I remember, in late 1984, standing at the exact spot, on the verdant banks of Mussel Creek, in the scrub-jungle land of north central Belize.  The sun was setting, dozens of black howler monkeys filled the heavy tropical air with Godzillan roars, gaggles of unseen birds “aak aaked” all around, the 82nd Airborne Mosquito Division launched air strikes at me, and all the time I was wondering. “Why on earth am I not sitting in the stern of a canoe right now?


The answer was simple: Though I was parked three inches from one of the most beautiful and canoeable little rivers I had ever laid eyes on, I, very regrettably, did not have a canoe, and neither did anyone I knew within 3,000 miles.  This could be because in 1984, there were serious, and justified, war-vibes making the round in Central America, and, as a result, no one seemed in the mood for playing around in canoes.


Well, that was then. Central America is a more tranquil place now. (This is not to say that things are as mellow as they could, or should, be.)  When my wife, Gay, and I decided to return, we wanted to bring with us some means of paddling the lakes and flat water rivers we had seen during out 1984 travels through Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Yessiree, we brought a canoe—a 17- foot, used Alumacraft, purchased for $350 from a displaced Minnesotan on the frozen shores of Summit County Colorado’s Lake Dillon, specifically for a Central American foray by canoe.


(I was pleasantly surprised to learn, though, over the course of our two-month trip, that we really did not need to bring a canoe with us.  The canoeing scene in Central America has matured in the last six years.  Now, let’s not confuse Belize with the Boundary Waters. But, unlike times past, you actually can rent canoes in several dozen prime Central American paddling locales, most often at reasonable rates.)


We made our encore visit last spring.  During a driving Colorado High Country wet snow blizzard in April, we tied our recently procured canoe atop our 1981 four-wheel-drive Toyota pick-up (high clearance—a must), and pointed ourselves south.  After five long days, we drove, sweating, across the Mexican border into Belize.


BELIZE: THE CHICLERO


The morning after our arrival in Belize, we headed straight for the shores of Mussel Creek.  Here, six years prior, I had sorely lamented the fact that I was a canoe-less individual.

Mussel Creek is lo
cated near the small village of Bermudian Landing, about 30 miles—and two hours of bouncing along a dirt road—from Belize City.  It not only is post-card beautiful, but replete with wildlife.  The village borders one of the most exotic wildlife reserves in the world: the Community Baboon Sanctuary. This sanctuary, which is celebrating its second anniversary this spring, is home to one of the most dense concentrations of black howler monkeys (also know as baboons) in Central America.


The sanctuary is the brainchild of American primatologist Robert Horwich, who had been cruising around Belize in the early ‘80s trying to determine whether the Belize howlers constituted a bonafide subspecies. It was typical heavy-duty science stuff, requiring months of schlepping through jungles with notebooks and binoculars.


“I found that the biggest concentrations of howlers existed near Burmudian Landing,” Horwich told me.  “It was a unique area for one other reason: almost all the land was owned by local subsistence framers who did not hunt the howlers, like they do in other parts of Central America.


It is very unusual in Latin America for the subsistence farmers to own their own land.”


A park employee, Antonito Solar, upon hearing that we had a canoe, introduced us to his brother, Donaldo, a professional hunter and Chiclero.  Chicleros gather chicle sap, which is used to make, among other things, chewing gum. Donaldo, according to his brother, knows the backcountry of this part of Belize better than anyone. Donaldo told us about a lagoon, as lakes are called in Belize, where we would probably see freshwater manatees and crocodiles.  He said Mussed Creek would lead us there.  We signed Donaldo on as our guide and were on our way, finally paddling in Central American waters.


With Donaldo in the bow, Gay taking photos and supervising from amidships, and me in the stern, we headed into the wind and 90-degree heat up lazy Mussel Creek.


Along the way, we passed hundreds of tropical birds, dozens of howlers, several coatimundis, and many fishermen, who were in the water swimming with a river-wide net between them.


“Catch anything?” I asked.

“Nah, mon, just a few small crocs.”

“Uh, how small?”

“Only about six or eight feet, mon. Nothin’ ta worry about.”


Mental note: nice placed to paddle, but ixnay on the swimming.


At noon, we rounded a bend, where a small tributary was supposed to flow into Mussel Creek.  The plan was to paddle up this small tributary to the lagoon, but the creek was bone dry.  Donaldo suggested we stash the canoe and hike five miles through the thick jungle to the lagoon.  Never having seen a manatee, Gay and I were quite psyched at the thought.  We pulled the canoe up on a lush savannah, where we would camp, and pushed it into the woods.  Donaldo cut several branches to cover the canoe and our camping gear.


Donaldo has been hunting in these woods his whole life.  He says it is one of the richest game areas in the whole country, sporting populations of tapir, deer, agoutis, and, jungles being jungles, poisonous snakes.  Belize is home to one of the most fearsome snakes in the Western Hemisphere, the Fer de Lance, called the “tommygoff” in Belize.  It can grow 15 feet in length, and, unlike most nasty tropic dwelling serpents, it is hemotoxic—its poison works through blood and tissue rather than the nervous system.  Donaldo claimed to have been bitten twice in his life and showed us the scars.  He always carried a “bush doctor” snakebite kit, which consisted of such hi-tech medicines as instant coffee and garlic—a far cry from your basic mobile Mayo Clinic.


After three long hours, we reached the shores of the lagoon, from which we could see not-a-damned thing. The growth along the shore was too dense; I climbed a fallen tree trunk out over the water for a bet
ter look, until Donaldo reminded me that the crocs hereabouts can grow to 25 feet.


On the way back to camp, we passed a few chicle trees. Though it was not chicle season, Donaldo showed us how to coax the sap from the bark.  He folded a leaf to catch the sap and, with his machete, made a series of cuts in the trunk.  In the rainy season, the sap flows thick, Donald said. We had to be happy with a trickle.


Chicle harvesting is one of the forms of sustainable extraction that very well could be the last hope of the world’s remaining tropical rainforest.  Like allspice and Brazil nut gathering, and rubber harvesting (and guiding gingos through the jungle), chicle gathering is an important industry that does no harm to the rainforest.  Hundreds of Central Americans, like Donaldo, rely on chicle to make ends meet. Because Belize has the highest percentage of protected lands of any country in the world, almost 28 percent, Belizean chicleros need not fear for their livelihood.  In other parts of Central America, things are very different in this regard.


The next morning, we paddled down stream to the truck.  Mussel Creek flows into the Belize River, which flows into the Caribbean.  It was tempting to just keep on going.  But we had other paddling destinations in mind.


GUATEMALA: THE SLIDE


For the definition of a paradise, look up Guatemala’s Lake Peten Itza. The third-largest body of fresh water in Guatemala is warm as bathwater, and from its shoreline rises verdant, monkey-infested hills.  The famed Mayan ruins of Tikal are nearby.  The lake forms the southern boundary of the Maya Biosphere Reserve, which has an area over twice as big as Yellowstone.  The locals include Jaguars, pumas, jaguarundis, deer, tapirs, lorexes, agoutis, sloths, anteaters, coatimundis, howler monkeys, spider monkeys, and birds everywhere--including three species of toucans.  And, yes, several species of poisonous snakes, including our old amigo, the Fer de Lance. It’s unbelievable.


The put-in for paddling trips around Peten Itza is the island town of Flores, connected to the mainland by a causeway.  Flores is one of the prettiest little towns you will ever see in your life, with its winding alleyways and cobblestone streets.  It’s also sinking.  During particularly rainy rainy seasons, Peten Itza’s water rises and submerges the first levels of many of Flores’ buildings.


We put in right off the causeway and paddled toward a small national park, Petencito (literally, “Little Peten”), several miles away.  We left shortly after sunrise and, at a mellow pace, arrived at Petencito less than an hour later.


Petencito, which I had visited twice before, is a captivating little spot.  There’s a small restaurant and bar, where you can buy very cold beer.  We needed one of those cold beers before out return to The Slide.


We first visited The Slide six years ago, in the company of a Canadian couple on their honeymoon. We had a guide who asked us, simply, if we wanted to have a little fun.   It was pouring rain at the time, and the rain felt so good we were up for anything.  The guide led us to the top of the tallest water slide in the known universe.


It dropped from the top of a hill into the lake. It was person’s-width wide, made of hyper-smooth cement, with sides that rose about head-high.  About a quarter of the way down, it twisted 90 degrees. It must have been as long as the space shuttle’s landing strip.


The Canadian woman instantly, and smartly, said the chances of her taking a slide ride on this behemoth hovered somewhere between slim and none.  The Canadian man and I flipped a coin.  I won. He went first.


There is no way to guess how fast he was going when he ran out of slide down there above the lake, three or four time zones away.  He hit the lip at the bottom and was airborne, splashing down only after his planetary orbit had disintegrated.


I hopped on, gave myself a shove, and, by the time I hit the 90-degree curve, I sensed something was terribly amiss, that I was going much too fast. G-forces tugged at my cheeks.  Suddenly, I was soaring through the rain, the lake’s blue waters zooming by beneath me.  I tripped on the surface of the water and cart-wheeled to a sinking stop.  By the time my momentum ceased, I felt like I’d snorted a gallon of water, and my shorts looked like I had put them on backward.


When I finally crawled back to the top of the slide, the Canadian woman asked: “Were you as terrified as you looked?”


Did I want to go again? The guide asked. I told him I thought it was getting a little late and maybe we should be getting back to Flores.


Gay and I looked at The Slide this time, but neither of us felt up to taking a ride.  We headed back to Flores as the afternoon winds picked up.  We paddled around Flores Island, then headed to the other side of the lake.  By nightfall, we had paddled around a fair chunk of Lake Peten Itza.  We were dumbfounded at its beauty, and that we had to go only a short distance away from the main attraction to be by ourselves in the wilderness.


HONDURAS: THE HUNTED



Honduras has a bad reputation among Americans.  It is known as Central America’s poorest nation, though, judging from outward appearance, it is better off than Belize, Guatemala, Nicaragua, or El Salvador.


During the dark days of the mid 1980’s Honduras also was the home away from home for the CONTRAS, many of whom were based at the insistence of the Reagan administration, in Honduran territory.


Despite being dealt some bad historical cards, Honduras is my favorite Central American country.  It is beautiful, the people are extremely friendly—despite that they give the worst directions in the world.  And, the country boasts one of Latin America’s most promising national parks systems, with over 80 new parks and reserves established in the past few years.


Everyone we talked to seemed to agree that Lake Yajoa, the country’s largest lake, was the place to canoe.  We found lodging at a very nice tourist mecca, complete with cabins, a restaurant, and a bar, on the north shore of the lake.  At the bar we saw about a half dozen adjuncts to the U.S. military from the massive Comayagua Air Base, where several thousand American troops are stationed.  These were burly, Southern boys, tattooed, loud, and hell-bent for a rowdy evening.


Sitting quietly at one of the bar tables was a man, who looked to be American, and a child.  We got to talking with him and he told us the kind of story that seemed so fitting for a poorly lit bar on the shores of a steamy tropical lake smack-dab in the heart of the Central American jungle.


This man was on the run from the law.  Just two weeks before, he had kidnapped his eight-year-old son from his son’s mother, his ex-wife.  This man and his ex were neck-deep in a bitter divorce, nasty enough that this man felt he had no other choice but to pick his boy up at school one day and head south at a high rate of speed.


The man was a mining engineer who had a lead on a job near Lake Yajoa.  He needed the job very badly, he said, because he had had $8,000—almost all his money—stolen in southern Mexico.  He was quiet, bookish, not the type who seemed prone to rash acts. Though it was getting on toward midnight, with huge moths circling the overhead light, this man and his son took their leave. They wanted to drive to Tegucigalpa, the capital, some two hours away.  They seemed on the verge of terminal desperation.


“I’ve already talked too much,” the man said nervously, as he headed toward the door.  “I just never know if she’s hired someone to kidnap my boy.  I think she knows I’m in Honduras.”


The full moon arched high over the lake.  Gay and I bought a few Honduran beers—“Salvavida” is the brand-name.  It means “lifesaver.” What a waste to have a lifesavers on dry ground; we pulled the canoe off the truck and slipped it into the warm, tranquil water of Lake Yajoa.


We paddled straight out, directly under the moon, and did not return until sunrise.  I don’t think Gay and I ever felt more in love.  We didn’t talk much.  We probably were thinking the same thing: If we ever found ourselves neck-deep in a nasty divorce, could either of us be driven to such extreme action?  We don’t have any children, but, you know, we have this canoe….


After a nap, shower, and breakfast, we loaded that canoe atop the truck and pointed north.  Next stop, the budding Colorado summer.





 

M. John Fayhee

Writer, Editor, Mountain Gazette Resurrector

Armed and Ready In Central America by M. John Fayhee


OUR MAN MAKES A LONG AWAITED RETURN TO BELIZE,GUATEMALA,AND HONDURAS, AND THIS TIME, HE’S BROUGHT PADDLING GEAR

This story 1st appeared in Canoe Magazine March, 1991


Photos from top to bottom of page:  Lake Peten Itza and the sinking town of Flores in Guatemala,  Dondaldo Solar, our guide, demonstrating chicle extraction on Mussel Creek, Coatimundi on Mussel Creek, John attracts a crowd in Guatemala ,Canoe loaded on truck, Lago Yajoa in Honduras


All photos by G. Gangel-Fayhee

 

Logo photo of M.John by Mark Fox

 

All Contents Copyright©2011 M. John Fayhee

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