Ancient ruins, deadly snakes and lost: Exploring Nicaragua the hard way Part 1

“No, you aren’t invited!”

Tbone looked at me with a blank expression…he is a tough guy to read. I explained that it isn’t him personally, but I had spent months planning this trip for two people, Guthry and myself, and three was a crowd. We had planned to walk along the coast to San Juan visiting the communities along the way. From there, we would search for the mysterious ruins I had seen a faint picture of once…a giant wall of stacked rocks standing solemnly in the jungle. Three means a slower expedition…harder to find families to stay with…less people giving and more people charging. Food, lodging, this, that, whatever.  In my mind, a third person was one too many.

“What if I just meet you in San Juan and we do the jungle part,” Tbone asked. “I have to work the week you will be walking along the coast, anyway.”

I like Tbone. He doesn’t talk too much, is pretty easy to get along with and intelligent. And he is always up for an adventure.

“Alright,” I said. “Guthry and I walk from Monkey Point to San Juan and meet you there. Then we see about organizing a trip to find the ruins.”

Of course, things don’t always happen as they are planned to.


From my last expedition, I found that transport is always the most difficult and frustrating thing to organize. This trip was to be no exception. We planned on getting a ride to Monkey Point, Nicaragua, a community about two-hours boat ride south of our starting point of Bluefields. From there we would walk south to San Juan de Nicaragua, visiting the coastal communities along the way. Once we were in San Juan, we would explore the dense jungles of the Rio Indio and the treasures rumored to be there.

All our contacts for boats heading south ended up being dead ends. “Maybe tomorrow we leave,” they said. “Not going until Christmas, but try the next guy,” they said. “Decided to spend the holidays here,” they said. I was already two days into my early vacation and hate delays…I called Guthry and we agreed to change up our plans.

San Juan de Nicaragua

I almost bought one for the hell of it

The next morning I met Guthry at the Bluefields municipal wharf, 5:30am sharp. I carried my bag packed with the essentials, Guthry (pronounced GOO-tree) carried a backpack one third the size of mine packed with two shirts, a pair of shorts, toothbrush and sandals. We boarded a panga to El Rama and promptly hopped a bus to San Carlos. We had decided to go counterclockwise, southern jungle first, walking the coast north to Bluefields as the icing on the cake. From San Carlos we took an early morning fast boat to San Juan, the jumping-off place for our adventure. The journey was a long five hours. When I say we took the fast boat, I mean we didn’t take the 12-hour snail that crawls its way down the river for people that have an extra half day to kill. My vacation clock was ticking and we just wanted to get there asap! And we would have, had the very last military checkpoint not discovered a passenger’s life savings stuffed into a brown paper sack. $20,000 to pay government workers he told them. It must have been drug money they told him. Phone calls were made, letters were presented, papers were signed and 45 minutes later we were on our way.

5-hour fast boat to San Juan

We reached San Juan de Nicaragua from Bluefields in two days…pretty lucky considering we took the long way. I quickly realized our luck had run out when we found out we could be waiting a long while sitting on our thumbs trying to arrange transport into the jungle.

Guthry is a Rama indian from the coastal village of Bankukuk. When we arrived in San Juan, he suggested we look for his uncle, known locally as Coyote, who was born and raised in the Rama village of Makengue in the Rio Indio but now lives with his family in town. He wasn’t home; they said he had taken a white man up the river two days prior but would be back in a few days. The grandmother graciously allowed us to hang our hammocks in the house while we waited. During that time we organized a ride up the river with a distant uncle of Guthry. Score! We ran out to buy rations for the two of us for four days…rice, sugar, spaghetti, tomatoes, coffee, oil and a few other odds n ends. We met our ride with bags packed, rations in hand and ready to head out, only to find out that we could not buy any gas. The gasolinera was empty and the gas boat wasn’t expected until Tuesday, five days away. Damn.

Hammocks set up in Coyote’s house in San Juan

Rain came, rain went, rain came again. We didn’t see sun our entire stay in San Juan. We did find some cheap places to eat and befriended the manager of a local hotel who was rather bored without guests. She agreed to cook lunch if we bought the food, so we bought some meat and carried the rations to her place. Her lunch was really good and she gave us some sweet coconuts to wash it down with.

The jungle met us before we even left   San Juan de Nicaragua

That evening we ran into Guthry’s cousin, Fish. We had some drinks with him and listened to some unbelievable stories about the jungle and what he claims is hidden out there. “Deh place wit deh big wall is Canta Gallo,” he explained. “Der you hear wan rooster crowin in Good Friday, every year. Nobady know how him get der.” The wall he mentioned is what I had seen one fuzzy photo of, once. It looked big and very unnatural and I was on a mission to find it. “Out der, more far dan Canta Gallo, der is wan lake what appear and disappear. Sometimes you cyan’t find it!” Fish was about three sips short of finishing his bottle of rum. I wondered if that may play a part in the mysterious lake disappearing. “An more far dan dat is wan waterfall wit a pretty place to swim,” he continued. “An right close is a pyramid…like wan house…wat you can go inside. But only de Rama dem can go in.” NOW I was really getting intrigued. “An more far dan dat you find wan banana tree what vanish when you go to cut de banana dem.” He stared through me to the wall. “POOF!” Fish leaned back in his chair, eyes glazing over as he took another swig from his bottle. “Gone man. I seen it happen.” Guthry looked at me with a satisfied grin on his face. He told me there was some strange stuff in that jungle – he had heard stories about that his whole life and was now there to see it with his own eyes. There was an unmistakable spark of anticipation smoldering. We weren’t going to feel like our trip had started until we were headed up that river. But we still didn’t know when that would be.

Day three in San Juan rolled around with the prospect of four more on the horizon. It was Friday. My phone rang. Tbone. “Hey man, you guys still in San Juan? Did you make it up the river yet?”

“No,” I replied. “Haven’t been able to get out of San Juan. There is no gas in town and the gas boat won’t get here until Tuesday they say.”

“Oh, that sucks,” Tbone said. “Actually, I have some good news. I am down here at the wharf in Bluefields and they say the gas boat is leaving tonight and will arrive tomorrow morning.”

“What?! Are you serious?” I felt that spark growing. “Hey thanks for the info man!”

“Yeah, no problem. And they say they take passengers.” I knew what Tbone was asking.

“Of course you should come down!” I yelled through the phone. “Forget all that, ‘you aren’t invited’ talk I said last week! You won’t believe the stuff they say is out there in the jungle! Oh, and bring more money, I didn’t budget enough.”

“Sure man,” Tbone said. “Well I will pack my things and see you tomorrow morning then.”

It was great news and I was so happy to be seeing another familiar face after being stuck in San Juan bored off my ass. Guthry was happy as well; I am sure he was tired of seeing my mug every waking moment. We made afternoon plans to get our trip ready. Guthry talked to Fish who found a boat and agreed to drive us. I went back to the lonely hotel manager’s place to get our remaining three days’ of rations.

She came to the window and looked worried. I explained that we found a ride and are leaving tomorrow morning. She was not expecting to see me. She sheepishly explained that rats got into the rice, her friend used the sugar, the oil spilled and the coffee was bad. Sorry, all gone!

“Whaaat? You have got to be joking,” I said in Spanish. “ALL the food we left here is gone?” She left the window, shuffled around for a bit inside and cracked the door open. She stuck out her skinny arm clutching a plastic bag with about a half pound of sugar.

“THAT’S IT?” I exclaimed. “The oil hadn’t even been opened! How did you spill a half gallon out of an unopened plastic bottle!? That was about $30 worth of food!” I grabbed the bag and the door quickly shut with the sound of bolts being latched behind it. I stood there, knowing I should have known better than to leave all that food anticipating lunch tomorrow. I then walked to the store, kicking myself all the way.

Up the Rio Indio

I was laying in the hammock with one eye open when the phone rang the next morning. Tbone! I made my way down to the gas station and found him in good spirits despite having just finished a 12-hour vomit-inducing  roller coaster ride of a trip along the same coast we would soon be walking up. “I didn’t get any sleep,” he said. “Think I could put up my hammock for a few hours?”

Tbone strung his hammock up at the house to get 40 winks but barely got one when we returned and told him we had a ride, bought the gas and were ready to head up the river. We even found a fourth person to share the adventure with: Tom from England.

Tom had made his way down to San Juan by boat the day before and wasn’t aware of anything worth seeing in San Juan; he was just thinking to get a ride to Bluefields if possible. Luckily we ran into each other and I was able to convince him to come along for the ride.

The four of us met Fish and loaded our things into the river canoe. The rain was relentless and the wind didn’t help. In fact, the wind and rain were so bad the gas station was reluctant to sell us fuel, but with the four of us blocking what breeze we could, we were able to buy twenty gallons.

Buying gas. Guthry barefoot, Tbone in blue and Tom behind.

Finally, in the boat heading up the river, we felt like our adventure was officially underway. It was a chilly ride with the dismal weather, but more than that I remember the amazing scenery on the way to Makengue. The Rio Indio follows the coast for a few miles then turns due west and into the bush, twisting and turning, getting narrower and allowing the tree canopies to touch, arching over the waterway. Monkeys everywhere. Howlers growling, spider and whiteface (capuchin) monkeys chirping and calling.

Heading up the river to Makengue

We passed several pole and board houses raised high along the river’s edge. Most didn’t have walls and all had palm leaf roofs. We also passed an occasional canoe paddled by a long-haired shirtless Rama indian. Fish always shouted something incomprehensible and smiled and waved. I kept thinking how this place seemed straight out of a National Geographic magazine.

Hello, friends.

It was a two-hour journey before the boat pulled up to a small dock on a steep hillside. A group of kids ran down to greet us and help us with our bags. As we made our way up the slope from the dock, an older man greeted us. “Heloo Frieynds an Welcume! Welcume to Maken- Guthry!” It was Guthry’s uncle, Coyote. A family reunion set on a muddy riverbank deep in the jungle of Nicaragua…as touching as any airport or bus station could be.

We made our way inside a house perched just up and back from the riverbank. The house was not big and quite simple. It was a one-room, “studio” style layout with wooden poles for support, split bamboo for walls, leaf roof and dirt floor. In one corner was an open-fire stove. The surrounding upper walls and ceiling were black from soot. Just back of that was a shelf hanging out of a window that served as the sink. Buckets of well water sat nearby, ready to be used for washing or drinking. On the far wall were two platforms made from chainsaw-cut planks. On top were thin sheets and a few blankets and pillows. This is where half of the family slept. Coyote introduced himself while his wife made us some coffee.

Coyote is an interesting guy. He is one of the few Rama indians who speak “the old language”, the original tongue spoken before the spread of Rama Creole English. Coyote was a captain for the Contra rebels in the civil war and knows every creek and footpath south of Bluefields. He has been shot, snakebit, lost and has now found God and is working to preserve the Rama culture and way of life. Shortly after introductions, a husky fellow from the southern USA popped in and gave us a hearty hello. He was a missionary who has been working with the people in the river off and on for several years and was now building a church on the top of the hill behind Coyote’s house.

Fish and the missionary led us up to the frame of the church, which lacked walls but had a raised floor and roof. We tied up our hammocks and took in the amazing view of the river and canopy from our station. They cooked us lunch back down at the house and we spent the rest of the day chatting with the family and the missionary.

Coyote and the missionary had a lot in common. They were about the same age, probably in their late 50s. They had both had a military career. The missionary loved to bowhunt, Coyote still makes his own bows and arrows. They had met years back and found they shared a love for the gospel, and the missionary now visits regularly to work on small development projects.

Now, far be it for me to rain on someone’s parade, but I was a bit skeptical about how much good the missionary was actually doing. I work for a sustainable development NGO in Bluefields and I have seen mistakes left by missionaries on their goodwill visits to small communities. It started with the Moravians two hundred years ago when they made the indians learn English so they could be preached to, made them wear clothes, cook with oil, introduced sugar and so on. In the last 30 years the idea of the “sustainable” missionary has become popular…bringing generators and fancy boats and other short-term solutions that don’t last after the fuel runs out or the maintenance becomes too expensive. I haven’t seen any lasting impact from any church mission except for cement churches.

I mentioned this to the missionary, who assured me that he was here to stay and would not be making the same mistakes as the ones before him. His confidence was reassuring, but I had my doubts.

Tbone is a rural water and sanitation expert and works for the same NGO as me. He saw the missionary’s new pit latrine at the top of the hill and mentioned privately to me that it will probably contaminate their well water at the bottom of the hill in just a few years. The missionary proudly showed us his double filtration water system he had designed for a gravity-fed water distribution system. The filters were name-brand Pur filter cartridges. These filters are good for about 100 gallons each and, at the rate that two families were using water, would probably need to be replaced monthly. Even with a good supply of replacements, once it’s done it’s done. The missionary claimed that Coyote was the community leader and that his church would also serve as the casa comunal or community house. I later found out that Alicia McCrea is the community leader and they are in the process of building the Makengue casa comunal a little further up the river. The missionary didn’t seem to know much about the Rama community beyond the family of his good friend, Coyote.

But he was persistent and not to be deterred. I found out that he wasn’t the only one…there are two more missionaries from different church groups working in the Rio Indio. One had married an indian guy and just had a baby. The other was planning to marry a fifteen-year old girl.

Fish waiting to see what movie is coming on

That night as we were getting ready to crawl into our hammocks, the missionary said he had a surprise for us. He cranked up a generator, turned on a television and put on Saving Private Ryan. He looked up at me and chortled, saying something like, “How ya like that!? TV in the middle of the jungle!”

Wow. Not at all what I was expecting.

“I brought down a bunch of movies,” the missionary said. “Apocalypse Now, Saving Private Ryan, that kind of stuff. I even turned Coyote on to Rambo!”

God help the Rama people.

Onward to Canta Gallo

The next morning started well before daybreak. The cool breeze filtered through the skin-thin fabric of my hammock – not what you expect in a tropical jungle – and kept me awake from about 3am on. When dawn came, we made our way down the hill to the kitchen/bedroom/dining area of Coyote’s house and had breakfast. Nothing like a big bowl of rice, beans, a boiled egg and fried bread knocked back with tooth-shattering sweet coffee to start a day’s hike through the jungle. We traded anecdotes about living on the coast with the missionary and Coyote and Fish while scarfing our breakfast down, then we jumped into the boat, excited for what was to come.

Canta Gallo is a storied place handed down through generations of Rama indians as a sacred meeting point. In the ancient times, this is where they would go to discuss community issues. This is where they ran when being attacked by the Spaniards in the 1500s, the Miskito in the 1700s, the British in the 1800s and the Sandinistas in the 1980s. They claim it was built by the ancients before time, the ones before the Rama. It is called Ushru Acray in the Rama language, Rooster’s Crow in English. I had seen a faint, blurry photo of it ages ago in the museum in Bluefields and had made it my mission to see it for myself. I had all of this running through my mind as the five of us got into the boat.

And then, four more people got into the boat. Then two more. Then three more. Our original group of three internationals and two Ramas added another nine Ramas who wanted to come with us. It meant we would burn more gas, but I could hardly say no, nor did I want to. The more the merrier, especially since Coyote designated himself as trip leader and would be showing us the way. The sun was out and the rain had passed. We departed to the sound of howler monkeys informing the rest of the jungle where we were going.

Today was the day, not just for us, but for the jungle animals. It was the first day of warm sun in a week and they were all out to enjoy it. Besides the plethora of monkeys, there were scores of iguanas sunning themselves high in the trees over the river. On occasion one would get spooked and bellyflop into the river below. It’s a long way down and a 15lb iguana makes an impressive splash.

Spotting iguanas

It wasn’t long before we pulled up to a completely unmarked area of the river bank and tied up to a tree root. The group got out and climbed the bank, old guy with the machete first, then the younger guys, Coyote, then us, then our driver, Fish. Coyote then moved up to the front and lead the way, telling stories of tragedy to those who had disrespected the forest, rattling off natural medicine cures for all kinds of afflictions and describing the other uses the vines, trees and plants have.

Where to find water

The story he like to tell the most was the one about the Sandinista military outpost that they had tried to build near the river. They had moved the Ramas living in the area to another location a few miles downriver. He showed us trees they had cut down to build a helicopter landing area. They didn’t get very far before the spirits of the jungle made them crazy and they turned on one another, shooting each other in a raging gunbattle that marked the end of that operation. 15 soldiers dead. He showed us bullet holes still visible in the decaying tree stumps. A few years later the military had decided to use the same area for a jungle-survival training course. A soldier was attempting to pull himself across the river by a low-hanging rope when something grabbed him and drug him under, never to be seen again. (he obviously did not pass). Coyote says the spirits of the jungle do not like the Spaniards (spanish-speaking mestizos, mostly from the Pacific side) and especially do not like the military.Then he told us about the skeptical general who decided to prove all his superstitious comrades wrong by camping out in the area for a few days (I’ll save that little gem for you adventurous readers who might actually visit and meet the Rama people in the bush).

Nothing makes you feel as small and insignificant as mother nature. You feel it in the bottom of the Grand Canyon. You feel it after days at sea. And I felt it again walking through that jungle.

Tbone and Coyote surrounded by tree

We scrambled up hills, sloshed through mud puddles, tromped through swamp and cut through bush following a tattered trail that appeared and disappeared. I was thankful we had guides who knew where we were going. And, eventually, when it seemed Coyote’s stories had run out and all his bush lore had been told, we entered a small clearing. And at the back was…a stage made from stone.

Stage where ancients stood

“DIS is where the ancient people dem would come,” he said as he brushed away leaves and chopped out overgrowing vines.

I was impressed. I was not expecting to see a clear set of steps in the middle of the forest. We were all impressed. It wasn’t majestic, but held it’s own magic. It had significance. This wasn’t a left over relic from a forgotten people, this was still a part of the culture of the people who had led us there, the Ramas I work with, my friends from Rama Cay and Bankukuk. I was reminded of my short visit to the old city of Jerusalem where I had seen dozens of people paying homage to the place where prophets walked. This was no different for the Rama people. The biggest difference is that hardly anybody knows about this place.

Coyote was very proud and encouraged us to take lots of photos. We took plenty, and I asked him what else the jungle had to offer.

“Come, make I show you,” Coyote replied.

Coyote, Fish and Guthry at the wall in Canta Gallo

I was quite awestruck.

There are other things in the immediate vicinity that we were taken to. More walls, some taller, some split in two, a waterfall. Coyote told us about periboys and meermaids that inhabit the jungle, supernatural equivalents to mischievous gnomes and deadly sirens. He and Fish claim to have seen them both and have scars to prove it. There are more stories, more superstitions and much, much more places hidden in the jungle. I had heard about some of them. When I asked fish about them, he acted like he didn’t know what I was talking about. Later, Guthry explained to me that Coyote had told him about the same places I had asked Fish about, but that nobody but Ramas are allowed to go there.

There are many more secrets in that jungle that will be left secret, just as the spirits had intended.

We returned to the village and had a late lunch: rice, beans, river shrimp, fried bread and coffee. We had originally wanted to go further up the river and explore more since we had time, but Christmas was looming and the villagers wanted to spend it with their families in San Juan. Add to that the fact we were low on gas for the return trip plus there was a boat scheduled to leave the next morning which Tom could jump on, we decided to return at the end of our second day. Fish was okay with that and we took on some passengers and cargo, kids and bananas that had to be in San Juan asap.

Kids and bananas

It was a cold ride back…the weather turned on us just as it got dark. The rain returned and the wind picked up. Once we arrived in San Juan, we helped Fish carry the bananas back to Coyote’s house and hung up our hammocks.

The next day we set out walking the beach north to Monkey Point. I wasn’t sure what we would be in for during the 60-mile trek, but if I had known, I would not have even considered it.

Continued in Part 2…

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