25 April

Jungle Mike

The Taco Bell Treasure Map

I was underage and almost broke in Southern Mexico when I met a Cuban madman playing a conga drum in the street market of Oaxaca City. He somehow convinced me that the treasure map  he had written on the back of a Taco Bell napkin was real. I figured that traveling the country on second class buses would make my pesos go further, so I copied the napkin and headed off to the Rio Tonto River that separates Oaxaca from the state of Veracruz. Taking the milk boat up the prehistoric river was the first time I saw the Sierra Mazatec rising up from the jungle bottom land into the clouds. It was the end of the sixties and the world was rushing toward an uncertain future while I was traveling back into the distant past.

For two years I lived in a tiny Mazatecan village near Dash-key. It was there that Lencho, one of the few Indians who spoke Spanish, taught me how to survive in the rain forest. When I asked him or other friends about pre-colombian ruins and treasure they acted like they didn’t know what I was talking about. That all changed when Juanita laid down to die.

It was a great honor that the ninety year old matriarch of the tribe, Juanita, decided to die in my hut. She just laid down on a straw mat one day and then didn’t get up. For a month Juanita howled and chanted,  and take my word for it, those nights were incredibly spooky. When Juanita finally did die, her drunken grandson Erasto came down from his mescal still  in the forest and showed me some beautiful pre-colombian artifacts that he said he found in a cave. Once I bought the beads and pots, It didn’t take much to convince him to take me to the cave.

Under cover of night we climbed up through the rain forest and did not stop until  dawn. Erasto pulled the overgrowth aside to reveal the hidden mouth of the cave and we crawled in through the narrow entrance that opened up into a larger chamber. Pointing my flashlight inside, I saw a tiny pool of milky white water surrounded by  painted pottery.  A skeleton laid crumbled  against the back wall. At his bony feet was an incense burner in the form of Huehueteotil, Grandfather Fire. Broken strands of burial beads laid all around with a beautiful bronze mask pendant of Huehueteotl that had fallen between his ribs when a strand had broken.

Mask full size


“Could this be the treasure that was marked on the Taco Bell napkin,” I wondered?

“Was the mad Cuban not so mad after all?”

Ever so gently, Erasto picked up the mask and handed it to me, saying,

“This is what we came for.”

That was the first of many times that I visited the cave of the Fire God. The next time I would return to meet the cave’s patron god himself, Grandfather Fire, the oldest god and the one all the other gods speak through.