“All those Olancho Rivers have gold in them,” Salem explained as we peered into the dinner plate full of river sand glistening with gold specks. Ten pounds of Rio Sico beach sand in a plastic sack lay at our feet on the patio of the Villa Brinkley overlooking Trujillo Bay on the Northeast coast of Honduras.
“Well, that explains the ragtag expatriates from Colorado and California with sluice boxes and pumps in the back of their pickups I’ve seen cruising Trujillo and hanging out at the La Bahia bar,” I replied.
“Yes, but they are too late,” Kim Brinkley broke in. “Several years ago when gold was worth $900 an ounce and the Indians down in La Moskitia were more naive, you could make some money buying or even panning gold. But times have changed, the locals have it tied up and the margin doesn’t make it worth risking your life ... there’s no law down there you know.”
“This sand isn’t from the lowlands of the Moskitia Coast, Kim. I brought it down from a beach on the Rio Sico between San Esteban and a place called Paso Real in the mountains south of here.”
“Whatever … the gold in the lowlands has to come from somewhere and like another natural substance I could name, it runs downhill.”
I had been back in the Republic of Honduras for a week after a two-year absence and had come to run rivers and catch fish, not look for gold. But gold — if it was gold — had found me.
Let me back up some. Two years earlier I had joined a small group of sea kayakers led by Jeff and Molly King of Bozeman, Montana, on a two-week adventure in Klepper folding kayaks on the Caribbean coast of Honduras. We explored the area surrounding the coastal city of La Ceiba including a large estuary system known as the Cuero y Salado reserve, a sanctuary for monkeys and manatees. Later we camped on the Cayos Cochinos, a small group of high islands and cayes set like emeralds on tourmaline coral reefs and surrounded by the blue depths of the Honduran coast.
Columbus named Honduras, where he first set foot on the mainland of the Western Hemisphere on his fourth voyage in 1502, for the deep (hondo) waters close offshore. Ever since my first trip there, I had been eager to get “down east” Honduran style by visiting his first landfall at the present town of Trujillo.
Honduras is the most mountainous country in Central America. Trujillo is set against the mountains on the edge of a large semi-circular bay opening to the northeast. On the tip of the long peninsular finger which defines the northern half of the bay is the second largest port in Honduras where the refrigerated containers of Dole bananas and grapefruit sit humming in the tropical sun waiting for a Standard Fruit ship to New Orleans and the breakfast tables of the United States.
A large, shallow laguna named Guayamoreto lies just inland between the port, its nearby village known as Puerto Castilla and the town of Trujillo. The laguna is connected to the bay by a long curving natural canal or bayou.
I planned to attempt a self-supported descent of the Rio Sico which descends from the mountains of Olancho state in my folding tandem kayak. By late January, I was in-country with two large tent bags from Academy Surplus containing the boat and expedition gear including freeze-dried food, tent, kerosene-burning stove, water bottles, paddles, and most importantly (it turned out), a big roll of contractor-grade duct tape.
I was using a free ticket from the Continental Airlines frequent-flyer program. At the Houston airport, the agent charged $60 for an extra bag (I also had a piece of soft luggage which converts to a backpack.) I later saw my baggage on a scale in San Pedro Sula: it weighed over 300 pounds! Islena, the in-country carrier, charged 300 Lempira total (about $11 extra) to get all the stuff down to La Ceiba. Then it was $4 by bus for me and todo equipo on to Trujillo. One advantage Honduras had over Costa Rica at that time was low prices. Costa Rica mainlines dollars like Miami Beach. American money still goes a long way in Honduras.
Once in Trujillo, third day in-country, I started looking for a boating partner and a ride up country to the put-in. Going solo didn’t really appeal to me, but I was so focused on making this expedition happen that I was determined to do so if necessary. I knew I was looking at four days and three nights on the river with camp sites limited by the precipitous jungle on both sides.
The best map I could find of the Department of Olancho didn’t agree with the other two maps I possessed in terms of the river’s route or the names of the take-out spot, but it did show some detail and topography. Even the river’s name is confusing. It has five of them at different places. The full name as best I can determine is Rio Grande Sico Tinto o Negro.
Shortly below the put-in at the village of San Esteban, the river curves away from the road and enters a canyon which continues for most of the forty river miles to the take-out bridge at Paso Real. There are approximately a hundred drops, rapids, chutes and jets in this stretch, most of them class I and II, several were III+/IV. The IV’s are mostly IIIs with a rock(s) and/or holes at the bottom requiring technique and/or luck. But I’m getting ahead of myself….
First I moved up the hill overlooking the town and bay to the Villa Brinkley, a hand-built hotel featuring carved mahogany beams and furniture, wonderful stone and tile work and a breakfast deck with a fantastic view of the bay. The latter is a hangout for local expatriates and travelers, the discussion centering on which beach bar is hosting the punta dancing that night, the ever-tricky business of owning anything (especially land) in Honduras, and the ever-popular question, “Where do you come from/where are you going/ how will you know when you get there?”
Peggy Brinkley, the owner of this never-to-be-finished labor of love, is a former lobbyist from Pennsylvania and the local expatriate with the longest local tenure and institutional memory. She knows why William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) chose Trujillo as a refuge when he was on the lam from embezzling that Austin bank. Answer: it boasted one of the two newspapers in Central America at the time. Like most expatriate schemes, it didn’t work out due to the fact that Porter didn’t speak, write, or understand Spanish. After six months, he was back in the U.S. in an Ohio prison gathering material for his career as a writer.
She also knows where the bodies are buried, including William Walker’s, the Tennessee adventurer who had a brief tenure as the president of Nicaragua before meeting his fate at the hands of Central American justice. He was shot one evening and tried the next day. His one word epitaph says it all: Fusilado (shot).
Peggy introduced me to a local taxi driver and raconteur named Salem who, after some negotiation, agreed to take me and my gear to the San Esteban put-in on Thursday and pick me up at the take-out on Sunday afternoon for $120 U.S. (I thought this was exorbitant until I experienced the road.) Now all I needed was six gallons of purified water, some kerosene for the stove, a little local food and a boating partner.
Jerome Godbaut, a thirty-ish Toronto, Ontario, blues musician showed up at breakfast on the Villa Brinkley deck the next morning. Jerome and his traveling partner, Michaela, were wandering around Central America in a state of euphoric bliss born of mutual admiration. Everyone in their presence basked in their glow and good humor.
We talked about the Austin music scene. Jerome, who had just finished a CD in Toronto, was leaning toward Austin like Mecca with Antone’s as the great temple. By afternoon he had decided to go with me. Michaela would hang in Trujillo dancing the punta on the beach at night and dazzling the local men until our return.
Thursday morning, with the boat and gear bags bulging from the trunk of Salem’s taxi, we headed up-country through the notorious junction town of Bonito Oriental, a reputed haven for outlaws and fugitives, hard-eyed hombres lounging or standing in small groups on the muddy roadsides and storefronts. Salem kept driving … not a good place to stop for any reason.
By noon, while eating lunch in a tiny comedor in San Esteban, we became the object of much curiosity. “Perhaps you will die on that river,” one of the local onlookers observed in Spanish. “Thanks for sharing, buddy,” I responded in English, returning his grin.
Later at the put-in Jerome watched with amazement as the Klepper tandem kayak, with the two of us as midwives, managed its metamorphosis from bags of pick-up sticks into a rivercraft of graceful beauty. Although my companion is a small-boat sailor he had practically no river-running experience. We did a quick throw-bag drill and set off under the curious eyes of local youth gathered on the bridge overhead.
Almost immediately, a bus came barreling down to the river on a dirt road on river left and plunged into the shallow water just behind us, apparently so it could be washed. We were both unnerved by the possibility of being run over in the river by a bus. That was a new hazard in my book.
The country was open fields blending to jungle-covered hills, flowers and bromeliads blooming along the way, a profusion of vaguely familiar bird life, a rust-colored iguana on a rust-colored rock face. We camped early on a broad rock shelf and sand bar on the right just above the canyon’s mouth where the river changed and narrowed.
Jerome built a fire, I cooked freeze-dried chicken and rice, we drank cocoa and coffee and congratulated ourselves, all the while wondering what the next day would bring. I set Jerome up with a spinning rod and before I could turn around he reeled in a vicious-looking fish which resembled a robalo or snook. I climbed into the river to help land it, but wasn’t much help since I was afraid to touch it. The six-pound line parted as I attempted to lift it to shore. Jerome was tactful about it, but I felt bad.
We got a late start on Friday morning (on the river at 9:30) and immediately began our routine for the next three days: first the roar of rapids, then a decision to read and run or scout, usually scout. Then a decision to run or line the boat down. February is the end of the dry season. I would estimate the flow at the top at no more than 250-300 cubic feet per second, growing over the course of the route due to tributaries to approximately 350-375.
Picture the Guadalupe below Canyon Dam with more or less continuous pool-drop rapids and lots of rocks like Hueco Springs. Now add jungle-covered mountains, caimans (we saw two, enough to make us jumpy as we got out of the boat lots of times), a jaguar’s lair on river left (Jerome sniffed him out and heard him bound away, and I found the very large scat on top of a flattened boulder at river’s edge.) We saw an occasional Indian adobe or a family at the river bank; the woman beating clothes clean on a rock; her husband standing by usually holding a shotgun, but friendly, curious, waving to us as we kept moving. It was slow-going due to the lining and rock dodging. The stumbling and slipping over rocks and through torrents beat both of us up.
At 3 p.m. on day two we came to a steep chute with a double-jagged rock at the bottom on the left and no alternative but a boof off a curling diagonal on the right, altogether about four feet wide. “The best that can happen is that we fill up with water in that curl and if we hit a rock in the outflow in that condition, it's all over but the walking,” I observed to Jerome.
We passed on the run and with no way to line, we decided to camp early and portage in the morning. We cut a tent pad into a high sandbank with the paddles, braced it with a driftwood timber and were glad to call it a day.
Jerome built a fire in a rock niche. We ate tarragon chicken with wild rice while telling more stories of how we got to this place together — usually amazed by coincidence. The weather had been beautiful with some clouds and light rain at night and before we turned in the stars came out. The water roared on below in a torrent of white noise. I even pulled out the mini-boom box and we grooved to Albert Collins, Doug Sahm and Miss Lou Ann for awhile.
Day three was a longer version of day two. We were unsure where we were but felt intuitively that we were behind schedule. So we were on the river by 8:00 a.m. and paddled until 4:30. We did take an hour lunch break on the beach where I found the “gold-bearing” sand. Jerome snapped my picture as I looked up from these glinting flakes, pondering my fortune and wondering how to get in here with a sluice-box.
It was Saturday night on a sandbar for our last camp. I caught a fish and we baked it on the coals. The Klepper had been badly damaged by dragging and banging on the rocks. It was holding together thanks to duct tape and splices, and Jerome’s paddle likewise — we were beginning to think about getting this over with. Sunday morning was wet and grey. We skipped breakfast, we skipped lunch. A series of adobe and thatch settlements appeared along both banks, then pack-trains of burros heavily loaded; then rafts of dark red mahogany timbers lashed together and poled down river by local boys who whooped as they crashed them into the rocks in the rapids.
At one point we jumped out of the boat after the head drop of a twisting rapid, seeing the red rafts piling up, one after another, on the rocks at the crux below. I held us against the current above some rocks on river right while several more rafts crashed on by us, narrowly missing our fragile boat. The young Indian boys leapt nimbly from raft to raft as the melee continued. We lined through on the right and kept moving. As we passed another village, all the children ran out of their thatch-roofed school and lined up on the river bank screaming like banshees. We thought they were being friendly, but the racket was unsettling; we waved and kept going.
“Dónde esta el puente?” became our mantra. “It’s very far …” “It’s not too far …” “It’s close!”... “No, it’s very far still.” Why did we bother to ask?
At 2:00 p.m., after seven continuous hours of river work, we came down a chute to the right, looked up, and there was the bridge. And there were Salem and Michaela waiting for us. We were right on time.
Above: the author, Jerome, Michaela, Salem
We celebrated at the only place around, the “Expendio Aguardiente Brisas del Rio,” a pop-stand that sells pop, Salva Vida, the Honduran beer and overproof cane alcohol. I was looking at the little adobe griddle they make tortillas on and pulled a piece of wood out of the embers. “What’s this wood they’re burning?” I asked Salem. He looked at my hand and laughed, “Mahogany.”
Around the Villa Brinkley, we had our fifteen minutes of fame before the stories of interminable real estate problems resumed and we were gradually replaced by the next wave of travelers and expatriates. Peggy Brinkley very kindly had her skilled wood craftsmen repair the wooden parts of the Klepper, with rosewood no less.
Jerome and Michaela moved on to Nicaragua and Panama. I hope to see them again someday in Austin. I hung around Trujillo Bay another week at the residencia of a friend in Puerto Castilla, fishing with small success and enjoying the tropical ambiance. Next time I’m going to Brus Laguna in La Moskitia and catch some fish.
Photos by H.H. Howze © 2020
H.H. Howze is a writer/photographer and disruptive political presence in deep red Round Top, Texas.