Ancient ruins, deadly snakes and lost: Exploring Nicaragua the hard way Part 2

…Contintued from part 1

We had talked about getting an early start but were in no hurry to wake up. The previous day had been hard hiking though the muddy jungle, capped with a  long, cold and wet return trip to San Juan. We were exhausted upon arrival that evening, but knew it was a precursor for things to come…a 60-mile trek along the most remote section of beach in Central America loomed before us.

When we did finally roll out of our hammocks, we packed our bags and filled our bellies at the only restaurant open. After breakfast we sat at the table in silence. We had made our way up the river, found Canta Gallo and made it back with the good favor of the spirits of the jungle. We were clean, well-fed and feeling strong. Tbone looked up at Guthry and I. “You guys ready?”

We grabbed our bags and found Fish. He lead us to a small dory and crossed us over to the opposite bank, two people at a time. Once there, we followed a trail to the beach. “Dat point out yonder der is Costa Rica,” Fish said, motioning to the southern horizon. “An der, dat’s…maybe Corn River. Or Punta Gorda.” He pointed north.

Fish pointing to Costa Rica

“Watch out when unu is walkin up Punta Gorda,” Fish added. “Der dem have robbers.”

Guthry shot me a very concerned look. “Yeah,” I said. “We will see what to do when we get up there. Thanks for everything, Fish!”

“Ya man! Cool. Be safe!”

And with that we strapped on our packs, turned north and started walking.


It wasn’t the prettiest beach I had ever seen. In fact, it was pretty ugly. The sand was soft and grey and the choppy breakers crashing into shore were muddy brown. Even the foam was brown. These were things that might bother a sunbather, but we were the only people on the beach and we didn’t give it much thought. We walked several hours and quickly realized that perhaps we didn’t bring enough water…Tbone had the liter bottle and we each had a half-liter. Eventually we saw two people in the distance and a tiny shack set back from the shore. Tbone suggested we stop in to see if we could refill our bottles.

The shack was pretty much all that consisted of the village of Cangejera. The two people on the beach were a couple – who must have been pushing 70 years old each – who had gone out foraging for firewood and whatever goodies had washed up the night before. The bent old man shouldered a log that might have weighed as much as him and the woman carried a sack of coconuts. They agreed to give us some water and I offered to carry the sack of coconuts. We reached the shack and the man addressed us in Spanish. “If you are walking past Punta Gorda, be careful. People have gotten robbed up there.”

We thanked him for the water, brandished our machetes and told him we would be careful. He also told us that the next village was two hours away. That would put us there about three o’clock we figured, and decided that we should make that our stop for the night.

As we headed out, Guthry found a sprawling saltwater plum vine and picked a handful of ripe fruit for the journey. I wasn’t impressed with their distinctive flavor, but he and Tbone gobbled them down happily.

The next hour of walking turned into two, then three. Tbone and I knew that locals walk fast, but we really felt slow being weighed down by our packs. As the day grew longer, so did the space between us: Tbone brought up the rear hindered by his hiking shoes on the soft sand while I kept a steady pace about 30 meters ahead, barefoot on the firmer, wetter sand. Guthry also walked barefoot with his expensive dress sneakers in a plastic bag held in his hand. He was another 30 meters ahead of me.

Another hour passed as the sun began to set. I was worried that perhaps Haulover was no bigger than Cangejera and we had blinked, missing it two hours ago. Then we saw a funny-shaped flagpole and about half a dozen houses set back behind it. Guthry stopped and we regrouped, walking into the village together to see about a place to stay.

“Claro, claro,” one of the guys in the group we approached said. “You can put your hammocks up in my house, no problem!”

His name was Jose Griffin and he was originally from Juigalpa, a medium-sized city halfway to Managua. He led us to his house, the newest one  in the village, as he told us his life story. I won’t get into all the boring details, but one of the more interesting tidbits is that he is one of 32 children from his father. Busy guy.

Jose gave us some good information about the road ahead and informed us that the funny-shaped flagpole was a tower that you had to climb to get phone signal from San Juan. All phone calls in and out were made standing on the 10-foot high platform made from driftwood and used planks found on the beach.

Phone booth and Jose’s house

“We haven’t ever had any visitors here,” Jose told us as his wife was preparing  us supper. “Other people from surrounding villages on occasion, but never foreigners.” He was proud to host us and quickly everyone in the village found out he had company. And it seemed that all of them passed by to see the white people who were in town. Some came to chat, others to stare. All except the black rastas that lived next door. They seemed to make it a point to not make eye contact.

That evening one of Jose’s sons, also named Jose, showed up with a string of fish caught up by Spanish Creek. Son cleaned fish well into the 9 o’clock hour while mom fried it up and passed it around, saving some for breakfast the next morning.

The following day we got up early and packed our things. Jose seemed almost sad to see us go and sent us with a few rations from his little store. Then little Jose announced that he and his brother would be accompanying us to Spanish Creek to show us where to cross. “It’s only a two-hour walk!” he said. I was skeptical.

I stretched my legs outside for a bit waiting for the others to finish up breakfast. From the next house over I saw the rastas sitting on the porch, smoking. They called me over.

“So unu goin walkin up deh beach den,” said the older man, streaming smoke from his lungs and passing the joint to his friend.

“You all mus be careful up Punta Gorda side,” said the other man, taking a drag and offering it to me.

“Why, because of robbers?” I replied, shaking my hand in a no thanks that sent the joint back to older rasta.

“Nah man, not deh robbers you mus worry bout. It’s deh babylon,” old rasta said as he rested his smoking hand on his knee and studied me with his steely grey eyes. I awaited his explanation as he furrowed his brow. “You sure are meager.”

Guthry stepped out of the house and gave me the let’s go sign. The rastas both started laughing. I politely chuckled, said goodbye and went back to grab my stuff. Water bottles filled, gear packed and little Jose and his brother waiting on us. I suspected big Jose wanted to go too…he was shouting last-minute travel info as we walked toward the beach.

Corn River

More soft sand. The kids walked fast and the dogs followed. This part of the beach seemed excessively dirty…plastic trash padded every step. For miles.

Bottles, caps and other trash stretched forever

Two hours went by quickly chatting with little Jose and his brother. We came to a waterway with a couple of stick houses set up on the bank. Spanish Creek. The brothers led us up a trail following the creek side, through a dense coconut palm grove, until we reached a small fiberglass dinghy. The rain started again with a vengeance.

There was room for four; little brother stayed behind. Guthry and Jose rowed us to a house on the opposite bank where we got out, soaking wet. A man appeared in the doorway and beckoned us to enter. Jose returned to get little brother as we set our bags down on the dirt floor and took notice of our surroundings. The house was a typical bush plank and leaf roof shack. One room with a hammock tied in the middle and a sink shelf jutting outward through a back wall. The owner was a medium-height, wiry mestizo guy who loved to talk. He introduced himself as Lycra.

“Yo tengo un amigo que se llama Spandex,” I joked. He didn’t get it.

The rain continued and Lycra put on a pot of lemongrass tea to boil. The brothers returned. Lycra showed off his lance for hunting wild boar, his fishing spear and regaled us with stories of finding cocaine and other surprises on the beach. “Once I was with a lady who had just found a bucket in the sand,” he said. “Inside was $500,000. Can you believe that? If I had been walking ahead of her it would have all been mine.”

Lycra and his wild pig lance

We told him our plans to walk to Monkey Point. We had considered it an intrepid journey, one that required a certain character of determination and resolve. He told us that he walked from Sandy Bay, a village in the middle of the coast, all the way down to the Colombian border. Every day walking for five weeks straight. As tough as we gringos thought we were, locals make this kind of trip all the time. I had trouble understanding his fast Spanish, but his walk had something to do with a drug deal. Apparently he was able to afford a boat back.

Once we finished our tea and the rain subsided, we thanked the boys and bade farewell to Lycra.

North of Spanish Creek the beach trash started clearing up. It was almost pretty, actually. We were just a few hours south of Corn River and had plenty of time, so we slowed down the pace a bit. We waded through a shallow creek and passed several stick and leaf houses scattered along the beach. I wondered who would live out here and how they survived being so far from phone, transport, hospitals, etc. Guthry explained that they were like vacation houses…the residents didn’t live there permanently but would cycle family members so there was always someone there tending the farm and guarding the house.

Typical beach house

We arrived in Corn River, a creole settlement on the mouth of the Rio Maiz, with about two hours of daylight to spare. Just as we turned to walk into the village the military spotted us and called us over. We met them at the gate of their base, a wooden house with a well-manicured yard inside a barbwire fence. They asked us the usual questions: where we are coming from, where we are going, show them our passports. I am guessing we were the most exciting thing that happened to them all week and they weren’t sure what questions to ask, so they stretched out the check into an interrogation. They asked to see my camera. I was a tourist and surely had a camera, right? I reluctantly handed him my camera, on and set to playback. A teenage-looking guard took it inside. I fretted outside. The menu is in English and they could easily delete photos (or the entire card) if they mashed on the wrong buttons. They then asked to see our permission from the Ministry of Tourism that says we were allowed to travel. Clueless. I explained that we had gotten tourist visas when we entered the county but had nothing from the Ministry of Tourism. The interrogating officer conferred with his buddy that a visa was good enough. Great. Can I get my camera back? Not yet. They asked if we were carrying money. We said yes, but not much. “Be careful,” they said. “Robbers.” I thought back to the rasta’s warning of the Babylon. Maybe they WERE the ones we should have been worried about.

A few minutes later a second teenage soldier returned with my camera. I checked the photos, all there. They let us go as a mutual sense of suspicion hung in the air and Guthry set out looking for a guy he knew in town.

The guy wasn’t around, but his wife was. She pointed to an abandoned house where we could hang our hammocks and offered to cook if we bought the food. Agreed. The store was nearly empty, but we bought a few pounds of rice and some spaghetti before hanging up our hammocks and kicking up our sore feet.

Tbone bathing in Corn River, facing the sea

We spent most of the evening on the porch watching kids play in the water and talking to a few passers by. Most people that lived here had farms up the river. We felt there was tension between them, the English-speaking creoles and the Spanish-speaking  military stationed there. There wasn’t much going on and we made it an early night in anticipation for a long walk tomorrow.

Pointa Rock

We woke up early, had breakfast and got the son of our cook to row us across the river. He charged us C$60…a king’s sum for 15 minutes of work for a 14-year old. We set our sights on Punta Gorda for the night, but our departure was slowed by heavy rain.  Another rainy day, another walk on the beach. Fortunately the beach grew cleaner and seemed more wild, making for better scenery. In some places the sea lapped against the line of palm trees that marked the shore. Walking through ankle-deep water became par for the course that day.

Guthry on the way to Point Rock

We could see a tall hill in the distance and a couple of islands further out. The topography was changing, thankfully. This was the third day of long, straight beach we had traversed and it was getting a little old. The weather took a turn for the worse just as we reached the three-hour mark and made our way into the village of Pointa Rock.

It is a small village, Haulover sized but arranged around the entrance to a creek. The inhabitants are mostly creole black with some Rama mixed in, and the locals seemed standoffish and quiet.

We took shelter from the elements under a leaf-roof boat shed near the creek. The wind was really buffeting the shore, pushing the already high tide well into the low-lying village. We decided to look for lunch there and wait out the storm. Guthry had a cousin who lived there, and we waited for him to return from his farm up the creek. In the meantime, his cousin’s wife suggested we dry off by her neighbor’s house, and we did just that.

The neighbor was a twenty-something creole guy who went by Chavo. He and a heavy-set woman were making coconut oil.

There were no introductions nor small talk between us and the people in the house, in fact, they pretty much ignored us. The woman accepted when I offered to help grate coconuts as she took to the kitchen to prepare lunch. It was really quite awkward but similar to what I had noticed in other creole English-speaking communities along the coast…a certain ambivalence to visitors who turn up unexpectedly. Despite their standoffishness, they were polite and agreed to let us hang up our hammocks for the night. We had decided that too much time had passed and we wanted to get a full day to make it to Punta Gorda, a further 4 – 6 hour walk depending on who was asked.

Chavo chipping coconuts

Neighbor's house seen from my hammock

There was plenty of time to relax; it had been a short day of walking and we weren’t going anywhere in this weather. Guthry’s cousin finally arrived and they caught up on old times. He asked him about the threat of robbers on this leg of the trip and the chance to catch a boat going north to skip the walk. “No boats,” the cousin said. “But here no have so much robbers. People walk dis every dei an no hardly hav no trouble.” Which means, yes, there has been trouble, but it has been overblown by people in the south. And there is only one way to get to Punta Gorda. Walk.

We relaxed on the porch and watched the kids play. Here it seemed that children under the age of six could only wear boots. There were small groups of them, all naked, playing on the beach in the rain. When the passed by the house, they wore only mud boots.

Kid suited up in Pointa Rock

Guthry had walked the entire last three days barefoot on the beach with just dirty feet to show for it. My mud boots were on again, off again, but my feet were in good shape. Tbone’s shoes were off and on during the last few days and blisters were showing. The one on his heel looked particularly big. I suggested that, to be more comfortable, he drain it and cover it with band-aids. He agreed, and I could tell the long walk was starting to take its toll.

I asked Guthry about the creek. It looked dark and foreboding, just the kind of place I wanted to explore. “It’s private,” he told me. “Der lives one Rama guy, an ageable man (over 60), who no talk english nar spanish. Only Rama.” There are only a handful of Rama speakers left…literally less than twenty.

“Well, who does he talk to, then?” I asked.

“Nobody,” Guthry replied.

Punta Gorda

Pointa Rock was where the scenery changes dramatically. South of the creek is long, flat, wind-swept coastline. On the northern bank is a hill that juts out into the sea and rises a couple of hundred feet. It is the first of many more like it.

Looking south from the hill over Pointa Rock

The next morning Chavo rowed us across and we began our ascent following a muddy trail. Tbone and I were so happy to be hitting real terrain; Guthry lead barefoot with his dress shoes in hand.

For the first time since our trip began, we had to pull out the machetes to make progress. The trail took us back from the coast, so far that we could barely hear the sea. And judging by the condition of the trail, it was not every day that people were traversing it. More like every month. We would have done better with a guide; in the first half hour of walking we zigzagged through the jungle, choosing forks that kept us closer to the coastline instead of taking us deeper into the bush. It wasn’t long before we realized the trail we had been following was no more.

We took a turn inland and bushwacked our way to the edge of a swamp, then circumvented it until we found another trail. We followed that for fifteen minutes, then it too disappeared. We hacked our way through dense jungle again toward the sea, spending a solid hour making slow progress until we found the trail again. We were very happy to be back on it…being lost in the jungle is no picnic and can be very frustrating. The happiness subsided quickly when we realized that we recognized the trail…we had walked in a complete circle and were only about 20 minutes away from Pointa Rock!

Guthry and Tbone drinking from water vines

Frustrating indeed. I chopped a water vine and we  took five to drink and decide what to do. The trail that led inland disappeared. The trail that followed the shore disappeared. The only option was to forge ahead, making our own trail. We decided to stay within easy earshot of the sea and repeatedly check to see when we could hit the beach again. We tossed our empty water vines and Guthry, barefoot and with my machete in hand, led the way.

We hacked our way through wild pineapple groves and dense patches of vines. We scrambled up steep hills and down muddy embankments. My boots had a hard time gripping the blanket of jungle underbrush and I came crashing down on my butt more than once – Tbone twice as much. The excitement of hiking through the jungle was quickly beginning to wear off. And then we found the trail.

Lost and tangled in vines

We were so happy…we tripled our pace. There were machete blazes in the trees and chopped branches on the sides. Unmistakable signs of travelers past. Before we knew it the heavy sound of waves crashing became clear and the trail ended again…right on the beach. Our pace sped up even more once we hit the sand and made our way to the next point…and back to the jungle.

This one was shorter and with a more clearly-marked trail. We got off the trail twice but quickly pressed forward and found it again. It lead us to a beautiful beach with rocky islands within easy swimming distance from shore. Just after that, the sandy beach turned into a rocky beach with a short, orange-mud cliff that slammed into the sea without apologies. There was no trail around; it was against the cliff and through the water, and the tide was rising.

Off trail crossing a stream

Tbone stopped to put on his boots. He only got two steps before realizing they had a split in the toe; they were useless for keeping water out. More blisters were forming, old blisters were hurting and muscles were sore. Add to that the fact it was nearly lunch time and we had no food and the hiking was getting difficult. Tbone put his shoes back on and left his boots standing on the beach behind him. It seemed to be a decision made out of frustration more than common sense. We pressed on.

Waiting for Tbone on the rocky beach

Graffiti scratched into the mud walls. "Comb your hair; No smoking; Coca cola"

The rocky beach was not really a beach, not at high tide anyway. The sea met the mud cliff and the waves that had been striking our knees were now crashing thigh-high and getting higher. We decided to look for a way up and found a low-hanging tree that we could climb to reach the top of the cliff. There we bushwacked our way along the side, hiking about 8 meters above the rocks below. Soon the terrain gained in altitude and we found a trail to follow. Then the hill sloped down quickly, and we made our way to a narrow gorge cut into the rock.

We had stumbled onto one of the most beautiful places I had ever visited in Nicaragua. We were in a short, steep gorge with vertical walls on the sea side that channeled oncoming waves inward. A small waterfall flowed from the inland side mixing fresh water with salt. Guarding the top ridge of the gorge stood a giant cottonwood tree, and spanning the width was a fallen tree of equal size. The gorge was well sheltered under the tree canopy but still light and airy. It was a perfect place to rest and refill our bottles.

Where the sea rolls in to meet the fresh water

We pressed on. We were getting hungry but just drank water. Despite our breaks, Tbone and I found ourselves slipping more often throughout the day, less from bad footing and more from just being tired. The trail took us through some overgrown wild plantain groves before coming out to a bluff over the next beach. I stopped to snap a photo and felt a sharp sting on the back of my neck. I swatted what I thought must have been an ant and went back to framing my photo.

“Wasps!” Tbone yelled from behind me. “There is a nest of wasps above your head!”

He didn’t have to tell me twice. I threw my camera in my pocket and scrambled down the bluff toward the beach. It was a 6-foot jump into knee-deep water and I leaped out swatting wasps away from my face. I jogged a few feet before coming to a stop and looked back to see Tbone coming to the same precipice. I could see a dozen wasps flying around his head. He swatted furiously but hesitated jumping because of the machete in his hand. If he threw it down, the waves might carry it out. I called for him to throw it to me.

“No,” Tbone said, making sense and swatting wasps.

“Tbone, there are a million bees around your head!” I yelled frantically. “Throw me the goddam machete! Don’t worry, I’ll catch it!”

He thought about it for a quick second, swatted another stinging wasp from his cheek, looked at me and tossed his machete. I caught it with a juggler’s finesse and he jumped down to safety. He didn’t know how many times he had been stung, but I felt lucky to get only one. The scenery was pretty but this day was really taking a toll on us.

This beach was black sand and wider than the others we had crossed. Ahead of us was another point, a rocky outcropping and Snook Creek.

Snook Creek is infamous among the Rama indians. Coyote had told us a story about a group of travelers who had decided to stop there for the night. They found a copper cauldron buried in the sand and decided to use that to cook in. What they didn’t realize, however, is that the cauldron was haunted. The water never boiled and they had to eat their fish -snook, so the story goes- raw. That night a pride of jaguars came out from the bush and ate all but one person who had escaped into the sea and waited until morning. There was nothing left but bones and the copper cauldron that wouldn’t boil water.

Guthry was on guard as we approached.

Walking up to Snook Creek

“Hey Guthry,” I yelled to him before we waded across the creek. “I think over there is a good place to put up our hammocks for the night. Whaddya say? If only we could find something to cook in…”

“I no stayin here,” Guthry replied, knowing I was joking but serious in his response. “Not fa nuthin!”

Snook Creek was actually quite pretty. There are several small island-rocks just offshore from the beach, and the creek itself was only about waist deep and refreshing. It would have been a great place to set up a little house and farm, if not for the fact it was cursed, of course.

“See dat point?” Guthry asked, pointing to an outcropping of land on the horizon behind the sea. “Dat’s Punta Gorda. We gettin close.”

That was reassuring. We had been walking since 8am and it was almost 2pm. “And this point?” I asked Guthry, motioning to the one we were coming up on. “Snook Creek Point,” he replied. We waded across the creek and entered the jungle once again.

I had thought the worst was behind us. Punta Gorda was in view, we had braved getting lost in the jungle and battered by the sea. What I didn’t know was that these things were just a test of what was to come.

 We entered the bush, confident we were prepared. Hungry and tired, but confident. The jungle immediately challenged that when we found that there was no trail to begin with. If there was, we missed it by a mile. For a mile. We found ourselves lost, bushwacking yet again trying to get around the point. This was a big one as well; we marched well into the interior, down hills and back up. We took turns leading, but not to give the others a break swinging the machete. We would come to a point that seemed impassable -even with a blade- and indecision would set in. After standing around for a bit, another person, more frustrated than the leader, would step up and take the group in a different direction. We zigzagged through the maze of thick vines and wild pineapple groves for hours, slipping, sliding, falling, climbing and hacking our way along at a snails pace.

Let me tell you about wild pineapple. It sounds lovely, like something you would find in an organic food market. In reality, the fruit is nothing more than a double-sized top of a normal pineapple top with a squatty, prickly baseball-sized fruit below. It is inedible. And its leaves shoot up from the ground about six feet or more and are covered in impossibly sharp hooks that grab and rip everything brushing past. Wild pineapple grows in dense groves choking out everything but the trees. When we would come to a grove we wouldn’t think much of it at first; if is isn’t that, it’s vines. Or wild plantain. Or thickets of devil sprikles. But when we were well inside, slicing up our hands and shirts trying to hack through the leaves, we knew we had made a mistake. Guthry followed barefoot but was not immune. At least twice he said that he couldn’t continue through the wild pineapple. We would have to back up and reroute our path.

The sound of the sea came and went, and I always got a bit anxious when it went. When I couldn’t hear the sea I couldn’t place our relative location in my mind, and I knew how disorienting the jungle can be. Usually the sound of the sea would disappear as we hiked down into a ravine or gully. We knew about which direction to head, and it was a bit soothing, if only for a moment, to hear the ocean change direction as we approached the top of the next hill. That meant we were making progress.

The trees in the jungle come in all sizes, but mostly super-sized. We routinely passed trees whose roots stood higher than ourselves, trees that seemed to pierce the sky when looked at from below. There were animals in the jungle as well, but we spent most of our time paying attention to the way forward. No doubt we missed the lion’s share of animals who were looking at us, but monkeys, capuchin, spider and howler, all made their presence known. Poison frogs darted from in front of us and we even saw leopard tracks. There were birds of all kinds, some I had never seen before, and Guthry spotted a snake hiding itself in the underbrush.

We were lost. We could faintly hear the sea, but we couldn’t get there. At one point we made our way onto a high place thick with devil sprikles – an evil thorn bush covered in thin, strong spines – and decided to cut our way through it. I could see a palm tree poking its top about 100 meters beyond…that meant beach. But despite twenty minutes hacking and cutting, we had only advanced about four feet. Add to that we were on top of one of the points we needed to walk around. Tbone said he didn’t want to backtrack. Guthry wanted to go forward, despite the thorns deep in his feet. But it was no use. There was absolutely no way we could have cut through that thicket. Eventually everyone was in agreement.

We swallowed the hope we were almost out and followed our way back into the jungle, back down a ravine and back to the edge of the swamp we had departed from. We followed the steep edge of the swamp for what seemed like ages. I don’t know if you have ever seen a jungle swamp, but it is terribly putrid. Always located at the lowest-lying areas, all dead organic matter eventually ends up there, rotting in the standing water. There are skin-slicing saw palmettos that thrive in its shallow waters, and it is the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. And there, walking along its banks for hours, we were the special of the day.

The day was getting late. We had about two hours left of sunlight when we made the decision we had been silently dreading. We had to try crossing the swamp.

Guthry was barefoot, but the swamp floor was soft. I had mud boots on and I hoped that would be enough. Two steps into the water and I sank up past my waist. The coffee-brown water turned black as we passed, stirring up sediments underneath. The water was warm, almost hot, and the smell was gag inducing. Guthry had my machete, Tbone followed and I was right behind. I glanced up at Tbone and saw that his elbow and bag were covered in ants! I called for him to stop and brushed off all that I saw, just to see another dozen emerge from nowhere. I brushed those off, and more appeared. “They must have crawled on my pack when I set it down!” Tbone exclaimed. I knocked off the rest. Luckily they didn’t bite either of us.

Crossing swamp

The sound of the sea was getting clearer. It was now becoming apparent that we had been following the back edge of the swamp that ran parallel to the shore. Guthry hacked though more overhanging thicket and we had to duck low – chest to water – to pass through. We were already wet up to our packs in jungle sewage, what’s a little more? After the thicket we saw trees and stumbled over submerged roots. A good sign, actually, that the water was getting more shallow. We followed the swamp around a bend and…after hours of jungle, briars and swamp, we saw sand. The beach!

Never on this trip was I happier to see the beach. Tbone and I dropped our wet bags and ran into the sea, fully clothed, to wash off. Guthry found coconuts and opened them up. I can’t tell you how relieved we were to be out of that jungle! Looking south we could see a long stretch of sand and the point we couldn’t hack out to in the distance. I estimate we had covered two kilometers in about four hours. Punta Gorda was getting closer but we didn’t have much time. We strapped on the packs and hit the beach walking at a furious rate.

We turned up at the mouth of the river just after the sun had set. The Rio Punta Gorda is a big river; there wasn’t going to be any wading across this one. There was only one house we could see so we approached. The man there told us that it was for the military and sent someone to get the captain in charge of this lonely outpost.

El Capitán soon arrived, checked our passports, listened to our story, and stood there quietly. We asked him if he knew of anywhere we could hang our hammocks and maybe get a little food; we hadn’t eaten since breakfast. He agreed to let us stay on the porch of the military barracks -a simple wooden house perched at the top of the hill- and offered some beans and rice that we would have to cook ourselves. We gratefully accepted.

Conditions were nice on the hill. We set our hammocks up, they recorded our passport info and Guthry started cooking. The soldiers numbered about eight, all under 25 years old, and were mostly quiet around us. One warmed up a little and used the opportunity to practice his English. “Where-are-you-from?” “Do you have brathers or seesters?” “Oh that is very ni-eece.” He reminded me of myself when I was an unrepentant Spanish student forcing my broken vocabulary on politely-smiling Guatematecos who obviously didn’t want to talk. The babylon in Punta Gorda were far friendlier and much less imposing than in Corn River. No bag checks. No camera checks. No inquisition. They did confiscate my machete for the night, but the soldier who sat on the porch listening to his Costa Rican radio until dawn returned it the next day. After what we crossed today, I had a feeling I was gonna need that.

Morning came quickly and we said our goodbyes and set off first thing. No breakfast, but the three of us were certain, certain that this day was going to go better than the last. Guthry was familiar with the route north of Punta Gorda. No jungles, he said. All beach walking, he said. We were happy to hear that.

Crossing Punta Gorda river: the driest we were all day!

We caught a ride across the river in a panga. The boy had charged us C$60 in Corn River, the panga driver who had to go twice as far on his own dime refused payment. It was hard to believe this was the same Punta Gorda people had been so wary of down in the south. Note to self: take travel warnings with a grain of salt.

The opposite bank was straight beach until the horizon, where we could see it curve to a point. Guthry echoed his earlier words, “All beach.” Note to self: take travel opinions in general with a grain of salt. I wasn’t expecting today to be nearly as dangerous as it turned out to be.

Continued in part 3…


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