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Unicorn Hunting on Atitlán Volcano

I was traveling in a polar region on an expedition headed northwest. Vast boreal forests, overcast skies, rushing rivers brimming with crystal pure water, foraging quadrupeds, and an attractive young lady by my side. I knew this territory but still it seemed strangely exotic. A fog was moving in and mist began to dim the view. Way in the distance I could hear the sound of a bell chiming. The skies became increasingly dark and misting rain muted details of the surroundings. A shift was occurring as stood there. It was as if someone were cross-fading the volume on my auditory nerves. I began hearing other sounds coming in my ears. The bell sound became louder as the gurgling of the river faded into the distance. Then I realized that I was lying in bed. The freezing forest was left in another dimension as I reached for my cell phone to turn off the alarm. A tilt of my wrist and I the time flashed on my Casio Pro Trek: 12:30 AM. Time to get up and get started. I lit the stove and put some water on to boil for coffee. A few minutes later a knock on my camper’s back door and upon opening it, there stood Josue, my trusted Cak’ Chiquel Indian guide. Josue was looking chipper and chomping at the bit to get going. I wanted my strong cup of Tarrales coffee because we had a long slog ahead and I needed to get fortified. To get to the upper cloud forests on Atitlán Volcano’s Southern flank would be a climb in elevation of more than two thousand meters. Our purpose was to locate the rare unicorns, which, according to local lore, still survived, secluded in the upper elevation valleys that provide the cool, misty microclimate that they prefer.

Unicorns! Few are aware that one of the main reasons I came to Guatemala decades ago was to search for these mythical beasts. I usually avoid talking about it because most people dismiss the idea even quicker than they do talk of UFOs. Unicorns exist only in fairy tales, they say! But not for me! I actually met an old farmer many years ago who lived in the mountains above Tecpán, in the Province of Chimaltenango, who claimed to have trapped several unicorns for the infamous Dr. Estudio, a cryptozoologist and trafficker in rare species from Mexico City. In the eighties we had spent many weeks searching all over the Sierra de Tecpán with no positive results. It would seem the unicorns had become extinct… if indeed they had ever existed there. We had no proof one way or the other. Rumors, legends, and the yarns and old Indian man might tell to a gringo prove nothing. And proof is what we were looking for. That is what had brought me to the southern flank of immense Atitlán Volcano in the spring of 2011. Atitlán, a 4000-meter high cone, sits at the edge of a huge volcanic caldera in which is cradled the sacred waters of a lake known to natives as “the smile of God.” Lake Atitlán herself is nearly a mile deep and is known to be a telluric energy vortex. What I can attest to without apprehension is that it is one of the most beautiful places on Earth and I say that having the credentials of a well-seasoned globetrotter.

Finally Andy arrived at my camper and we all sipped coffee and chomped down on some delicious buttery “champurada” cookies, which his lovely wife had baked for our trek. Andy, the owner of the Tarrales Coffee Plantation I was camped in, volunteered to be my Sherpa and carry my “heavy artillery,” the heavy lenses and tripod I would be needing if I was to ever get a photo of elusive unicorn. Andy would not be considered a big man, but his size belies the fact that he is an ex-wrestler and a physical powerhouse… able to chug up the side of a mountain like a locomotive. I enjoy climbing mountains, but I am not a mountain climbing gorilla, so Andy’s offer of help was most welcome.

By 1:30 AM we were slowly making our way up a deeply rutted track in a ramshackle old pickup. The “road” winded up through the transitional forest known as the “Boca Costa.” This is a unique floristic region that exists in between the Pacific coastal tropical rain forest and the upper elevation pine-oak-liquidambar, tropical evergreen and cloud forests. Here the temperature is neither tropical nor cold and the nearly constant Pacific Ocean breeze creates the conditions necessary for producing some of the finest shade-grown coffee in the world. The trees are all festooned with multitudinous lianas and epiphytes. The humming of insects resounded all around. Occasionally the moonlight would break through the dense canopy and shimmer down upon the exuberant foliage. An hour later we arrived at the little Mayan outpost of Albores, which is the highest inhabited place on the Volcano. On with our backpacks, walking sticks in our hands, headlamps blazing, we began our assent. Hour after exhausting hour we continued up a narrow, muddy path. From time to time cool misting rain refreshed us. The forest up here was quite, not the raucous cacophony of the jungle below, but a much more subtle sonic region of crickets and the occasional hooting of the night hunter. Finally the warm glow of dawn began to welcome the new day and in the distance we could hear the roar of a troop of howler monkeys. To the uninitiated the roar has caused many a traveler to shiver with trepidation. The only danger these hairy tree-dwellers pose to hikers is the fact that, in many regions, they have inherited some very bad habits. One of their favorite sports is to wait silently for people to walk directly beneath them and then shower them with branches, fruits and sometimes even urine and feces. I am up to their tricks and so I always make a wide detour around the troops. This causes the males to howl furiously. “How dare you spoil our fun,” they seem to be saying! I howl back and shout at them that they are “bad animals with bad habits!” This only makes the males howl louder. Fun in the jungle, as I would say, “Stop harassing those animals!” the tree-huggers scold. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” Hey, they yelled at me first! Besides, we’re having a blast!

We couldn’t have wanted a more beautiful morning. Cool, crisp, sunny and clear. Josue busied himself getting a little fire ready. I have always been impressed that no matter what the conditions, Mayans always know how to find twigs and branches dry enough to start a campfire because a meal with cold tortillas, for them, is a sad affair. Soon we were warming ourselves around the blaze, toasting our yellow corn cakes and dipping into a charred pot full of delicious black bean stew. The sustaining repast was washed down with sweet coffee along with our delicious saucer-sized champuradas. Thus fortified, the sun warming the forest, and with our intense desire to try and find our surreptitious quarry, we began our final ascent up the steep, overgrown path, often having to chop our way through with machetes. Up and up we climbed as we made our way into the mysterious, ancient, wind-swept upper elevation cloud forest where few if any humans ever venture. Along the way Josue again told us about his several encounters with “los cachudos,” the horned ones, as he called them. And although I appraised Josue to be a very bright young man and I knew his bush-knowledge was exemplary, I had to consider his stories to be “anecdotal” and therefore somewhat suspect because he was neither a professional zoologist nor did he present any physical evidence to back up his claims. Nevertheless, his quite exact description of the coloration, size and behavior of his “cachudos” gave me considerable hope that he had indeed seen mythical creatures.

For the next several hours we explored the cloud kingdom. These are the most ancient forests in the region. Less than one percent of all the forests in the American Hemisphere are cloud forests but it is here where we find the highest concentrations of unique endemic species. We were following paths that appeared to have been made by Tapir and white-tailed deer and we were excited to find large cat tracks. Probably mountain lion but they could also have been made by the far-ranging jaguar. All these details added up to indicate that we were in a forest beyond the reach of local hunters. No sign at all that man had forayed into these far reaches.

All of a sudden Josue froze and put his finger to his lips to silence us. He cupped one ear and we all strained to hear what he was hearing. From the distance above came a weird echoing-booming sound, quite indescribable. Josue smiled and nodded to us. Adrenaline flooded my blood welling up with the ancestral excitement of the hunt. We stalked forward slowly. I had my camera with 500-millimeter lens mounted to a rifle stock at the ready as we crept through the underbrush. The booming became louder and seemed to be coming from all directions. An instant later we were gazing up into the branches of a huge, old mahogany and there, before our eyes, perched a real live flesh and blood unicorn! Oreophasis derbianus! The Horned Guan!

The strange, turkey-sized creature seemed to glare at us defiantly while making staccato clicking vocalizations. Then another big “horned one” appeared. They seemed quite fearless and I was able to shoot dozens of exposures. Then both of them began to make the weird booming noises again but the strangest thing was that the vocalizations which we saw them making seemed to emanate from another tree! It would seem that they had developed an ability to project their sounds similar to what a ventriloquist does thus making it even more difficult to locate them. I had never seen or heard anything like this before. Simply incredible! A moment later they both glided silently into the green sea beyond and they were gone. Try as we may during the next several hours we never did get another glimpse of this rarest of creatures. We did hear their occasional booming but they did not allow us to see them. But the expedition had been a resounding success. Not only had we seen them but I had gotten some pretty good photographs of them as well. Exhausted and elated we began to make our way back down to civilization. We all gave thanks to the Great Ahaw, the Owner of the forests, for allowing us to experience one of her precious mysteries. And we all vowed to work harder to defend these sacred places from man’s insatiable avarice.

Unicorn Science

The Horned Guan, Oreophasis derbianus, is without question one of the rarest and most unusual birds on Earth. Found only in isolated, wind-swept tropical cloud forests in Guatemala and Chiapas, Mexico, the horned guan is the “Holy Grail” for any serious birder. Compared to the horned guan, the resplendent quetzal is rather common. A century ago these birds were already very rare and extremely difficult to find. They have suffered greatly from forest destruction and, being a turkey-like bird, from human depredation, many times ending up in an Indian’s stew pot. More than any other habitat on Earth, the cloud forests are in urgent need of better protection. And with the idea of contributing to cloud forest conservation we are organizing a new group called Defenders of the Cloud Forest (Defenores de la Nubliselva) whose purpose is to stimulate grass-roots support and participation in the defense of Mother Earth and especially her most unusual, most endangered places. Already more than half of the world’s tropical and temperate forests have been eliminated to make room for human activities. The time has come to take into consideration the health of the planet and not just our own selfish endeavors. The time has come to halt all further destruction and dismantling of the Earth System and begin the great task of reforestation and healing of Nature. Our Mother Earth loves us and wants us to prosper and be happy, but our Mother is obviously beginning to let us know in many ways that we must stop the destruction.

“There’s enough for all our needs, but not for all our greed!”
Lee “Scratch” Perry, the founder of reggae music.