Elizabeth Unger writes for the National Geographic:
Lost Tourist Says Monkeys Saved Him in the Amazon
Locals believe the young man angered forest spirits—before he disappeared mysteriously for nine days—but he is just glad to be alive.
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RURRENABAQUE, BOLIVIAIn the Bolivian Amazon, where vast rivers wind endlessly through mountainous terrain and a thick blanket of fog creeps through the trees, the locals say the jungle can swallow you in a second. Venture too far and you may never find your way back.
But for the many tourists who visit Madidi National Park, the crown jewel of Bolivia’s protected rainforests, an excursion into its depths is not so much a danger but an exhilarating prospect. With good reason: a roster of tour agencies based out of Rurrenabaque—a small, bustling town on the edge of the park—promises safety for those seeking a journey into the wild fray.
While Madidi’s extreme landscape is not immune from tourist accidents or even fatalities, which occur every year, disappearances inside the park’s borders are rare. There hadn’t been a single visitor gone missing over the last fifteen years. Until now.
I was with the Madidi National Park rangers when they first received word that a 25-year old Chilean man, Maykool Coroseo Acuña, had suddenly disappeared within the confines of the park. Vanished by mysterious circumstances, they were told.
A witness’ murky account, transmitted by radio, said Maykool was last seen sitting on the steps of his cabin around 8:30 pm the night before. He had been on a rainforest tour with Max Adventures, a local agency, and had seemingly disappeared from their campground, without leaving a single track behind.
“This is a really strange case for us,” Madidi Park Director Marcos Uzquiano told me. “We’re not sure what happened last night, but we need to find out. It’s possible that someone may be lying.”
For the rangers, Maykool’s bizarre disappearance was reminiscent of a famous case from 1981, when Israeli tourist Yossi Ghinsberg was deceived by a fellow traveler and stranded in the Bolivian rainforest for three weeks. His account of deception and survival was turned into the international best-seller Back from Tuichi. (Coincidentally, a film adaptation of the book starring Daniel Radcliffe, called Jungle, will be released later this year).
Similar to Yossi’s ordeal more than thirty years ago, Maykool was also missing near the Tuichi River, a torrid area accessible only by boat and miles away from the closest town.
The rangers, anxious for answers, decided to head out immediately in search of Maykool. Accompanying them, I watched Rurrenabaque shrink away as we navigated upriver towards the dense jungle landscape, our long, wooden boat cutting through the mist.
Hours later, we arrived at the Max Adventures’ lodge, a quaint area filled by hammocks, a dining patio, and large wooden cabins. The owner of the agency, Feizar Nava, warmly greeted our group. In a low, hurried voice, he told the rangers what had happened.
Maykool had signed up for a tour at Max Adventures with other travelers he had met the previous day, Feizar began. After the group went into the rainforest that afternoon to explore with the guides, Maykool had returned to camp acting noticeably excited.
“He was acting a little bit strange,” Feizer recounted. “His face just didn’t look normal.”
Keeping tabs on the behavior, Feizar had invited the tourists at the lodge to participate in a Pachamama ceremony—a tradition involving coca leaves, candles, and cigarettes—to thank Pachamama, or Mother Earth, for giving them permission to enter the forest.
When Maykool was asked to join the ceremony alongside the group, he had refused, Feizar said. And when a guide had returned to his cabin to check on him, he was nowhere to be found. The amount of time that had passed between when Maykool was last seen and when someone went back for him was only five minutes.
Panicked, Feizar and his guides checked every inch of the lodge. Maykool wasn’t there. The group headed out into the rainforest with flashlights. They searched until five in the morning, to no avail. Maykool seemed to have completely vanished.
“It’s because he offended the Pachamama.” Feizar said. “He didn’t want to participate in the ceremony.”
Marcos and the rest of the rangers murmured together, nodding.
They told me that here, in the lowlands of Bolivia, people view the rainforest as a powerful place, filled with mystical entities both good and evil. Disrespect Pachamama, for example, and she could let you be driven mad by Duende, a mischievous sprite who hides his victims in another dimension. Such beliefs among the locals are so palpably ingrained that even law enforcement recognizes them.
“For myself and the rangers, this is our culture,” Marcos told me. “We believe that Duende is real. And we think it’s possible that Maykool was taken by him.”
SHAMANS WAGE A SPIRITUAL WAR
Desperate for help, one of Feizar’s guides called two well-known shamans, Romulo and his wife Tiburcia, and asked them to bring Maykool back. The shamans arrived at the lodge, carrying thick blocks of sugar tableaux, cigarettes, cans of beer, coca leaves, wine bottles, candles, sparkling confetti, and a large wooden cross—all materials they would need to breach the spiritual domain.
They believed that Duende had been harnessing the energy of Mapajo, a powerful tree spirit, to hide Maykool. “He’s far away, in a place we can’t reach,” the shamans told us. But by completing payments in the form of intricate ceremonies, they explained, they would finally be able to call Maykool’s soul back into this dimension. It would be only then that he could be found in the forest.
Maykool’s family—his father, step-mother, and sister—also arrived at the camp; they had immediately flown in from Chile once they heard the news. They were grim, but calm, and began conferring with the rangers and the guides on a plan of action. The group decided they would work section-by-section, combing multiple kilometers around the lodge by walking in a sweeping, horizontal line.
Over the next week, the rangers and guides searched for eight to ten hours a day for Maykool, each day in a different section of rainforest. Romulo and Tiburcia worked just as hard, staying up until dawn every night, making payment after payment to the Pachamama. But no one could find the slightest sign of him; it was like he was never there at all.
The guides were growing restless, the family increasingly worried. Romulo and Tiburcia were exhausted. The rangers, many of whom were experienced trackers, couldn’t believe they hadn’t found a single shred of evidence. “In twenty years, we’ve never experienced anything like this,” one told me.
However, six tormenting days after Maykool’s disappearance, a breakthrough came: one of the rangers found a lone, muddy sock on the rainforest floor. When it was taken back to the family, Maykool’s step-mother emotionally confirmed it was his.
For the shamans, the sock changed everything; it was a window into Maykool’s soul, a way to reach him on a spiritual plane and call him back to reality. But they knew they were running out of time. Maykool had already spent a week in the rainforest with very little food or water, and they weren’t sure how much longer he would be able to survive.
After two more sleepless nights praying to the Pachamama, Romulo and Tiburcia claimed that their payments had been accepted and they were finally able to make contact with Maykool’s soul. “The sock made it much, much easier for us to reach him,” the shamans said. Maykool’s liberation had begun, they said, and swore we would start finding more signs of him in the coming days.
A SURPRISING BREAKTHROUGH
The next morning, the rangers and I were docking at the lodge when we heard screams coming from down the river. “Boat! Boat! Hey!” we heard faintly. The rangers scrambled, revving up their boat motor and rushing towards the cries.
It was two guides from Max Adventures on the edge of the water, frantically calling out for help. “We found him!” they screamed. The rangers couldn’t believe it. “Are you sure? Is he alive or dead?” “No, he’s alive!” the guides yelled back.
Maykool, after surviving nine days in the rainforest, had finally been found—less than a mile away from Max Adventures’ campground. Maykool’s sister Rocío had been searching with Feizar and a few other guides when she heard a yell and broke out running. They found Maykool standing in the trees, holding a large walking stick.
“I wasn’t sure if my brother was going to recognize me,” Rocío later told me. “I wasn’t sure if his mind would be intact.”
Maykool had been found in very weak condition; nine days in the rainforest had left him dehydrated, his skin ravaged by bites, botflies, and spines, his feet and ankles painfully swollen. But his mind was working just fine. “I want a Coca Cola,” he joked, exhausted.
As Maykool was brought back to camp and tearfully reunited with the rest of his family, jubilant cries of “We did it!” rang out, the rangers and guides hugging and crying together in celebration. Feizar was especially emotional, sobbing as he and Maykool’s father embraced.
“Thank you for trusting us. Thank you,” Feizar wept. “Why wouldn’t I trust your whole team?” the father tearfully replied.
Maykool was laid down in a hammock and we all quietly gathered around him to listen to his story of survival. He never was able to find the river, he told us. Incredibly, he was able to instead survive by following a group of monkeys, who dropped him fruit and lead him to shelter and water every day.
As time dragged on, though, the elements began to take a toll. The mosquitos were eating him alive, he was beginning to starve, and was becoming more and more desperate. “Yesterday was when I really made a promise to God. And I got on my knees and I asked him with my heart to get me out of there,” he said, choked up.
Maykool revealed that the night he disappeared, strange, terrible thoughts had begun to creep into his mind. He said he had an irresistible urge to get out of the rainforest.
“I started running,” he said. “I was wearing sandals and I said no, they would slow me down. I threw away the sandals, then the cell phone and my flashlight. And after running so much, I stopped under a tree and I started thinking. What had I done, what was I doing? And when I wanted to get back it wasn’t possible.”
Maykool’s rescuers maintain the belief that Duende drove him temporarily insane and lured him into another dimension. His behavior fits all the signs, they say—the maddening thoughts, the shamans’ testimony, his strange disappearance.
But Maykool insists that it didn’t happen that way. He doesn’t believe in shamanism or the cultures of the Bolivian lowlands—just in God. And though Maykool isn’t completely sure what happened to him that night he says his near-death experience in the jungle is something that he’ll never forget.
Liz Unger is a National Geographic Young Explorer, photojournalist, and filmmaker from New York. Follow her on Twitter @ewu5191 and Instagram @ewu5191, and explore her work at http://www.lizunger.com.