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2000 Expedition Journals
- La Ceiba: "Portal Town" - September 3
- Palacios to Plaplaya, La Mosquitia: "First Impressions" September 4
- Raista, Mosquito Coast: "Details, The Nitty Gritty of the Rio Platano Trip" - September 8
- Las Marias: "Expectations Gone Awry" - September 12
- Weiknatara Farm, Las Marias: "Down from Big Man" - September 24
- Las Marias to Raista: "45, 44, 43, Only 42 More Miles to Go. . ." - September 27
- La Ceiba: "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" - September 28
- Raista town, Mosquito Coast: "Winding Down" - October 22
- Raista, Mosquito Coast: "Tiempo Feo" - Foul weather! - October 24
- Raista Town, Mosquito Coast: "Stewed Godzilla" - October 25
- Las Marias, Rio Platano Mosquito Coast: "Sore, Wet and Filthy" October 26
- Las Marias: "Hurricane Spoiler" - October 29
- La Ceiba, Honduras. . “What’s all this paddling business all about anyway?" - 03/30/00
- A Lesson in History
- Limon, Honduras “Riding El Norte" 04/05/00
- San Jose a la Punta, Honduras: “Herbs, Hooch. . .Healed!“ Guifiti: The Best of Garifuna Bush Medicine - 04/08/00
- Raista to Brus Laguna “Juxtaposition of Crass and Quaint" - 04/10/00
- Out of Brus Laguna “Man Overboard" - 04/11/00
Days in Honduras are so hot that we are constantly wet with sweat, even sitting next to a fan after a cold shower. We have no choice but to start paddling before dawn and try to reach our destination before 9:00 A.M. We drink lots of water and splash ourselves regularly to try and keep cool, but it isn’t enough to fight off dehydration during the heat of the day. To make progress under these extreme conditions (and avoid a repeat of our mistakes in similar conditions in Belize and Guatemala) we knew we had to adapt our schedule to the moods of the sun and sea.
We are back in action after a few weeks of break. I used my time to study Spanish in Guatemala while Luke took his scuba diving certification on Utila Island. We returned to Omoa where we had stored our equipment after paddling into Honduras from Livingston Guatemala. The frame of my kayak had broken just before our arrival in Honduras, so I spent the first day fixing the tubes with duct tape, a task Luke had to do with his own kayak a mere few weeks earlier in Livingston (View photos). We repacked everything and sealed all the gear in our dry bags. We waxed all the zippers, oiled all the metal parts and silicon lubed all the joints of our waterproof Pelican cases and underwater camera equipment. With fresh-baked bread added to our bags of dried food we were ready to paddle south to La Ceiba.
June 26, Sambo Creek, Honduras "Baila Conmigo" Garifuna Festival Dancing - Luke
July 1999, Cut Throats Who Can Cook: A Few Weeks on Utila Bay Island - Luke
August 21, Omoa to La Ceiba: "Bug Spray, Advil and a Rain Fly, The Essentials" – Luke
On our second morning out from Tela the alarm rang at 4:00 A.M. Lightening lit up the sky and thunder boomed in our ears and we decided to stay put until dawn. We got up at six and saw a very low, thick layer of black clouds. We saw the fishermen hurrying back home against a strong wind picking up from the north and knew a big storm was coming.
Most seafarers find such conditions forbidding, but for us it meant a free ride south. We quickly ate some breakfast and packed. As we finished loading our kayaks, the frequency of the lightening increased. The wind turned into a constant gale and it began to rain thick drops of water that hurt my head until I could find my hat.
The sea was rough but nothing we couldn’t handle. We punched through the surf and started paddling. By the time we were on the water, the wind changed directions. A strong easterly gale hit us from the side. It created large breaking swell even outside the surf zone. We had to paddle with the waves breaking on us broadside and brace constantly into them to avoid capsizing. With such powerful forces pushing against us, our kayaks were pushed off-course and it took a lot of energy to cover a short distance.
After an hour the wind changed again, this time coming at us straight on. The large swell that had been washing over us broadside diminished. Instead, the sea became a mess of chop. Small waves in short intervals from all directions bounced us around. Combined with the strong headwind, they hindered our progress even more. And if all that wasn’t enough, we also realized that we were fighting a mild current.
Although the conditions were exhausting, they didn’t scare us. Baja had prepared us well. We’d been on worse seas with gale force winds. What really intimidated me was the frequency and intensity of the lightening. I thought to myself that it would be such a shame to die in such an inglorious way, by being struck by lightening. But I remembered what our friend Richard had told us: "When in the trough with a kayak, the waves are so much higher than you that the risk is minimal." Despite his soothing reminder of his assuring words, the conditions made me flashback to terrifying electrical storms I experienced in the mountains.
I have seen many, but the one that marked me the most occurred when I was sixteen. It was my first big mountain trek. I was with two friends and we were scrambling the walls of the famous Cirque de Gavarnie in the French Pyrenees (A natural amphitheater of cliffs with over 2000 foot walls). We had scrambled halfway up when the rain made the rock too slippery to continue. In seconds the storm settled above the cirque and the clouds became trapped between the mountain walls. We found refuge on a small rock ledge twenty feet long and three or four feet wide. We put our backpacks with crampons and ice axes on one end, and the three of us sat on the opposite edge as far away as possible. We feared all the metal would attract lightening. The sky all around us crackled with electricity. The amphitheater amplified the thunder into a deafening roar. One bolt struck less than a hundred feet from us. The electrical charge in the air produced a sound we will never forget. It was like millions of bees buzzing at a maddening volume. I know now that it is a phenomenon that only happens in the mountains. People have been known to lose their minds to that sound before losing their lives. There are no words to describe the fear that gripped us. We sat there against each other on a tiny ledge of a cliff overlooking a thousand-foot drop, shivering as much from the cold rain as from fear. Pride hid the tears that wanted to burst. We thought our death was just a matter of minutes away and we sat there helplessly in front of the most impressive show of nature’s force. I was only sixteen but I remember it as if it was yesterday. I never understood how our metallic equipment was never struck and how we survived the experience.
Logic told me that the possibility the lightning would strike us was low. Logic doesn’t always calm the nerves. I was very intimidated. Another hour passed, the storm subsided and the wind turned again. We worried that it would bring the storm right back on us, but mercifully the sky soon cleared. We were left with a tough headwind. Eventually the swell decreased and then disappeared all together along with the wind. After four hours we were drained, hot and dehydrated. Our muscles were sore from our sustained efforts to combat the elements. All we wanted was a nice beach on which to camp. A thick margin of coconut trees lining the shore looked promising. We landed with great relief and quickly moved on to other pressing concerns, , eating and sleeping. Barely out of our kayaks, we were greeted by two armed cowboys on horses. One was proudly holding a big shotgun and brandished a big knife and a bandolier full of bullets. The other one had a 45 automatic handgun and a long ammunition belt. I remembered hearing that forty-five caliber guns are illegal in Honduras. Only the military is allowed to use them. These two men didn’t look like they fit the description. We got the sense that we had stumbled onto a drug plantation. Luke innocently asked them if we had landed on a ”farm.” They replied brusquely that indeed we had and that we should leave as quickly as we had come. We were exhausted and we informed them of our intent to rest and camp on the beach and asked them where would be a good place. They made it clear to us that such place wouldn’t be found close by. Would you have argued with rough-looking armed patrollers when they tote around illegal guns as if they were toys? We didn’t and quickly retreated onto the ocean. I almost even lost my hat which one of them requested as we left. Who knows what else we might have lost had we pushed our luck?
Ignoring the protests of our muscles, we left the "plantation beach" with no regrets and kept paddling under the heat. Finally, after more than twenty nautical miles (36 K) we landed exhausted on a deserted beach. We jumped in the water to cool off and floated there for twenty minutes without moving.
Amazingly the beach turned out to be our best campsite in Honduras. In the evening we could see the lights of La Ceiba, another eighteen miles away. One more day and our ocean paddling would be over for the year. From La Ceiba, the jungle-rivers of La Moskitia awaited us. Our last day to La Ceiba was on perfectly flat seas without a puff of wind. It meant a grueling paddle under the heat. Luke suffered most from it. Upon arriving in town, we carried all the gear to a backpacker hostel, rinsed it, ate and slept. La Ceiba welcomed us with good food, cheap accommodations, friendly people and amazing ethnic diversity.
September 3, La Ceiba: "Portal Town" – Luke
We’re in the middle of Hurricane season and we’re being careful. The disastrous aftermath of Mitch, still marks the land even though more than a year has passed. It has made us wary, and we will avoid paddling the coastal sea until the end of the Hurricane season. Instead, we have decided to explore the rainforest and to resume our paddling from La Ceiba when the weather improves in a couple months.
Our first jungle exploration of La Moskitia took us to the Biosphere Reserve of the Rio Platano. We would fly to Palacios with our foldable kayaks and paddle them through canals, and lagoons and up the Rio Platano to the small Pech community of Las Marias.
We worked late into the nigh preparing our gear. With only four hours to go before the set wake-up time on our alarm clock, we were still struggling with our big duffel bags to compress the contents and close the zippers. Of course we should have packed our kayaks and camping gear a couple of days before flying to La Moskitia, but things happen and plans are often abandoned or changed at the last minute.
I had been in La Ceiba for days, doing all the computer work necessary to document our most recent paddling leg and update our website. While Luke returned to the States for a few days to attend a wedding, I moved to a communal room on the second floor of the office of Ecoaventuras - La Moskitia, the most reputable tour company in the region. I wanted to meet the founder Jorge Salaverri, renowned as one of the best guides in the entire Mosquito Coast. My friend Derek Parent (author of "La Moskitia: A Guide to the Land of Savannas, Rainforests and Turtle Hunters" and expert advisor for CASKE 2000) had strongly recommended that I get detailed information from Jorge. In La Ceiba everybody seemed to be in agreement with Derek. Jorge was the man we had to meet before leaving. When I checked in, Jorge was in the Platano Reserve guiding a team from National Geographic Expeditions. I was expecting him to return a few days later.
At Ecoaventuras, my roommate Norman Flores happened to be a long time friend of Jorge’s. Norman and I shared passionate conversations on La Moskitia, the environment and conservation. Norman is a biologist studying the biodiversity of the Platano Biosphere and has a special affinity for Green Iguanas. Inspired by our documentation project, he has volunteered to contribute his research and writing to CASKE 2000.
Our neighbor was a Miskito man in his thirties named Walsted Miller. Walsted was studying agricultural science and the basics of computer science. I was first impressed by his energy, and after hours of conversation I was even more impressed by his philosophy of life and his integrity. It took us less than a day to become friends. We exchanged thoughts on various problems faced by the Miskito people and other Indigenous groups. We talked about their needs, possible courses of action, and about the work of Non-Government Organizations (NGOs). Walsted works for Mopawi, the largest NGO working with indigenous communities in Honduras. For fifteen years he has dedicated his life to re-teaching native people aspects of their traditional culture that have been lost, such as craft skills to women and agricultural techniques to men. While he supports the organization’s goals, he also sees strong needs, which Mopawi doesn’t have the means to address. He believes that better and more sustainable use of the land is the key to meeting people needs. His current studies are part of a plan to set up a new type of educational program for his people.
Before setting out on the expedition I worked for months with only moderate success to find knowledgeable contacts in each region, and suddenly, they all seemed to find me. Maybe it was just being at the right place at the right time. The next day, a gang of Garifuna men invaded the main rooms of Ecoaventuras. With their flashy sunglasses and pink or orange fluorescent hats, they interrupted my computer work. Their toned muscles and baseball caps easily identified them as the guides of the company. I spent the next hour in an energetic conversation with Roberto, one of the enthusiastic Garifuna guides. We addressed social, economic, and political issues which I have been interested in for a long time.
Considering the history of the Garifuna and all the outside influences they have encountered, it is impressive how they have managed to preserve much of their culture. Today they are facing a new problem. The Honduran government and the large Travel-Tour companies are capitalizing on a growing tourist boom at their expense. Vacationers come to Honduras attracted by the colorful lifestyle, dance, and music of the Garifuna people. The ever-present smiles and Caribbean warmth of the Garifunas make them a popular draw. However, they usually keep to themselves in their own communities and are not in a position to organize businesses and benefit from the revenues that are generated by the increasing tourism. They are becoming the victims of a growing market without receiving any of the financial rewards. Garifunas like Roberto think it isn’t fair. He knows tourism can’t be stopped, but he believes that it should at least benefit the Garifuna people. Recently Roberto has started to write on the subject. Our discussion gave him new motivation and we hope to see his efforts appear one day on the CASKE 2000 website.
The day before our departure to La Moskitia, Roberto stopped me in the street and told me, "There is a contact name I have not given you yet. It’s my mom. She is one of the cultural leaders of the village of Plaplaya. Go and visit her, she will show you what you want to see." Luke and I had already planned to go to Roberto’s hometown of Plaplaya. We had been told that it was one of the most culturally rich Garifuna communities in Honduras. The first few names Roberto had given me were for practical purposes like lodging and food. When he gave me his mother’s name I realized that we had developed a mutual trust and respect , and he was offering me a key to the Garifuna world.
Luke returned on Tuesday and by the time we first met Jorge on Wednesday, I knew more about La Moskitia from my days lodging at Ecoaventuras than I had learned in all my months of research. Jorge gave me the last few pieces of information that we needed to complete a plan that would lead us into a discovery of a rich and fascinating place.
Jorge, a small man with a strong energy and a great smile, was born in La Moskitia a short distance from the Rio Coco marking the border between Honduras and Nicaragua. Part Indian and part Latino, he has made the best of both worlds and seems to be known by everyone in town. He admits that he does not remember most of the names of the people who know him, rather, the names he does remember are the ones of animals and plants, their uses, and their importance to the environment.
Meeting Jorge and talking with him was in and of itself an extraordinary experience. As if his words alone weren’t enough to cement the friendship, he invited us to join his team of guides, along with the two National Geographic reporters, for some extreme rafting on the class IV rapids of the Cangrejal River. Naturally we accepted. We went, got wet and enjoyed the thrill of riding rapids and dropping off of a series of small four to six foot waterfalls on the wildest river in Honduras. Our last evening in La Ceiba was spent dining in town with Roy and Tom, the two reporters from National Geographic. After such a week, it was no wonder that packing our equipment was a low priority that we finally got around to at the last moment. At 4:45, the second alarm forced me to raise my head. Luke told me the Taxi driver had just knocked on the door. We had asked the hotel manager to reserve us a station wagon taxi with a roof rack. I went out with a couple of dry bags to first negotiate the price with the driver before he saw all the gear we had to load in and on his taxi. The old car ended up stuffed to the gills. Its suspension was non-existent and we made it to the airport at a top speed of twenty-five miles an hour. With our bulky bags we had close to 300 lbs of equipment. Our baggage allowance was only 100 lbs between the two of us. We used the chaos at the airport to our advantage and craftily persuaded the workers that they must have made a weighing error and after a few smiles, we paid a penalty of ten dollars (instead of fifty) and boarded the small twin-engine airplane. Forty-five minutes later, our Twin-Otter landed in Palacios.
We checked into a comfortable room with large windows that let in a nice breeze and a view of the lagoon. After a delicious meal, we spent half of the day sleeping. We were finally in La Moskitia. The equipment transport, our biggest worry, had happened without any mishaps. It had been unexpectedly easy. Sleep was the only thing I had not had enough of in the last week and I would need it for the long-awaited adventure.
September 4, Palacios to Plaplaya, La Mosquitia: "First Impressions" – Luke
From Palacios, our entry point into La Moskitia. Our first stop was the town of Plaplaya. It is the last, southernmost and perhaps most traditional Garifuna village in Honduras. There we talked with the woman in charge of a sea turtle conservation project and attended a traditional Punta dancing evening. We would have liked to stay longer but our primary goal was to make our way to the Rio Platano biosphere and the town of Las Marias.
From Plaplaya we paddled through long sections of canal and along the shores of two large lagoons. The sandy strip separating the lagoon from the ocean is called the Barra by the locals and hosts many Miskito villages.
Paddling through Laguna Ibans, I got ahead of Luke and stopped to wait at a dock in front of a small settlement. Miskito people came from all over to have a glimpse at my strange "cayuco" (canoe in Spanish). They were so curious that I let a few men try it on the calm water of the lagoon. The kids as well took turns testing their skills. Most were able to paddle quite impressively. Their dugout canoe experience carried over very well. Our goal for the day was the village of Raista and we pulled up on its beach shortly after. Our host was Eddie Bodden, the man in charge of a Butterfly farm, eco-tourism project initiated by the Peace Corps and entomologists from the States. Eddie is the type of man you trust from the first minute and we became quick friends.
One day on our itinerary turned into two. We toured the butterfly farm, stuffed ourselves with the hearty food prepared by his wife and took dozens of photographs of the many children running around the village. We left Raista knowing that we had made good friends and would certainly return.
We paddled out of Laguna of Ibans through a hand-dug canal cut through thick mangrove and cattle-grazed savannah. We popped out into a smaller lagoon by the village of Kuri and stopped for a short break. Miskito kids playing in the water soon worked up the courage to approach and before long were riding on the top of my kayak four or five at a time. In the late morning we navigated our way through a final canal, which led us out to the Platano River.
This small canal of less than a mile was very narrow and curled its way between the roots of giant tropical trees. The canopy above was so dense that we were paddling through a tunnel of vegetation. Long vines descended from the trees to touch the ground and wild flowers bloomed all around us. The few rays of light that pierced the vegetation gave more contrast to this wonderland. I kept bumping into roots, forgetting to maneuver my kayak through the narrow canal as I was too absorbed by the surroundings. I almost regretted having to leave this magical place to enter the Rio Platano.
September 8, Raista, Mosquito Coast: "Details, The Nitty Gritty of the Rio Platano Trip"
The Rio Platano is the most famous river in La Moskitia, Honduras. It gained fame in 1980 when UNESCO declared the entire river and the surrounding jungle a Biosphere Reserve. In the reserve live many Miskito Indians as well as one of the last Pech communities. Las Marias, located upriver on the Rio Platano in the heart of the biosphere, is a community composed of both ethnic groups. It was a perfect subject for a documentary. We decided we would paddle up ourselves instead of taking a motorboat or dugout canoe that usually ferry passengers up to Las Marias. We would pay for that decision. We were told that the beauty of the Rio Platano would amaze us. We were also told that the current was strong and we were frequently mocked when we told people we intended to paddle up with our kayaks. Even local Miskitos and Pech people can only paddle half the way up. Then they switch from their paddles to a long pole to push their long dugout canoes up the rapids. As well we would be taking our chances with the weather. September is a month with a lot of rain. Between September and November, the river can surge with a dangerously strong flow. We had already paddled two thousand kilometers of ocean through windstorms, high swells, breaking surf, deadly heat, and electrical storms just to get to this point and turn around? No way. Did the locals really expect that we would give in to what appeared to our eyes as a gently flowing river? If the Miskitos and Pech did it, so would we. In spite of the ominous warnings, general pessimistic attitudes, and our complete lack of experience, we paddled with optimism. The river was wide and deep, the current mild but constant, and initially we cruised along at a good pace.
The scenery wasn’t at all what I expected. Macaws, parakeets, and other birds flew over us. Cormorants, egrets and herons took off as we approached. Most of the riverbanks were cleared for plantain, banana and sugar cane fields and for cattle grazing. Most of the sand bars and gravel banks were covered with manure and smelled like a farm. It wasn’t exactly the overwhelmingly beauty that we had been promised. I took a break to wait for Luke at one bend in the river and was approached by a young Miskito man. Luke pulled up and he flashed us a toothless smile, proudly brandished his 22-caliber rifle and told us, "I’m going to shoot myself an iguana for dinner."
Later on we took a lunch break next to an empty bamboo and thatch cabana that oddly was closed with a big lock. Some people only live there part time in order to collect their plantain, sugar cane and fruit. They live the rest of the year in the town of Barra Platano. Others live semi-permanently on the riverbank where they farm, raise a couple of cows, pigs, chickens and ducks. We made a lunch of rice to which we added a jungle fruit we had just been shown the day before. Locals call it Supa. It is only edible after being boiled and tastes a little like squash. It grows on a type of palm tree that is covered with spines a few inches long that make harvesting difficult. We also made some flat herb bread, and the final touch was Luke’s discovery of a guava tree. We blindly fed on a few fruits until I found live worms in the fourth guava I was eating. Astonished, I spit it out in front of Luke. I opened three more and all were full of worms. Luke followed my example and spat out his mouthful. Unknowingly we had just added some protein to our meal. We finished with a dose of ibuprofen to sooth our sore muscles and resumed paddling.
In the early afternoon, we found ourselves kayaking against a much stronger current. Our progress was slow and painful. When an old man on the side of the river called to me we decided to stop. He lived with his family in a small cabana on one side of the river. Five other families lived on the other side. We politely accepted his offer of coffee (I can’t drink coffee and had to discretely give mine to Luke when the old man walked out) and sat and talked. While we were relaxing in his hammocks, our host invited us to stay the night in his children’s bed, but we respectfully declined telling him we were fine in our tent. His daughter prepared us a meal of rice, fried tortillas and orange juice and we set up the tent amidst piles of dung, snorting pigs, quacking ducks and noisy chickens.
After more than six hours of paddling, our GPS marked only seven and a half miles. I had watched the compass move in a range of up to 160 degrees after many turns and estimated that we had actually paddled around twenty nautical miles. The old Miskito man told us that we had just covered half the distance to Las Marias, the easy half, and that tomorrow we would start paddling against the current. We asked him what he meant. He told us the water in front of his house was as still as a lagoon in comparison to what lay ahead. Luke and I looked at each other with surprise and worry. Our alarm was set for 4 A.M., but the screaming pigs woke us up long before and we were ready long before dawn. After a breakfast of oatmeal and ibuprofen we loaded our boats while being tortured by bites from hundreds of no-see-ums. They were slightly bigger than the sand flies we had encountered on the beach, and the most obvious difference was the pain and the drops of blood they left on our skin. The resulting itch and swollen welts were also more marked. We thought we had experienced the worst during our beach camping in Belize and Honduras, but little did we know. Our host greeted us with coffee as we were about to leave so we didn’t get on the water until 5:45 A.M.
The current was indeed much stronger and my muscles ached with each stroke in spite of the ibuprofen I had taken with breakfast. I put the pain out of my mind and forced my kayak upstream. After an hour, I entered a narrow channel where the water was flowing faster than I thought I could paddle. On flat water with neither current nor wind, I can maintain an average speed of above four knots with a fully loaded kayak, not here. I noticed some turbulence behind a half submerged tree and chose that route to fight my way up. The eddy, created by the fallen tree, was good and allowed me to reach it with a minimal effort. From there I had to cut across the river into the main stream and force my way up to another small eddy a hundred yards up on the other side. As soon as my bow entered the main stream the rushing water pushed my kayak sideways. I leaned to avoid capsizing and quickly counter-steered with my paddle to compensate for the insufficient rudder. I had to stop paddling for a few seconds to keep the boat from turning around, and I lost ground. It required a tremendous amount of energy to move forward inches at a time. I would estimate the current was faster than five knots. It was like paddling on a treadmill except that I was without a button to press to stop the river. I progressed far enough upstream to ferry angle and let the current carry me to the other side where the current was slower and I could paddle at a constant speed. I rested for a few seconds, paddled up to another eddy, and then repeated the technique crossing the river again to the next protected place on the other side. From there I could look relatively far back down the river. There was no sign of Luke, and I decided to wait.
While I was waiting, a river otter popped its head up next to my kayak and started playing, diving and swimming on its back around my paddle. Five minutes passed and I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice at first when Luke appeared. He was walking and pulling his kayak with a rope! Before he could re-enter his kayak and set up in the strong current to cross the river, an old Miskito man, our host from the night before, arrived with his wife. He was poling his pipante, leaning all his weight on the pole while his wife sat in the rear steering with a large wooden paddle. He made good progress and easily passed Luke in the rapid. Luke got inspired to try a similar technique and failed. The problem is that sitting down in the kayaks we have no leverage. Luke was forced to quickly return to his paddle. I jumped back in my kayak after taking a few photos and resumed paddling.
When the river is deeper, unless it is very narrow, the current isn’t as fast and a strong paddler can move faster than a man poling a pipante. I quickly caught up and passed the old man until I reached the next rapid. The worst part was when the river was shallow and the current so fast that each stroke barely propelled me forward. Luke told me later that he always opted to walk in these spots. I thought that I would be able to paddle most of the river if I could read the current well and use the contour lines to my advantage. I did well overall, but on occasion my hull would scrape a few submerged trees. When it happened there was usually not much to do but to hope the wood wasn’t sharp enough to break the hypalon skin of the hull. Broken bamboo trunks are the most destructive and concerned me the greatest, but I never encountered any.
At one point I was paddling strongly against the river flow between two trees when I suddenly felt something against the bottom of my hull. It was already too late, my kayak was stuck on top of a submerged tree and the current started to twist it sideways. If I let this happen, I’d be stuck sideways against the tree with the water rushing into my kayak as I wasn’t wearing my spray skirt because of the heat. I worried that I might lose my kayak. I quickly paddled on the downstream side to realign the boat parallel to the current. Then I paddled hard while jumping up and down on my seat to try to free the kayak from the trunk. Less than a minute later I was free but exhausted. I slowed my pace knowing that more obstacles awaited me ahead.
Green parakeets were constantly flying over me, usually in pairs, sometimes in large groups. They produced an amazing cacophonic sound. A couple of iguanas ran away from the shore where they were sunbathing. I came across a few families loading their enormous dugout canoes with plantain and supa fruits before poling down the river to sell their cargo in the river-mouth town of Barra Platano. Eventually I asked a family how much longer they thought I had to paddle to reach Las Marias. With no hesitation they told me two and half hours. When I asked them if it was far, they said no, but that the current would be even stronger. It destroyed my moral. I double-checked with another family five minutes later. This time the answer was, "With paddles, about three hours."
Was I a masochist to have put myself in this situation? Were these people just playing with me? While I assaulted my body, they were assaulting my mind. The only encouraging thing was the weather. It had been overcast and cooler all day and it had started raining. It was merciful relief from the heat.
A few minutes later, an old man waved at me. I angled over to his dugout canoe and stopped for a while to talk while waiting for Luke. It is very rare that I have food hallucinations, yet I found myself dreaming of a well-done camembert over a crusty freshly baked bread. At this point any food would have been nice and by the time Luke arrived, my conversation with Sylvio had evolved into an invitation for lunch. We stepped into the small thatched house and met Sylvio’s brother, his wife and children. While the young woman prepared us some fried plantain with beans and river fish, we engaged in a long discussion that surprisingly switched to English. Silvio was Miskito but he had lived for six years in Nicaragua. He told us that many Miskitos in Nicaragua spoke English. While we ate, his young brother showed us long fishing harpoons. We also saw two 22-caliber rifles that they use to hunt iguanas, wild boars, tapirs and birds. Silvio told us that a bullet cost three and half lempiras (20 cents). Money is precious and they can’t afford to miss a shot.
When we left, Silvio told us we would need at least another hour to paddle up to the center of Las Marias. He would walk and meet us there. With full stomachs and sore muscles, we began the last stretch of paddling to our destination.
I lost control and was pushed into a thick stand of branches in the first rapid. I heard Luke laughing behind me, "Thanks buddy, you saved me the trouble, I’ll ferry angle to the other side of the river. See you later!" Silvio was watching as well and I could imagine him thinking, "Crazy gringos, these guys will need three hours to get to Las Marias."
Forty-five minutes later, I pulled up next to a large dugout at the base of steep banks below the village. Aman and a few boys were filling it with plantain. The man turned out to be Olvidio Martinez, the owner of the hospedaje (guesthouse) we had heard about. We were happy and exhausted. Kids helped us unload and carry the bags up the steep muddy hill and at last we were there.
Where were we? We had heard Las Marias was a settlement of about six hundred people and all we saw were six or seven thatched houses set in a grassy savannah full of cows, pigs and chickens. Olvidio assured us we were in El Centro (downtown). Las Marias is a large settlement, but the houses are dispersed into small groups spread out over a few kilometers along the river. We were too tired to socialize for long. We bought a packet of half stale cookies from the tiny store and went straight to bed in the beginning of afternoon.
As we lay in bed just before nodding off Luke summed up the two day ordeal:
“What do biting flies, pig shit and in-your-face rapids have in common? Besides all being formidable obstacles, nothing really, unless presented together in a two day package deal, in which case they all suck.“
September 12, Las Marias: "Expectations Gone Awry"" – Luke
Las Marias was originally founded by a Pech Indian tribe. Over the years many Miskitos, mostly men, have moved in, intermarried and now the culture is very mixed. Yet, Las Marias remains one of the Las Pech communities in Honduras. It’s the only village of any size deep in the Rio Platano Biosphere reserve. Tourists come here to trek some of the richest, most bio-diverse rainforest in Central America. They hire a guide from the village and choose treks from one to five days.
People were surprised when we told them we were not there to trek or go on a nature eco-tour. Their eco-tourism project was sponsored by MOPAWI, the largest NGO in Honduras, and focuses exclusively on nature. We were in Las Marias to learn about the Pech culture, and their traditional and current lifestyles. We wanted to meet some of the elders of the village and interact with the few people still speaking their native tongue and upholding aspects of their traditional culture.
How do you preserve a culture without its language? How do you preserve a language when less than 20 people speak it fluently in a community? It became clear that we were here to witness a culture on the verge of extinction.
We spent the first week in Las Marias just talking to people. We met with Martin Herrera, in charge of the eco-tourism project, and with a Pech family of two brothers and two sisters who moved to the Biosphere in 1990 from the department of Olancho. The two brothers, Bernardo and Francisco are among the most active people in an effort to preserve the Pech culture and traditions. They live four hours up river from Las Marias. Bernardo has built a new guesthouse and we arranged to spend our second week with his family and watch and learn from them perform their daily activities.
In Las Marias, we spent some time with Don Divio and his sister, the elders of the village. We listened to their stories with keen interest. Over a period of a few days, we heard stories on every topic from history of the village and traditional lifestyles, to Pech mythology and legends of the forest. We were even told the famous legend of a city constructed by a Pech empire called Ciudad Blanca. Although we had heard much talk about it in other places it was the first time that we encountered people with direct familial ties to the story. They claimed their grandfather told them he was born and grew up there during the waning days of the city. To them the legend seemed to be historical fact. They were very open and enthusiastic and we interviewed them on video and talked for hours. We later met Don Ubense Ramos Torres, the son of Don Divio. After meeting Don Ubense, we spent most of our time in Las Marias with him. Don Ubense is the President of the Consejo de Tribu Pech (The official Pech organization in Las Marias). He works with Bernardo, Francisco and a few others in Las Marias in an effort to preserve the Pech culture, traditions and language. Don Ubense impressed me. At fifty years old, he is full of energy. He can out-work us in the rainforest and out-talk me in conversation (a difficult task I have to admit). His life is a battle between the daily necessities of a poor indigenous man living with his family from the rainforest, and the political fight he wages with the Honduran government for rights he believes indigenous people have yet to obtain.
Don Ubense is fascinating. His school was the rainforest and his education the Pech culture. He is outspoken and eloquent in denouncing the politicians who have closed their eyes on his people. He has little support outside his village, but without hesitation he has entered the political game. He is tactful in his conversations but powerful in his statements. "The Pech culture needs to be revived, the language saved, and the people need to receive titles for the land that their ancestors have always occupied".
One day we went into the bush with Don Ubense to collect thatch for a new roof. The broad leaves called "suita" grow in clumps on the forest floor. After four hours of labor in the heat and humidity, Luke and I were tired and dehydrated. Don Ubense never stopped, never drank, and carried bales of packed leaves that I could barely lift. You might imagine a giant. With his heart and 120 lbs. he is a giant. He is one of the last Pech and one of the few who still speaks his native tongue. The sad thing to him is that although his children understand Pech, they prefer to speak Miskito or Spanish, as these are the languages they learn in school and use with their friends. Unless the government funds the Pech bilingual school project, Ubense’s generation could very well be the last one speaking their native tongue.
Another big threat to the Pech culture is the work of the missionaries. Indigenous cultures are threatened all over the world by the work of missionaries. In Honduras and specifically in Las Marias, the church’s influence has been dramatic.
One day I met a twelve-year-old girl who asked me if I was afraid of the year 2000. Perplexed, I stared at her. She couldn’t be worried about the Y2K problem; she didn’t even know what computers were. When I asked for clarification, she told me she was afraid to die. I quizzed her a little more and learned that she believed the apocalypse was upon us and that January 2000 was going to be our judgment day. She was terrified, but believed it sincerely, as the pastor had preached to them for months about the end of the world. It never occurred to her that the pastor could possibly be wrong. He announced he had received a message from God and that people were running out of time to show their faith. I smiled at her and tried to explain that sometimes people, even pastors, make mistakes, that if god had spent all his time creating all the beautiful things we could see, he would certainly not destroy them all in a day. But my speech failed to reassure the girl, I was no match against a good preacher who makes a living from his words and uses them to control people’s thoughts from a very early age.
Many villagers have been so brainwashed that they turn their backs on their traditions and their culture. Their interpretation of the bible puts taboos on alcohol, music and dances. "One shall not drink" and that includes the traditional Pech drinks like Chicha de Maiz. It is a concoction of sugar cane juice fermented with corn. And the Chicha de Yucca, the original Pech drink made from roots of Yucca that are masticated by women to accelerate the fermentation process. (See our culture section on traditional drinks for more information).
Pastors have told them that in the words of God, dancing is akin to fornication, a sin. It is no wonder the traditional Pech dances have almost entirely disappeared. And if nobody is going to dance, why should people learn the traditional music? Few of them have any knowledge of the traditional bamboo flutes and drums made of snake skins stretched over a large bamboo frame. Francisco, who used to be one of the Pech cultural leaders in Olancho, is trying to revive the traditional music. He makes the flutes and snake drums and plays them, but how do you fight the church with wind and bamboo full of holes?
After a week, we left Las Marias in a dugout canoe to meet Francisco, Bernardo and their families up river. The eco-tourism committee requires tourists to go with local guides by dugout, so we stored our kayaks with Olvidio our host. The rain-swollen river would have been too difficult anyway. As we made our way up, the river, which had been disappointing lower down, provided spectacular scenery. Small sand and gravel bars covered with lush trees and foliage divided the river into various channels. Dense rainforest lined both shores and majestic trees such as Red Cedar and Mahogany loomed over us. Vines cascaded more than 100 feet straight to the ground from the canopy providing a playground for monkeys and birds. When we arrived at Bernardo’s hospedaje, we were touched by the beauty of the setting and natural surroundings. The house was perched on the upper bank of the river overlooking the confluence of four streams forming the main branch of the Rio Platano. Their own personal orchard of oranges, lemons, avocados, coconuts, supa, and jicaros surrounded the house. The two brothers had planted coffee, cacao, plantain, bananas, beans and rice. Lemon grass, chiles and Cilantro also grew around the house. The soil was rich and black, and the weather sunny and humid, ideal conditions for their Garden of Eden.
If it weren’t for the sand flies sharing their place, I’d say that we found paradise. Their kids like the place so much they stay, even as adults. The older sons who recently got married told me they often choose to stay there when their wives go down river to visit their families in Las Marias.
Our stay with Bernado’s family was enriching. We fell in love with the scenery, and learned much about their lifestyle and traditions. Maria, Bernado’s wife, showed us how to collect, clean, dry, husk, and roast coffee.
We also learned how to make miel (syrup) from sugar cane juice after extracting it with a traditional press. They showed us how to make Chicha de Maiz, by fermenting the same cane juice with corn. The fermentation process is so fast that the slightly alcoholic beverage we tasted in the morning was strong enough to make my head spin in the evening. Its flavor isn’t anything like that of corn or sugar cane, but it is delicious and we quickly developed a taste for it. People here usually drink one or two glasses with each meal. It gives them the energy to work in the field. If you ask them about the religious taboo, they will tell you that religion is very good, and that they attend church, but when it comes to their traditional drink, it is an important part of their culture and shall not be forgotten.
Bernardo took us in the jungle for a long-overdue lesson on edible and poisonous plants. One that he pointed out, called Puerco, I had unfortunately already discovered a few days earlier. We had been out shooting some photos when it began to downpour. I looked for some large leaves, like the ones from banana trees, to cover the backpack in which we had our photographic equipment. There were no banana or plantain trees around. Luke showed me a plant with wide leaves but said he couldn’t cut it without a machete. I ripped a couple off and covered the backpack with it. Five minutes later, my hands, forearms and neck which had been in contact with the sap started to burn. At the same time a local man saw I was holding the Puerco leaves and took them out of my hands and told me what I had already begun to realize. This plant is not to be touched. The outside surface doesn’t present any problems, but the sap is a virulent poison. The man told me only two things could be done to relieve the pain. The first thing was to urinate on the affected skin. I knew urine was good for irritations from insect bites and poisonous plants, but there was no way I was going to touch myself with my hands full of sap. The second alternative was mud, with which I covered my arms and hands. The only advantage of learning the hard way is that you never forget.
We also spent a day with Maria learning traditional dying techniques. She took us in the rainforest to collect the bark of three different trees that contain natural pigments. The fibers to be dyed are taken from a different tree. Those fiber are boiled or soaked in water with the pigment bark and are then dried and used to weave hammocks, bags baskets and hats. It was fascinating to watch her daughters weave with the dyed black, brown and rust colored fibers. They sell the crafts to tourists in a small shop in Las Marias. We learned how to make the bags, but were no match for the skilled little girls.
Another area in which we were no match to the girls was on the river: Don’t miss the story "Poling a Pipante Dugout Canoe."
Networks of rivers drain the rainforest from frequent tropical storms. These rivers are the lifelines of the indigenous people living along their banks, providing fish and water for consumption and crop irrigation. Curving their way through thick vegetation, they are the sole means of travel and transportation, and indigenous people have adapted their entire lifestyle to the water flow. To travel, fish and transport cargo, they dig canoes out of a single tree. These dugout canoes are surprisingly efficient at navigating the waterways, when operated with skill. On a wide and deep river like the Amazon, people paddle their canoes, while on fast and shallow rivers they stand and propel them with long poles.
In the heart of the Platano Biosphere of the Mosquito Coast of Honduras lies the village of Las Marias, home of the Pech people. As part of the Central American Sea Kayak Expedition 2000 we stopped in Las Marias. During our visit we traded our kayaks for a dugout canoe, and with the help of a very special and skilled tutor I started to learn the traditional canoeing and fishing skills.
Seven year-old Lilian is an expert at maneuvering a “pipante”, as the dugouts are called here in La Moskitia. She grew up high on the Rio Platano swimming, paddling, and poling the strong currents and seems to use little effort to take the pipante where she wants. On one particular occasion she was taking me up to a shallow but very fast confluence where I could sit in the narrow dugout with my camera and take action photos. When I asked her if there was a risk of capsizing she smiled and said, "No problem." She quickly gave a few orders to her six year-old sister Bernarda who was standing and poling at the front. With amazing balance and a natural understanding of hydro-dynamics, she quickly switched between a large wood paddle and a long stick. She alternated pushing and paddling on both sides in order to keep the boat aimed at the right angle against the raging current.
At the confluence I lay down on my back, shooting photo after photo. The water started pouring in the boat from the upstream side. Lilian smiled as I got wet and then saw an expression of worry on my face as I tried to protect my camera. She was in control and made corrections in mere seconds. Immediately she directed her sister to shift her weight. The flooding stopped and the boat kept its place hovering in the rapid. When I indicated that I had shot enough photos, she steered back into the current and let the boat drift at an angle back to shore while she sprayed water over her face to refresh herself after the intense workout.
"Well done Lilian and Bernarda. Now it’s my turn," I said. We dropped off my camera on shore along with Bernarda. The day before I had flipped the boat a few times when she was in it and she didn’t want a repeat. Bernarda isn’t afraid of falling in the middle of the deep river with strong current, but she prefers swimming on the side, where she can return to shore quickly. Lilian on the other hand enjoys being the one in charge and if my clumsiness sends her into the water as well, it just adds to the fun. Besides, I couldn’t go without her anyway. I needed her to sit in the rear of the boat and steer with the paddle, or I should say counter-steer to compensate for my mistakes. It was my third practice and this time I stood up in the narrow canoe without any problems. With years of skiing, snowboarding, and many other sports under my belt, I have developed good balance and coordination, or so I thought. The Pech people of Las Marias are far superior, even the children.
The technique seems easy. You pitch your pole onto the bottom, lean forward on it and use your weight to move the pipante forward. Your pole ends up toward the stern. In strong currents, pitching the pole is a little more difficult. You need to have good balance and apply a lot of power to stop the stick from skidding along the rolling rocks of the bottom. It is especially tough when you have missed your entry into a fast stream and the canoe is moving backwards. It takes more power and skill to stop the momentum of the heavy dugout. Sometimes the water is so deep you have to hunch down to push, your hands inches away from the surface and the pole fully submerged. When it becomes too deep to pole, the person at the rear paddles. It may sound exhausting, but with skill you avoid mistakes and keep efficient control of the pipante.
I started poling next to the riverbank where the water was hardly moving. Then we steered away from a rock and faced the current of the first confluence. The boat swung from side to side. I lost my balance, swayed back and forth and tried to pitch my pole against the bottom of the river. I felt like a clown and my poling was completely ineffective. We lost ground quickly against the current. With Lilian’s remarkable steering we maneuvered over to the other side where I could again attempt to be "useful" in the boat. I poled three times and we were ready to enter the second, faster branch of the river. Again I poled with effort and we gained a few feet. Once in the current, however, the bottom dropped away to a depth where I could no longer touch. The stick lost its purchase on the bottom of the river, it slipped out of my hands and was carried away from the boat by the current. Shortly thereafter I tumbled over the side and ended up following my pole downstream. In the middle of a rapid while standing on a pipante, mistakes are not allowed, unless of course you’re looking from a big, beautiful laugh from the seven-year-old captain. Lilian steered the canoe back to a neutral position in an eddy while I was breaking the surface. I swam and climbed back in. We played for a while longer and I fell into the water countless times.
When we returned to shore, I asked Bernarda if she wanted to come with us the next time. She answered, "Tengo miedo con tigo," "I’m afraid with you." I had to appreciate her point of view. If I was her size and was sitting in a dugout next to a giant, uncoordinated, unbalanced gringo, I wouldn’t give him another chance to tip me over. I was reassured when I saw my expedition partner Luke take his turn to practice. With a few big splashes, the skiing champion couldn’t stay on his feet either. The river was beautifully refreshing and we ended our practice session by playing with the girls in the water where we redeemed ourselves with our swimming ability.
Every day I went out with Lilian in the small pipante. With time I improved a great deal at standing and poling, but of course it was relative to my original inability. Only fast rapids caused me to fall. I could stand and pole but I still did not instill much confidence in my passengers. Bernarda was the ultimate judge, and to her, the dugout was still swinging too much from side to side. The gringo still looked like an uncoordinated marionette. Lilian thought I had improved enough that she challenged me to race. I had to turn my seven-year-old competitor down. I would have no chance of winning, and after all, a man has his pride!
I was interested in learning the traditional fishing techniques and asked Lilian’s two older brothers, Maxi, 20 and Elias, 22, to show me. The grace and power of two strong men is best seen when they go fishing with the traditional long harpoon. The harpoon can be fifteen to twenty five feet in length and is used in the shallow rapids where the fish can be seen more easily. One person steers and paddles at the rear while the fisherman stands in the front. If needed the hunter uses the backside of his harpoon to pole.
Elias steered a bigger dugout canoe into the strong current and Maxi stood staring at the water for fish while holding his harpoon in position. The boat didn’t swing an inch. The two men were in perfect synchronization with the movement of the water. With no visible effort, they kept their dugout in place where I always fell. The water visibility was poor that day because of the heavy rains of the previous week. We left the pipante on a gravel bar on the side and followed Maxi into the shallower rapids as he stood thigh deep in the current in search of fish. He missed the rare ones he saw, but as he had told me before, with such poor visibility we would be very lucky to get anything. When the water is clear, he sometimes spends more than an hour before returning home with fish. But a few delicious Cuyamels (a prized river fish) for the family makes the effort well worth it. Needless to say, I haven’t yet tried to fish standing in a pipante. I will keep practicing poling and I will spear a cuyamel from a dugout before we paddle out of La Moskitia. The Pech have been doing it forever. I’ve got hundreds of years of tradition backing me up. How can I fail?
After a rough day, we always reward ourselves with some type of decadent food or sweet. When we paddle, I usually rely on Luke for the culinary inspiration. While flailing about on the Rio Platano we discovered that the perfect drink at the end of the day is cacao. During our short stay with the Torres family we became addicted to the hot cacao served with every meal. The preparation in La Moskitia, is almost the same as that which we documented with the Mayan people in Belize. Read the full page, "Cacao, the drink of the Gods". The ground powder is mixed with hot water to which one adds sugar. The natural oil of the cacao is found floating at the surface. Unlike the Western preparation, no milk is used. My first impression was of a slightly bitter drink. But one quickly acquires the taste and after a few days you can’t get enough.
View our Cultural Section on Pech people
September 24, Weiknatara Farm, Las Marias: "Down from Big Man" - Luke
After a week with Bernardo’s family, we returned to Las Marias for a couple of days during which I met with Ubense. He taught me how to make a thatched roof with the suita leaves we had collected the week before. Collective the leaves from the forest was labor intensive, and setting up the leaves between two long strips of bamboo was time consuming. Unprompted Ubense said to me, "We are poor people and cannot afford the corrugated roofing. We still make our roofs from jungle leaves." After having spent enough time under both types of roofs, I reassured him that the modern types were not any better. The only advantage they offered was their quick installation. The roof built out of suita leaves is equally as waterproof and it isn’t noisy during downpours. The biggest advantage is its insulating properties that keep the space below cool during the heat of mid-day. The galvanized sheets pass on the heat and transform houses into saunas. I left Ubense’s family after taking numerous photos of the children and returned to meet Luke and Arden, an eco-tourism consultant working for the US Federal Land Management Agency who is helping the people in the Biosphere develop successful programs. The reserve has enormous potential for eco-tourism and if well planned it could become a model for conservation and small-scale, environmentally sensitive economic development.
The Pech culture is in danger of disappearing. A visit to the Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve will give you a glimpse of a common problem worldwide. The future of the Pech people of Las Marias depends on the Honduran government and international support, both non-existent at the moment. There we enjoyed an incredible experience. Our only hope is that other travelers will be as touched as we were by the generosity and warmth of the people and by the smiles of the current generation of children the hope for the next generation of Pech. (View photos)
September 27, Las Marias to Raista: "45, 44, 43, Only 42 More Miles to Go." - Luke
The next day we folded our kayaks and stored them in Eddie’s house and spent more time in Elma’s kitchen. Her fame is well-deserved. She is the best cook we have met so far in La Moskitia.
From Raista, we returned to Palacios by "colectivo" canoe (a local water taxi), and then flew to La Ceiba to renew our visas and update the website. (View the section on Las Marias and La Moskitia).
September 28, La Ceiba: "Planes, Trains and Automobiles" - Luke
October 22, Raista town, Mosquito Coast: "Winding Down" - Luke
October 24, Raista, Mosquito Coast: "Tiempo Feo" - Foul weather! - Luke
October 25, Raista Town, Mosquito Coast: "Stewed Godzilla" - Luke
October 26, Las Marias, Rio Platano Mosquito Coast: "Sore, Wet and Filthy" - Luke
October 29, Las Marias: "Hurricane Spoiler" - Luke
The weather made the decision for us and we left early. A tropical storm pummeled the region for a week without letting up. Villagers stayed in their houses worrying about their crops. We just sat and waited for a week swinging in hammocks and hoping for clear skies. The weather didn’t change and there was nothing for us to do so we decided to head back. Returning from La Marias to Raista was a problem; we had the choice to charter a motorboat for $150, or to wait for a "colectivo" boat ride, which was unlikely to happen with such weather. In a sudden brainstorm, we decided to build a raft and go down the river on our own.
We spent an afternoon with Bernardo learning how to carve wood paddles from planks using only a machete. After tracing a rough outline, we started carving the planks into shape. After an hour the paddle started to take shape. It took another two to make it functional. When we walked around the village with our newly made paddles, people asked us and wondered if we were serious. They could not grasp the idea that tourists would consider going down the river on a raft. Our response became our mantra, “No somos turistas!”
The following day, once again the weather toyed with us. The skies cleared up for a day and the water level and current of the river dropped. Our mood dropped as well, as the only way to make it down in a raft is with increased flow. The water level dropped a few feet overnight. The current also decreased from more than six knots to less than three. We worried that the current would not be strong enough and that we would end up having to paddle the heavy raft for hours, but it was our only solution.
Sometimes the weather never cooperates. It felt like a conspiracy. The next day it rained and we happily set off into the woods with two machetes, an ax and our guide Mariano to build the raft.
We first collected some strong vines pulling them down from the trees. Sometimes they were so well anchored with branches and other vines that they were impossible to pull down. The challenge was to balance thickness and strength with pliability. We needed to be able to wrap them around logs and tie knots. We used a dugout canoe to explore the riverbanks for the right trees to cut into logs for the raft. Mariano was paddling at the back and I was poling at the front. With all my attention focused on keeping my balance and propelling the canoe against the current, I couldn’t help look for the type of tree we were seeking. Mario sighted one and tried to point it out to us. In the low light and pouring rain the “Wano” (balsa) tree didn’t look any different to us than any other. We left the canoe and hacked our way through the dense vegetation toward a tree that only Mariano knew. Suddenly our guide ran back slapping his head with his hat. He stumbled into a wasps’ nest. They nest in trees and when your machete disturbs them they come right at you. Their stings are painful. I switched a few times with Mariano to cut the trail and learned the hard way. By the end of the day both Mariano and I got stung five times.
Wasps were not the only insects making our day a painful one. Fire ants were everywhere and seemed more ferocious than ever. While we were logging the trees or cutting a path through the bush, they found their way up our soaked pant legs and inside our shoes. As well, mosquitoes buzzed around our ears and the rain never stopped. It was almost impossible to focus on the work at hand.
The Wano tree was tall and straight with few branches. Its bark was dark, almost black. The wood was yellowish white and very tender. After cutting it down, we cleared the space around it with our machetes and discovered another wasp nest in our tree. It was too late, both Mariano and I were stung. Luke, who didn’t have a machete and was standing a few feet back, was spared.
We cut the tree into three logs of 10-feet. We then easily removed the bark by cutting strips and tearing them off of the log. To finish Mariano trimmed one end of each log into a point, saying, "This is so you’ll be more hydrodynamic and go faster". These were words we would remember on the river.
When the tree was ready, we cut our way through vegetation for the shortest access to the river. Once again wasps were waiting for us hidden in thick vegetation. My legs were so itchy and irritated by the dozens of fire-ant bites that I had forgotten about the wasps. The pain from their sting this time reminded us to be cautious. I got stung on my nipple through a T-shirt and suffered for 45 minutes.
We carried the logs to the canoe. While loading the second one, Luke lost his grip and dropped his end of the log into the canoe. I was in the middle in an odd position and found my left middle finger crushed between the log and the edge of the dugout. Luckily my finger didn’t break, it just swelled up and turned purple. My left hand was useless for the rest of the day. I couldn’t grab onto anything. We had no luck finding another Wano tree close to the river and returned to Las Marias. Mariano told us we would use a Negrito tree to complete the raft. These are heavier and don’t float quite as well, but they are readily available everywhere and make a good alternative. Of course, our Negrito tree also was home to a wasps’ nest. This time they were large black wasps and we only discovered them after felling their tree.
Once we gathered all the material by the riverbank, Mariano began the building clinic. He stood in waist deep water and showed us how to make the vines more pliable by twisting them. We tied five logs together and used two smaller logs as crossbeams. We were surprised at the buoyancy of this small raft. After a long day of work in the jungle, we tied the raft to a tree and returned to the lodge. We were completely waterlogged. A good cup of hot lemongrass tea was the treat of the day.
In the evening Luke got sick with a fever. We wondered if he had caught a cold as half the village seemed to be suffering from an outbreak. During the rainy season it is impossible to stay dry. We stuffed him with Ibuprofen hoping he would be able to recover for the departure the next day. With my injured finger, I knew I would have difficulties getting a good grip on the heavy wooden paddle. I needed Luke to be in shape. But we both were a mess.
We woke up at 4:15 am and walked out to our raft. We loaded it with coconuts to drink during the trip. People told us that the river was fast and that it would probably take us 10 hours to reach the coast. At 6:00 AM we cut the vine holding our raft and started drifting. It was buoyant but very sluggish. We didn’t anticipate enough for the weight and lack of maneuverability and spent the first few minutes ducking under tree branches on the sides of the river. After 10 minutes we had good control over the raft and we avoided most obstacles. We focused our energy on reading the river to always be in the fastest part of the flow. The first couple of hours were fun, but then the river widened and the current slowed to a crawl. We had a load of coconuts, so we drank and ate and tried to focus our minds on other things. I spent the next two hours trimming weight off of my wood paddle with a machete.
It took us five and half hours to descend the first and supposedly fastest third of the river. We were no longer making much progress. The current was weak and a headwind strengthened, pulling with it dark clouds. We revised our time estimate from 10 hours to a good 20 hours. That meant getting drenched by the coming storm and being wet and cold for another 15 hours to arrive in the middle of the night in Barra Platano. We could deal with the rain, but wanted to avoid midnight encounters with drunken townies at the Barra.
We stopped in a small settlement on the riverbank to buy bananas. Locals all came to see our raft. It was the first time they ever saw foreigners raft the river. Some also mentioned that they had seen two kayakers on the river the month before, not knowing we were one and the same. We had the luck to pull up at the same time as a colectivo boat, which had come to drop off passengers and was returning to the coast. We jumped at the opportunity, paid him $13, donated our raft to the kids of the village and a few hours later we were walking on the beach toward our friends in the lagoon-side villages of Kuri and Raista.
We found Raista flooded. The level of Ibans lagoon was very high, approaching the level reached during Hurricane Mitch. People did not mask their anxiety.
We stayed a day in Raista packing our gear and kayaks. The rains never stopped. The water level kept rising every hour and the lowest houses started to flood. People had dug a trench to drain the water from their fields, but the trench was insufficient. After two days in Raista, our friend Eddie offered us a boat ride back to Palacios. It was a good time to get out as the villages of Raista, Cocobila and Ibans were in danger of serious flooding. People feared that if the weather continued they would find themselves in the same conditions as the previous year during Mitch, losing their houses, crops and livestock, maybe even their lives. People commented that it was raining harder than during Mitch. We could feel the unease. Already a lobster diving boat had not returned to port and the word was going around.
We flew back to La Ceiba on the morning of the fourth of November. It turns out that we were very lucky as the Palacios runway shut down later that day not to be reopened for two months. When we landed, the city of La Ceiba was flooded as well. We walked in the streets and spent some time taking photos and videos of people struggling through knee-deep water. Some even fought their way through on bicycles. Shopkeepers prepared themselves for the worst as sewers backed up and the water levels came within inches of their doors. They lost much merchandise during Mitch and the current situation looked like deja-vu. Luckily the rain stopped for a few hours in the afternoon. The break was long enough to allow the streets to drain their water. We decided to leave La Ceiba and jump on a bus to Puerto Cortez and settle at the house of our friend Richard to wait for the storm to go by and work on our website and stories.
The weather did not change. We learned the next day that we were on one of the last buses to make it out of La Ceiba before a couple of bridges were washed out to sea. The country was entirely flooded and once again in a state of emergency. Roads were sinking, houses were flooded and crops and livestock were being lost. We could hear people exclaiming, “Mitch is back, Mitch is back!” It was a harsh lesson in helplessness to know there was nothing we could do but watch.
November 17, Puerto Cortes, Honduras: "Floods, Plagues, Personal Armageddon" – Luke
Malaria, Insights on the Traveler's Plague
by Jean-Philippe 3/10/2000
(Excerpts... Become a Native Planet member to read the full story...)
Account of the malaria attacks and some insights on the disease
With the unabated rain no available transportation to anywhere interesting, there wasn’t much documentary work for us to do. Instead we focused on organizing the material we had already gathered during our weeks in the jungle. The weather was also a sign that it was high time to leave Central America and spend the New Year holidays with relatives and friends while catching up with work.
We took a two-month break from Honduras. I went to the highlands of Guatemala to document some of the most interesting and colorful Mayan communities in all of Central America (read my accounts from Guatemala). Luke returned to the States. We have returned soft, fat and unprepared for one of the most challenging paddling stretches of the entire expedition. We embark next week on a two-month leg along the full Mosquito coast, from La Ceiba to Bluefields, Nicaragua and down into Costa Rica.
The Biggest Challenge — Documenting the CASKE 2000 Expedition
from Central America
(Winter Break - December 99) by Jean-Philippe Soule
(story featured on Native Planet)
March 2000 - Guatemala: A Mixture of Ethnic Groups, Latin Music and Colors
We awoke at 2:00 AM under a moonless sky. In the darkness I folded the tent while Luke prepared us breakfast. From our camp fifteen feet from the shore, we could barely make out the foam from the surf. The shore break was loud on this steep beach, but we hoped not too big. In the pitch dark, it’s always intimidating to go out. You never know what’s coming at you.
“How are we going to see anything?” Luke asked.
I played with him and answered, “It’s all about feeling. You have to feel the ocean. And if you aren’t sensitive enough, it won’t forgive you”. Yes, I was teasing him, but it was true that we had to listen to and feel the motions of the waves to anticipate the following ones. Punching through the surf zone is all about timing. Our timing is usually good. We have learned how to judge the shape of waves and know when and where they will break. But with no visibility, timing becomes a guessing game. Capsizing in these conditions would put us in a lot of trouble. We can’t see each other and would be on our own. The waves could rip equipment off of our decks, and if we were pushed back to shore, the kayak could get badly damaged in the shore break. We can’t afford mistakes on our night launches.
I walked into the water beyond the shore break to get a feel for the power of the waves and the timing of the wave sets. After the first break, the bottom remained fairly shallow and the water was more stable. I decided I would pull my kayak through the first break and hold it there in waist deep water, wait until a swell passed and then jump in, put my spray skirt on and I’d be rolling.
We loaded the kayaks with our waterproof cases and dry bags, and pointed them out to sea. We put our spray skirts on and were ready to go, or so I thought. As I was holding the tip of my kayak ready to drag it, I asked Luke, “Ready?”
Then he replied, “Oh wait, I have to go!”
“What do you mean you have to go? You just went for the second time ten minutes ago”.
“I know but they were small ones, I still have to go”.
That was not an April fool. He squatted in the dark while I waited. Sand flies attacked my exposed legs with ferocity. I jumped back in the water. The current was strong and we would have to launch soon, one after another in order to stay together. Just beyond the shore break, there seemed to be another set of breakers. We didn’t know how long and strong these were. If we didn’t launch at the same time, we’d certainly get separated. When Luke returned, I pulled my kayak into the water, passed the shore break and stayed in waist-level water until a wave broke. I jumped sideways into my kayak, pulled my legs into the cockpit, set my spray skirt over the cockpit rim and paddled forward just a little so I was facing the second breakers. I decided to wait for Luke between the two break zones as I had already lost sight of him. I waited uncomfortably, being swung from one direction to another. Some waves, pushed by a strange horizontal current, were hitting me broadside. I drifted and still had no sight of Luke. I screamed, “Luke!”. No reply. I screamed again, “Luke!”
“Where the hell are you?”
I had drifted enough that I knew I had to paddle back parallel to shore to get back to Luke. I still didn’t know how far I was from the breaking waves. I got hit a few times from the side, forcing me into a brace, then I heard the shore break and saw the beach, I was too close. I quickly turned the boat back toward the sea and screamed to Luke. “I’ll wait for you outside of the surf zone”. No replies. I paddled through the second breakers without any difficulties. On the other side, in calmer seas, I waited and screamed, “Luke, are you all right?” But no replies. From where I was, I couldn’t see the shore. All I could see were the stars above my head. I grabbed my emergency beacon in hopes that Luke could see it and meet me. Equipment always fails when you need it. It flashed twice and just died. Great, that’s all we needed. So I waited, trying to maintain my position. After a few minutes, I heard from the rear, “Where are you?”
“Here,” I replied.
“Keep talking I can’t see shit.”
“Come on, move your butt, I’ve been waiting forever, being trashed in the surf. What the hell were you doing?”
“I got plastered by the first wave before I could put my sprayskirt on. It filled up my kayak. I went back to shore to empty it. Man, I’m exhausted.”
It was 4 AM on April 1st and it was just the start of our second day out of La Ceiba. We struggled the day before to paddle 16 nautical miles against a light current and a headwind. The months away from the sea had made us soft. Already our hands were blistering and our muscles aching. We were being forced to paddle at night to avoid the heat of the day, and the strong headwinds that pick up in the late morning. We were miserable. We paddled 18 miles, with one short break. The last hour and half we suffered. From 10 Am, the strong sun baked us and we had to splash ourselves every fifteen minutes. To make things worse, the wind picked up. During the last half hour, it was so strong we were barely moving. But there was no place to stop. We could see the spray from large waves breaking on a rocky shore. We had to keep going until we could find a protected cove. We sighted a house and hoped for a protected beach. We progressed painfully slowly toward the house and saw the full family waving at us. Their beach was made of large boulders and didn’t seem like a good landing place for our skin kayaks. We kept punching through the wind forcing each paddle stroke until our muscles felt they were going to explode. Just after the rocky beach was a large boulder blocking the side swell and offering protected access to a small pitch of sand just wide enough for two kayaks. By the time we landed, people were already there waiting to help us lift the kayaks out of the water. We were exhausted, a little dehydrated and very hungry. The Creole woman offered us a nice meal with soup, rice and fried plantain. With such a strong headwind, there was no hope for us to go any further and we readily accepted.
We slept part of the afternoon in their wooden chairs in front of their house. Our hosts were very friendly. They brought us mangos, served us coffee and worried about us sleeping anywhere else but in their place. Yet we worried that kayaks were too close to the sea and far from their house. Also the rock garden that protected the pitch of sand during the day, would make launching by night a dangerous proposition. A friendly neighbor informed us that a 10-minute paddle would take us to his place, a nice protected beach just inside the point.
We waited until sunset for the wind to drop a little and paddled over. From what little we could see, it seemed like a nice bay. It was well protected and there were no sand flies. We were in bed by 7:30 PM with our alarms set for 1AM. We were looking at a 17-mile paddle to reach the town of Trujillo the next day. We realized that leaving early morning wasn’t an option anymore. If we wanted to beat the wind, we would have to start paddling in the middle of the night. That meant changing our schedule and the days for sleep. In Trujillo we checked into a cheap hotel on the beach for a rest day. Our muscles spasms, cramped fingers and blisters needed to heal. We also realized that in spite of the difficulties of these first three days, we had seen nothing compared to what was awaiting us in the next few weeks. We were still protected by the bay of Trujillo. From there it would be open ocean, fighting big waves, strong currents and much stronger wind. Faced with four days of hellish paddling until we reached the protected bays and canals at the northern fringe of the Mosquito Coast, we were scared to leave.
04/05/00 Limon, Honduras “Riding El Norte” - Luke
Launching through waves is something we often do. After a year and half one might say that it has become a routine. Occasionally we worry about not being able to see the waves at night, but launching is usually easy. Yesterday after paddling seven and half hours, we found a nice gradual sand beach, the best to land on and launch from. Shore breaks can be powerful and dangerous on steep beaches, but on long flat beaches the surf zone is much wider, and the waves are usually easier to handle for they don't generate as much curling power. So we landed on that beautiful beach with the intent to repeat the following day what we had done every day. Get up at 1:30 AM, pack our gear, pull the kayaks to the water, load them after eating a quick breakfast, and enjoy the night-paddling before the wind and sun became too strong. The hardest time is usually the three to five minutes it takes us between the time we remove our pants, fold them in our last dry bag, put on our shorts and kayak shoes, close the bag and lash it on deck, then get in our kayaks. These few minutes we fear the most because of the dozens of painful bites we get on our legs from the terrible sand flies. We never thought we had a reason to fear anything else on this beach.
We set up our tent above what looked like the high tide line, pulled up the kayaks and tied them to the tent just in case, and ate dinner. A strong onshore wind picked up and we decided to move the tent up the beach. By 7 PM we were ready to go to sleep in our wind-blasted tent. We had been warned that when the wind starts blowing from the North, it brings dangerous sea conditions, the worst being on the third and final day. We had been paddling good distances the last two days with the wind at our backs. We had actually enjoyed the small "Norte" storm. We weren’t prepared for what was coming on the third day.
At 11 PM we woke up instantly. The kayak ropes pulled on the tent pole next to my head and we felt water rush beneath us. We jumped out of the tent and grabbed the kayaks to prevent them from drifting back with the wave. We pulled them up a few feet, and quickly tossed all the dry bags higher up onto dry sand. We weren't quick enough though and another wave submerged our tarp and doused our tent. We lifted the whole tent up with its entire contents still in it and carried it away. The sky was dark, the waves sounded big and the wind didn't show any signs of letting up. We decided to reset our alarms for 3:30 AM, two hours later.
At 5 AM we were ready to launch. The waves still sounded big, but in the dark under a moonless, starless sky, they didn't really seem too large. After all we were on a gradual beach, how bad could they be? I walked into the water to try and get a feel for the waves. There was a strong side current. The main waves were hitting the beach straight on in a succession of white foamy trails. They were anything but regular, some small and others quite large. Each one followed the other with very little gap in between, but they didn't seem overwhelmingly powerful. I still thought they looked manageable. Two other wave patterns were also hitting the beach at sharp angle. One was coming from the left and the other one from the right. They were the refraction of the main waves from the sides of the large bay. When the two met they exploded with giant vertical splashes. For five minutes I stood in the water and observed the sea, but none of these collisions ever happened in the same spot. Everything was irregular today. I anticipated that the first step of the launch would be tricky, but that once paddling, we would be all right.
Because of the frequency of the waves, I could not pull my kayak too far out. I waited for a big wave to float it, pulled it forward, then ran to the back and kept it facing straight into the waves with one hand on the stern and the other one in on the side of the cockpit. I have learned from experience that holding the boat from the bow when there are horizontal currents or waves is a guaranteed disaster. The kayak instantly goes sideways and gets hit by the principal waves that come in straight and fill it up or flip it. So I held the kayak for a minute, and then jumped in it. As soon as my butt touched the seat, I rushed to throw my legs over the deck, folded them inside the cockpit and extended them inside the sea sock. The next wave hit me and I found my kayak sitting on the sand parallel to shore. It was not a good position to be in. As the next wave lifted me I put pressure on the ground with my hands and was able to partially re-orient my kayak before settling back down on the sand. When the next wave came I paddled hard at a quarter angle into it, passed the wave without taking on too much water and quickly let go of my paddle to put my sprayskirt on. It is not easy to quickly position the skirt behind you and then stretch it to the front of the cockpit rim, and put each side into the groove while being buffeted by surf. Until you do so, your kayak fills up with water from each wave. During that time I got hit by another wave., It again put me in a position parallel to the shore, but this time I was still floating and with my sprayskirt on, I was almost ready to go. All I had to do was to re-position my boat into the waves and get some speed. I easily passed the first big roller, then number two and number three. That was it, I had done it, I was through the technical part, so to speak, and would soon be waiting for Luke outside the surf zone.
This beautiful flat beach had not yet revealed all its tricks, however. The 5th breaker was a monster. I was going full speed and barely made it through. I almost stalled on top of the wave. Its power cut all my momentum. I put all the energy I could into my strokes and quickly regained speed. I passed the sixth breaker with nothing more than a big splash in the face. With powerful strokes, I was racing out of the surf zone and nothing would stop me anymore. There were only three more breaks to go. The seventh wave exploded six feet in front of me. It was huge but I had a heavily loaded kayak moving at least 4 knots into it. I never doubted I would make it. At the last second, I tucked my paddle on the side and bent my upper body forward to break through. To my great surprise, I found myself entirely submerged and catapulted backward with great power. After five seconds when the foam finally went down to my chest level, I realized that I was surfing backward at great speed. As I raised my head my kayak almost back flipped. My stern pitched down underwater and the bow pointed up toward the sky. I quickly leaned forward. I continued surfing backward in this mess of white foam, it reformed into a swell and re-broke, instantly enveloping me in its curl. All I could think about was not capsizing. My kayak suddenly jerked to a stop. The stern slammed into the sandy beach bent my rudder and sent me sprawling, but I was safe on shore, or so I thought.
I was far from shore when that first wave hit me and it was still very dark. Capsizing would have been disastrous. At best I would have lost everything I had on deck, maybe even the full kayak. I did everything possible to keep my weight forward and my kayak straight. If I went sideways, my stern would probably pitch down and even with a strong brace I might have ended up upside down. My first reflex was to put my paddle on the wrong side of my bow. I was not going forward but backward and this move almost threw me sideways. I instantly switched sides and was able to keep the boat surfing straight. I could hear the hull slashing into the wave. Even a few seconds after this second backward surf set, I was going too fast and the wave was still too powerful to hope to paddle out of it.
Before I even realized what was happening, one of the side waves set me parallel to the main wave. I realized it was going to crush me down onto the sand and in a final effort I threw myself into the wave in a heavy brace stroke. I ended up leaning too much and capsized into it. I found myself face down with my hands against the sandy bottom in an effort to protect my head and neck. I was still holding my paddle with one of the blades sticking out of the water on the seaside. Before I had any time to think, the next wave caught my paddle blade and put me back right side up It wasn't really an Eskimo roll, it was an "I have no idea where I am anymore" type of roll but it worked. I opened my sprayskirt, jumped out and pulled the bow of the kayak. I was entirely exhausted, but safe and back on shore. As I pulled my kayak out of the waves, I screamed to Luke, "Don't go. We can't make it in the dark. It's crazy out there!"
Luke was still on the beach and very surprised to see me on shore. Minutes ago he lost sight of me and thought I was already out of the surf zone waiting for him. He never made it past the first waves. As soon as he put in, wave after wave dumped on him before he could even put his sprayskirt on and it filled up his kayak entirely.
The night launch was not going to happen today. We waited for the day to break and checked my kayak for missing equipment. Miraculously, the deck bag, bilge pump, GPS and spare paddle were still on my bow deck, and my dry bag, fins, rope, and paddle float still on my stern deck. All I had lost was a watermelon I had lashed under a spider net near my dry bag. Luke called my attention to my bent rudder, which I was able to straighten a little with my knee. I was all right and considering what happened, even the equipment came out of it without much wear and tear. I was lucky.
There isn't much to do when you are wet and stuck on the beach at 5:30 in the morning, so we went body surfing. Often the waves shook us around like if we were in a washing machine. The more we could see the waves, the more we realized that we had tempted fate by trying to launch. Attempting it at night was just suicidal. There are days that the sea doesn't want us. The best thing to do is to respect her and wait until she's in a better mood.
We rested all day under the shade of a sea grape tree, staring at the mad ocean. By 3 PM I noticed that with the low tide, there were less breakers to pass, and more space between each wave. The problem that same morning had been their tremendous power. (read: "The New Rush: Night Kayak-Surfing in Reverse") While they did not curl as high as other waves we had paddled through before, they were much faster.
The wind had stopped blowing, and the surf appeared easier to handle. I woke Luke up and we got ready to go. We didn't want to be stuck another day on this tricky beach if the wind picked-up again. I thought we had a chance to get out and we had to take it.
Luke nervously launched first while I took photos of him. A couple of times I thought he was going to end up in a back flip, and he even caught some air a few times, but he made a clean exit out of the surf zone.
I followed after packing my camera gear. With the experience of the morning still vivid in my mind, I set up apprehensively. With good timing between the waves, and back paddling to avoid the explosions of the second set of rollers, I still had time to gain enough speed to break through. One close call threw me in the air just as I cleared a curling wave that dropped off right under the stern of my kayak. A few minutes later, I was out and it took me five minutes to catch my breath from the effort. A sharp pain throbbed between my left shoulder blade and spine. It must have been the last violent paddle stroke I gave to pass the final wave.
Luke was waiting, recuperating from his launch. It was 4 PM when we actually started paddling south. We knew we had two hours of light and needed to find a better beach to land on. After 45 minutes, a beautiful beach appeared. The surf looked very big; from the sea we couldn't really judge its size or the shape of the waves. All we knew was that large swell was breaking on the beach in a curl of light blue water. That's all we could see. I was still in shock from the morning and intimidated by the landing. From our position, we couldn't tell if the surf was smooth or dumping. It could have been anywhere from 6 to 12 feet high. We had never landed our foldable kayaks through a 12-foot shore break and never wanted to try. Not only would the kayaks break, we’d be crushed as well.
We decided to push on until dusk. The beach became steep with dunes. The more we kept going; the less appealing the beach became. At 5:30 , as the sun dipped close to the surface of the ocean, we decided that we had to land without delay. Just as Luke approached the surf zone we noticed a jeep going full speed on the beach. It was then followed a minute later by a slower pick-up truck. It seemed odd to us that private four-wheel drive vehicles were patrolling the beach in the evening in such remote place. We remembered the armed drug guards who forbade us access to a beach north of La Ceiba. We recalled the stories we had heard about drug traffickers along this coast. We didn't want to deal with that type of situation, but our only alternative-- to spend the full night in our kayaks paddling--wasn't much more appealing. The decision between death and discomfort is an easy one and we resigned ourselves to a long uncomfortable night on the ocean.
At 6 PM the jeeps had long since passed and the wind and surf were getting stronger. Luke made the call, "It's almost dark. If we land and quickly haul the kayaks and hide them in the bushes nobody will see us."
"Ok, let's hurry" I replied.
I was still nervous about the landing, but there was no time to waste, soon we wouldn't see the waves forming behind us. I took the lead and Luke followed two waves behind. I waited for four large waves to pass and let the last one break a couple of feet in front of my bow. I looked down at the lip of the wave and paddled hard behind it so as not to be caught by the next large set. Then I stopped and back paddled into the second set as it was breaking. As soon as it went by, I started paddling as hard as I could. Closer to the beach, I surfed down the third set which was already smaller, and ended up bracing and side-surfing the last set onto the beach. Luke followed a few seconds later. We quickly hauled our kayaks up the beach. It was a perfect landing for both of us. Our timing was perfect, both in the waves and with the light. Five more minutes and we would have been landing blind.
The beach was very steep and narrow and the high tide line went up to the edge of thick vegetation. We found a small patch of dry sand hidden behind some trees and hurried to unload our kayaks. As I returned to my boat I saw people walking toward us. Our secrecy hadn’t lasted long. All I could see were the shadows of two people. The person behind was holding something that looked like a rifle. The man in the front was holding a machete and the sharp edge of the blade flashed in the night. Less than two minutes on the beach and already we were in trouble. I started closing my hatches and tried to hide my fear. Then I saw a third silhouette, one of a child. Reassured, I walked toward the couple with their little daughter and greeted them. They had been working in their yucca field and what I thought was a rifle was just a machete the woman carried, with the blade resting in the crook of her arm.
They were surprised that we had been on the ocean with these conditions. None of the local people ever go to sea during Nortes. They could not believe we had come from La Ceiba in our little cayucos. After satisfying their curiosity with a few questions, they reassured us. There were no bad people around, but we had to clear the beach of our kayaks, as it is one of the roads used for transportation between Limon and the last Garifuna villages of the Punto Cabo Camaron. We had barely covered 6.5 nautical miles, a meager distance compared to the 25.5 miles of the day before, but it was a day full of emotions and challenges. Not knowing the sea conditions we would have tomorrow, we decided to enjoy a good night’s sleep. Waking up at 4 AM would be enough to be ready to go at daybreak. We had earned a decent night’s sleep.
04/08/00 San Jose a la Punta, Honduras: “Herbs, Hooch. Healed!“ Guifiti: The Best of Garifuna Bush Medicine
Today almost turned into a bad one. We paddled part of the night hoping to be guided by the distant glow of a lighthouse. We quickly figured out that the lighthouse was out of order. When we actually paddled by the dead lighthouse at 6 AM, I saw a large fin and tail passing by in the water not far ahead of me. I first thought it was a small whale or a dolphin, and then I realized that the tail was vertical and not horizontal and that the fin wasn’t the main dorsal fin, but just a caudal fin. That meant that it was a large shark. With a dark gray color, a shark of this size was most certainly a big bull or tiger. 6 AM is feeding time and these sharks aren’t known for being very smart. They prey on large marine mammals such as dolphins and sea lions and usually attack them from below. All they see is the shadows and shapes and they have been known to mistake other long narrow floating objects for their prey. I thought it was wise to wait for Luke and paddle close to each other for a few minutes.
Later in the morning we took a small break on a beach. After launching again through the small surf, I realized that my GPS drybag was gone. It was tied to two bungees and strapped under 6 others. I just couldn’t figure out how I had lost it. We thought that maybe it would float and we returned to the beach to look for it. We realized then how dependent we had become on this small instrument. Without it, our night navigation would be very complex. We would have no way to evaluate how much we drift and how much we need to correct our compass course to compensate. Also during the day we rely on it to gauge our efforts as it tells us our progress and our remaining distance. This seems secondary but it is a great boost to our moral. Also with the large-scale map we use, coastal navigation would be most imprecise. Losing the GPS was a catastrophe I berated myself at that moment for not having brought a spare.
As we paddled back toward the beach where we had rested. Luke saw a man go in the water, pick up something and leave. As we combed the beach and water surface, the man returned and asked Luke if we had lost something. After describing the GPS, the man took Luke to it. It was soaked but after drying it inside and out, it was still working. We were relieved.
We arrived late morning in the town of Palacios at the northern edge of La Moskitia. We checked in a guesthouse and celebrated with a good meal and a few sodas. It felt good to have reached this place. Ten days ago while leaving from La Ceiba we were excited to be back on the water, but were a bit apprehensive about our conditioning. All things considered, we were very satisfied with our accomplishment.
The more we approach the border of Nicaragua, the more terrible and specific the stories become. We’ve always known that the North East coast of Nicaragua isn’t the safest place. It has been a traditional hideout for opposition guerrillas. We can certainly understand their position and how they were less than happy when the States intervened in the 1980’s. We were afraid to introduce ourselves as Americans.
This remote jungle is also a favorite place for bandits. Unlike most places where small crooks operate with a knife, a machete or bare hands, the bandits in Nicaragua are well armed. When the war came to an end 9 years ago, there was a large surplus of automatic weapons, which are now sold freely for ridiculously low prices. Anybody on the coast can acquire an AK47 for a pittance. La Moskitia is also used as a stopover for the Colombian drug shipments on their way to the States.
So that was the situation we knew when we left from La Ceiba. It certainly called for precautions but we figured that with intelligent planning it would be OK.
Since we left Trujillo and we had met Garifuna and Miskito people, who often travel to Nicaragua to visit family members, who recounted to us many horror stories of people being killed for a few dollars or their belongings. As we had often heard these types of overstated stories from Belize on down and had encountered nothing, at first we ignored all these warnings. But little by little they weigh on you and make their way into your mind. This is why a few days ago we imagined the worst when we saw cars patrolling the beach at night (read the story: "The New Rush”). To make things worse, the closer we get to the border, the more specific the stories become. People start using specific names of places and names of people It wasn’t the kind of things we wanted to hear.
What really shocked us was to learn from people working for various organizations that Honduran troops were moving to the border for a possible confrontation with the Nicaraguan troops in the heart of La Moskitia. In the last few weeks the tension has been building over a maritime territorial conflict between the two countries. Although we think it is unlikely that we will find ourselves in the middle of a war, we are aware that with the current tension on both sides all the people mentioned above are nervous and could have itchy trigger fingers. Through fear or unhappiness, itchy fingers on an AK 47 pointing at you are never good. Considering the current developments, we decided to investigate the situation more when we reach Puerto Lempira, the last border town, to evaluate the risk. If the situation is confirmed, it isn’t worth putting ourselves into a position where we would be easy targets. In such a scenario, robber would be the best we could hope for. We will then consider delaying or canceling the Nicaraguan route to Costa Rica and replace it with the Atlantic coast of Costa Rica maybe up to the Panama Canal. The hard and fast rule is compromise your itinerary before you compromise your life.
We covered 150 nautical miles (about 300 km) in 10 days and most against a strong headwind. For 10 days we pushed hard and our bodies felt heavy from the irregular schedule we imposed on ourselves to adapt to the weather and sea conditions. Lack of sleep and intense physical workouts don’t work well without a proper diet. We were tired and our muscles screamed for a break. Regular dosage of Ibuprofen were no longer effective. We had planned to stop for a rest day in Brus but were so shocked by the filth of the town that we decided to move on.
At 4:30 in the morning, we carried our kayaks back to the canal and loaded them, trying not to touch the decomposing garbage and foul mud on the shore. It was appalling and the smell was atrocious. I paddled out with my legs set on deck until I could rinse them in cleaner water before folding them back inside.
Brus was our worst layover since paddling off from Baja, Mexico a year and half ago. What surprised me most though, was that the pollution created an incredible bloom of bio-fluorescent plankton. Each paddle stroke was illuminated for a few seconds and the wake from our bows and sterns produced a constant stream of fluorescent green. We could also follow the fish for they left trails of light. It was like being inside a computer game with special effects.
The Laguna de Brus is large and to exit we had two choices. One was to paddle back to the only entrance, 10 miles in the opposite direction, the other one was to paddle 4.5 miles to the nearest shore and portage over the sandbar to the open sea. We choose the second option.
When we arrived at the sandbar shortly after sunrise, the sight that met our eyes did not excite us. The ocean seemed out of control. Brown, silt colored waves were breaking all over. We did not even think about trying to launch on this mad ocean. My experience of a few days ago (see "The New Rush: Kayak Back Surfing at Night (4/06/2000)") had taught us better.
After portaging all the equipment, Luke took a nap while I read a book (News of a Kidnapping from Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the perfect book to read just before crossing the border to Nicaragua). Later in the morning the ocean seemed a little calmer. In spite of the strong headwind we would have to fight, we decided to try to make some distance.
I paddled out first while Luke filmed my launch. It was not a technical launch, just a matter of powering through a series of. big rollers. Most people I have kayaked with describe me as a powerful paddler, but when I reached the last couple of sets, there was nothing I could do to get through. I charged full speed and barely made it over. Then I had to power paddle into the next one, and the next one and the next one. Rollers were coming without halt. After over three minutes of intense effort, I had been hit and half-submerged by numerous waves and had not progressed an inch. I was exhausted and entirely out of breath. I had nothing left in me, but the rollers didn’t stop. No matter how hard I tried to keep paddling, I was losing ground. I thought I would not make it. They were one-story high walls of water coming at me and pounding me. I started to worry that if I exhausted myself any more, I might not even be able to safely surf back to the beach, but I hated the idea of quitting. I noticed that on the right the break didn’t look as hard to pass so I put all I had left into angling my kayak into the waves and making my way toward that narrow window. When I finally made it I let out a whoop and rested outside the surf zone and watched Luke. I could only see him every few seconds when the largest swell lifted me up. It had taken me 8 minutes to come out, so I knew Luke wouldn’t meet me soon. I saw him battling the first roller, then nothing. He disappeared and even when large swells lifted me up, I couldn’t see anything. It was as if he had sunk to the bottom of the ocean. All I could hear were the waves breaking. I worried. Then I caught a glimpse of his kayak. It was floating empty. Words instantly came to my mind, “Shit, he capsized!” I looked for him for a few seconds but still didn’t see any signs of him. When I started to paddle toward the beach to assist him, he reappeared. He was pulling his kayak back to shore. Reassured, I remained behind the surf zone and waited. I knew he would be exhausted and would probably need a few minutes to empty his kayak from water and rest. After 10 minutes, I could see that Luke was all right, but he wasn’t doing anything. His kayak was set on the beach while he walked back and forth. It was very frustrating not knowing what was happening. Sometimes he seemed to be leaning over his kayak like if he was fixing something, or getting ready to try again, then he would walk back toward the highest beach doing nothing. He never gave me a sign to return, so I just continued to wait.
After half an hour I was boiling with rage. Luke was still on the beach while I was trying to keep my kayak from capsizing and from drifting in the current. I didn’t want to return to the beach unless he called me. It was too much effort coming out the first time. And I began to wonder, “Is he going to give up without even a second try? Did he break something? If so, why doesn’t he signal me? What the hell is he doing?”
Finally after half an hour, he tried to launch again. I followed his progression wave by wave as he disappeared and reappeared every few seconds. He aimed for the best place, an opening where the waves weren’t breaking as hard. Once out, he explained to me that he had capsized on his first attempt, and then could not get off the beach. He missed on four consecutive launches, which I could not see. All I could see was when he had returned to the beach to empty his kayak. Then he said he never signaled me because being short sighted he couldn’t see me and had no idea where I was. He didn’t even think that I was watching.
When we started to paddle, the wind was already blowing hard and right in our face. Our progress was slow and painful, as we had to fight the swell, the wind and the current. After an hour and a half it was Luke’s turn to be furious. “Why the hell are we doing this? We’re not moving!” he said. I had had it as well. I was drained. For a few days already we had been pushing our physical limits and were near exhaustion. After two hours and less than four miles we gave up and returned to the beach. We would have many more of these kinds of conditions during the day, and the waves were too large to launch at night. The Mosquito Coast was exceeding our expectations as one of the most difficult legs of the journey. “Persevere, persevere,” I told myself that night as I fought off depression and tried to sleep.
04/11/00 Out of Brus Laguna “Man Overboard” - Luke
Read Luke's account of the same day!
On our way to Patuca we restarted paddling at night. The waves were never as big, but ironically it is in these conditions that we have lost the most equipment. On one launch I lost my Nalgene water bottle that I had forgotten on deck. The next day, a wave took Luke’s bilge pump away from under the bungee ropes. The next day I lost my primary pair of sunglasses. Luke also lost his large sponge (to remove the water from his kayak) so now we must rely entirely on my bilge pump and hope it survives until our arrival in Costa Rica. Finally, I lost my small machete that I had acquired in Brazil. It was my favorite and it packed well. The problem isn’t really the price of these items, it is the necessity we have for them and the impossibility of replacing them until we take a trip back to the States. The next few weeks will be a struggle. All this reminded me of a question that a Japanese magazine asked us last year, “What is your most important equipment?” It is hard to say. We need the kayaks and paddles to go anywhere. We need dry bags to keep things dry, camping equipment to make each beach we land on feel more like home, cooking utensils to eat, navigation equipment to orient ourselves, medicines when we get sick, camera and computer equipment to document everything, etc. Instead of listing all the equipment we really need, I will mention the equipment we use daily that has impressed us the most. Use the following recommendations to outfit yourself for an expedition:
Pelican waterproof protective cases: The safest and most durable thing we’ve found to protect our camera and computer equipment from the water, salt, sand and shock. We use 6 of these boxes, and what they take up in weight and space, they make up for in the peace of mind we gain knowing that our precious equipment is always safe.
Dromedary water bags: The best water containers. They contain 2.5 gallons but pack very well when they are empty. They are easy to transport. After a year and half of abuse, they still look almost like new. They never gave a strange taste to water. Full or half full of air and/or water, they make the most comfortable pillows. A winning product for any camping trip or heavy expedition.
MSR Stove: Luke constantly sings its praises, and I understand why. Not only has he used it to prepare amazing dishes (view his cooking page), but also after a year and half of abuse, in spite of the corrosion, it has never failed us.
SealPack dry bags: The most convenient, totally waterproof belt bags. We use them to keep our passports and important items at hand. They are always soaked in saltwater on the bottom of our kayaks but unlike most other drybags, they have never leaked.
Five-Ten Nemo Shoes: We wouldn’t dream of any other shoes for this trip. They are comfortable and well designed. Not only for water sports, but we actually ran and scrambled in these shoes.
REI desert pants (detachable shorts): Light, easy to wash, fast to dry, as good in the fields for bug protection as they are in town for casual dinners. We love these pants and shorts.
REI Explorer shorts: I wore out 4 pairs in the last 8 years. I can’t live without a pair of these. They look cool and have tons of great pockets to carry everything. My favorite travel shorts.
Thermarest sleeping pads: We use the ultra thin, but just love the way they pack and the comfort they provide for the weight and size. In the last year and half, we must have spent over 300 nights on these. We love them.
Snap Dragon spray skirt: We found these neoprene sprayskirts to be a dream. Month after month, they kept us dry and never lost their shape. They hold well on the kayak even when we capsize.
Garmin GPS: The GPS is an essential piece of equipment for us. We love the compact Garmin because it is small, light and easy to use and it has all the features we need.
Toshiba Libretto computers: Although Toshiba has turned us down for sponsorship, we have to admit that we love the two Librettos we use to produce our website. With all the sun, sand, salt, humidity and sweat we have exposed them too, they still continue to do the job well. They are the smallest, fully-operational palmtops out there. When we need to upgrade, we will certainly upgrade to the newest Libretto. I have produced the full CASKE 2000 website with these.
Note: Some of these products come from our sponsors (Pelican, REI-MSR, Five Ten, Garmin), others don’t (Cascade Designs, Snap Dragon, Toshiba). Sponsorship has not influenced us to produce this list.
When we paddled into Brus people warned us to be very careful further south in Patuca. “The people in Patuca all have guns. They wait for other people to pass by, chase them with their powerful motorboats and attack them with no mercy. They kill to rob,” we were told. As we paddled toward Patuca in the early morning, these words echoed in our heads. When we heard a motorboat, I looked up and saw it coming right at us bouncing up and down on the high swell. For a second I felt nervous, but when I saw the expression of the boat captain, smiling and cheering us on, I relaxed. He told us that he was bringing passengers to the sand bar of Brus and would return. An hour later he was back as we were approaching the mouth of the Patuca river.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“South to Puerto Lempira, but we will stop in Patuca to rest,” I replied.
“I’m going to Patuca, I can give you a lift,” he said.
Then I explained that we wanted to paddle. He worried that the waves were too big for us to handle at the entrance of the river, but I was confident we could handle them. People always underestimate our abilities to handle high seas in our small kayaks. Concerned, he said he would come to meet us outside of the surf zone when we got there. An hour later we arrived in front of Patuca, there were no boats armed to the teeth to rob us, just our friend who came out to see if we were all right. We were happy to see him. The river was curving its way into the ocean protected by a long sandbar and the waves were hiding the exact entrance location. We would have not known where to aim had he not appeared in his boat. After nicely refusing his offer of a lift one more time, we followed him as he led us through the waves into the mouth of the river. Once on shore our new Miskito friend Feliceando then offered us breakfast with his brother’s family.
We arrived in town and as usual we were an attraction for the locals. People came from all over to see the two little boats that the crazy gringos had paddled from La Ceiba. Feliceando’s brother received us very well. His wife prepared us a wonderful meal of stewed iguana. They were so hospitable that we decided to call it a day and spend the night there. Helped by our hosts, we carried all our gear into their front yard and set up camp.
Our host Felimon seemed much better off than most people we had met in La Moskitia. We wondered if he was one of the local drug barons, especially when we saw his wife hide a 45 caliber automatic handgun that had been sitting on the living room table. But Felimon was friendly and knowledgeable and we talked for hours.
We learned that he worked as a boat captain for a large foreign-owned fishing boat. This explained his social status. As for the gun, like for everybody else in La Moskitia, owning one was necessary to protect his family and wealth. Our host was very interested in our expedition and asked many questions.
The family enjoyed watching us eat the local food, as they were sure that gringos had never eaten iguana before. Iguana meat is actually delightful. It is a white meat that could best be described in taste and texture as a cross between chicken and white fish. Only the legs and long tail contain any meat. They were surprised to hear that it was not our first iguana meal. In other places along our crossing of La Moskitia as well we had been fed iguana. This month though was the real iguana season, for the females were full of eggs. We were served the delicious reptile with its eggs. They looked like round balls slightly bigger than a quail egg and with an opaque yellow color. Luke tried to stick his fork on one that rolled to the side of his plate. He then grabbed it with one hand and shoved it in his mouth. Curious about the taste, I waited, staring at him, looking for a facial expression of approval or disgust. He chewed on it repeatedly, first with surprise then almost with frustration. Luckily a neighbor had just called our host outside. After a minute, Luke discretely removed the egg out of his mouth and told me: “Man this thing is impossible to eat!” I tried and agreed with him.
We tried to be discrete but I’m sure we must have looked like two clowns chewing on giant wads of bubble gum. Our host had left his eggs in his plate and was talking outside. Were we the victims of a joke set up for dumb gringos? No it couldn’t be, everywhere in La Moskitia we had heard that the iguana eggs were one of the best delicacies. People often feel the stomach of female iguanas with their hands to check for the eggs and when they find them their faces light up with joy.
I had eaten weird things in my jungle explorations through Indonesia and Thailand, but the worms, the giant rats, the dogs, the bats, snakes and other exotic foods were at least edible and even often quite delicious. Yet we were clueless as to how we should attack these rubbery eggs. I was afraid to choke on them. Swallowing these things was more than we could handle. We knew we couldn’t leave these in our plates and offend our host. Our plans to throw these things to the dogs were interrupted by Felimon’s return to the table.
As he sat down and grabbed an egg with his hand, he asked us: “You don’t like the eggs?” Then holding the rubber ball in his right hand, he stuck two of his front teeth in it, tore the skin and squeezed out the cooked yolk inside his mouth. He then put the skin back on the side of his plate with a grin of satisfaction. We felt stupid and replied, “Geeee we haven’t tried them yet.” Knowing the technique it was much easier. The yolk was very rich, more than any egg I had ever had I would still say that I favored the meat. We finished our meal and laughed at our mistakes.
After our meal I went to lay down in a hammock and reviewed in my mind our full paddling trip of the Honduran Mosquito Coast to that point. We had prepared ourselves for encounters with dangerous bandits, and drug dealers, and for dealing with inhospitable people and the hardships of malnutrition. Yet here we were, in the house of locals, being fed and treated like royal emissaries. We had anticipated much more danger. It can be wonderful to be wrong.
Paddling south from Patuca, we went through the poorest villages we had seen on the Honduran coast. People seemed to only have one question in mind: “How much does this cost?” They asked about everything they could see, the kayaks, our compasses, etc. Some even asked us exactly how much money we had and that made us feel very uncomfortable. We tried to hide ourselves on beaches at night, but people often walk miles to tend to their fields of yucca and often found us. We worried about surprise visits at night but usually people were just curious, and in spite of our worries we never were threatened.
On our last day, we paddled to a small village on the Barra. We hired five men to help us carry our equipment across to the laguna side. From there we paddled to Puerto Lempira finishing the first stage of our La Ceiba to Costa Rica section of the journey. We paddled 216 nautical miles (400 km) in 15 days (with one day rest in Trujillo), during which we averaged less than five hours sleep a night. We got up between 1:00 and 3:30AM daily to paddle over 15 miles of heavy seas. The only protein we consumed was in villages, mainly from iguana meat. And all the dried food we subsisted on, mainly carbohydrates, wasn’t enough to replenish our bodies. Our muscles ached and our skin itched and we looked forward to the plane that would take us back from Puerto Lempira to La Ceiba, to spend a week resting and working on our computers.
From a distance, Puerto Lempira looked like a post-card paradise. I wondered why numerous people had described the place as a dump. The closer we got, the worse it became and the more I understood. We checked into the closest hotel to the beach, an old room with a dirty floor and broken screens on the windows. The toilets were filthy and didn’t flush. The showers smelled as bad as the toilets. For all this luxury, we paid more than we had in much nicer places in most other places in Honduras. The reality is that there wasn’t much choice in Puerto Lempira and that for lodging, and food, we were captive consumers.
After moving into our quarters, we went to the immigration office. Not surprisingly, it was closed. We wanted to know the situation at the border and the real story about the dangers of traveling to Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua. We knocked on the door of the private house of the Immigration officer. A man named Cristobal invited us in. We interrupted him in the middle of a movie and felt bad, especially as we had heard that the immigration in Puerto Lempira was the worst to deal with. Cristobal spent a half an hour telling us all he knew about Nicaragua with a genuine interest and respect for our expedition. He even agreed to write us a letter of recommendation for the immigration officers in Puerto Cabezas. It would later prove to be a great help. He was in fact the nicest and most helpful immigration officer we had ever met.
Our other great fortune was to meet a man named Jacinto Molina. A local Miskito leader and political activist, he was fascinated by our project. He immediately agreed to keep our equipment for us and help us plan the next stage in Nicaragua. Through his job as an indigenous emissary, he has traveled all over the world. He too took great interest in our expedition and showed great concern for our safety and gave us contacts further south in Nicaragua. We now return to La Ceiba with much more assurance that our gear is safe and that our passage through Nicaragua will be a smooth one.
1 km = 0.62 statute miles
1 Nautical Mile = 1.85 km
1 Nautical Mile = 1.15 miles
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View our page featuring Honduras Travel Information
CASKE 2000 Itineraries: