The Lost City of the Monkey God Page 1

Author: Douglas Preston

Genres: Historical


The Gates of Hell

Deep in Honduras, in a region called La Mosquitia, lie some of the last unexplored places on earth. Mosquitia is a vast, lawless area covering about thirty-two thousand square miles, a land of rainforests, swamps, lagoons, rivers, and mountains. Early maps labeled it the Portal del Infierno, or “Gates of Hell,” because it was so forbidding. The area is one of the most dangerous in the world, for centuries frustrating efforts to penetrate and explore it. Even now, in the twenty-first century, hundreds of square miles of the Mosquitia rainforest remain scientifically uninvestigated.

In the heart of Mosquitia, the thickest jungle in the world carpets relentless mountain chains, some a mile high, cut by steep ravines, with lofty waterfalls and roaring torrents. Deluged with over ten feet of rain a year, the terrain is regularly swept by flash floods and landslides. It has pools of quickmud that can swallow a person alive. The understory is infested with deadly snakes, jaguars, and thickets of catclaw vines with hooked thorns that tear at flesh and clothing. In Mosquitia an experienced group of explorers, well equipped with machetes and saws, can expect to journey two to three miles in a brutal ten-hour day.

The dangers of exploring Mosquitia go beyond the natural deterrents. Honduras has one of the highest murder rates in the world. Eighty percent of the cocaine from South America destined for the United States is shipped through Honduras, most of it via Mosquitia. Drug cartels rule much of the surrounding countryside and towns. The State Department currently forbids US government personnel from traveling into Mosquitia and the surrounding state of Gracias a Dios “due to credible threat information against U.S. citizens.”

This fearful isolation has wrought a curious result: For centuries, Mosquitia has been home to one of the world’s most persistent and tantalizing legends. Somewhere in this impassable wilderness, it is said, lies a “lost city” built of white stone. It is called Ciudad Blanca, the “White City,” also referred to as the “Lost City of the Monkey God.” Some have claimed the city is Maya, while others have said an unknown and now vanished people built it thousands of years ago.

On February 15, 2015, I was in a conference room in the Hotel Papa Beto in Catacamas, Honduras, taking part in a briefing. In the following days, our team was scheduled to helicopter into an unexplored valley, known only as Target One, deep in the interior mountains of Mosquitia. The helicopter would drop us off on the banks of an unnamed river, and we would be left on our own to hack out a primitive camp in the rainforest. This would become our base as we explored what we believed to be the ruins of an unknown city. We would be the first researchers to enter that part of Mosquitia. None of us had any idea what we would actually see on the ground, shrouded in dense jungle, in a pristine wilderness that had not seen human beings in living memory.

Night had fallen over Catacamas. The expedition’s logistics chief, standing at the head of the briefing room, was an ex-soldier named Andrew Wood, who went by the name of Woody. Formerly a sergeant major in the British SAS and a soldier in the Coldstream Guards, Woody was an expert in jungle warfare and survival. He opened the briefing by telling us his job was simple: to keep us alive. He had called this session to make sure we were aware of the various threats we might encounter in exploring the valley. He wanted all of us—even the expedition’s nominal leaders—to understand and agree that his ex-SAS team was in charge for the days we would be in the wilderness: This was going to be a quasi-military command structure, and we would follow their orders without cavil.

It was the first time our expedition had come together in one room, a rather motley crew of scientists, photographers, film producers, and archaeologists, plus me, a writer. We all had widely varying experience in wilderness skills.

Woody went over security, speaking in his clipped, British style. We had to be careful even before we entered the jungle. Catacamas was a dangerous city, controlled by a violent drug cartel; no one was to leave the hotel without an armed military escort. We were to keep our mouths shut about what we were doing here. We were not to engage in conversation about the project within hearing of hotel staff, or leave papers lying around our rooms referring to the work, or conduct cell phone calls in public. There was a large safe available in the hotel’s storage room for papers, money, maps, computers, and passports.

As for the hazards we would face in the jungle, venomous snakes were at the top of the list. The fer-de-lance, he said, is known in these parts as the barba amarilla (“yellow beard”). Herpetologists consider it the ultimate pit viper. It kills more people in the New World than any other snake. It comes out at night and is attracted to people and activity. It is aggressive, irritable, and fast. Its fangs have been observed to squirt venom for more than six feet, and they can penetrate even the thickest leather boot. Sometimes it will strike and then pursue and strike again. It often leaps upward as it strikes, hitting above the knee. The venom is deadly; if it doesn’t kill you outright through a brain hemorrhage, it may very well kill you later through sepsis. If you survive, the limb that was struck often has to be amputated, due to the necrotizing nature of the poison. We were, Woody said, going into an area where choppers cannot fly at night or in weather; evacuation of a snakebite victim might be delayed for days. He told us to wear our Kevlar snake gaiters at all times, including—especially—when we got up to pee at night. He warned us always to step on top of a log, and then down; we should never put our foot down on the blind side. This was how his friend Steve Rankin, Bear Grylls’s producer, was bitten when they were in Costa Rica scouting a location for a show. Even though Rankin was wearing snake gaiters, the fer-de-lance, which was hiding under the far side of the log, hit him on his boot below the protection; the fangs went through the leather like butter. “And here’s what happened,” Woody said, taking out his iPhone. He passed it around. It displayed a terrifying picture of Rankin’s foot afterward, as it was being operated on. Even with antivenin treatment, the foot necrotized and the dead flesh had to be debrided down to tendons and bone. Rankin’s foot was saved, but a piece of his thigh had to be transplanted to cover up the gaping wound.* The valley, Woody continued, appeared to be an ideal habitat for the fer-de-lance.