Legend has it that the locals fled Honduras’ City of the Monkey God in the 16th century fearing that it had been cursed with disease.
Five-hundred years later, a group of explorers excavating the lost city became the latest victims to incur the wrath of the monkey god when they nearly lost their faces to a flesh-eating parasite.
“The parasite migrates to the mucous membranes of your mouth and your nose and basically eats them away,” Doug Preston, an author who documented the trip, said. “Your nose falls off, your lips fall off, and eventually your face becomes a gigantic, open sore.”
The group, made up of American and Honduran explorers and archeologists, announced they found the lost city, also known as the Ciudad Blanca or the White City, in 2015. The city earned its name, according to American explorer Theodore Morde, because of indigenous legends stating it contained a giant buried statue of a monkey god. Morde claimed to be the first to find the lost city after returning from an expedition, but died before he could return.
Other legends speak of it as a “white house” or “place of cacao” from which no one has returned, according to National Geographic.
After spending years searching, the team found the city’s ruins in the 32,000 km Mosquitia rain forest — with a stroke of good fortune. Searching through the thick vegetation with the assistance of a laser mapping system proved unsuccessful until the city was found when crew members noticed stone structures barely sticking out of the ground.
Preston told CBS News that months after leaving the jungle, he noticed a bug bite that simply wouldn’t go away. And so did half his team members. Eventually, the National Institutes of Health diagnosed them with Leishmaniasis — a parasitic disease — and the team was forced to undergo treatment.
The disease was contracted from sand fly bites. Once bitten, the parasites within the bugs can enter the human blood stream and begin eating away at the immune cells that normally kill bugs. Initial symptoms include fever and vomiting. If left untreated, Leishmania can result in horrible disfigurement.
But long before they were infected with Leishmaniasis, the explorers nearly fell victim to the lethally poisonous snakes infesting the area. When a pit viper called the fer de lance made its way into their camp under the cover of darkness, a jungle warfare expert snapped into action.
“He pinned the snake,” Steve Elkins, one of the explorers, told CBS News. “But the snake exploded at that point into an absolute fury of striking everywhere, squirting venom, streams of venom across the night air.”
Between the thick cover of vegetation, disease and venomous snakes, it would seem the monkey god was striking back at the outsiders for their attempts to find the long-lost city.
In reality, the curse and resulting exodus from the White City coincide with a Spanish invasion in the 1500s that brought with them a wave of both slavery and disease. Before Preston and his crew discovered the city, it had remained one of the last unexplored places on the planet.
Within the city’s ruins, the team removed dozens of artifacts carved from stone and clay, including trays and a throne. Many were sculpted with snarling jaguar heads. It was one of the jaguar heads sticking out of the ground that first drew the attention of the explorers. The artifacts date back to 1000 and 1500 AD.
Preston knows there are more secrets held within the White City’s ruins but after nearly losing his face, he doubts that it’s possible to go back and continue the excavation.
“It’s just too dangerous,” he said. “And just getting in and out is dangerous.”