Honduras is one of the many corners of the globe that suffers in tourism thanks in large part to international perception. Bullets! Crime! Gangs! Drugs! This all leaves the average traveler envisioning a country where foreigners (in this case, mainly gringos) are hunted mercilessly. Of course such logic fails when tested with reality.
Fact is, Honduras is a mecca of biodiversity with some of the world’s most pristine jungles and rainforests, plus a Caribbean coast that needs no photoshopping before it becomes a postcard. The country is at the heart of the Mesoamerican Biological Corridor between Mexico and Panama, with seven percent of the Earth’s biodiversity. This includes vital and sensitive ecosystems, such as rainforests, mangroves, pine forests, savannas and swamplands.
In layman’s terms, there’s some pretty important and phenomenal stuff here.
At 43,278 square miles with 10,424 square miles of protected forests over 107 areas, a proper exploration of Honduras would take months if not relocation. Still, it’s possible to experience plenty within a four-day trip (as I did) with careful selection. I based myself in a national park with lodging that specializes in serving and protecting the area, the Lodge and Spa at Pico Bonito in Northern Honduras (disclaimer: I traveled as a guest of Prohotel International, but all opinions are my own).
House of Heat
Getting to the lodge takes a bit of travel. After landing in San Pedro Sula near the western border with Guatemala, it takes another two to three hours over country roads before turning up the steep gravel driveway just before La Ceiba.
My first order of business upon arrival was a traditional Mayan temazcal. A temazcal is a pre-Hispanic sweat lodge popular with indigenous peoples in Mesoamerica. “Temazcal” comes from the Nahuatl language, roughly translating to “house of heat.” One quickly discovers it’s an apt translation.
First, you’re patted down with a ceremonial branch of sorts in preparation for temazcal. Then you enter a dome structure, usually made of volcanic rock, with your back to the door as a sign of respect. This means you are, indeed, walking into the dome backwards, so travelers would be wise to mind the pile of heated stones lying in the center of the dome. (I, for one, was saved by the masseuse.)
Then, I disrobed (swimsuits, not au natural, people) while our host explained the importance of using the aforementioned branch to sprinkle water onto the stones. You do this three times in slow succession, breathing in the steam. This is all part of the symbolic process of bringing in your problems and leaving them behind in the dome.
Indeed, it wasn’t long before my body was slick from head to toe in sweat from doing nothing more than sitting and breathing deeply. This was immediately followed by a massage, which made for an indescribably relaxing entrance to my time in Honduras.
But being enveloped by nature and taking on a rigorous hike remain my truest form of relaxation.
There’s no sleeping in when in the thick of the jungle. Birders are out with the sun to catch a glimpse of their much-adored avian friends. Other travelers are up early to start their hikes to avoid the worst of the afternoon sun.
My breakfast diet over the course of my time in Honduras happily consisted of the baleada, a traditional Honduran meal made up of a thick flour tortilla typically wrapped around eggs, mashed fried beans, queso fresco and some meat. Perhaps not the healthiest of meals, but it always provided a sufficient caloric boost to start the day’s activities.
On my first full day, we began with a hike to Unbelieveable Falls. Our guide, a local named Joel, offered a moderately difficult route to the waterfall as opposed to one of “100 percent” difficulty. (The latter got voted down by my colleagues quickly.)
The hike began in secondary forest before transitioning to primary forest toward the end. Through it all, the trail was mostly narrow with no shortage of sun cover from the surrounding canopy of the jungle.
Of course, Pico Bonito is not flat. Pico means “peak” in English, and that generally requires some kind of elevation. Suffice it to say there are plenty of 90-degree knee movements required and slippery rocks to keep hikers of all levels engaged and craving a cool dip underneath the waterfall.
¡Todos a Bordo!
You might not expect to find a running train in Northern Honduras, but you’d be foolish to be so dismissive — although there’s a bit more, let’s say, “character” to the trains in these parts. This is no Japanese bullet train. The ride to Cuero y Salado Wildlife Refuge is an open-air, mostly wooden structure rocking along the rails to the Caribbean coast.
“Where’s the engine?” a fellow traveler asked.
Well, just trust that they know what they’re doing.
This Honduran train is not quite what some of us might be accustomed to from the metropolises of North America or Europe. It runs as needed and gets off to a slow start, so slow that it easily came to a stop at a convenience shop early on in the journey. From thereon out, the road disappeared and the speed picked up as the train darted into the thick of the jungle, forcing any horses or cows relaxing on the tracks to move or be moved.
Once in town, our guide (Joel again) acquired a boat for a tour of the mangroves. There is the option to paddle, but tired travelers from the prior day’s hike were happy to let technology do the work for them.
We were surrounded by calm waters as we floated along the “Mirror Trail,” surely named as such due to the clear reflections of jungle bouncing off the sea. Mountains towered off in the distance, but disappeared once we slid into one of three narrow estuaries to more closely appreciate the alien-looking plant life. There were no crocodiles, but a manatee’s nose did make a rare appearance before scurrying away.
Such a tease, those manatees.
On the topic of biodiversity, it made sense that our next and final Honduran excursion took us to Cayos Cochinos — an archipelago in the Caribbean between coastal La Ceiba and the more widely known island of Roatán. The region is a Marine Protected Area managed by the Honduran Coral Reef Foundation. Such a foundation has proven necessary both because of hapless humankind’s ways and the fact that the coral reef near Cayos Cochinos is part of the world’s second-largest coral reef system, the Mesoamerican Barrier Reef.
Our objective here was to snorkel. Protections of the area, which restrict commercial divers and fishermen, make for an astonishingly undisturbed habitat that we were lucky to peer into for about an hour’s time. And with the cinematic, clear waters, peering wasn’t exactly a difficult feat.
Book a tour to Cayos Cochinos from La Ceiba.
After sufficiently painting my back red with unobstructed sun, we made a stop at the island of Chachahuate. If you’re thinking, “Well, that doesn’t sound Spanish,” you’re right; it’s a Garifuna word. The Garifuna people populate this tiny island, which anyone with legs and reasonable health can walk around in a half-hour’s time — and that’s counting impromptu excursions down the sandy side streets between beige palapa huts.
The Garifuna are descendants of West and Central African, Caribbean and Arawak people. Their African ancestors first arrived to the Americas following the wreck of a slave ship in 1675. Today, there are only an estimated 600,000 Garifuna, and a number of them continue to live on islands across Central America, like Chachahuate, where they practice their culture — the language, dance and music of which have been recognized by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.
Following our fried fish and plátano lunch, it was time to call it a trip.
Four days never feels like enough in a new country, least of all one as biologically diverse as Honduras. But it was certainly enough time to get a taste and encourage others to follow my footsteps while I plan my next trip to Honduran, or Catracho, territory.
If you’re still thinking about what you see in the news and wondering if you should go yourself, then I’ve failed you. Take the leap, folks, and let Honduras surprise you.
Explore outdoor activities in Honduras.
— Joe Baur