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An unforgettable adventure to Honduras

Dec 23, 2014 10:09PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

By Alan Turns

Special to Newark Life

I went over my checklist for the last time. After a dozen trips to Eastern Mountain Sports and a few visits to various websites, I finally had everything I needed: Lightweight pants and shirts, Teva water shoes, Frogg Togg rainwear, a fleece towel and blanket, Deet, a backpack, a Camelback, a headlamp, a hammock, and more.

Ten days in the rainforest demanded a few purchases, so for nearly a year my brother, Larry, two sisters, Kerry and Laurie, and brother-in-law, Craig, had been corresponding and collecting what we would need for a river-rafting expedition that my brother had decided would be a great adventure and bonding experience. La Moskitia Ecoaventuras offers one of the most interesting expeditions of Central America.

On the first day of the journey, we were ready by 6 a.m. and loaded all our gear into the back of two pickup trucks in La Ciba. Our guides, Jorge, Mino and Humberto, introduced themselves and off we went for a twelve-and-a-half hour drive through Honduras. We had been told to be prepared for anything, and within the first few hours we had our first test as we came upon a bridge that was blocked with people and traffic. We thought it might have been an accident, but evidently a group from the local village was protesting electricity cutoffs and had closed the bridge on purpose. No worries. Not on this trip. We just drove down the embankment, drove across the river under the bridge and up the other side. Okay, that was cool. And so we went on.

Honduras is poor, which was evident as we drove through the country. As we headed up into the mountains, the scenery was beautiful—clear cutting for crops  made for pretty vistas but exposed a nasty destruction of forested land. Jorge pointed out that Honduras needed to have stronger land management, and that the Rio Platano Biosphere that we were headed to needed funding to ensure that the forested land wasn't destroyed there.

We passed through numerous checkpoints. Drug-smuggling is a huge problem in Honduras and this became more evident as we headed into the jungle. Our last few hours of this part of the journey were on a dirt road that was dotted with holes that we dodged as the villages and people became more sparse. The road eventually ended at our first night's destination, the Bonanza ranch.

We unloaded all our gear and met our host family. The yard was filled with dogs, chickens and horses, two of which added to a rather restless night as we slept on mats on the "living room" floor. We were served a meal of chicken, beans and rice and then called it a day. The roosters started calling out at about 3 a.m. Sunrise wasn't until 5 a.m. Ugh.

After a breakfast of eggs, beans and rice, we watched as all the gear was loaded onto mules and horses. Rafts, barrels of food and equipment, dry bags, tents,  etc. were carefully distributed and I wondered how the animals could carry it all. Soon we began our ten-and-a-half hour "hike" into the jungle. Along the way, Jorge and Mino pointed out various birds, plants, insects and animals. Their knowledge was amazing and their excitement was contagious. We learned which plants you could eat, and which ones should be avoided. Spiders were harmless, we were told, but certain ants were poisonous—as were some snakes. These guys truly appreciated their country and were anxious to share it with us. The hike was beautiful and interesting, but it was also long and arduous. Knowing that we needed to reach our camp at the river's edge, kept us moving.

The mules had deposited our gear at the campsite and Humbero had also gone ahead to set up camp. Two huge tarps were strung up and a raft was placed underneath it as that would be our "social" area where we  would store our packs, gather for conversation, and have our meals. A fire was started and tents were set up. We were all exhausted but when a hot meal of pasta and fresh vegetables was served, we started to come around and begin to enjoy the adventure.

The next morning Mino gave us paddling instructions and the commands we would need to safely navigate the river: “forward,” “left back,” “right back,” and “stop.” Our guides were extremely experienced on the river and we were not. Our learning curve was steep as we loaded the rafts and headed down stream. Larry, Kerry, Mino and I were in the red raft. Laurie, Craig and Humberto were in the yellow raft and Jorge was in a kayak. Thankfully, we were all in good shape as the paddling was much more strenuous than we anticipated.

After a couple hours of paddling in several sets of what are considered class 3 rapids, we seemed to be getting the hang of it. Then I heard my sister, Kerry, scream in pain. She had been bitten by a bullet ant on her thigh and finger. Mino was next to her in the back of the raft and without hesitation began to try to suck the poison out. The pain was excruciating for Kerry. Jorge, who had been in a kayak, came with an Epipen and worked on the finger. They must have done a good job of removing the venom because the pain began to subside over the course of a few hours and Kerry was able to enjoy the rest of the day.

After about six or seven hours of rafting, as we were about ten minutes from our next camp, disaster struck again. We were all tired and came upon a class three rapid that had a large rock with a huge log sticking out. Despite furious efforts, we did not get around it and we flipped over. Everything was secured tightly, so we didn't lose any equipment, but it was scary and sobering. Later, as I contemplated what we did wrong, I realized that I needed to  try not to anticipate our moves and just listen to Mino's instructions. Following instructions was crucial to our success as we needed to work as a team.

We reached our camp and began unloading the rafts, a chore that we would repeat each of the next seven days. The tarps were put up, the fire was started, and the tents went up. Each of us had our jobs to do. These duties became routine and took less time as the days went by. The sibling bonding we had hoped for when we planned this trip took hold, and an unexpected bonding between us and our three guides also took place.

Jorge was the leader. A wiry 53-year-old former special forces ranger, he could carry the load of two people and smile and whistle, completely unaffected by the burden. Mino, his 45-year-old younger brother, had many jobs and skills, but cooking was what we'll remember most about him. Humberto, a 34-year-old indigenous Pech Indian, spoke little English, but communication was still not much of a problem.

We will long remember our guides and the pristine environment and incredible ecosystem of Honduras. On the river each day we were treated to an abundance of wildlife. We saw three types of monkeys: howler, spider and white face, as well as river otters and deer. Iguanas would drop from branches into the water as we came upon them. One of the most exciting things for us was coming upon a mother and baby tapir crossing the river. Just before that, Kerry and Mino saw something swimming in the river, but were not close enough to identify what it was. We paddled to within feet of the tapirs and watched them head into the jungle. We were so excited and had video to document it. Little did we know that we would encounter the tapirs three more times as they crisscrossed the river. Mino thought they must have been evading prey, and that animal they had seen earlier was most likely a jaguar that had been stalking them. We also saw many birds: macaws, eagles, hawks, toucans, herons, etc.

We had two wonderful day hikes up into the rainforest. The first was a climb up along a waterfall to a series of caves which we explored. The second was to an indian archeological site where we found many ancient artifacts. We also were treated to a series of petroglyphs, mysterious drawings carved into the rocks by unknown ancient jungle settlers rumored to be possibly of Mayan origin.

We had been rafting down mostly class two and three rapids but on the fifth day we encountered class 4 rapids and were forced to portage around three of them. This required us to take everything out of both rafts and carrying gear and rafts for about a quarter of a mile down stream through the jungle and over slippery rocks to the other side. We did that three times in one day. It was extremely grueling and dangerous, but safer than trying to run class 4 rapids with fully loaded rafts. it took six hours to cover the three portages.

One of the most fun and rewarding parts of the trip was fishing. I had brought a small, collapsible rod and reel with me, as well as a few lures. the first time I fished was from the moving raft and it proved difficult at first because casting close to shore and not snagging the line was tough. But after a while I caught my first fish, a large guapote that weighed four or five pounds. I caught another Guapote that first day, a mechin and a domilon. Dinner for eight! Humberto cleaned and prepared the fish and dinner was fantastic. It is a truly great feeling to provide dinner. I was able to do it again on the last night we camped.

As we began to unload and set up our last campsite, my sister picked up a couple sleeping mats to take up to her tent and was shocked to find a curled up snake laying underneath. To her credit she backed up slowly and called for Jorge and Mino. We had just been talking the night before that it was nice that we hadn't seen any snakes so far on th trip. Well we sure we suprised to learn that this one was the most feared Fer De Lance. A single bite would require  a satellite phone call and immediate air lift out of the jungle. Instead, Mino carefully lifted the snake with a long stick and carried it the river where we thankfully watched it swim away.

Packing up our last night of camp was bittersweet. On the one hand, we had not seen another person in seven days and it was exciting to be heading down river to our first village, Las Marias, where Humberto lived. But on the other hand, the synergy our group had developed while camping was really special and that part was ending as we would be staying in a hostel the next two nights.

As we rafted toward Las Marias we began to see a few Pech and Moskita Indians out on the river and, eventually, a few wooden huts. After a few hours, we rounded the bend and stopped at Humberto's home. His children came down to greet us and we helped carry his gear up to the house. It was an open-air hut with an adobe stove. Chickens and dogs circled the yard. We met his wife and ate some home-baked cakes with coconuts.

Soon, we headed back down river to the village where we would spend the night. As we unloaded the rafts, I noticed a group of men and boys clustered around a small building and wondered what they were doing. To my surprise and delight, I learned they were watching the World Cup soccer match with electricity from a generator. Soon, I joined them and had my first cold drink in a week. A beer!

A few more beers were shared and our host family provided a nice meal of chicken, rice and beans. The next morning we loaded our gear and ourselves into long dugout canoes for a four-hour trip toward our final destination, the Caribbean sea.  We proceeded down the river and eventually cut through a mangrove channel into a huge lagoon called Ibans that lay next to the Caribbean. After getting our rooms and a snack, we walked the 1/8 mile to the ocean. It was beautiful, and we were the only ones on the beach. We spent the afternoon soaking up the sun and letting the salt water clean our bug-bitten bodies.

The next morning a 65-foot water taxi picked us up as the sun rose and we headed upriver where we were met by a 4x4 truck that took us back to La Ciba. It was nice to be headed home as I missed my family, but the experience was so much more than I had hoped for and it was tough leaving our new friends, Jorge and Mino. This was a trip not meant for everyone as it tested us physically and mentally, but it was so rewarding. For information about a trip through La Moskitia Ecoaventuras, you can reach Jorge at www.lamoskitiaecaventures.com.

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