Sunday, February 2, 2014

La Moskitia - rafting the Rio Plátano

We were told to wear rubber boots. It was a good idea. Unfortunately, they don’t really make them high enough! As we slush along the trail the sucking mud entraps our feet. As you push down on one foot in an attempt to free the other one that is stuck, it too disappears in the gloop and a helping hand from your companions is the only way to get free. Before long, there is nearly as much mud inside my boots as outside. 

Cowboy country near Olacho
Trying to avoid the mud

It’s day one of our expedition into La Moskitia, the most remote and extensive wilderness in Central America - the so-called Amazon of Central America - a land where few tourists venture and local tribes still maintain traditional lifestyles, culture and languages. There are no roads and the only way to travel is by foot or boat - and boats are only possible on the vast lagoons by the Caribbean coast and the lower reaches of the rivers that cascade from the interior ranges. To explore the interior, it is necessary to enter through the cowboy country around Olancho, hike for a day (through mud with rafts and all of your gear for 10 days) to the headwaters of the Rio Plátano and then raft downwards for over a week until you emerge at the coast. 

The paradox of the muddy trails is that, while they are difficult to hike, this is because of the horses and mules that are lugging in our rafts and other gear for our 10 day trek. The bad thing is also a good thing, so best not to complain! After half a day of walking through partially cleared cattle country, we reach the border of the Rio Plátano Biosphere Reserve and are immediately swallowed up by the luxuriant forest. It’s an exhilarating hike in spite of the mud and by the end of the day we arrive tired but satisfied at our first camp at the headwaters of the Rio Plátano. “We” are a group of 8 - two Brits, Michelle and Gavin, a Belgian girl, Katinka (who we renamed Cotinga - the birders among you will understand), myself and my birding mate William, who has been my almost constant companion for the past couple of months - and who was responsible for making this trip happen, and our guides and raft masters, Mino, Umberto and Mino’s young son Alec.

The next morning found us taking instructions on rafting - it was clear that there were not going to be any passengers on this trip. Tales of accidents and occasional deaths on the river (with other operators who no-longer run the river) ensured that we were all paying attention. So, very excited and a little anxious we took our positions and headed off down-stream responding to the shouted calls of “right-back! / forward! / left back! / back paddle!” as we plunged through the rapids. It didn’t help that both William and I are a bit dyslexic but eventually we figured out which of us was on the right and which on the left of the raft. 

Encouraging to see that the guides seem to agree on the route to take!

Now, having been warned of the various tricky situations that we might find ourselves in and instructed on how to extricate ourselves from them, I found myself in a situation that hadn’t been anticipated. As we swept around the outer curve of a bend in the river we passed under overhanging branches and vines and all ducked our heads as they brushed over us until suddenly I felt something take hold of my helmet and attempt to wrench me out of the raft. It happens that the helmets that we were wearing had a small indentation over the ears and a vine managed to snag itself in this gap and it wasn’t going to let go. My foot was anchored in a strap at the front of the boat - designed to stop me being thrown out - and it quickly became apparent that one of three things had to break - the vine (which was making it clear that it wasn’t going to yield), my ankle (not a good option) or my neck (an even less attractive one), so I took the only course available, released my foot and disappeared over the edge of the raft! Fortunately we were not in rapids at the time and so I was able to unhook the vine and in no time at all I had scrambled back on board back on board. It was a timely reminder though that this was not just a pleasure cruise.

What followed was an amazing 9 days of rafting including a couple of rest days with hikes off into the surrounding jungle to explore the forests and limestone caves. In one cave were the ancient remains of a shaman’s camp with the broken remnants of 3-legged stone tables and grinding stones apparently for making potions. 

On a few occasions, Mino considered the rapids to be too tricky to tackle so we unloaded and portaged some of the gear while the rafts were pulled through on ropes from the bank until Mino and Umberto could take them through the last hairy bits before we all climbed back on board. 

Scrambling through one of the three portages.
Tired but happy campers
Yeh! Some sunshine after a few damp days
Tapir - just emerged from a swim in the river. Saw another mother with baby as well.

Eventually we emerged on the flatter lowlands and the river calmed as we approached the fabled  Mosquito Coast. After 7 days of not seeing another soul (although there was evidence of poachers camps) we started to encounter communities along the river and later, dramatic signs of extensive forest clearing right up to the river banks along with massive erosion (it appears that this may be happening in the core of the biosphere), as cattle men (some say drug lords laundering their money through cows!) are moving into the area. Apparently this is a major route for drugs through central america and some of the characters that we passed on one boat (big cowboy hats, reflective sunglasses and guns on belts or in hand) were clearly not local indigenas.  Taking their photo was probably not a smart move!

The locals...

A muddy laundry,,,

….somehow produces clean clothes!

Definitely not a local … and no missionary either, I suspect!

At Las Marías we traded our rafts for a motorised dug-out canoe which took us to the coast at the Garífiuna village of Baltimore. The Garífunas descend from slaves from the  Caribbean who the Brits dumped on an island off Honduras after a slave rebellion on the island of St Vincent, as well as from other immigrants of African ancestry that came to work on the banana plantations.  We arrived just on dark and were up again at 3.30 a.m. to take a “collectivo” or motor boat across the coastal lagoons and canals until we then loaded all our gear into a 4x4 pickup. Together with a fleet of others, we roared off down the very narrow stretch of beach at an alarming speed, attempting to miss the waves as they broke on the sand but sometimes disappearing in a spray of salt water as the waves caught us out. I don’t know how we avoided flipping the vehicle as our driver passed the other two trucks that had got away before us but soon we discovered why the rush - at three locations, rivers emerged to the sea and the only way to get across was on one-car-at-a-time barges (bits of timber strapped on large plastic drums) pulled across by a couple of guys with a rope. Clearly our driver was determined to be first to the crossing to avoid the subsequent queue. After travelling along dirt roads for a couple of hours, and staring down a group of police who weren’t going to let us pass without a bribe, we then completed our diverse range of travel modes by taking the last leg back to base in La Ceiba, and to the end of an amazing journey, in a very comfortable air-conditioned coach. 

If you find your way here - go visit, and I’d strongly recommend that you go with La Moskitia Ecoaventuras in La Ceiba.