RIO SAN JUAN, Nicaragua — "This is the bullet ant," says Victor Manuel Diaz, pointing at a tree branch with the tip of his machete. "If you get bit once, it hurts horribly. If you get bit twice, you could go into anaphylactic shock. If you get bit seven times or more, you could die. So don't touch any trees without looking first."
With those slightly unnerving words of advice, we trudged off—hands mindfully at our sides — through the thickening mud of a long-forgotten guerrilla trail leading into one of Central America's meanest jungles.
Nicaragua's Indio Maiz Reserve is a savage land of curious sights: trees that bleed milk, roots that pour water, and colorful frogs filled with murderous thoughts. Our goal was to bushwhack through the dark jungle in under five hours and — if our guide could find his way through the disorienting bush — return to sunlight on the banks the Rio Sarnoso, a remote tributary that's home to crocodiles and the occasional freshwater bull shark.
The entire southeastern corner of Nicaragua is a land fraught with mystery and danger, and in doses that have inspired madness among foreign adventurers for centuries. Which is why it was the perfect place for my friend Warren Ogden's "Apocalypse Now" bachelor party, a three-day river excursion into the wilds.
"Bachelor parties are the perfect excuse for bringing together friends from different phases of your life," Warren, 38, told me, twirling his mustache in what appeared to be the early stages of river dementia. "And if you put men together in difficult circumstances, it forges a bond. The army has that part right."
Warren wanted a bachelor party that was exotic, memorable, and adventuresome. And in 2015, a strip club bachelor party is none of those things. So we had to go deep into the jungle to find something new.
As a veteran member of Nicaragua's gringo expat community, Warren is the kind of guy who has a hard time organizing events without some elaborate theme that invariably embarrasses half of the people involved. With him, Friday afternoon beers have a way of turning into lakeside ninja fights, and Saturday nights devolve into Zorro rescue missions to save some unexpecting female backpacker from an unperceived danger in Granada's Central Park. He once got me to dress in a full-body lion suit and sit glumly at the end of a crowded bar drinking beers by myself, while he giggled manically at the concerned glances of other patrons.
So when it came time to organize his second bachelor party — the kind that precedes a second marriage— nothing less than over-the-top would do. He enlisted fellow expat Skip Tuckerson, who has a devious mind for detailed planning and conspiring against his friends, and hatched the Apocalypse Now river expedition, with just enough Roman candles and bottles of rum to be considered wildly irresponsible.
It was one of those loosely themed, slightly nostalgic, just-south-of-40s bachelor parties — the kind made famous by Dana Saint's epic Rambo-themed bachelor party, which made the rounds on YouTube earlier this year. Our version was far less scripted and less theatrical, but more perilous.
Just traveling down the river cautiously can be dangerous. Crocodiles lurk in the shallows, sharks swim by unnoticed in the murky waters, and mosquitoes plot to infect you with chikungunya. Not to mention the bullet ants, which are also called "assassin ants," or, more terrifyingly, "24," because that's how many hours you're on deathwatch after getting bit.
The river itself hides many secrets from the past. The Rio San Juan, for those interested in a bit of history, has played a leading role in some of Central America's wilder moments over the past 400 years. The infamous pirate Captain Henry Morgan (of rum fame) sailed up the river to attack the colonial city of Granada in the 1660s; in 1762, nineteen-year-old heroine Rafaela Herrera successfully defended Nicaragua from British invasion by firing a cannonball into the chest of a slow-ducking British commander; the California Gold Rush days prompted a bizarre personal war between American filibuster William Walker and U.S. industrialist Cornelius Vanderbilt; and in the 1980s revolutionary hero Eden "Comandante Cero" Pastora led his band of contra guerrillas in brazen attacks on Sandinista-controlled river towns.
Today, the bottom of the river is littered with a telltale collection of pirate rum bottles, cannonballs, sunken steamships, and AK-47 bullet casings. But the jungle surrounding the river remains as dense and untouched as it was when Mark Twain traveled through in 1866 and marveled at the sight of monkeys and parrots living outside of cages.
After our 13-member bachelor party— the latest excursion of addle-brained gringos to take on the river — traveled for two days down the San Juan, we arrived at an unmapped island known as Diamante, which is just a shock of bamboo protruding from an alluvial mud bank that formed around the carcass of one of Vanderbilt's steamships that ran aground in the rapids back in 1848. The giant steam engine lays rusting on the edge of the island, one of the many metallic ruins the "Commodore" left scattered about the river when he finally decided he'd had enough of Nicaragua and bugged off in the late 1800s.
With tents pitched snuggly in several inches of mud and pants tucked tightly into shin-high muck boots, we made camp around a fire on jungle hammocks and some makeshift bamboo furniture fashioned by our Nicaraguan guides, who were extremely handy with machetes and prevented the headline: 13 gringos die on the Rio San Juan.
We then ventured off further down river, past the Machuca Rapids, to explore the jungle by paddleboard, canoe, and motorboat, and fish for prehistoric-looking tarpin — zero of which we caught. All along the river, we were greeted by howler monkeys, caiman, and hook-beaked tropical birds whose names I don't know.
We also caught glimpses of nature's more violent side: A dead dog that got pulled under the dark waters by a crocodile, but bobbed back to the surface to get ripped apart by vultures when our boat approached to investigate; and the horrid remains of an anteater that got torn to pieces by —judging by the carnage and pawprints— a very large wildcat.
But as was to be expected, we 13 fools ended up being the most dangerous animals in the jungle. From mid-river pirate attacks that inadvertently sank Warren's canoe, to jungle ambushes with Roman candles, to Chris' backflips off jungle vines into a murky river, we were certainly the greatest risk to our own wellbeing.
Our wonderful and life-saving Nicaraguan guides, whom we befriended in the process, could only shake their heads in mild disbelief that — after more than 400 years — the Rio San Juan continues to hold such a strange and bewitching allure on deranged, Kurtzian gringos.
The horror. The horror.