The persistent, rhythmic watch alarm roused me from a restless sleep. The room was dark; in the night, I had sensed some creature above or around me. I had visions of some strange, feral entity lurking nearby. Whatever its nature – animal, hallucination, or some mad combination of both – it was gone.
Through the gauzy mosquito net and the open window I could see the first inklings of a sunrise outlined above the ragged silhouette of jungle canopy. In the inky distance, I heard a chorus of deep guttural growls and howls from the treetops. I sighed, partly cursing the early hour and partly relieved to end the night. I sorely wanted to remain in bed, but reminded myself of why I came to this sticky Central American rainforest: to find the elusive chupacabra.
Bigfoot, the mysterious creature said to roam the North American wilderness, is named after what it leaves behind: big footprints. The chupacabra is also known less for what it is than for what it leaves behind: dead animals. Though goats are said to be its favourite prey (chupacabra means goat sucker in Spanish), the creature has also been blamed for attacks on sheep, cattle, chickens, and other animals.
Descriptions of the chupacabra vary widely, but many accounts suggest that the creature is either canid (like a dog or wolf) or stands upright about 4–5ft tall. It has short but powerful legs that allow it to leap fantastic distances, long claws, and terrifying, glowing red eyes.
The creature first gained real notoriety in 1995 in Puerto Rico (FT85:9). Many Latin Americans believe it is the unholy creation of secret US government experiments in the Puerto Rican jungles. Chupacabra sightings had a heyday of about five years, when it was widely reported in Mexico, Chile, Spain, Argentina, and Florida, among other places. After that, sightings decreased dramatically. At the 2008 UnConvention, Centre for Fortean Zoology stalwart Jonathan Downes reported that chupacabras have apparently disappeared from Puerto Rico – in fact, that there have been no reports from that island since 1998. Where have they gone – if, indeed, they ever existed?
Of all the Latin American countries, Nicaragua boasts one of the most famous and intriguing chupacabra sightings on record. In 2000, a Nicaraguan farmer in the town of Malpaisillo saw a strange creature on his land. He shot at it, and later found a dead, four-legged animal that resembled a dog or wolf. The carcass was taken to the University of Nicaragua and examined; analysis determined that the creature was a dog, but the farmer disputed the results and claimed that a dog’s body had been switched for the real animal he had shot. The controversy faded away amid a flurry of accusations.
From what I knew about Nicaragua, it seemed a likely place for the chupacabra to live. But if the 2000 sighting was authentic, why have sightings tapered off? Perhaps the farmer shot the last surviving chupacabra, but more likely the creatures simply migrated to more hospitable areas. Wild animals across the globe have lost precious habitat to humans, whether through building, farming, logging, or ranching. Areas where wild animals can roam free are diminishing by the day; if cryptids such as Bigfoot, Nessie, and chupacabras exist, it is remarkable that they remain elusive despite being confined to ever-shrinking habitats.
Chupacabras would need room to roam, a ready supply of prey, and a place where they could exist undetected. There is one ideal place in Nicaragua where the chupacabras would thrive: the jungles of the Indio Maiz Biological Reserve near the San Juan river, along the southern border with Costa Rica. The area covers about 4,500 square km, and is home to more species of trees, birds, and insects than exist in all of Europe.
The region is remote and difficult to get to, and access to the Bioreserve is strictly controlled. Visitors must obtain a permit and be accompanied by an official park guide while in the area. Hunting and logging are forbidden, and only guides may stay there. Because of such restrictions, animals are plentiful (including puma, jaguar, boar, tapir, and monkeys). Here, chupacabras would be able to prey on native animals more or less unnoticed. If, as is widely believed, the creatures originally came from the jungles of Puerto Rico, it seems likely that they would find the jungle habitat much more hospitable than the open, high and dry desert area to the north, where the chupacabra was shot in 2000.
A few previous chupacabra expeditions had been conducted, with varying degrees of academic rigour and uniformly negative results. In 1998, Jon Downes made a trip to Puerto Rico to search for the beast, returning to the island six years later with FT contributor Nick Redfern for a television show. To the best of my knowledge, mine was the first full expedition in Central America.
For the 2009 Nicaragua chupacabra expedition, I was joined by colleague Chris Ayles and my father, Jeff. The plan was to spend five days in the jungle searching for animals, including the chupacabra. We would fly to the capital city of Managua then head south to the town of San Carlos, on the south-eastern shore of Lake Nicaragua where the San Juan begins its nearly 200km journey to the Caribbean. From there, we’d hire a boat downriver to the village of El Castillo, and then to a tiny lodge near the Bartola river.
Travel delays cost about two days scheduled for the expedition, but nothing could be done about it. Outside of Managua, few dwellings had air conditioning; instead floor fans provided some relief from the heat – when electricity was available. Even local communication was spotty, with news and messages often relayed through travellers and commuters between river towns; mobile phones worked only sporadically. In a place as remote as this, medical emergencies were a concern; the nearest hospital was at least a day away, and serious accident or attack victims could easily bleed to death waiting for aid.
As we journeyed downriver, I was surprised to see livestock grazing in patches along the northern shore. In Spanish, I asked our guide about this, and he said that there are many cattle ranches along the Rio San Juan; in fact, ranching was the main industry in the area. These herds would provide a large and continuous supply of cattle for any chupacabras to feed upon. They would have no need to scavenge or raid rural ranches for food; they could prey at will. If chupacabras exist, then the jungle along the San Juan was perhaps the ideal place – not only in Nicaragua, but perhaps in all of Central America – for them to thrive.
DAY ONE: ARRIVAL
We arrived at our destination in late afternoon: a series of thatched huts in a clearing between the jungle and two rivers. There was limited electricity provided by a generator and cold, not-terribly-dirty water in the shower. The windows contained no glass, only wooden shutters, and suspended mosquito nets cascaded around the beds. Though there were three empty rooms, we were the only guests. The lodge’s guestbook revealed only a few dozen visitors had stayed there in the previous six months.
The staff of two (a cook/housekeeper and her assistant) introduced us to Fernando Casanova, a local wildlife expert and official park guide. During our brief meeting, he agreed to take us out early the next morning in search of animals. I was thinking nine o’clock would be fine, but he convinced us that our best chance for spotting animals was earlier – much earlier. Reluctantly, I set my watch alarm for 5.30.
We unloaded our packs, donned hiking gear, and ventured into the rainforest for a quick hike before dark. The jungle, as seen on film and television from the cool comfort of a cinema seat or sofa, is close to Mark Twain’s description of an “earthly paradise” (see 'A Short History of the San Juan River', below). But its lush, verdant beauty hides a darker heart with a subtle and ever-present menace. The jungle teems with both large, carnivorous predators and with opportunistic bacteria. Even minor wounds that would merely merit a plaster in less remote places must be regarded with care, lest they become infected. Jungles are home to more forms of death and disease than any other environment on Earth.
A sense of the surreal permeates the jungle. This is a place of constant movement and noise – clicking, whirring, croaking, and bird calls of all descriptions. There is activity on all sides – directly above, and below your feet – much of it obscured by dense foliage, thick trees, and steep hills. Trees grow to impossible heights in search of sunlight, and plants develop leaves as large as windscreens to catch what little light trickles down through the canopy. This is a place where tree sap can cure disease and ants can kill. In this world, the idea of a chupacabra lurking amid the giant leaves seems entirely credible.
DAY TWO: THE SEARCH BEGINS
At my watch alarm’s insistence, we grudgingly arose from bed, collected our gear, met Fernando, and headed out. We often heard animals before we could see them. Fernando led us a mile or so, and for an hour we tracked families of howler monkeys and spider monkeys high above us, watching them swing effortlessly from tree to tree. We trooped on, taking in the jungle greenery, but didn’t see any sign of our real quarry.
That afternoon, after returning to camp, I interviewed Fernando about the chupacabra.
“What is your understanding of the chupacabra’s description?” I asked.
“Well, of course, it sucks blood,” he replied in Spanish. “It has big ears, a snout like a coyote or a dog. It has hairy legs, and fur on its back and torso.”
I asked Fernando if he believed the chupacabra existed. He smiled and shook his head. “No, I do not think it is a real animal. We have strange animals here, but not that.”
I realised that, despite Fernando’s extensive knowledge of the jungle flora and fauna, he might not be as likely to encounter the chupacabra as a nearby rancher whose livelihood depended on raising the creature’s favourite prey.
“What about the farmers and ranchers who live around here? Do they believe in the chupacabra?”
Fernando laughed. “No. They are more afraid of Mad Cow disease or jaguars than chupacabras,” he said.
“Have you heard of any reports of cattle being attacked by anything mysterious, or drained of blood?” I asked.
“Of course, it happens that sometimes cattle are attacked, but nothing like that. Nothing drained of blood or mysterious. [The chupacabra] is a thing that is never seen, only heard of – something other people see or tell stories about.”
I later inquired of several locals in El Castillo, but could find no reports of any mysterious livestock predation. If chupacabras do live in the area, they seem to have lost their famous thirst for livestock blood.
That evening, after a dinner of fish and rice, we headed to our rooms before the mosquitoes turned out in force. The electric generator was turned off nightly about an hour after sunset to conserve fuel. To save the batteries in our torches we lit some stubby candles we found in our room as we prepared for bed. The window shutters were open to catch the river’s breeze, and each separate dying candle wrought its ghost upon the wooden floor, dancing as the flame tossed to and fro, popping softly as gnats and moths succumbed to their beguiling glow.
Late that night in the darkness, I thought I heard something moving above me.
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping, as of something gently flapping above our wood-framed door.
There was a faint whooshing sound difficult to distinguish from the screeching cicadas, croaking frogs, and chirping crickets. I flicked on my trusty Maglight and played it about the hut, but didn’t see anything. Chris asked what I saw or heard, confiding that he’d slept fitfully, unnerved by his own vivid experiences. Instead of replacing my torch on the floor, I kept it at the ready under my pillow. Though I regarded the reports as highly suspect, some eyewitnesses claim chupacabras have wings, a fact that wasn’t lost on me. My rational mind didn’t really think that we were being stalked by the chupacabra, or anything else, but my irrational and subconscious mind was eager to entertain and extrapolate my phantom fears.
DAY THREE: TRACKING THE CHUPACABARA
In light of our continuing and collective lack of sleep, I refused to begin our second morning any earlier than necessary, though I was up by seven anyway. We fell into a familiar pattern: once again, we began with a hike, this time taking a new trail. We came back for breakfast within a few hours, rested, headed out again, and returned for a late lunch.
After eating, I wanted to go for a longer hike, but it was too hot to venture out again. The midday sun was scorching, and even the quarter-mile walk to the farthest trailhead seemed more than we could muster. Finally, after a few hours resting in shaded hammocks, we explored a different trail.
Our hikes and searches had not yielded any sightings, but I had another strategy. No matter how well concealed any chupacabra might be during our exploratory hikes, there was one piece of evidence that would be impossible to hide: their tracks.
There are of course no undisputed chupacabra specimens. There are, however, a few reputed chupacabra casts and tracks claimed by one person or another as valid evidence. Though these myriad tracks may or may not have actually been made by chupacabras, they are among the best we have. The first specimen (unimaginatively dubbed ‘Track A’) was presented at the 2006 Fortean Times UnConvention, courtesy of Jon Downes. His track (of a creature reported in Miami, Florida) came from the collection of Virgilio Sanchez of the Miami UFO Center.
‘Track B’ is from a photograph of an alleged chupacabra foot owned by curio collector Johnny Fox in his New York City-based museum ‘The Freakatorium: El Museo Loco’. While the museum houses some gaffes (faked items, in carnival slang), it also contains many indisputably authentic items of cryptozoological interest, including two-headed animals, a unicorn, and other animal oddities.
Proceeding with the caveat that one or both could be fakes, from known (but misidentified) animals, from chupacabras, or even from some other unknown animals, I derived a set of tracks and prints based on the photographs and showed them to our guide.
Fernando carefully examined both sets of tracks. “I have never seen tracks like these here in the jungle,” he said. “The nearest match for the smaller track is that of a mapachin.” He pulled a laminated animal field guide out of his small tan backpack and pointed to an illustration of a mapachin. As with many jungle animals, it is known by different names including zualasti and suksuk, though its scientific name is Procyon lottor; in English, it’s called a raccoon. Could a juvenile chupacabra leave tracks that resembled those of a raccoon? It is certainly possible, since descriptions of the creature’s size and characteristics vary so widely.
I asked Fernando what he thought of the larger and more intriguing Track A. “This, I also have not seen, but the closest track is that of a caucel.” The caucel, known in English as the margay (subspecies Leopardus wiedii nicaraguæ), is a spotted cat weighing up to 10kg that can reach 4ft 6in from tip to tail. The margay is an excellent climber and spends much of its time in trees – one of the reasons its tracks are uncommon. Fernando agreed to lead our search for the chupacabra tracks the next morning.
That night in our hut, Chris spoke again of strange dreams. He felt we were being stalked or watched, not only at night, or in the jungle, but more or less constantly. Having a background in psychology, I chalked it up to the heat, exhaustion, and chupacabra stories playing with our imaginations.
As I thought about it more, I realised there was a likely pharmaceutical culprit. Our anti-malaria medication mefloquine (brand name Lariam) has unsettling side effects including horrific hallucinations, insomnia, vertigo, paranoia, and vivid nightmares. One or both of us would wake up in a cold sweat, relieved to find ourselves in a thatched jungle hut instead of facing some hyper-realistic nightmare from our slumbering subconscious, including vivid sensations of burning wax or the breath of reptiles. My father, who had not taken the pills, slept soundly throughout the trip and reported no ill effects.
Drug-enhanced or not, my fevered dreams were visions of the chupacabra, perhaps lurking just metres away, cloaked by the jungle night, perhaps not existing at all, merely a Hispanic bogeyman created to spook ranchers, frighten children, and confound investigators. It was partly this intriguing, frustrating mystery that kept me from a sound sleep.
DAY FOUR: FINDING THE CHUPACABRA
The third morning began much like the first, in predawn darkness. After gathering our gear and choking down a quick breakfast of bland granola bars and some warm pineapple juice, we headed out. After searching miles of jungle trails, we returned to camp, had lunch, and joined Fernando for another expedition in search of chupacabra tracks.
For hours, Fernando guided us on (and off) the trails, pointing out flora, fauna, and tracks. He explained that he could get a very accurate picture of the animal from just a few tracks, including its size, weight, sex, and age, along with the direction and speed of its travel. After a few minutes, it was clear that Fernando’s tracking skills were uncanny. At one point, he stopped in mid-stride, looked to his left, walked over a few feet, and then looked under a large leaf to reveal a print in the mud. He pointed to the track and used both hands to indicate the size of the animal that left the track.
I walked over carefully for a closer look. “Could this be chupacabra?” I asked.
“No. It is like the drawing you showed me, but different. This is jaguar, the animal was here maybe 20 days ago.”
A few minutes later, we found another jaguar track, this one smaller and much more recent – only five or six days old. We also found pig, tapir, raccoon, and others. The rest of the day, we followed monkeys, searched for tracks, and recorded observations.
That evening we dined on beans, rice, spaghetti, and salad. Over our last evening meal, the three of us reflected on our expedition. We had succeeded in finding many fascinating animals, but no chupacabra. Our expedition was running short of both time and supplies, and so far we hadn’t found any evidence to justify staying longer or pressing on further.
That night, Chris and I stayed up later than usual, packing bags in preparation for the next day’s midday departure. As we chatted, I heard a familiar noise above. Chris heard it too. I played the light around, but saw nothing. I knew something was there, but it seemed invisible. I could hear it, almost feel it, but couldn’t see it. Being naturally sceptical of invisible creatures, I assumed that it was moving too quickly for my light to catch and the ambient light was too dim for my eyes.
On a hunch, I took out a digital camera from my pack and took a quick series of flash photographs in the air all around the room. Most of them were out of focus or revealed only wooden support poles. But I did capture one image of the creature that had been flying above our beds and invading our dreams. The chupacabra of my nightmares did not reside in my imagination, but in the thatched roof above. It may have been an insectivore, or it may have been a blood-sucker, but it was certainly a bat. In fact there were now two. We laughed uneasily and finished packing while the bats circled overhead. The sound which had puzzled and terrified us for three nights remained; but the once-fearsome flapping was now almost calming.
While our search for the legendary (and possibly mythical) chupacabra had failed to yield solid results, we had indeed found a chupacabra – in fact more than one. The jungle does harbour blood-sucking animals, including of course the female mosquito, freshwater leeches, and vampire bats. There were undoubtedly chupavacas (cowsuckers) in the area, and likely chupaperros (dogsuckers) too, though the “official” chupacabras were a no-show.
Do chupacabras lurk somewhere in Nicaragua? Possibly, but the results from this expedition argue against it. Despite searching in one of the most likely spots in the world, there seemed to be no evidence of them. No sightings, no tracks, no reports of their signature style of predation.
Just as chupacabras seem to have disappeared from Puerto Rico over the past decade, it seems that the creatures are mostly gone from Nicaragua as well. In recent years, the highest-profile sightings have occurred in the United States. If the chupacabra is (or was) a real animal, the scarcity and pattern of sightings suggests that it is now almost certainly near extinction. On the other hand, if chupacabras are instead folklore and fiction, we may expect them to reappear now and then – just enough to tease the public’s imagination and fuel more fruitless searches.
A SHORT HISTORY OF THE SAN JUAN RIVER
Though little mentioned today, for many years the San Juan river held strategic international importance as a link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. In fact during the 1800s, the river was the fastest route between New York and San Francisco. After Panama’s more favourable topography allowed that country’s canal to be constructed in the early 1900s, interest in the area waned.
Over the centuries, the San Juan carried pirates of many nationalities, as well as African slaves, dignitaries, famous military heroes, and even a young writer named Mark Twain in 1866, who described the area as “an earthly paradise”. Yet it was a paradise touched by death: many of Twain’s fellow passengers died in a cholera outbreak aboard their steamship. Though Twain escaped infection, later in his voyage he described the diseased dead being brought to the ship’s deck covered in sheets and dumped overboard to the waiting sharks.
The river’s most famous site is in the tiny river town of El Castillo, home of an impressive fort (or castillo) built around 1675 by the Spanish. Overlooking a series of treacherous waters called The Devil’s Rapids (Raudal El Diablo), the fortress fended off pirates for centuries. British Vice-Admiral Horatio Nelson succeeded in taking the fort in 1780, though the victory (like his soldiers) was short-lived; he abandoned the fort when malaria took its deadly toll.
Scott Corrales: “How Many Goats Can a Goatsucker Suck?” FT89:34–37, 1996.
Scott Corrales: Chupacabras and Other Mysteries, Greenleaf Publications, 1997.
Jonathan Downes: “Re-evaluating the Chupacabra”, talk at the 2008 UnConvention.
Jonathan Downes: Only Fools and Goatsuckers, Centre for Fortean Zoology, 2001.
Mark Pilkington: “Chupacabras Fever”, FT140:22–23, 2000.