Search for a lost city and treasure inspires book

Heather Allen reviews adventure from her armchair

Deep in the rainforests of Honduras lies a lost city. Legend tells of a great civilization and mounds of treasure abandoned 500 years ago because of a curse. Rumours abound that this curse still lingers. Anyone who dares to venture through the thick and dangerous jungle, through a keyhole opening in a ring of rugged mountains into the hidden city will be attacked by a hideous, deforming and deadly disease.

Sound like a plot for the next Indiana Jones movie? This is actually the backdrop for a true story. In 2015, adventure writer Douglas Preston accompanied a band of researchers looking for a famous lost city in La Mosquitia, deep in the Honduran jungle. He records the quest in his just-released book, The Lost City of the Monkey God.

The author, and those on the quest may not actually appreciate the reference to Indiana Jones. Because in real life, many academics and archaeologists dismissed and denounced the quest as a rich man’s treasure hunting mission. They believed hacking into the jungle, if it revealed anything, was going to do more harm than good.

Some of the criticism seemed to be sour grapes, but much of it seemed spot on. After all, this mission was funded and organized by non-archaeologist Steve Elkins, who was fascinated with the idea of finding a lost civilization. He appeared less interested in cultural significance or thinking ahead to what could happen once a discovery became public. His fixer, or point of contact, wasn’t an archaeologist but a former drug-runner, and smuggler of national archaeological treasures.

Getting permission to go into this untouched jungle, in a country plagued by drug lords, corruption and poverty was a monumental feat. The group got a pass by telling the president about the technology they planned to use, called LIDAR. The president realized that this might be a way to boost his popularity as well as reveal Honduras’ history to its people.

Flying over in a helicopter, this imaging system would be able to reveal outlines of manmade structures. Once the LIDAR images showed hints of an actual lost city, the group of researchers trekked into the jungle on foot, and the story becomes riveting.

Preston recounts close calls with venomous snakes and quick mud, discoveries of statues and ceramics with gruesome and awesome carvings poking through the jungle foliage, and finally, reveals that this jungle is still a hot zone for a tropical flesh-eating disease.

Whether or not this expedition began as top notch archaeological work, it did reveal important discoveries. If you’re not expecting deep contemplation of who should be able to dig up the past and how it should be done, this is an adventure worth taking from the comfort — and safety — of your armchair.

Heather Allen is a writer and reader who lives in Penticton. allenh@telus.net