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the bite

I had been expecting to return to Carmelita the same way that I arrived but I learn that there is an alternative route which will not only take me past two more archaeological sites but is also in far better condition since it doesn’t get the same amount of mule traffic as the trail to El Mirador via Tintal. I don’t think about it for long before deciding that this is the best option.

Nakbe is the first site on this route and it is only three hours walk from El Mirador and so I find myself arriving there at around midday. I spend the afternoon alternating between lounging in the camp hammock and investigating the heavily overgrown ruins. The surrounding land is essentially flat and from the top of the biggest pyramid the raised mounds that I can see in the distance are the structures at El Mirador.

At dusk, after cooking and eating dinner, I go for a walk around the encampment in the hope of catching a glimpse of a jaguar. I am on my way back to the camp when I see a pair of red eyes reflecting the light of my torch and my heart leaps for a second before I see that it is a grey fox.

I have seen hundreds of these animals over the last few months: they are smaller than their red European counterparts but just as wary. Normally as soon as they become aware of human presence they vanish. This one surprises me, however, by trotting rapidly down the path towards me and as it gets too close for comfort I greet it to make sure it knows I am there.

It stops momentarily and then without further hesitation, before I can react at all, it launches itself at my leg and then the animal is firmly latched to my calf. It takes both hands and considerable effort to dislodge the beast and when I do I hurl it, un-gently, at ground. It picks itself up and lunges again. I stamp my feet while scanning the area for a stick or other weapon. It retreats and disappears into the darkness. I survey the damage – shredded trousers and four deep puncture wounds.


I pick up as sturdy a stick as I can find and start to make my way back towards the camp buildings. It is a few minutes later when I see another set of red eyes glowing in blackness and I am incredulous when again a fox – it must be the same one – comes at me out of the darkness. I fend it off with the stick. This is crazy! These animals simply don’t behave like this. I drive it off.

As I walk into camp the men are ready to joke with me about the dangers of the night but they rapidly grow more serious as I show them my leg. I ask them for something to clean the wounds and they rummage around in their sleeping quarters for what seems like an inordinately long time before returning with a box. We look through it and find some alcohol and mercurochrome and a gauze dressing. There is no tape of any kind so they tie the dressing on with a red ribbon as I crack a lame joke about being a Christmas present.

Rabies! How long is the window of safety between receiving a bite from a clearly enraged animal and getting anti-rabies medication? It is two days walk to Carmelita and then I still have to get to San Benito or Santa Elena.

These are the thoughts going through my head when one of the men also voices a vague concern about rabies. How do you feel, he asks, as though I might start foaming at the mouth immediately and I realise that his knowledge of the incubation period of the rabies virus and other relevant details is probably more impoverished than my own.

I decide to focus my questions on the what possibilities exist for getting to Carmelita as quickly as possible but the conversation goes nowhere and I finally conclude that the best thing to do is simply to go to sleep. And, surprisingly, I do. I wake a couple of times during the night in the comfortable familiarity of my tent and each time if drifts back to me.

Fox bite. Rabies! Three day journey to medical care. But each time I go back to sleep.

I pack up my stuff at first light and go to kitchen shelter to make my breakfast to fuel up for the long day ahead. My usually reliable stove chooses this moment to fail me. I put it away.

“Can I use the fire?”

The men push their kettle to one side and I make porridge and coffee. I sit and eat.

“Can you think of any way that I can get to Carmelita today?”

“Ah, very difficult.”

“Yes. But I think it’s important. It is important to get the medicine within a certain time. I’m not sure what that time is but I know it’s not very long.”

“But you feel OK, don’t you?”

“Yes, but it’s a virus. It enters your body and then it grows there. It takes time. But once it grows you can’t treat it.”

The men are silent while I finish my breakfast and wash my pots. I go to finish packing my backpack and then return to where they are sitting.

“One of us can go with you. With the horse. It will take ten hours but you will arrive in Carmelita today. If you get tired you can ride the horse.”

“Thank you. But I would like to leave as soon as possible.”

The youngest man wanders off to find the horses which are foraging, where they can, in the jungle. It is some time before he returns, unaccompanied by a horse. One of the other men disappears into the trees in a different direction while the first one breakfasts. The second man also comes back without the horses.

I have another coffee.

The two men disappear into the forest again and eventually the horses enter the clearing followed by one of them. The other men leap up and try to lure the horses to them with the enticements of water and corn. The youngest guy is clearly the horseman amongst them but he is still elsewhere in his search for the beasts. The men call out for him. I decide to pay the whole affair no attention at all.

More coffee.

Eventually the animals are captured and one fitted with a rough rope halter and some padded cloth bags in lieu of a saddle. My belongings are stashed in old sacks and tied to the girth securing the pads. We are ready to go.


I clamber onto the horse and balance on top of the pads. I know how to ride a horse and the arrangement would be reasonably comfortable if there were any kind of stirrups but there are not.

We set off. The path is mostly good but where it is not it is terrible. The day progresses. Sometimes I ride the horse and sometimes I walk but we do not pause. We don’t exactly chat but the man answers my questions about his family, his job, the forest, the local names of the birds we see. From time to time he solicitously asks me if my leg hurts or if I feel OK. I tell him I’m fine.

“Yes, you will be OK because you have no symptoms,” he assures me.

Eventually, as the sun is already drifting slowly towards the horizon we pass La Florita the second archaeological site and skirt it surreptitiously on a well used but clandestine path. I guess the guy should be at his post. We are all tired now, the man, the horse and me. The path deteriorates for long stretches between La Florita and Carmelita and the horse struggles valiantly through deep mud while we humans manage to avoid the worst of it by walking along the narrow margins of drier ground at sides of the path using the tree trunks to maintain balance on the uneven ground.

It is just on dark when we finally arrive, weary and extremely hungry, in Carmelita.

{ 3 } Comments

  1. Marie | December 21, 2010 at 2:50 pm | Permalink

    wow Anna, hope you’re ok!

  2. anna | December 21, 2010 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    Hi Marie. Yes, I’m fine now. Sorry to have left the story at such an inconclusive point, At the risk of spoiling the suspense I will say here that I did make it to town and get vaccine and I should be OK.

  3. jennifer | June 24, 2011 at 8:08 am | Permalink

    I’ve enjoyed your story about this journey – but must say, I’m not sure if you’re brave or crazy!! I’m heading from Honduras to Palenque via El Peten in December, and would love to visit El Mirador – but not alone!! Likely have to do it later on in my life, as I’m already covering substantial distance in the time I have.

    Will read more – hope you concluded this story!! Happy and Safe travels – and next time, at least take a first aid kit!! (I had to hike 36 km on a knee that badly needed stitches once, but at least I had bandages and anti-septics etc!!)


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