[extract from The El Dorado Machine, first published in The New Yorker]
The rain forests of Mosquitia, which span more than thirty-two thousand square miles of Honduras and Nicaragua, are among the densest and most inhospitable in the world. “It’s mountainous,” Chris Begley, an archeologist and expert on Honduras, told me recently. “There’s white water. There are jumping vipers, coral snakes, fer-de-lance, stinging plants, and biting insects. And then there are the illnesses—malaria, dengue fever, leishmaniasis, Chagas’.” Nevertheless, for nearly a century, archeologists and adventurers have plunged into the region, in search of the ruins of an ancient city, built of white stone, called la Ciudad Blanca, the White City.
Rumors of the site’s existence date back at least to 1526, when, in a letter to the Spanish emperor Charles V, the conquistador Hernán Cortés reported hearing “reliable” information about a province in the interior of Honduras that “will exceed Mexico in riches, and equal it in the largeness of its towns and villages.” The claim was not an impossible one; the New World encountered by Europeans had wealthy cities and evidence of former splendor. In 1839, John Lloyd Stephens, an American diplomat and amateur archeologist, went in search of a group of ruins in the jungles of western Honduras—and found the stupendous remains of the Maya city of Copán, which he bought from a local landowner for fifty dollars. Stephens explored scores of other iconic ruins in Central America, which he described in a lavishly illustrated, best-selling book; serious archeology soon followed. Researchers have since determined that, beginning around 250 B.C., much of Mesoamerica south of Mexico had been dominated by the Maya civilization, which held sway until its mysterious collapse, in the tenth century.
But the grand Mesoamerican cultures, which stretched from Mexico southward, seemed to end in Honduras. The regions east and south of Copán were inhabited by peoples whom early scholars considered more “primitive” and less interesting, and the jungles were so dense, and the conditions so dangerous, that little exploration was done. Nonetheless, rumors persisted of lost cities—perhaps Maya, perhaps not—hidden in rugged Mosquitia. By the twentieth century, these legends had coalesced into a single site, la Ciudad Blanca, sometimes referred to as the Lost City of the Monkey God.
In the nineteen-thirties, a number of expeditions began penetrating the Honduran interior, looking for the White City. George Heye, the son of an oil magnate, who founded the Museum of the American Indian in New York City, sponsored three of them. Nothing was discovered on the first two trips. Heye finally engaged Theodore Morde, a swashbuckling American explorer; at twenty-nine, Morde had sailed around the world five times and covered the Spanish Civil War as a journalist. In March, 1940, Morde left New York; after four months of silence, he emerged from Mosquitia and sent news to the New York Times. The headline read, “ ‘city of monkey god’ is believed located. expedition reports success in honduras exploration.”
Morde later described travelling for miles up rivers, through swamps and jungle, and over mountains before reaching the ruins. “The City of the Monkey God was walled,” Morde wrote. “We found some of those walls upon which the green magic of the jungle had worked small damages and which had resisted the flood of vegetation. We traced one wall until it vanished under mounds that have all the evidence of once being great buildings.” The jungle was too thick to see much else, but his Indian guides told him that, according to legend, it hid a great temple with a vast staircase leading to “a high stone dais on which was the statue of the Monkey God himself. Before it was the place of sacrifice.” He wrote, “Towering mountains formed the backdrop of the scene. Nearby, a rushing cataract, beautiful as a robe of shimmering jewels, cascaded into the green valley of the ruins.”
The Times reported that Morde had brought back several thousand artifacts—stone utensils, sculptured religious idols, a flute—some of which went into storage at the Museum of the American Indian, which is now part of the Smithsonian. (He may have distributed much of his collection to other museums.) Morde vowed that he would return soon “to commence excavation.” But, in 1954, he committed suicide, without revealing where the city was, if indeed he had really found it.
The legend of the White City has since become part of the Honduran national psyche, a tale known to most schoolchildren. In 1960, the government drew a line around two thousand square miles of the mostly unexplored interior of Mosquitia and called it the Ciudad Blanca Archaeological Reserve. In 1980, unesco named the area the Río Plátano Biosphere Reserve, and two years later declared it a World Heritage site. At last count, two hundred or so archeological sites are hidden in Mosquitia; although a handful are extensive enough to be called cities, many consist of little more than mounds of dirt arranged in such a way to indicate a former settlement.
But stories about the “real” White City, seen from a distance rising from the jungle, have continued to circulate. The late Harvard archeologist Gordon Willey once told me about hearing such stories from “random bullshitters” in Honduran bars, where he and his colleagues would sometimes try to gather information on local ruins. “I think maybe what they were seeing was limestone cliffs,” he said. George Hasemann, an archeologist specializing in Honduras, who died in 1998, heard many rumors from local Indian informants. In a 1994 interview, he speculated that the sites he had seen in Mosquitia might have been part of a single political system “dominated by a huge primate center that hasn’t been found yet,” which could be the White City.
“Every ten years or so, somebody finds it,” Begley, who teaches at Transylvania University, in Lexington, Kentucky, told me. “There are five or so big archeological sites out there that people typically cite as the lost city. I’ve been to all of them.”
Begley is one of the few archeologists to have explored the region. “There aren’t a lot of people who want to undergo the kind of pain it takes to work out there,” he said. He believes that the White City fable may have originated with the indigenous Pech and Tawahka Indians, and was later conflated with the Spanish legends. Begley’s Indian sources told him of a Place of the Ancestors, also called the White House, where their gods had retreated from the Spanish. “To the indigenous peoples, the thing that’s ‘lost’ in this lost city isn’t the city itself,” Begley said. “It represents a kind of golden age, their lost autonomy, or hope, or opportunity.”
Recently, Begley served as a guide to the journalist Christopher Stewart on an expedition to retrace Morde’s route. Stewart chronicled the journey in “Jungleland,” which was published in January. The story ends on a philosophical note: after a brutal, weeks-long trek, they arrive at a large ruin, which may or may not be Morde’s City of the Monkey God. Begley announces dryly that, by definition, the ruin cannot be the White City, “because the White City must always be lost.” On the other hand, he told me, “the legend does reflect the fact that there is some pretty cool stuff out there in the jungle.”
In recent years, Honduras has been ravaged by crime, corruption, and narcotics trafficking; it has the highest per-capita murder rate in the world, and last year its second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, ranked first on a list of the world’s most violent cities. One refuge is the island of Roatán, in the Gulf of Honduras, a hundred miles northwest of the Mosquitia mountains. Roughly three miles wide and twenty-nine miles long, it is surrounded by a turquoise sea and an extensive system of coral reefs; its economy prospers, with luxury hotels and tourists who come to snorkel and dive. At dawn one morning last May, I walked out onto the tarmac of Roatán’s airport, boarded a tiny twin-engine plane, and so joined the latest expedition to search for the White City.
Extract from an article by Douglas Preston original published in The New Yorker. You can order your copy of The Lost City of the Monkey God is here.