Ancient ruins, deadly snakes and lost: Exploring Nicaragua the hard way Part 3

…continued from Part 2

Bankukuk (Punta de Aguila)

We hit the beach and noticed it was not the same broad, sandy beach south of the river. It wasn’t even narrow and rocky. In fact, there was no beach. The waves came  directly up to mangrove trees. The sand rose up sharply to meet the mangroves, breaking the waves close to the shoreline and pounding their exposed roots. We could tell from the start it was going to be a wet walk, but the danger lied in the number of log rollers washing against the shore. I don’t know where all those logs came from, but they were everywhere. And some of them were big. Some of them were trees. Playing frogger with waterlogged trees rolling up with the big breakers and rolling back as they receded was not a game I wanted to be playing.

Waist deep on the way to Bankukuk. It’s a long way to go.

We started out walking slow, dodging half-buried stumps while keeping close to the mangroves. When a big wave would roll in, we would pounce on the nearest high ground, stepping through mangrove roots, and wait for the water to recede. Then we would make a break for it, sloshing through knee-deep water until the next big one rolled in.

I don’t know how Guthry blazed ahead of us barefoot. I can’t tell you how many partially buried logs I kicked with my boots. And Tbone’s feet were really suffering. The half-dollar-sized blister on his heel had turned black and sand in his shoes was rubbing the skin on his ankles raw. We had skipped lunch the day before and breakfast this morning and he was making slow progress. I pressed on at a medium pace, turning back every few minutes to make sure he wasn’t barreled by a tree trunk.

Guthry passing a tree, one of many rolling in with the waves

Logs that have been out to sea weigh just a fraction less than their volume in water. That means that they float just under the surface and undulate with the movement of the water. Just as a balloons float with the breeze, thousand-pound trunks barrel up with the waves. If there is no sand to beach them on, they roll back with the water. Sometimes they jumble up in a log pile, creating eddys which wash out sand, creating deep, water-filled hollows underneath.

I lumbered past one such log pile that had stacked itself up precariously. Guthry was far ahead, easily out of shouting distance with the roar of the waves. I yelled to Tbone to be careful around the area I had just passed, but I am sure he didn’t hear me. Stepping up onto a mangrove root to get out of the water, I turned back to see Tbone stumble over the log pile and drop to his knee. “Tbone!” I yelled. He tried to stand up but a log shifted with an oncoming wave and Tbone was on his ass and took the wave to the face.

This was not good. I ran back, wading through the receding water as another wave stood up for round two. Tbone’s leg had slipped into hole completely invisible under the silty water. The log had rolled on top of his shin, pinning him down. As I arrived he managed to shift his weight back and slide it out, just as the next wave hit. The log rolled on top of where his leg was just a second prior.

We managed to get to a high place and he inspected the damage. There was a slice on his shin bleeding into his sock and two big goose-eggs just under his knee. It was impressive; I regret not taking a picture of it.

He was able to walk and I slowed my pace. Any one of these logs could break a leg, some of them could steamroll you. And this went on all morning.

Bankukuk is the Rama word for Punta de Aguila or Eagle Point. It is a small indian village of about fifteen families, one of which is Guthry’s. He was happy to be getting closer. When we caught up with him, he rattled off the names of the places on the way. “Fuurst we pass Alligator Creek, den Cane Creek, den Blackwater,” he said. “THEN HOME! Then we look fa one ride to Bluefields.” We were all in agreement with that last statement. After all, Christmas was only three days away. We looked forward to spending it in warm beds.

The four-hour walk was approaching its fourth hour but we were still far from Bankukuk. Suddendly three people came into view. They were on the bank side, chopping their way through the mangroves trying to stay dry. I knew one of them. Guthry knew them all.

It was David* who is Guthry’s cousin, another Rama guy and their friend, a Miskito indian from up north. They had been looking for a fishing net that broke free during the night and couldn’t believe they ran into us. “David,” I said. “I can’t believe we ran into you!”

*name changed to protect the guilty

David is in his late 20s. He is one of the best panga drivers on the coast. Good panga drivers earn a pretty good wage working for companies, however some, like David, work on the side in the more lucrative – ahem – transport business. He is a genuinely cool guy, likable, always decked out in sharp clothes, ruggedly handsome and never shuts up. He speaks in a mashed dialect of creole English and fast Spanish…if you didn’t grow up on the coast he is almost impossible to understand.

The three of us chatted with the three of them, well, really just David, for a few minutes and continued north toward the village. David offered to carry Tbone’s pack and he gratefully accepted. We walked half on the macheted trail they had come down on and half on the beach when the waves were out. The three of us walked with a renewed spring in our step…it was good to be surprised by someone we knew way out in the middle of nowhere.

Alligator Creek appeared out of nowhere. It resembled so many of the creeks we had crossed before with one exception: it was deep. I stepped into the creek with my bag over my head and quickly found myself kicking with my mud boots on, struggling to stay afloat. Guthry had already crossed and returned to the halfway point to take my bag. It got soaked, but I made it to the other side. Tbone followed and the three fellahs swam without any difficulty.

Guthry meeting Tbone in the middle of Alligator Creek

More beach, more logs, more talking. David would say things like, “Ay Casey so what Haulovah like? Bien hinche o que? I stap der wan time para quedarme fa de night an de Babylon alla era como, ‘Ay, why you no trabelin wit no luces en su panga?’ An I was like, ‘Ay, yo las tengo right here…” I did a lot of staring at my footsteps and would say things like, “yeah man” when he paused. Then he would continue.

And we continued. Well through the 12 o’clock hour. We came up on Cane Creek just as two other Rama indians had arrived in their dory. They paddled us across. David shared some fried pig fat and boiled yucca. “Unu cyan finish eso; estamos acercando deh house. We soon reach.” The three of us ate it heartily.

Tbone with David behind crossing Cane Creek

From Cane Creek there was a big point that we had to hike around. This trail was easy, in fact, it would have been a real challenge to lose it. The trail was a muddy track about six feet wide and, just like the day before, scaled up hills and down into gullies. It was very pretty with some open areas that had once been cultivated…it was apparent we were getting close. And sure enough, the rain started.

There wasn’t any avoiding it. But we weren’t concerned about rain after swimming across creeks, being battered by waves and trekking through swamp. If anything, a cleansing shower was welcome.

We came across a fence, then a gate. I followed Guthry through it and up a bald hill. On the top was a board and leaf house with a stick fence surrounding it. That was where David lived. We entered and walked up to the front porch where we were met by Guthry’s brother, uncles and mother who was also David’s uncle, brother and aunt. The rain battered the leaf roof but we were finally out of it and sitting down – soaking wet – with hot coffee and freshly fried pig fat to warm us up.

House we stayed in for Christmas in Bankukuk


We had hoped to get a ride up north to Bluefields, but the high sea didn’t allow it. There were no pangas in this community…if a boat left, it was a homemade canoe carved from a tree with a small motor bolted on the back. But these little boats would capsize in the choppy swells, so we waited. And waited. And waited. We spent four days on that porch.

Guthry and David’s family were very nice to us. They fed us three meals a day with snacks and we slept well in our hammocks. Bed time ended up being about 7pm since it was dark, usually raining and with nothing to do. We woke up right at dawn, about 5:15am.

One of the uncles/brothers showed us a giant map of the region and told us some interesting stories about what is in the jungle down in the Rio Indio. He claimed Coyote (see part 1) and him had grown up together. David showed us his new acquisition from a recent trip to Costa Rica. A Sigg 9mm. He handed it to me and I removed the clip and checked the chamber: empty. I sighted it in the air and pulled the trigger a few times. *click* It had an aftermarket gizmo that could fire it as an automatic he boasted. I passed it off to Tbone. It was the first time he had ever held a gun in his life.

Transportation specialist’s standard equpment

Christmas eve is the big day in Nicaragua. They fed us giant nacatamales with pork meat (not fat, thank goodness!) and pinol to wash it down. Kids had been popping small fireworks off all day. Things got quiet about an hour after nightfall and Tbone and I decided to call it a night. I had just drifted off to sleep when I hear a gently hum that aroused me. All the sudden about a hundred lights came on, a tv started shouting and the radio began blaring rock music. I jumped up in a half-daze and realized they had fired up the generator. It was about 8:30pm. The kids started stomping through the house yelling something about Christmas and throwing firecrackers at each other and I laid back down, wondering if Santa visited places like this. No chimney. Hell, a leaf roof wouldn’t hold him, anyway. Things calmed down shortly after the generator ran out of gas. I fell asleep only to be woken up a second time at midnight by a MASSIVE firecracker. BOOM! It sounded like it was right under my hammock, but I know I would have felt the shockwave. Lights came on again, kids yelling, and now the brother was drunk and crying out for music. Everybody wanted to dance. Merry Christmas!

Xmas nacatamal

The 25th was a clear day. Blue sky, a few whispy clouds and a high sea. No boat going today. Not outside the bay, anyway. Tbone and I followed Guthry and another fella to the beach where we grabbed a dory and paddled out to the next little bay.

Typical dories or dugout canoes

As we rounded the point, we could see the swells growing. There wasn’t any interference from islands or points or reef in this bay, and as soon as we were in position, we…waited.

“What are we doing, anyway?” I asked Guthry, who was sitting in the front of the dory.

“We is runnin sea. You know what is runnin sea?” he asked. Before I could answer, he said, “You gon soon fine out. Paddle!!”

I looked behind me to see what he was watching as he had spoken and saw a swell, a very, very steep and tall swell, towering above us and moving fast. The four of us paddled with all our might and as the wave caught up, we took off like a rocket. It was a real adrenaline shot…I felt like we were flying through the water. Spray shot up from the bow; Guthry’s weight kept it into the water as we surfed. That wave pushed us halfway across the bay before the boat started turning broadside and, in an instant, flipped over, throwing all of us out. I ducked to the wave side. I sure didn’t want that 400lb boat to come rolling on top of me. We were in water well over our heads and there probably wasn’t a lifejacket in the entire community. In retrospect, runnin sea on Christmas day was one of the most dangerous moments of the trip. It was also one of the most exciting.

We rode about four waves and surfed our way to Cane Creek, which we explored. Guthry’s dad was at his farm out there and we visited him, munching on sugar cane and talking about girls on the way back. It had a very Huck Finn air about it. Life in Bankukuk is much different than the rest of the country. When they are hungry, they go check the nets. When they are thirsty, they make lemonade from fruit picked from the tree in the back. Most of the time, it seems they play. They don’t have very much at all, but they live in an amazingly scenic village and they happily make due with that the jungle and sea provide.

A bay sweeping into Bankukuk

Monkey Point

On the 26th of December somebody had mentioned that there was a panga leaving from Monkey Point the next day. Staying in Bankukuk for three nights was great, but aside from runnin sea, it was pretty boring. We hung around until lunch and then said our thank-yous and goodbyes. It was nice to be able to strap on our bags and hit the beach again.

David tagged along with us. He was looking to reach Bluefields as well, and lead the way. We stopped before we even left the village. “What the hell is that!?” I exclaimed. There, lying in the grass in front of the schoolhouse, was what looked like a friggin’ torpedo.

David said that someone had found it on the beach and hauled it up and there it was. They did not know where it was from. It was empty, and upon closer inspection, I saw that it was handmade. The welds were rough and the material almost looked like it had been scrap before being cut and shaped. It had been painted red, freighter-hull red, and had two hauling brackets, one on the nose and one on a swinging arm that would have balanced it if being hauled up from the top. On the back was an adjustable fin. This was obviously not a torpedo…I surmised that this was meant to be pulled under the water. This was a canister meant to be towed behind or underneath a ship, probably for smuggling cocaine.

Smuggling torpedo ?

The way to Monkey Point was much like the last part to Bankukuk, wide, muddy paths through the jungle and back onto the beach. But the beaches offered space to walk, no dangerous rolling logs and was easy to navigate.

We hiked for nearly two hours, crossing a couple of creeks and passing a few small homesteads. I knew Monkey Point and the folks who lived there fairly well. I had visited a number of times for work-related reasons and was anxious to get into familiar territory. Eventually we came into a clearing and heard dogs going nuts at our arrival. We kept the at bay with a stick and approached the house of  a rasta who recognized me before I realized who he was. “Casey!” he said. “What unu doin down dis side?” Yes, I remember this guy…can’t think of his name but he is super friendly. He was there in a relatively new house with  his Rama wife – who looked no older than 20 – and her daughter (not his). They had just made a big bowl of sugarcane juice. He was smoking a joint and passed it off to David.

Rasta, kid and sugarcane juice

We talked small talk, took a rest and drank cane juice. Sugar cane juice is sweeter than coke, sweeter than iced tea. It made my teeth scream. “Wit dat,” rasta said, “you can make rum, chicha (homemade alcohol), boil it an have suga…” He listed off another half-dozen recipes. “Wan bowl like dis come from, maybe…eight stick a cane,” he added.

He said Monkey Point was another hour and that’s about how long it took us.

On the way to Monkey Point

On the way we ran into someone else we knew, the driver of the panga that was to carry us to Bluefields. “Casey!” Allen shouted. “Allen! What’s up man?!” I replied. Allen was with a group of local guys trying to get the panga unstuck from a shallow creek. It was full of palm leaves destined to top the communal house. We shook hands in the wide-swing, bro-clap of Allen’s casual, every-little-ting-is-gonna-be-alright way. Allen is the community leader of Monkey Point and I had been working with him on an off for three years. He was telling us about his Christmas troubles, the panga not starting, worker-coordination woes and such. He always has a lot on his plate and is the go-to guy for anything Monkey Point. “Dis dam motor no wan start!” he lamented. David agreed to look at it when we got sorted out lodging and food in the community. We pressed on.

It wasn’t much longer before we found where we were going to spend our last night of our trip: the Pito’s famed Monkey Point ecolodge.  Check out the old, “before” preview here. Clear from shark! Happy Smiley!

We piled into the small two-bedroom place and found out we were sharing with two other visitors who had passed Christmas in the village. I went out to find Cardell and Suzanne, a couple who I knew would be happy to cook for us. Night was closing in so I headed back to Pito’s place to inform the other guys where we could eat.

And that’s when, out of the corner of my eye, through the fading light of dusk, I saw a sharp movement on the path close to my foot. I froze…Tommy Goff.

A Tommy Goff is the snake responsible for more deaths than any other snake in Central America. In Spanish they call it terciopelo. In Costa Rica, fer-de-lance. The snake is a pit viper, not unlike the rattlesnakes and copperheads of North America. The Tommy Goff, however, does not warn you before it strikes, does not often leave “dry bites” since it produces venom quickly and can afford to use it frequently, and to top it off, is extremely aggressive. They can grow to nearly seven feet long (2m) and have a large number of offspring. The Tommy Goff is not to be reckoned with. And there he was, coiled up on the path next to my foot, ready to strike.

Not wanting to startle him more than I already had, I slowly took two steps back and did what any tourist visiting Monkey Point would do: I took a photo.

Tommy Goff, the deadliest of snakes out here

Then I grabbed a stick, a sharp-ended palm frond that was lying nearby, and I drove it into the snake, right behind the head. His mouth opened up revealing an amazing set of fangs, and I wish I had taken a photo of that. A couple of more chops and he was dead. Better him than any of the villagers who run around barefoot. After all, the panga motor wouldn’t start which meant nobody would be going to the Bluefields hospital, the only place to find a dose of antivenom.

I was carrying a sack of Christmas cookies I had bought earlier and I threw the snake’s body – sans head – inside. When I found Guthry, David and Tbone, I offered them some cookies. Guthry reached in, grasped the snake with a cookie and pulled it out, dropping it when he saw what it was. David gasped and his eyes got huge. “What DAT!? TOMMY GOFF?” he said. I told them the story and they looked down at their bare feet, then we all started laughing. Guthry said his heart nearly stopped when he realized what it was.

The last day of our trip was a long one filled with boring preparation for leaving, helping Allen take care of some last minute things and fixing the panga motor. A starting fuse had blown and we didn’t have a spare. Easy fix, I said. I found a short piece of wire and bridged the terminals on the fuse and she started right up.

We finally departed about 2pm and arrived through the rough sea to Bluefields just before 4pm. We had been gone two weeks to the day. As far as “fun” highlights, finding Canta Gallo was amazing and runnin sea was a real rush. It was great meeting Guthry’s friends and family from the Rio Indio up to Bankukuk…it would have not been as rich an experience without him. As amazing as the places we visited were, I have to say I was ecstatic to be home. There is, after all, no place like it.


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