The Lost City of the Monkey God Page 3

The Harvard Mayanist Gordon Willey (now deceased) immediately brought up the legend of the White City. “I remember when I was down in Honduras in 1970, there was talk of a place called Ciudad Blanca, the White City, back in there away from the coast. It was bar talk from the usual random bullshitters, and I thought it was probably some limestone cliffs.” Nevertheless, Willey was intrigued enough to want to check it out. “But I never could get a permit to go in there.” The Honduran government rarely issued archaeological permits to explore that backcountry jungle, because it is so perilous.

A week later, Blom’s employer did call me. His name was Steve Elkins and he described himself as a “cinematographer, a curious man, an adventurer.” He wanted to know why the hell I was interrogating Blom.

I said I wanted to do a short New Yorker piece about his search for this legendary lost city—whatever it was. He grudgingly agreed to talk, but only if I didn’t identify the site or the country it was in. Off the record, he finally admitted that they were, indeed, looking for Ciudad Blanca, the White City, also known as the Lost City of the Monkey God. But he didn’t want me to reveal any of this in my New Yorker piece until he’d had a chance to confirm it on the ground. “Just say it’s a lost city somewhere in Central America. Don’t say it’s in Honduras or we’re screwed.”

Elkins had heard the legends, both indigenous and European, about the White City that described an advanced and wealthy city with extensive trading networks, deep in the inaccessible mountains of Mosquitia, untouched for centuries, as pristine as the day it was abandoned; it would be an archaeological discovery of enormous significance. “We thought that by using space imagery we could locate a target area and identify promising sites” for later ground exploration, Elkins explained. Blom and his team had zeroed in on an area about a mile square, which he had labeled Target One or T1 for short, where there appeared to be large man-made structures. Elkins refused to elaborate.

“I can’t tell you any more, because this space-imaging data can be purchased by anybody. Anybody could do what we did and grab the credit. It could also be looted. All we have left to do is go there, which we plan to do this spring. By then,” he added, “we hope we’ll have something to announce to the world.”*


The devil had killed him for daring to look upon this forbidden place.

Most Sacred Majesty:—… I have trustworthy reports of very extensive and rich provinces, and of powerful chiefs ruling over them… [I] ascertained that it lies eight or ten days’ march from that town of Trujillo, or rather between fifty and sixty leagues. So wonderful are the reports about this particular province, that even allowing largely for exaggeration, it will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages, the density of its population, and the policy of its inhabitants.

In the year 1526, Hernán Cortés penned this report, his famous “Fifth Letter” to the Emperor Charles V, while aboard his ship anchored in Trujillo Bay off the coast of Honduras. Historians and anthropologists believe this account, written six years after Cortés’s conquest of Mexico, planted the seeds for the myth of Ciudad Blanca, the City of the Monkey God. Given that “Mexico”—i.e., the Aztec Empire—had staggering wealth and a capital city of at least 300,000 inhabitants, his assertion that the new land was even greater is remarkable. The Indians called it the Old Land of Red Earth, he wrote, and his vague description placed it somewhere in the mountains of Mosquitia.

But at the time, Cortés was embroiled in intrigue and had to fight off rebellion by his subordinates, so he never did embark on a search for the Old Land of Red Earth. The jagged mountains clearly visible from the bay may have convinced him that such a journey would be daunting. Nevertheless, his story took on a life of its own, much as tales of El Dorado persisted in South America for centuries. Twenty years after the Fifth Letter, a missionary named Cristóbal de Pedraza, who would become the first Bishop of Honduras, claimed to have traveled deep into the jungles of Mosquitia on one of his arduous missionary journeys, where he came across an astonishing sight: From a high bluff, he found himself looking down on a large and prosperous city spread out in a river valley. His Indian guide told him the nobles in that land took their meals from plates and goblets of gold. Pedraza was not interested in gold, however, and he continued on and never entered the valley. But his subsequent report to Charles V fed the legend.

For the next three hundred years, geographers and travelers told stories about ruined cities in Central America. In the 1830s, a New Yorker named John Lloyd Stephens became obsessed with finding those cities deep in the Central American rainforest, if indeed they existed. He managed to wangle a diplomatic appointment as ambassador to the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America. He arrived in Honduras in 1839, just as the republic was falling apart into violence and civil war. Amid the chaos, he saw an opportunity (albeit a dangerous one) to strike out on his own to seek out these mysterious ruins.

He brought with him a superb British artist, Frederick Catherwood, who packed a camera lucida in order to project and copy every tiny detail of whatever they might find. The two trekked for weeks through Honduras with native guides, pursuing rumors of a great city. Deep in the interior, they finally arrived at a miserable, unfriendly, mosquito-ridden village called Copán on the banks of a river near the Guatemalan border. They learned from the locals that across the river there were indeed ancient temples, inhabited only by monkeys. As they reached the riverbank, they saw on the far shore a wall of cut stone. After fording the river on muleback, they climbed a staircase and entered the city.

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