Santiago’s Fall (2 of 4)
The mule was reluctantly plodding along now, stopping or attempting to turn around every few steps. Either he was unwilling to make another grueling trip up the mountain, or perhaps he was trained to delay, in order to bring in more cash for ol’ Jimmy. He was led right past the "Offical" sign to a rocky path a hundred feet beyond, and we headed away from the dirt road and into a tiny community set in a wonderful grove of palm and fruit trees. I asked my guide "Do you speak English?" A smile was his only reply. I attempted another approach. "Â¿Como se llama Ud.?"
"Mi nombre es Elise." I was able to learn that Elise was 25 years old and had a wife and two small children. I also made sure that he was to receive a portion of the money I was to pay Santiago. Despite the difficult terrain and strenuous walk, he was willing to discuss many things with me, especially his respect for God’s handiwork and the beauty of the area through which we were passing.
The trail soon dropped sharply, into the deep shade of the tropical jungle. It was steep and muddy, just as Santiago had told me. Elise made kissing and whistling sounds to encourage my ride, as well as many Spanish words that I was unable to decipher. One word I could translate, however was the name of my trusty steed: "Paloma." "Dove," in Spanish. I was riding through the jungle on the wings of a dove, and enjoying each minute.
We soon came to the river. The water was nearly transparent as it made its way toward the sea, the rocky bottom illuminated by bright shafts of sunlight piercing the jungle canopy. It was a beautiful sight; the blues and browns of the water and rocks carving through the many hues of green and dark shadows of the riverbanks. I imagined myself like Stephens and Catherwood plying the jungle trails in the Central American highlands in the 1840s.
As Paloma carried me into the flowage, I had to lift my feet to keep my shoes dry. Upon crossing, he took me upstream, along the opposite bank a hundred yards, where we crossed back again. The poor old beast labored against the current, Elise leading with the old braided rope. When we reached the other side, Elise stopped the trek momentarily to empty his knee-high boots. Up stream we continued, soon crossing a third time through much shallower water. The landscape had a dreamy quality; the aquamarine moving mass gurgling over rocks and fallen trees; the contrast of light and shadow made for an enchanting scene.
Then came the hard climb. Up, up through the mud steady, sure-footed and silent, Paloma carefully placed each hoof exactly where he knew it should go. I broke the silence, stumbling through my Spanish. "How many times have you made this journey?" I asked. Panting, Elise answered with a single word.
"Millones." I have no doubt it seemed like a million trips to man and animal alike. After 15 or 20 minutes more of hard climbing in silence, we were treated to a wonderful vista: rows upon rows of emerald green peaks crowded with palms and other greenery, and in the distance, the turquoise Atlantic. Very beautiful.
Elise indicated that I should dismount, and then secured Paloma to a tree. As we crested the summit on foot and started down the opposite slope, I again detected the sound of rushing water. At a small clearing in the vegetation the waterfall first came into view. It was perhaps a quarter-mile away, on the opposite wall of the valley. The scene was nearly as impressive as depicted on the official entrance sign. It seemed about 60 feet high and 20 wide, a beautiful cascade spilling down the rock face of a cliff, free-falling the last 20 feet or so into a crystalline pool. There was a smaller falls below this one, but it was hidden from our view, Elise explained. We soon would be seeing both.
The descent was very steep and rocky, but dry, as this side of the valley was in direct sunlight, unobscured by tall growth. After a 500-foot descent, we came to the lovely lower falls 10 or 15 feet high, tucked into a lush corner of the jungle. I saw that we had to cross the river a fourth time, and then endure a steep muddy climb to reach the main falls immediately thereafter. I began to remove my shoes for the 30-foot crossing when Elise touched me on the shoulder and indicated that wouldn’t be necessary. He bent slightly forward and mimed carrying a load upon his back. "Asi" – like this. He wanted to carry me across on his back.
"No," I said, declining his invitation.
"Sí, sí, esta bien." He insisted it was quite ordinary. I was hesitant, but accepted nonetheless.
It was a humbling experience for me to be carried on the back of a poor man. I felt his muscles strain through the current and smelled his sweat, the odor of a lifetime of manual labor of the less privileged serving those blessed with greater means. The experience was intimate, enlightening and unforgettable. Call me Catherwood. As we crossed the few steps to the other side, he proved to be as sure-footed and deliberate as Paloma. On the opposite bank he carefully placed me on dry ground. I was embarrassed and emotional from the brief crossing. I thanked him profusely and he surprised me with his reply. He said the only two words I heard him say in English. "No problem." He must have spoken those words for the same reason on this very spot a hundred times, I thought. It made me feel better, and I believe it was meant to.
We began our final ascent. It was very steep, muddy and dangerous. A misstep would mean a certain mud bath, and most likely a bruise or two as well. I was breathing hard as we reached the top. A fine spray assaulted me there. The cascade was nearly straight up, impressive as it was beautiful. A small pastel green lagoon received the incessant downpour. I was wet with perspiration and mist, and eager for the jungle bath I had imagined so many times. "Â¿Sin ropa, con permisso?" Without clothes, with your permission?" I asked.
"Como no." Why not, he answered, and politely turned his back to gaze upon the sunlit slope we had traversed together some minutes earlier. The water was heavenly. Cool, fresh and clear, it poured down upon me. I caroused in the lagoon under the natural shower for many delightful minutes, my jungle fantasy finally fulfilled. The experience was well worth the effort. Elise watched me cavort in the turbulent pool, a smile of approval on his face. I sensed he got enjoyment witnessing my delight in this little piece of paradise.