Thousands of years old stone pyramids lay intact deep in the jungle of Indio Maíz, southwestern Nicaragua. Some call it a lost city of ancient Indians, but little is known about the history of these structures. The site, called Canta Gallo, is sacred to Rama people, descendants of the Chibcha Indians.
“This is where our ancestors used to meet”, our guide Margarito says and points at a giant stair-like stone pyramid amid ground vegetation. He sits calmly on the stairs to tell us some incredible stories with his broken Creole English, mixing in words of Spanish like the Rama Indians do.
We had traveled eight hours in a small fiberglass boat from already remote San Juan de Nicaragua, overnighted deep in the jungle with chickens and bats, and trampled one hour through thick vegetation to get to Canta Gallo. I didn’t know what to expect, when Salomon, a Rama Indian, who initially brought us down the Rio Indío, asked in the morning if we would like to see the pyramids of Canta Gallo. For sure I wasn’t expecting this.
After trudging past a few smaller, turtle-like stone structures and those stairs, we finally arrived in the main area, where we spent an hour or so zigzagging midst the ancient Indian pyramids and walls. Rays of the early morning sun cast an air of magic over gigantic rock formations. Bluish gray stone slabs are piled up to form huge stone balls and pyramids that might be over 20 meters in height. The Rama told us that these structures are known to date back from 3000 to 5000 years.
“Here seems to be a fish”, Salomon marks out with a puzzling look. Stone faces have ancient inscriptions, but even the Rama Indians can only guess their meaning. The pyramids of Canta Gallo are currently researched by the University of Bluefields, but there aren’t any written information available yet.
I lost the count while we wandered around awestruck, we must have passed more than ten massive pyramids and some smaller structures. Our guide Margarito kept asking if we would like to see a few more – how could we have declined even though we were already dehydrated, and thus at the edge of our strength. The highlight was passing a small river and a waterfall to reach the main pyramid. The moment felt special: no other people had visited the site for days, exotic birds chirped, and nail-sized colorful, poisonous frogs jumped around us. Even the mid-day sun blessed us, which is a rare treat in Indio Maíz.
Religious Rituals and Unbelievable Legends
Stories poured in as soon as we stepped into the jungle from our tiny boat. Legends start with the name: the place is called Canta Gallo according to a rooster (gallo), which is said to appear screaming (canta) at this godforsaken spot once a year – nobody knows how it’s even possible.
According to the Rama Indians, Canta Gallo is where their ancestors practiced religious rituals and gathered to deal with community issues. The site has served as a haven, where the Rama have escaped foreign conquerors. Canta Gallo where they hid from Spaniards 500 years ago, and later Miskitos, British, and Sandinistas respectively. Little is known about the ancient rituals – and little is told if someone has the knowledge.
Getting to Canta Gallo Through the Indio Maíz
Canta Gallo is well off the beaten track. You’ll need to travel deep into the Indio Maíz Biological Reserve, so you’ll need a guide with a boat. It takes one day to get there, and the second to tour the ruins. Our boat trip from San Juan de Nicaragua lasted 8 hours. As there are slightly faster boats available (just prepare to pay more for your gasoline and boat rent), the Ramas are hoping that in the future visitors could see the pyramids on a day trip from San Juan de Nicaragua. If daytripping, the tour will take at least 11 hours – assuming that river conditions are favorable, and you don’t take any breaks. I recommend spending the night at a local Indian home near Canta Gallo, both for your convenience and the experience itself.
If you embark on the Indio Maíz trip with a Rama Indian guide like we did, he’ll hire another Rama to take you to the ruins. At the moment, the Rama use three locals, who know the route best. Our guide Margarito also takes overnighting guests in his house, which lies approximately 15 minutes by boat from where the path starts. We stayed at his neighbor Javier’s house. If you are planning to visit Indio Maíz and Canta Gallo, check out our recent article on how to organise a trip to Indio Maíz for further details.
Spotting Wildlife and Getting Muddy
When Salomon asked if three hours’ jungle trek might be too much for us, we laughed at him thinking this old Indian might be the weaker one of the bunch. However, the hike to Canta Gallo proved to be pretty challenging and extremely muddy, although it wasn’t even rainy season yet. Prepare with lots of water – we had only half liter per each, which was ridiculously little.
The first kilometer was filled with mud, as we hiked through a swamp. With United Nation’s financial help Ramas had built a few bridges over the wettest parts, which made the trip a lot easier. Still, we had to plow through smaller rivers. Piritta’s rubber boots were leaking, but I was happy, though clumsy, in my five sizes too big boots. Don’t even try it in sneakers, use the rubber boots Ramas offer.
After a wet start, we climbed for almost an hour through the dense jungle. At first, there was a visible path, which soon disappeared. Margarito opened the way with his mighty machete, hitting blazes in the trees for the next hikers. It would have been impossible to find the ruins without a guide. A plethora of poisonous frogs came in all sizes and birds had names I’ve never heard. Tree trunks and even roots were enormous, bushes and vines clutched our feet. I tried to evade spider webs or, at least, the poisonous arachnids, which were plenty. Capuchins, howler monkeys, and spider monkeys warned other creatures as we approached.
We ascended about 600 meters above sea level while the Rio Indio is at few meters. Hillside was wrapped in a weird, gray haze. It wasn’t the usual fog cloud forests have, and even the Rama Indians call it “smoke”, which made me ask of its origin. Salomon told that every tree produces a gallon of oxygen in a day. Multinational companies have expressed their interest in the area, but the Rama are not willing to sell land. These guardians of the forest want to figure out why and how this process is different here, and if it could be simulated somehow to help the planet.
The Rama had built a basic hut on the top of the Canta Gallo hill, where we steadied our breath for a few minutes before a short, but quite steep descend to the ruins. When Salomon told us about their hopes of building a causeway over the swamp and expanding this hut into accommodation for visiting tourists, I felt a bit downhearted. I really hope the Rama will get the proper appreciation as a nation, and I know it requires publicity for their heritage, in the form of both tourists and the UN. These construction projects will make this place more accessible, and thus more visible. I’m just a bit concerned that the magical Canta Gallo might lose its authenticity. If you got interested, please go there before everyone else will.
Nicaraguan Conspiracy Against Their Heritage
Whereas Canta Gallo has had a special meaning to the Ramas for centuries, officially it’s a new find. Canta Gallo hit the news less than ten years ago, when a foreign photographer claimed to find these pre-Colombian Indian pyramids. It was said that they were kept as a military secret. By then government declared that the pyramids were just volcanic lava outcrop. Stories conflict, as some of them place the discovery to 1998. However, Canta Gallo hasn’t been common knowledge for long, and its birth is still neglected.
Honestly, I don’t know what’s the official truth at the time of writing, but I’m hoping that the Canta Gallo pyramids will get the position in Nicaraguan history they deserve. When some people in San Juan de Nicaragua – even the Rama Indians – told us that the Canta Gallo pyramids were made by volcanic lava cast, it sounded weird to me. The way people expressed it felt like an insult to the historical heritage of the place.
Facing the Truth and the Spell of the Jungle
After some research on columnar basalt, I may have to accept, although willy-nilly, the scientific explanation of the birth of these stone benches. Yeah, it spoils some magic. But does it have to? Even if these eerily man-made looking pyramids are formed by a special kind of volcanic lava cooling process millions of years ago, it makes them a stunning geological wonder. Geologists claim that these basaltic columns date back to the Tertiary period, which extends from 66 million to 2,58 million years ago.
From cultural-historical viewpoint, the thing that matters is how ancient Indians used these structures. Basaltic columns have carvings, but could archeologists define their age and meaning? Are there any other clues, which would give us more information about these mysterious structures? Whatever the history might be, the site itself is beyond words and it’s sacred to the Ramas. In my opinion, our hike to Canta Gallo bet our visits in Machu Picchu and Angkor Wat, because the grounds are so immaculate.
There are said to be 22 archeological sites in the Indio Maíz area. Canta Gallo left me longing for more. I’ve heard astonishing stories about the ruins further up the river, where a lake and a tree might just disappear. Sounds like a fairytale, but after visiting these captivating grounds, I wouldn’t be surprised to find some real magic deeper in the jungle. Some places are so sacred that the Rama Indians won’t take tourists there. There are stories about unlucky army officers, who’ve tried to venture into the Rama territory with bad intentions and met their fate at the hands of the jungle guarding spirits. I’m more than eager to hear if you’ve visited Canta Gallo pyramids or Indio Maíz: what did you find?