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Enchanted Forest Demons of Guatemala

DSC_5954“And they climbed up to the top of the tree. But the tree begun to grow larger. It swelled in size. Thus when they wanted to come back down, One Batz and One Huen couldn’t climb down from the top of the tree… Thus they went up into the tops of the trees there in the small mountains and the great mountains. They went out into the forests, howling and chattering loudly in the branches of the trees.”
-Popol Vuh

You will hear them.
When the day and the night start to blend and the light becomes enchanted and purple, they begin to howl. They begin to cry, and to moan, and to roar, and to scream. You will hear, even when you are still miles away, the most heartbreaking cries, the most ominous moans, the most arrogant roars, the most melancholic screams. What wounded animals -or demons – could be, you will ask yourself, capable of such violent sadness?
Only a few miles southwest of the town of El Estor a river enters Lake Izabal. El Rio Polochic, the biggest tributary to the biggest lake in Guatemala forks in a few smaller channels before reaching the lake to create a basin, vast and remote, of intimate hidden bays surrounded by flat swampy shores where dense grasses, bushes, and trees form an impenetrable green mass. The abundance of tropical vegetation is hysterical.

The three boats drop anchor in a little protected bay. Here every day is blessedly the same. There are no other people. Nothing moves. A place entirely devoid of civilization. This is one of the world’s most bio diverse areas. The waters of the delta are kingdom of fish, otters, manatees, and crocodiles. Its shores are home to coyotes, jaguars, sloths, and giant anteaters. The skies are patrolled by over 250 species of birds, among which herons, toucans, and parrots.

But while all these creatures try, at all cost, to make themselves as elusive as possible: hiding hushed beneath the waters, behind grasses and bushes, there are those who announce themselves from the top of the trees as “the seers upon the face of the earth”. At the break of day and just before the night falls, their screams knife the forest penetrating your chest to chill your blood. You might think, as i did, these are the voices of some huge ghostly creatures, abandoned, hurting beyond hope. Or you might think, as i did, they are fierce and mean, messengers of Satan, and are probably devouring somebody right now. Such are their howls: deep and sinister as if coming from hell. The howls of the Black Howler Monkeys of Guatemala. We would hear them at dawn and at dusk, never got quite used to their unholy cries.

The first time we kayaked upriver we saw them far in the distance. It was a last chance kind-of-thing before darkness fell and swallowed their shapes. We saw them, a group of about 10-12 up in the tree without leaves. Silhouettes sleeping upon the branches. Then the night came. And the enigma: How ware these creatures, not larger than dogs, capable of such loud screams?

The next day, we saw them again. We went kayaking for five hours upriver and floated back downriver with the gentle current, and a couple of howlers were chilling just above our heads, in a big tree. We looked at them, and they looked at us. To me, this first close encounter with the wild animals was like some sort of a miracle.

They looked annoyed by us, watching us with mistrust and disapproval. We were trespassing. One kept chewing leaves, stuffing them in his mouth with a very slow motion, returning my stare, telling me: “Move on, can’t you see I am trying to eat here in peace. This is my private branch. How would you feel if I came to your window to stare at you while you are having supper?”

He looked sad, mean, and ugly, I thought. His teeth yellow and crooked, his fur black, full of lice. His tale long and thick holding the branch like a dark tentacle. His mouth, incapable even of the slightest smile, endowed him with a bitter melancholic expression. But what impressed me the most were his eyes: wet, deep, full of secrets. His eyes were the eyes of someone who remembers the times, forever lost, when he was a prince. When he and his twin-brother were punished in a cruel act of revenge and banished to live in the tops of the trees, in the small mountains and the great mountains, never to return to the world of men.

About the Author: Mira Nencheva is a writer, photographer, and a nomad. With her husband and two children she is on an extraordinary journey around the globe aboard a 38 feet catamaran Fata Morgana, exploring natural and cultural sites of interest, living off grid, volunteering, and making art for social change. Stories and photographs of their journey can be found at The Life Nomadik

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