on the outboard. They were yelling across that the pull cord had broke. I was thinking, “good grief, I could figure that out pretty quick and get it running”. Who knows what the real problem was but eventually they got it going and shuttled us across. They did get the last laugh by demanding a very high fee to pay for whatever part they had procured.
Our muleteer met us on the far side and said he would find us transportation to Tocoa in the morning. We hadn’t asked for that but were thankful. He led us to a “hotel” in Champas. The owner was excited to see us and went on and on about a gringo from Quebec that had stayed there a few years ago. Most of his business is from Hondurans that work in the gold mines near the Rio Tinto. I asked him if Anna’s restaurant was still around. He said yes and gave walking directions. He pleaded that he would cook us a meal for less money. In hindsight, I wish we had taken him up on the offer. Anna seemed mad about having customers, but cooked up some great chicken!
As we ate a pickup pulled up and stopped, I jumped up saying, “we need to talk with that guy. He is a driver”. You can tell the trucks that make a living moving folks by the racks they have. Before I had a chance to walk over, he walked over to us. He stated our muleteer had looked us up because we needed help with transportation. He asked, “I can pick you up at 2:00 AM does that work?”
Somehow it always works out, we got home!
Folks ask how I get in shape for these walks. I respond, “I slash and burn 2-5 acres by hand before leaving”. Many friends don’t like this response but it is truth. The other truth is, these jungles aren’t bad for anyone that has spent time in the woods. Plenty of new knowledge and tactics need to be learned, but common sense from any woodsman will get you through. Just watch out for a few snakes and spiky plants and keep your head straight. My Pech friends, call me the “white faced monkey”. Referring to the Capuchin, and my constant head swinging as I look around. I take it as a compliment.