Trip ReportHonduras / Moskitia 2019
Bear with me...trying to piece this together and post with decrepit tech on my end. No pics transferred yet... Edit got a few relative pics up!
Feb/March 2019 Honduras Moskitia
Team: Humberto, Victor, Graham, Shawn, Mauricio and me (Hugh)
I am always itching to get back to Moskitia. I always laugh when I meet a Honduran and he asks where I travel in his country. I say, “Moskitia...”. Wide eyes and questions follow. Many ask, “Why” and “no one goes there” or “its dangerous”.
So, in short, if I cant explain what the Hondurans and indigenous Indians think of my walkabouts in their territory, it is obviously hard to translate these ventures to us gringos et al...
Let me give it a shot!
Quick background on Honduran Moskitia
Considered to be the largest intact rainforest left in Central America. No roads of trails or Indians inhabit the remote rivers and valleys. Drug Cartels control much of the areas surrounding it and I don’t think anyone gets into some of the areas I like exploring. Most Hondurans are scared to even go to Moskitia let alone wander deep into the jungle. This was my six expedition into the Rio Platano region of Moskitia
Crew synopsis etc-
Graham and Shawn have been on previous walkabouts with me. For some reason they both had fun and had saved up time off to follow me around on another one. I would mention another trip I was pondering, “hell yes” and “count me in”, is a paraphrase of those conversations.
Mauricio- a biologist that is instrumental in reintroduction efforts for the Scarlet Macaw in Honduras. I felt it was important to show him where wild birds still fly in HN.
Logistics are tough and I wanted to make sure I didn’t screw them up. For me it is a special walk in the woods, for my buddies, it is an adventure they will tell their grandchildren about. For them to save up enough time-off over the coarse of a couple years and then trust me to make a trip worthy of it shows our deep trust and friendships.
I called Jorge Salaverri in Honduras to get whitewater rafts. I have known him for many years and have spent time with his guides on other trips. He said , “great but I cant go... can you change the dates?” I said, “sorry but no...what do you think?”
Jorge has run a whitewater and Rio Platano rafting business for years based out of La Ceiba. Being born in Nicaragua Moskitia he knows both sides of the vast areas that encompass both Honduran and Nicaraguan Moskitia
The plan was to float from the headwaters of the Rio Platano to the Caribbean. Check my math, but around 150-180 miles as the fish swims and tapir walks. To make it more difficult I had been pouring over maps and had a few additional spots I wanted to check out. My “checkout” means a bit more than most folks that use that term.
My plan was to use the “standard route” down the river but make spike camps and explore unnamed/unexplored tributaries. These are valleys that call to me while squinting at crappy maps. Many don’t have names, and the topo lines on the maps, when present, sometimes don’t make sense. I wish they had left more blank patches saying, “terra incognita”. Bad false contour lines are my enemy!!!
Jorge, was unavailable to join, but gave me the green light on using his equipment (rafts, paddles, helmets, ect... and guides*).
Victor and Humberto wanted to go! I made sure to send him coordinates and an, “all is okay” message from a satellite device each evening. A prior expedition almost got completely blown up by a malfunctioning device... uhhmmm... cough garrrmminnnn... sorry what was I saying? Anyways...
Early digression, I just wish the folks at the company had acknowledged the issue that arised from multiple false SOS that had assembled the USAF and Honduran Military, helicopters, doctors and special forces. This was all going on unbeknownst to me. A USA colonel called my Uncle Lloyd in HN. He explained that, “my nephew is not going to blow a whistle when his toe gets hurt, talk to Jorge, but I think Hugh is fine. Everyone I know in Honduras and the USA had heard of my capture/snakebite/or death. I was eating oatmeal and staring at trees. Good grief... I had joked earlier in the morning about a helicopter that we heard. Our joke was it was looking for us. “this is a bunch of bull butter” was my rant as Travis, kept responding to calls from the embassy. Anyways, just another Tuesday...
I have spent many days in the jungle with Humberto. He is a Pech Indian from Olancho but has spent most his life living on the lower reaches of the Rio Platano. Solid and trustworthy to a fault.
Victor was an unknown. I have met him several times and shook his hand in passing years ago... Jorge, eased my concerns when he said “Victor is one of the best I have ever had”. As I would soon see, Victor is awesome!
We somehow piled all our gear (including rafts) into/onto a small 4 door pickup. With 7 folks (driver included) and mounds of gear we rumbled 12 hours to Bonanza.
We were one mule short on getting all our stuff 12 miles to the river. Victor was in guide mode and still trying to make sense of the situation. Dang gringo, me, asking too many questions...
I asked Victor, “how many times have you been down the Platano?” I was curious as the mules left wondering, why he was holding two 2.5 gallon jugs of water in each hand and he said, “Two times... many years ago... listo/ ready”.
This was my sixth time in this region, and was perplexed at his hand load.
Graham, Shawn et al. immediately noticed and said that is bullshit while laughing. We moved water around and took turns hauling the stuff. We poured out most and showed him our various filters and apparatuses we had for filtering water and not having to haul it. This is a wet rainforest. It made me angry that previous clients would not see the burden he was trying to haul for us.
The roads/trails leaving Bonanza are constantly changing. As I thought of this and not remembering this route a lady in a shack started yelling at us. “you are going the wrong way”. We backtracked and were thankful. Victor was emphasizing how it had been many years since he had walked this path. Heck, I walked this several times and it had been a few years, I was confused too. Very happy the lady had hollered.
We hit virgin jungle at 10 am. I cut a walking stick while the muleteers laughed at me. I pounded it in the ground and wobbled around, while saying in my crappy Spanish... it makes me strong...jungle strong... I don’t like falling down... By the end of thetrip, I was laughing,, Victor had a walking stick,and said,“this is good!” I think it is a Honduran machismo thing on never showing weakness. I simply just don’t like falling down. The hillbilly from Tennessee witnessed them using a stick by the end!
The trail is difficult (and when I say that, it means difficult), but my youngish bones and the rest got there with daylight to spare. Everyone did great, but I was starting to wonder if my talk about “jaguar man” (a researcher that joined a previous trip) had made them push too hard. No one wanted to be him. I tried to consistently talk to members that were pushing to, “yell at me”... “tell me to slow down if I’m going to fast”. My natural gate is a bit faster than most. I reminded them, “please speak up... thanks!”. This trip is to see neat stuff but there is no reason to get hurt trying to keep up with anyone. We have plenty of time to get back home as long as no one screws up.
I have a bad habit of rushing through a known objective if I know the probable outcome. The unknown valleys and knowing I am close make me want to run. (we are dropping down one heck of a ridge) with 4-6 foot spacing between probable muddy placements for your feet. I bite my tongue and keep asking Shawn, “feeling alright...are we going too fast...?” He said, “doing good!”
Simple things will get you in major trouble while in the jungle. A palm spine in the hand, tripping, stumbling over a rock, and trip wire vines haha!... and don’t pick up a Barba Amarilla (Fer-de-lance) while cutting palm fronds. The worst Honduran jungle injury I have ever had... was tripping over a random concrete block on a walkway at a hotel while trying to catch a firefly for my mother. The second worst was also trying to catch a firefly for my mother. The third was slipping on a rock while preparing to catch fireflies for my mother. Hmmm, pattern, Haha!
Aside from that, it is safe. My day to day job is scuba diving in nasty rivers, when done, at home, I mess around with a chainsaw and tractor all day. Being in the woods/jungle is not foreign to me. For the rest it is a true adventure. I enjoy nothing better than to take willing and able friends into “wild” places. Show them wild spots they have only read about.
We reached the headwaters and set camp. Everyone seemed at ease. Folks wacked out areas to put up hammocks and rafts were inflated. I was busy messing with two shrimp traps I had brought. I thought a few shrimp would be fun to change the flavor of our rice.
Shawn hollered at us about some bananas he saw by the river. I grabbed my machete and followed Shawn. One wack and my machete was stuck in the tree. Graham was hollering to knock the tree a different direction. I emphasized again that my machete was stuck... The banana tree turned towards the river... then fell into a rapid. Shawn volunteered to retrieve them. Small bananas... Graham and I were very happy that Shawn volunteered for the retrieval.
In the morning we loaded our stuff in the boats. It was really bony and we spent much of the day dragging the raft. Shawn and Graham seemed perturbed as I kept assuring them that by the end of the day this would be a river.
Mauricio and I were in the other raft with Humberto. Our gear, raft, and the three of us were all smaller than all the things in the other raft. We floated a fraction of an inch higher with a slightly narrower beam.
I was feeling burdened on how to get my buddies to have fun while still trying to keep moving. I had explained the proposed itinerary to all. I am not sure if certain folks cared, or certain folks don’t know how to read a map, or maybe they just trust me. Either way, I soon found out that the “guides” didn’t have a clue or were very skeptical about our proposed itinerary. And the obvious: No one likes to pull rafts down a river. I had warned them all about this first day of floating. Haha!
By evening it was a river and we stopped at “cave creek” below the Rio Tigre. I had made clear my intent to keep moving and make a camp a few miles below. Only Shawn spoke up and voted to keep moving down with a hope we would find a flat spot near some unnamed rivers we wanted to explore. I thanked Shawn for giving his vote... I kept forcefully saying, “speak up, we can camp here but that means we will not have time to check out the unnamed rivers... that is the reason I came here... I thought that was clear...”. The rest grumbled but wouldn’t voice an audible opinion. I was then worried about finding a spot to camp. We pushed off again down river.
I can’t blame either my friends or my Indian friends about being squirrelly exploring new areas. Both Victor and Humberto do a route down the Rio Platano and have established spots they have used for decades. They take clients and spend a few days and hit the coast. They never venture away from the main river and explore the numerous valleys and tributaries.
Without a vote, but with all looking at my map, we corralled Humberto from the woods and headed downriver. (he had been in the jungle looking for dry wood or something)
Coming around a corner a large tree was across the river in a rapid. We hit it fast and somehow only lost one paddle. It about pulled all our heads off as the front of our helmets caught Mauricio and I. We were pinched between the tree and our boat then the bark gave way. Once freed, I jumped up and tried to signal the other boat to not pull our maneuver. Large X with my hands and Shawn seemed to understand.
After that mess was sorted, all was good... Mauricio then informed me that his paddle was gone. He was rattling between Spanish and English and it took me awhile to figure out, “lost paddle”. I said, “most paddles float lets catch up to it”. We paddled and scanned and paddled, clear narrow river... we were about 1/2 mile down stream. Dang thing is hung up or we passed it was my thought. I was pissed not at the lost paddle but that we now had no spares, why did we try and squeeze that tree, and who planned this trip (me)?
The simple question was raised, “do these shitty paddles float?” I dropped mine in the water and it was a submarine haha! The other raft semi-portaged the log jam and met us. I was talking to them about stopping at the next river on the right descending bank. We were fighting daylight for finding flat ground... I yelled again as they went down river, “right descending bank!”.
Mauricio returned without a paddle and we caught up with the other boat. They had stopped at the unnamed river. Shawn was excited and thought we could find a flat spot on a bench above. I crawled up it, turned around and said, “let’s keep going down river”. Daylight was burning and this was not a spot to loiter.
Daylight was fading and I was worried we would not find a flat spot to camp... but any spot would be better than the one we were standing at. The topography of this area would be considered a canyon.
Victor and Humberto did not seem happy having their client barking orders. I was nervous and reminded Graham that he had asked to go on an adventure. I pulled the maps out as all gathered around. “there is another unnamed creek just downstream... maybe we can find a flat spot”. I felt a mutiny was close on day one of the float!
The next Tributary was a bit hidden and to reach it you take the non-floating channel. We found it and scratched our heads about the steep cartography. I started to mention a spot that may have a bench upstream. Shawn interrupted and said, “I saw it too, lets check it out”. I happily and assuredly walked upriver and into the jungle. Whacked then walked, then hacked then walked, then hacked and announced, “great spot, its flat!” I hacked a bit then realized we were several hundred yards upstream of the rafts. I wacked a trail towards the river and was very pleased that they had walked the rafts upriver already!
We found a small bench a few hundred yards upstream from “swimming river #2”. Whew... a bit of heat off my chest. Camp was erected and Victor and Humberto seemed okay with it. Humberto gave me a thumb up when I cut a trail down to some rocks to get flowing water.
I announced my intentions to head up “swimming river #2” in the morning. I made it clear I had no idea what we would stumble into. Everyone but Humberto and Shawn were wanting to follow me in the morning. I can be impatient on waiting for folks to get their crap together. My buddies are aware of that and were ready.
I tried to walk slow, knowing others would get themselves hurt just trying to keep up. This is not a place to twist your knee or get really hurt. I surmised that a few miles up at 400 meters elevation we may hit a limestone band of rock and start exploring. We all tried to keep stuff dry for the first bit then conceded to just swim the slot canyons. It was much easier and safer when you don’t try and stay dry. A few waterfalls and rapids but not that bad.
I was speculating out loud and staring at the crappy contour wiggles on our map, “we are near the area that may have limestone!” I think Graham pointed to the limestone boulder I was standing on. Haha!
We stopped at a tributary I had been looking for. A 200-300 ft limestone wall peaked at us through the flora. I was excited, and hacking my way up to the base. Everyone followed as I stopped and said, “sorry if I am going slow, this feels snaky”. Mauricio and Graham reassured me to take my time.
I went all nerdy talking about terrestrial snails and collecting some. The others tried to act interested but I could tell they could care less. I then realized they would not take a step unless I had already stepped there. I had created a traffic jam.
Trying to keep spirits up I kept saying, “there must be a cave around here”. Thirty minutes later I hollered back to my skeptical buddies, “lots of bats in this hole...come look!” I was trying to show Mauricio a bat when he said, “seashell”. It was a Triton’s Trumpet some Indian had hauled into this cave years ago. I was excited and taking pictures. My enthusiasm did not affect the others. I climbed up a narrow tunnel still trying to get my friends excited about the chalky shell. I stopped and announced not believing what I was looking at, “that’s a skull...carnivore...cat...that’s a jaguar!” wow!!!!
I have no idea if the artifacts are related to the jaguar skull. The cave was small and all artifacts appeared to have been washed in from a nearby hollow. I spent the rest of the afternoon working my way up the hollow trying to find where the stuff came from. It was difficult walking and Graham and Victor wanted none of it.
I whistled from time to time so we could keep track of each other. They stayed below as I worked my way up to a saddle. A tapir and monkeys were upset at my arrival. Looking at my watch I turned around and followed the tapir back to the creek.
We ate a few snacks as I told Graham, “I will meet you at one pm at the confluence of this creek and the other river”. We both started laughing on how to give this area a name in case someone needs help. I proposed “tributary to Jaguar creek”. Graham said “ tributary to swimming river #2”.
Graham was wondering why I wanted to look around this valley more. I replied, “Graham, I don’t know if I will ever be back here...might as well check it out.” They headed back to the confluence of Swimming River #2 and tributary number #2 of Swimming river #2 haha!
I fought with vegetation and trees for 45 minutes before I was to rendezvous with them at the confluence of “Swimming River #2”. Reaching the spot they were not there. I sat down and chewed on some jerky, thinking, “maybe they found something cool up swimming river?”
I left my pack and wandered around a corner. I started taking pictures of a cool rock the river was hitting then walked forward. I was speechless at the rockhouse in front of me.
Maybe 100 feet long, 30-40 feet deep and 30 feet high. Stalactites hung like jaws 15- 20 feet long over the opening. I was sitting down in it when Graham, Mauricio and Victor walked by below me... I hollered something stupid... “did you guys see this!” ‘yes” was the response. Graham added his original thought, “I bet Hugh would be pissed off if he hadn’t seen this” All were chuckling over the find.
Graham called the inside of the cave, “moon dust”. A tapir had hung out at one end but the rest was untraveled. A fire pit covered with mineralized rock 1/4 inch thick was at one spot. It contained some aquatic snail shells in the charcoal. A drip from a stalactite had revealed it. Archeological guys could have a field day and learn some stuff. We left everything undisturbed. I was very tempted to start digging.
Back at camp Shawn and Humberto greeted us with some fish for dinner! We talked and were in agreement to spend another day checking out swimming river #2. Victor was tired but Humberto and Shawn wanted to see things. Helping Humberto climb up waterfalls he kept asking, “Victor came here yesterday?” yes...
I recall saying, “smell that?” Shawn looked at me funny while saying, “yes”. I rapidly said, “climb a tree if I say, I ain’t joking.” He looked at me funny as I made clear that white lipped peccary need to be respected. No peccary.
Graham showed up as we hit the confluence of Swimming River #2 and #2 confluence of Swimming River #2. Haha, I cant help myself to describe the crap we dealt with when describing areas to each other while there.
I had a hairbrained idea on connecting dots on the map (a supposed gap that could join to Swimming River #1). We got to the rockhouse, it had been raining hard. Enthusiasm was lacking from others. We spread out and looked in various caves while working upstream. I wish my friends could whistle like me...
Shawn was a go getter and curious. We checked out any bend in the river for mounds. He hollered, “machete cut”. I walked over and said, “lets follow this indian”.
Major sinkholes kept distracting me as we worked up towards a pass. We stopped to take pictures of a huge mahogany tree that even impressed Humberto. At the divide I pulled out the map and welcomed everyone looking over my shoulder as I plotted our location. We were all in agreement on our location and kept following the infrequent machete cuts. Caves and sinkholes everywhere. Shawn and Graham started feeling really confident and not following me. A baby barba amarilla changed that. Not trying to blow smoke but God has given me a special ability to notice snakes. Amazing how the mood changes in folks when you get a reality check.
Graham said, “where?... holy crap!... how did you see that?...that’s why I walk behind you...” I halfway joked that I like being in front. The first guys wakes them up, number two gets them coiled and third in line gets hit.
Being as remote as we were if that little guy tagged you, nighty night...
My unscientific theory are that the babies “stick out” or more visible in coloration than larger ones. Maybe they don’t want to be stomped on by a tapir. The big boys tend to blend in much better to my eyes.
We dropped down and popped out at swimming river #1. The Indians we followed had a one night lean-to shelter built. I couldn’t find a trail leading away from it. We ate lunch. Shawn, Graham and Humberto were ready to be back at camp. We double checked the map, I was saying, “just walk down this river a mile or so and you should hit the Rio Platano. From there just swim another mile and you should hit camp.” I wanted to head upriver and look around! Of course I was going to be alone.
I walked a few miles upriver and kept my promise to turn around at a fixed time. Amazing valley and lifetime of wandering but nothing of note that afternoon. Heading back towards camp I reached our lunch spot. Shawn, Graham and Humberto were long gone and I assumed the travel downstream must go. I hate waterfalls.
As I walked I was thinking, “that rock isn’t too hard to crawl over... just a little swim through that... hmmm... I bet Graham is going to tell me about this obstacle”. Swimming river #1 turned into a beautiful slot canyon with all the logjams one hopes to not see. And yes, Graham and Shawn have a funny story about one of the logjams.
Back at camp baleadas for dinner! It was raining hard, and we all laughed at each other slipping on flat ground. Humberto kept telling me I was very smart and know things. I adamantly said “no, you just need to learn how to read a map”.
Humberto is a Pech Indian and the best woodsmen I have met. Certain things like maps and can openers are foreign to him. Luckily, Shawn (an ER doc) could put Humberto back together when I gave a lesson with my leatherman can-opener.
In the morning we aired up the rafts to move a few miles downriver. As I packed some gear I hear Humberto mumble, “Barba”. I ran over and Humberto was not happy. It had struck at him. His sister had recently died from a Fer de lance.
I don’t like killing snakes, I love them. It was a strange balance to watch Humberto the Master of this jungle terrified at being almost hit... he has lost friends and family to this critter... I kept yelling, “ what do you want me to do?!!!... wack it?” Mass confusion and people were either shouting nonsense or telling me opposing options. “watch out” was a response that was not relevant from someone. I hollered at Mauricio to “stop!”. He was walking up the path unaware of the snake. We debated out loud rapidly as Humberto was 30 feet back terrified. Someone was reminding me to not use a paddle, “don’t break the paddle... we don’t have a spare...”. I wacked it with my walking stick. Dead snake.
Mauricio helped me shuck the skin off and collected a bunch of parasites it was harboring. It was a semi-long but skinny fer de lance. I asked while holding the carcass, “you guys want to eat this?” Silence and mumbles. Shawn or Graham piped in that it had bit itself with the wack I gave. I admitted I have no knowledge if the venom would be in the flesh. I tossed it in the jungle.
We floated down to an unnamed tributary and fished along the way. I used the time to take pictures and dry the snake skin, while walking the gravel bars...Tapir, Jaguar Mountain Lion tracks...
I was a fishing guide for many years. It ruined it for me. I have been a mountaineering guide as well. That also ruined it for me. I have worked in many mountain ranges but get the most pleasure looking at flowers and little seashells on remote shores. Walking remote spits of land and deciphering the trails left behind are fun. Sorry for the digression!
We make camp at an unnamed tributary. Humberto is unsure and still nervous about the “barba” incident. Bullet ants made a couple of us change hammock locations. Still haven’t come up with a name that sticks for this tributary.
In the morning I and all oversaw three days of food packing, to reach and return from Chilmeca. It was all laid out and I grabbed all the breakfast. Others I assumed would grab their share. Nobody notices missing meals until it happens...
Humberto held down the fort while we went walkabout. He demanded we leave him some garlic cloves to fend off the jungle beasts. Okay.
We reached Chilmeca and made camp near an unnamed tributary. I really should come up with names for these creeks, going crazy trying to explain unnamed trib to unnamed trib... I threw my hammock up and then walked a few miles up the big Chilmeca solo. I snapped twigs so the others would have a path to follow in the morning. Monkeys were following me and causing heartburn at branches they kept knocking down at me. I hate monkeys.
That evening was magical. Everyone had a smile while we enjoyed being in the mythical Chilmeca valleys. A couple scarlet macaws hung out in a nearby tree by the river. Some well thrown rocks got the monkeys to leave us alone. A small gecko started calling from my hammock.
I wrote this at 5 am the next morning.
Howler monkeys are generally the first sign of morning, yet the Rufous Motmot was the early critter today. Kinkajous were busy last night picking through the canopy while a tapir browsed quietly next to my hammock, chewing cud and palm fronds. I welcomed the night sounds. Mr. Gecko allowed me to take pictures of him.
One of the most terrifying sounds of the jungle happened that night. I awoke hearing a giant tree starting to go down. The dang thing took 10 seconds to fall and it seemed like the ground shook. It woke up everyone. Hard to describe the sheer terror it sent through me, zipped up in a cocoon with no way to move if it was going to hit me. I hollered, “its just a tapir”. No one responded or laughed. The tree was all the talk over breakfast the next morning.
I led the others upstream in the morning, pointed out the route then returned to explore another valley that had me itching. I had a bone box with a wedding ring, fake treasure map, Lemiox rimosa, 1928 coin from Ceylon and several random things (forgot to add the human teeth I had been hauling). I left it in a cavern hoping someone will find it. Large garage sized room with a big column in the middle. You have to belly crawl through a hole to reach it. I admitted to myself that I will not live long enough for someone else to crawl in this cave and contact me.
A Rufous motmot spooked me as I left the cave. A group of howler monkeys started singing at eye level. I hollered back and regretted my decision to correspond with them. Howler and spider monkeys had converged over me dropping large branches. I was looking around and fully aware that if I get hurt NO ONE will find me... ever.
I was wishing I had a partner with me. I crawled out of a limestone pit dodging monkey missiles.
I wandered several miles up the unnamed tributaries ignoring the caves and sinkholes. The tributary split a few times and I followed the major split (by water volume) until it reared up a mountain. I only went a half mile past up that unnamed mountian, but was fairly easy going for me? Then turned back. The size of the pits and sinkholes scared me.
Back at camp the rest of the crew was settled in. They had reached the arch site and had a good day exploring. Graham was wishing he came with me up the unnamed trib. I winked and said , “next time” he asked about the cave, I said “its bigger than I remembered.” We spent the evening messing with various monkeys that passed overhead.
In the morning, Victor and Mauricio were eager to head back to the Platano. I shook my head while saying, “ make sure you drop into the correct drainage”.
Graham, Shawn and I took our time leaving Chilmeca. I had spent the last few years dreaming of being here. Shawn reminded me that our last lunch was missing. I had some jerky and a payday bar in my pocket, and made Shawn eat it.
I cut across a few bends up an unnamed tributary then turned on my GPS. I was lost and mad at myself. We backtracked to find the creek we needed to follow. Monkeys were above us as I yelled about how I hate them. Shawn and Graham laughed until a large 100 lb branch came crashing down. Have I said I don’t like monkeys? It missed Shawn by a few feet. Monkey fun was gone... Graham and Shawn seemed to understand my rantings about monkeys.
Back at the Rio Platano camp I announced that we had gotten “briefly” lost. Afterwards Mauricio smiled and quietly said, “we did too, I wasn’t going to tell.”
Humberto was very excited to have us back at camp. He was holding a 12 ft harpoon he had created. A tapir, large fer de lance and two poachers were his observations from the last few days. I don’t dismiss his thoughts on creepy jungle things. I have witnessed things I don’t discuss with most folks.
The next morning we load the rafts. I caught one shrimp in my traps, haha! It was tasty. Humberto decides to tie his harpoon to a vine and drag it behind our raft. I was very skeptical about unnecessary problems with the raft.
He hollers, ”Grande Wapote”. I rolled my eyes as we back paddled. Damned if he didn’t bail off the raft retrieve the harpoon and then poke the biggest wapote I have ever seen! We were all giggling. Dinner!
This section of the Platano is very mellow but also very remote. A few people hike in from the villages along the Rio Paulaya to poach Cuyamel (sea run mullet/fish).
We passed the rio Camolotal and rio Zorrillo. A few poachers around. I found it interesting that one group had made a 30ft dugout. Humberto frowned when they told him it took 5 days to construct, while commenting he had seen that canoe hidden in the bushes last year. The owner smiled, while saying... “its hard to move or hide a canoe” Usually the Hondurans make balsa wood rafts, while Pech and Moskitos make dugouts. We traded bananas for some coffee and fish.
We made camp at “Hill Camp”. Just above “Subterraneo".
Camp is rapidly set, and I tell the others I am going to check out an archeological site I haven’t been to in a few years. Shawn, Graham, and Mauricio wanted to join me. I started hacking my way towards a tributary on a very steep jungly hillside. It was difficult going but the easiest way. Mauricio kept saying we need to go this way or that and it will be easy. I kind of looked at him funny that he knows some magic path without ever being to any of the Moskitia Jungle. He convinced Graham to follow him and they left. Shawn seemed perplexed too. He commented something about, “why would Graham follow him, and not you?”
“I don’t know”. We hacked our way to the creek and walked up to a small bench on the far side. The site looked good, and didn’t appear to have been disturbed. The metates at this site have designs carved along the edges of the tops. Not something you see often at other sites. Around 30-40 metates, none with heads.
I was thinking to myself, how the hell did I stumble across this... if I walk 5 feet left or right I would never have seen it... and who in their right mind would be in the vicinity of the river but decide to whack through this crap to an obscure minor flat spot? We poked around and whistled in case Mauricio and Graham were nearby. Haha, of course they weren’t, but I tried to show them.
Shawn was happy and kept remarking as we headed back on the crappy but only route about “how did you find this?” I told him I found it while looking for that creek on one of the maps... years ago.
As we squirted our way around and through vegetation trying to not fall off a cliff, I stopped. “I remember this spot... five years ago my headlamp went out on me right here... it wasn’t fun...”
I digress again, The first time I went to this tributary was several years ago. I tenderly crossed a shoal to take pictures while holding my good camera above the agua. Good view downstream and my brother was on the other side, way downstream yelling about something. I was wondering how the hell he got there? Hence the route I now use. I crossed back and he led me to this spit of sand the tributary was putting out. Female jaguar and a baby. Fresh tracks, pretty cool!
Back at camp, two of the Cuyamel poachers had arrived. Young guys that remembered seeing Graham and I, a couple years ago on the Rio Zorrillo. We chit chatted and offered them some coffee. They were waiting for dark to jump in the river and spearfish. I gave one of my minnow/shrimp traps to them. They were nice, scared and confused is my summation. Difficult to talk to and reluctant to ask questions, although their eyes showed how curious they were about our whole operation. I made a point to be very confident in my talking and asked them about their buddy Antonio in Las Champas. They left and never returned for the coffee. I did sleep a little uneasy that night, hoping I didn’t wake up to a bullet from the old rifle I saw in their camp.
In the morning we hit the water again. The river gets a bit serious and we portage three sections. I never enjoy this section, and bite my tongue on techniques Victor and Humberto use to get through. Victor is one hell of a rafter and guide... Humberto just wings it while being rudder man. That always scares me.
Being a former whitewater/fishing guide I cringe as we paddle towards an obstacle (rapid, rock, sieve, logjam, giant mahogany tree across river, blind corner, etc...) I constantly glance back and forth from rapid to Humberto thinking a million things and wishing I was sitting in the middle... and holding oars! I love oars and being the guy you can blame if we get messed up. I did try and explain an oar rig to him but the explanation of an external metal frame to hold them to the raft was over his head.
But if you want a four by four foot table made of organic natural materials, it is made before I can set a hammock and change into dry clothes. Amazing! And yes (we didn’t need a giant table but super handy!), no beggars or choosers is the take away... those two guys are amazing at jungle craft!
We portaged subterraneo the next morning. Three portages in total and were back in the boats by 2 pm. It was much more difficult than I had remembered. If the poachers had been scheming on something we were out of their reach. We were now in true Moskitia. The canyon provides one heck of an obstacle that still separates, Hondurans from Moskito and Pech. Both use the river as a highway to fish and hunt, but none cross between Subterraneo (due to logistics etc..., not about respect).
I breathed deep and let everyone know that from here on down I default to Victor or Humberto on navigation. I jumped in the river and floated alongside the raft, tickled with being in such a remote place, but feeling at home and not having a schedule. The cool river water felt amazing while I floated staring at the trees.
Victor and Humberto said we would float to Cerro Pomokir and make camp. “Okay, this is your stomping grounds” I said.
“Only 2 hours”, Humberto.
Four hours later with Humberto promising “the next bend” it felt like a race. I was perturbed but let them do the guiding. Daylight was fading. Humberto mumbled to put life jackets on. “okay”. In twilight we ran the most continuous rapid (~200 yards long around a bend) with no warning. Straight forward and easy, but why did we not scout it to see if a tree was across? Hmmmm... I have floated this stretch years ago and we spent a lot of time scouting. My friend Mino had told me once, “I didn’t flip a boat in subterraneo but was in a hurry and didn’t scout this rapid... a tree was across and we flipped, people were hurt... that is why I always walk this first.” I wish Mino would head back to Honduras.
I digress again... another time on this same rapid we offered a Moskito Indian a ride on our raft. He had been trying to drag his canoe up the rapid. Vine or rope broke and the dugout smashed into a rock. We picked him up, he perched up front, and I was sure we were meeting a true Indian that knows jungle things. I was amazed at the wisdom he was about to impart. Half way naked with a ball cap and small plastic bag were his only possessions. Two day swim to the nearest trail, I was going to learn something from this guy. I asked, “what’s in that bag tied to your hat?” He responded, “Matches and pot”. Haha, my clinging myth that these guys are holding secrets to the jungle were shattered. We dropped him off near the Rio Cuyamel, and made camp. Sorry for the digression.
I was all dried out until the Pomokir rapid, got soaked as we pulled up to a gravel bar. We made camp near the confluence of Rio Pomokir and Rio Platano. A bit perturbed about arriving so late to make a camp I jumped out, machete in hand, and started finding a spot. As an unspoken rule for me I always start wacking thinking of where we will put the fire and cook area. Then look for hammock trees. I always leave one or two good looking hammock spots close to the cook area for friends and then start finding my own. I laugh to myself as people ask, “where can I put my hammock?” as I am hacking my non ideal spot out. I will point, “that tree and that one look good”. “oh, okay”.
In the morning we floated down to the confluence with the Rio Cuyamel. It had been a few years since my last visit. It has changed.
In route, a giant massif called Cerro Cuyamel taunted us. Mauricio was asking me how long it would take to get up that mountain. I laughed and gave an estimate of 2- 3 days. Pondering seriously and thinking out loud “it won’t be fun... next time... what creek would we walk to too start?...” We studied the behemoth and wondered aloud about the giant waterfalls we saw and about finding water once on top. It gave me chills thinking of trying to route find on the descent (jungles make visual clues very difficult). Humberto was talking about how no one had been up there. Then he let slip that a guy he was with shot a harpy eagle at the base of the mountain. “he shot it to see it... then we left it....”
An amazing 40 foot dugout with a 15 hp outboard was parked at the Rio Cuyamel. Humberto said, “that is Santiago’s canoe” a friend of his from Las Marias. Humberto and Victor seemed horrified that our spot was taken. I said, “no worries, there is flat land down there”. We hacked out a great spot... and easier to walk up and down to the rafts.
In the morning, we lounged around. I was content at what we had explored and didn’t feel motivated to head up the rio Cuyamel. No one seemed perturbed at my laziness. Humberto was missing, then arrived, and said the folks upriver would like to meet us. A bag of lollipops was our present (all the fishermen were friends of Humberto).
Around 7 guys including Humberto’s younger brother (Orleen). They had been spearfishing Cuyamel all night upstream. I laughed as they described the big rapids upriver. I had visited those rapids several years before and very much appreciated them reinforcing my memories. Big rapids! “too many bubbles to see the fish”, said Scarface. My memory was of somehow dropping my hat in the river above a Class IV rapid and jumping in to retrieve it. Dumb maneuver.
White lipped peccary was cooking on the fire, a couple “mayan terriers” were wandering about. Large pregnant female iguana was tied by up its own tendons, pleading at me to rescue it. Everyone was busy salting Cuyamel and sucking on lollipops. Each individual cuts the fins in a certain way to claim that fish as theirs, a brand.
I was fascinated by Santiago’s canoe. It was impressive. Around 40 feet long, carved out of a single trunk of San Juan tree. He said he built it 5 years ago. The wood of San Juan is easy to work and light, but canoes made of it don’t have the lifespan of mahogany or cedra ones.
We talked about how the numbers of Cuyamel have dropped dramatically over the last few years. These guys were on their weeklong expedition to get them farther upriver than ever for such a large canoe. They had killed enough to make a few meals but not enough to sell once home. It is sad to witness the changes. Years ago I had wandered up the Rio Cuyamel to the mythical “mermaid hole”. Cuyamel were bunched up by the thousands trying to jump up a rapid. I now feel bad because all the locals from this area had never been there. I told 2 guys about what I saw after a wild day whacking and swimming upriver....it was rumors from old tales that made me want to look. I let the cat out of the bag.
Those days are over. The last time I swam/walked up there you could see evidence of dynamite being used to get the fish. It is strange that the Rio Cuyamel feels crowded now.
Spent the rest of the day relaxing and snorkeling around grabbing shrimp and fish. Shawn was an expert on finding shrimp!
We packed camp and headed to town at first light. Town is an overstatement as Graham, Shawn et al., were underwhelmed. We reached Las Marias around noon and deflated the rafts on a gravel bar and loaded our gear into a giant motorized canoe (good ol’ trustworthy Tinglas aka tingles).
Jorge happened to pass by and we chit chatted for a bit (Jorge is the owner of our whitewater rafts from La Ceiba). He was really wishing he could have been on our trip. Strange feeling knowing people randomly when on the other side of the world.
We dropped Humberto off at his house and gave him all the extra food. His kids were in a small dugout canoe as we approached. They bailed out hollering, to greet their dad, a sharp bark at them and one turned around to grab/tie their canoe up. Funny memory, I can relate too. I have saved and screwed up many boats.
We made it to the coast at dusk and stayed in Raista. Shawn remarked about my Honduran thoughts about never being able to get anywhere before dark, “You can get close, then need to stop because it isn’t dark yet”. Haha. Saw some cool birds. Southern Lapwing that was lost, Limpkin, juvenile Agami Heron, maybe a Green and Rufous Kingfisher ect... (12 hour day) No one had gotten hurt or killed! I was happy.
We made it back to La Ceiba the next day. Success!
Final thought on dangers of these trips
Things that make you go hmmm...
Our hired driver stopped at a bank in Ceiba, I needed to grab some cash. I jumped out while trying to reach something inside the truck. A strange feeling developed as the door started to squeeze me. I realized the situation and got the hell out of it, very pissed off. Another car was backing into us and pinching me between the vehicles. I was mad and yelling, “I crawl through that jungle and get killed in Ceiba trying to get out of a car?”. I was not happy as the other driver started complaining about how he pinched ME with his car... No laughing from Shawn or Graham, they had been helpless but watching the near tragedy, thinking, “crap, there goes Hugh”. Closest I have been in awhile to getting offed. Still gives me the willies. Good grief, maybe I should just stay home. Makes you wonder about planning things. Viva La Ceiba!
I can’t thank my friends enough for taking the time to trust me and venture to these areas. I am not sure if their wives know the stuff we are getting into.
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