La Ciudad Blanca
The Mosquitia region of Honduras is a vast expanse of undeveloped tropical rainforest, amounting to a fifth of the country’s territory. Sparsely populated except for a few scattered towns and villages, it’s been popular with adventurers and explorers for decades—particularly those searching for the legendary White City. According to stories passed down by the indigenous Pech people, the inhabitants of the fabled city angered the gods and were forced to flee, hastily abandoning their homes and possessions.
Aviator Charles Lindbergh claimed to have seen a “white city” while flying over eastern Honduras in 1927, describing it as an “amazing, ancient metropolis.” In the same year, Luxembourgian ethnographer Eduard Conzemius recounted a Pech story about a man who was searching the rainforest for rubber and discovered a city whose walls were made of white stone. And adventurer Theodore Morde claimed to have found the city, which is also referred to in some legends as the City of the Monkey God, in 1939. But he never revealed its location before his untimely death in 1954, and despite an attempt by journalist Christopher S. Stewart to retrace his steps in 2009, his discovery remains a mystery.
In an article in The American Weekly, a tabloid magazine edited by fantasy author A. Merritt, Morde wrote that his native guides told him the story of a white temple with a staircase leading to a giant statue of a monkey god. He brought thousands of artifacts back to the United States from his expedition in Honduras, which are now part of the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington D.C. But whether the site he unearthed them from was in fact the White City, or even related to the myth at all, is unknown.
Over the years, dozens of people have announced the discovery of the lost city, including a group led by documentary filmmaker Steve Elkins in August, 2016. But archaeologists are unconvinced, questioning whether the legend refers to a real place at all. Gordon Willey, a prominent American archaeologist, suggested that people—including Lindbergh—were misinterpreting white limestone cliffs for man-made architecture. And according to archaeologist Christopher Begley, there are so few verifiable details about the city that it’s impossible to determine if any discovery is the Ciudad Blanca.
Archaeologists surveyed and mapped an area of the Mosquitia rainforest in March, 2015 and discovered an earthen pyramid belonging to a culture that thrived in the region thousands of years ago before suddenly vanishing. At the base of the pyramid they uncovered a cache of stone sculptures, thought to be an offering of some kind, that had lain untouched since the city was abandoned. This included the carved effigy of a jaguar-like creature, possibly representing a shaman transforming into his spirit animal. Oscar Neil Cruz, head archaeologist at the Honduran Institute of Anthropology and History, believes the stone head and other recovered artifacts date back to somewhere around A.D. 1400.
Elkins’ expedition made the news in 2017 when he and several members of his team were infected with leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasitic disease, at the site they claim is the White City. Suggestions that this was the group’s punishment for disturbing the great monkey god’s sacred city are, of course, pulp fiction. But stories like this, repeated through the ages, are precisely the reason explorers continue to search for La Ciudad Blanca in the depths of the Honduran rainforest. “There are about five sites out there people typically cite as the lost city,” says Begley. “And every ten years or so, someone else discovers it.”
Photography by Dave Yoder