Quirks and Quarks·Quirks & Quarks

'They eat away your nose and your lips until they fall off'

An expedition braved flesh eating parasites, venomous snakes and quickmud to find the mythical 'Lost City Of The Monkey God'.
Somewhere below lies a lost city. (Dave Yoder, National Geographic)

The legend of a lost city hidden below the canopy of the thickest jungle in the world – that of eastern Honduras – first came to be known to the Spanish Conquistador Hernan Cortes 500 year ago. The so-called "White City", also known to indigenous tribes as "The Lost City Of The Monkey God" was reputed to be one of immense wealth, but also a cursed place; according to myth, those who dared enter would fall ill and die. 

The legend turned out to be true, but so did the curse. One of the members of that expedition was journalist and author Douglas Preston, who chronicled the story of the search and discovery in the book The Lost City Of The Monkey God.

Here is part of the interview with author, Douglas Preston. It has been edited for clarity. 

Bob McDonald: Was it as inhospitable as you expected?

Douglas Preston: In 2015, we launched a joint Honduran-American expedition into the valley of T-1. We flew in on helicopters and we had a team of three British ex-S.A.S. jungle warfare specialist soldiers with us whose job it was to keep us alive. I'll never forget them giving us this lecture about the dangers of the jungle and the diseases, the poisonous snakes, the animals that we might encounter, the insects, the scorpions, the spiders, the ants that bite you and require hospitalization, and on and on. I just thought they were exaggerating the hostility of the jungle for the benefit of people who aren't experienced in wilderness travel, which I was. So I kind of dismissed it all as exaggeration.

When we arrived there by helicopter it was a beautiful sunny day, there were no insects, the temperature was a balmy 75 degrees. I looked around thinking, "What a bunch of hogwash about how dangerous this jungle is."

This deadly fer-de-lance snake slithered into camp and posed a serious threat. (Douglas Preston)

BM: This is tropical paradise.

DP: Yeah, this is paradise. I mean, there were flowers, there were beautiful bird of paradise flowers everywhere. The trees were gigantic. Some of the trees had trunks that were 20 feet in diameter. The animals, apparently, had never seen people before, they just wandered up to us. But that night we had our our wakeup call. It was pitch dark. In the jungle at night it's just so dark, it's like being in a cave. I was walking back to my hammock and my flashlight fell on a giant Fer-de-Lance snake, which is the most venomous snake in the New World. It was coiled up, very aroused, in striking position, tracking me. I'd walked by the snake twice! So I called out. Now, I think I kept my voice calm, but they claim I was yelling. I said, "Hey, you guys, there's a really big snake here." And Woody, who was the chief logistics expert of the expedition, said, "Oh my god, it's a Fer-de-Lance! It's one of the biggest I've ever seen! I'm going to move it." I thought, "How is he going to move that snake? That's crazy."

He cut a snake stick - it was about seven feet long - and with one fast movement, he pinned the snake with the forked end of the stick. At that point, the snake exploded in a fury of striking this way and that way, expelling venom in the air — arcs of venom flying through the air. I mean, I've never seen anything like it. This thing had fangs that were more than an inch long and it was bigger than he was! He managed to work the stick behind the snake's head, then he grabbed it behind the head. But the snake was twisting its head around trying to sink its fangs into the back of his hand. It expelled venom all over the back of his hand and his skin was starting to bubble. He wrestled the snake to the ground, which was really difficult. This snake was longer than he was, and he had to pin it with his knees while holding its head. Then he cut off its head. The decapitated head continued to snap and spew venom, while the headless snake continued to fight and then tried to crawl off. I have never in my life seen a scene as horrific as this. It was like something out of a horror film. And then, you know, being British, he stood up, he washed his hands off right away, and he said, "Nothing like that to concentrate the mind, is there?" He said he was very sorry he couldn't move it, but when the venom was on the back of his hand he realized he had to get it off as quickly as possible.

The lost city, visualized by lidar technology. (NCALM)

BM: And that was your first night in the jungle.

DP: That was just the beginning of the challenges we faced. The next day our anthropologist, a woman named Alicia Gonzalez, almost sank in a pool of quick mud. We almost lost her! Again, it was like something out of a grade B movie. You have these these holes of mud you have to cross. They're up to your waist and it's sucking you down, and you're trying to move in a way that doesn't cause you to be sucked down into this thing. She was standing there, and in a very calm voice she said, "Excuse me, I'm going down. I am really going down." There she was, the bubbles coming up around her, she's sinking into this mud. The S.A.S. guys had to get in there and wrestle her out of the mud.

Then the insects came out at night, absolute clouds of them. I found myself getting into my sleeping bag completely covered with crawling insects. It freaked me out. I thought, "Well, maybe this area is all that they described it as."

BM: The area that you explored — you just did a very small part of it — how long will it actually take to explore this area archaeologically in full?

DP: I think it's going to take a long time. In fact, it may never be entirely explored because it turns out the valley was a hot zone of disease that affected almost everyone on the expedition. It's a very dangerous and incurable tropical disease, which has really limited the ability of archaeologists to work there because they get sick.

Just a few of the many stone vessels and carvings that were found. (Dave Yoder, National Geographic)

BM: In a way, the curse is still alive. I understand you came down with the disease yourself.

DP: We did — I did, the National Geographic photographer did, the archaeologist did. Hondurans and Americans alike came down with this disease called leishmaniasis, a very bad form of it called mucocutaneous leishmaniasis. I don't want to revolt your listeners too much, but it's essentially a flesh-eating disease. It's like leprosy and it's transmitted by the bite of a sandfly. But the parasites — it's a single celled animal — migrate to your face and they eat away your nose and your lips until they fall off and leave your face an open weeping sore. And then they eat away the bones of your face and create a hole in your head, and eventually, you die. Now, that happens if you're not treated. We got treated. It's a really horrible treatment. It doesn't cure the disease but at least it beats it back. So we're okay, but it was pretty rough on some people. In fact, the Honduran archaeologist nearly died of it.