“There is no guarantee about getting, into, through or out of the Mosqueita”. That was the warning to adventurers who might be bold enough to wander into one of the largest swamps in Central America. One of these crazies was me, of course.
I had researched the maps for months looking for a road where I could enter this strange, humid, yet enticing, prehistoric wilderness. My plan was to walk for a week enjoying the excitement of wobbling through thousands of acres of undeveloped, wet, exotic swamp land. Unfortunately, there are no long roads into or around the Mosquetia. Locals travel by small boat along the many rivers and lagoons which never succeed in draining this vastly unchartered paradise.
The rickety, aging five seat aircraft sputtered and spit black engine fumes as it circled the village of La Ceiba. I had come here on a dying old bus which somehow had successfully negotiated the hilly, narrow coastline road 100 kilometers west of Trujillo.
A lonely strip of dirt splintered by hundreds of pebbles served as both landing zone and runway. As the aging plane landed dust blackened visibility as a storm little rock pelted the waiting passengers. I was determined to get to Mosquetia. Chancing this iffy flight was my only opportunity.
The five passengers bounced and coughed as engine fumes drifted through the open windows and into the cabin. Cargo crates slid patiently up and down the only aisle as we bobbed and weaved over the emerald green jungle not far below us.
I saw the school children dressed in crisp blue uniforms just before the kicked up a cloud of debris and landed on still another dirt path. The odor of stale river water liberally mixed with engine carbon monoxide finally made me vomit. I stepped off the so-called airplane realizing once again that I was a better walker than flier. Then I noticed the children’s home crafted sign “Welcome to Palacios”. Since this fight only arrived every other day the children were released from school as soon as they heard the grinding of the engine of approaching planes. This was little village tourism at its finest.
My fresh water supply was low. I washed out my stale mouth with warm beer being sold by one of the school kids parents.
There were no hotels although a one room shack leaning precariously close to the murky river could be rented for a nights stay. When I saw the pipante dugout canoe equipped with an outboard motor I immediately opted to head downriver into the unknown jungle which at the time seemed more pleasing.
Xavier the crafts captain had bronze flaking skin a bi product of his Indian heritage and a lifetime trolling in the sun. He wore a perpetual smile yet when it came to money and the cost of maneuvering his pipante down the Rio Platano, he was unyielding. “Cinquenta dollares Americano” ‘We on river long time”
Moments before he untied the wobbly craft from a wilting palm tree a young blonde woman ran up to the boat hollering “Can you take us too” in perfect Spanish. Her young American husband quickly joined us and off the four off we drifted into La Mosquetia.
My two youthful traveling companions were American Peace Corps volunteers who had been stationed in Honduras for over a year. They had first arrived in La Mosquetia as idealistic newlyweds.
“We are trying to help this country. Our job is to prevent poachers from stealing nesting turtle eggs along the beach. The giant turtles are endangered” the woman said. He husband added “The local village leader has a big house right on the lagoon. He just built a new boat dock. He makes his money buying turtle eggs from the poor fishermen and then selling the eggs up in San Pedro. There is a big profit. This is the guy we are really fighting.”
“It’s hard the fishermen are very poor and need the money to buy food.”
After three hours maneuvering down the river surrounded by giant ferns, ancient trees and hundreds of cackling birds and other unknown animals, Xavier suddenly turned north into a narrow shallow estuary. He tilted the outboard upwards to prevent it from becoming entangled in the weeds and decaying tree limbs encrusted in the muddy river bottom.
“Culebras” he said in Spanish, “no good” in English. He was warning us that poisonous snakes were lurking alongside the leaky boat.
“The last time we went on a trip we came home only to find a big snake in our house even though it is built on six foot high stilts. We didn’t know what to do so our neighbors caught the great anaconda. They cut off its head and ate the snake that very night.”
As we turned into another muddy channel the young man remarked. “We don’t know if we made the right decision to join the Peace Corps. All of our friends have already started their after college lives. They have houses, cars, kids. We are two years behind them”
In a muddy cove, sheltered by giant ferns and drooping mangrove trees, and guarded by swarms of stinging mosquitoes, we moored for a few minutes at the head man’s rickety dock as the young couple walked confidently into the dark jungle.
Xavier held up two fingers signaling that we were only two hours down river form the butterfly farm our destination for the night. I was gratified. I didn’t want to be stranded in this irry Central American swamp – and the Tuk Tuk had not lights.
The frogs cronked and crooked all night.
I dreamt of Papillion. For many minutes I knew I was with the American actor Steve Mc Queen, Papillion, as he walked up the musty palm shaded path from the swamp to the tiny jungle shack in the heart of a leper colony. There were no lepers here, just the frogs feeding on throngs of mosquitoes and who in turn were gobbled and swallowed by the mighty snakes which I couldn’t see.
The exotic butterflies too, bathed in blue, green, and crimson as they hung silently to their thin bamboo cages, were also awed and uneasy of this steamy little island.