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Travel Diary
Pico Bonito National Park
T. Edward Nickens recounts some anecdotes from his trip to Honduras.

The Lodge at Pico Bonito, in Honduras’ Pico Bonito National Park.
Devon Stephens/Roatan Photography

For my recent article “Where Dreams Come True,” about northern Honduras’ Pico Bonito National Park, I headquartered at the Lodge at Pico Bonito and spent eight days exploring this burgeoning ecotourism region. What follows is a day-by-day sampling of what didn’t make it into that feature story but nonetheless had a lasting impression on me.

For information on the Lodge at Pico Bonito, which serves as a de facto visitor’s center for the massive park, click here.

Click on the images above to see larger versions.

 

Day One
After the plane flight from North Carolina and the two-hour drive across Honduras, I was ready to kick back with an umbrella drink on one of the decks at the Lodge at Pico Bonito. There’s a tiled swimming pool with million-dollar views of the mountains, hammocks, even a massage hut.

But then I found a captive iguana breeding facility, a butterfly house where giant screen cases hold racks of pupating tropical butterflies, and a serpentarium full of things like eyelash vipers and a fer de lance, which I really, really wanted to see. So much for relaxation.

Late that night, ornithologist David Anderson and I worked through a heap of ropes and climbing gear for the next day’s ascents into the rainforest canopy. If I didn’t know what to expect when I made landfall at the Lodge at Pico Bonito, I really was clueless about what was in store for me the next day. I knew that Anderson used a crossbow to shoot a thin line over the high boughs of a rainforest tree, and used that line to pull up parachute cord, and used that cord to pull up climbing rope. Using handheld climbing ascenders, I’d have to pull myself up that, Spiderman style. Kicking back with that umbrella drink, it appeared, was going to have to wait a while.

Day Two
Climbing high into the Pico Bonito canopy gives me a monkey’s-eye view of the rainforest wilderness. Skeins of clouds are snagged in the lower summits of the Sierra Nombre de Dios, gashed with three massive hanging waterfalls.

It’s a technicolor riot of bird life. We see a yellow-winged warbler, an olive-backed euphonia, a golden-hooded tanager, a toucan, a brown-hooded parrot, a lovely cotinga, a white-crowned parrot, an olive-throated parakeet, a chestnut-headed oropendula, a rufous-tailed hummingbird and a dozen other species. But nothing could touch the white hawk.

Drifting down out of nowhere, the raptor soared just in front of the distant waterfalls. Leucopternis albicollis is a true harbinger of rainforest health, feeding on snakes plucked out of the forest canopy. I watch it through my binoculars, snow-white with black wingtips, soaring down, down, down from somewhere up near the clouds, from ridgetops I cannot see, to the primary forest beneath my feet. It seems to be a symbol of the wildness that unfurls 100 feet below my perch. “Now THAT,” David coos, “is a bird.”

Day Three
Early this morning guide German Martinez asks a small hiking group if we want the easy way or the hard way to Unbelievable Falls. “Hard way!” pipes up a nearby voice. Rick Crawley, rowing coach at British Columbia’s Victoria University, is a hulking mass of muscle and tight strawberry blonde curls. He’s here with his friend, Barbara Sawula, a preternaturally perky lady who appears just as fit.

I groan. But there’s plenty to keep me thinking about stuff other than my red-lined heart rate. Once during the hike, I drop to my hands and knees to eyeball a line of leafcutter ants. Each insect carries a wedge of greenery the size of my pinky nail; lined up head-to-abdomen, the parade is hundreds of feet long, disappearing into a heaping crenellated mound of red dirt that steps down the hillside like a miniature Anasazi village.

During another breather, I ask Sawula how she found herself here, among all the nature destinations of Central America. “Because who goes to Honduras?” she replies, her brows arching over blue eyes. “For us, interacting with locals is as important as the reefs and the rainforest. You saw the little shacks driving out here. No electricity. No running water. I’d rather invest in the local community than a cruise line. It makes me feel wonderful to be a part of this.”

That it does. And wonderful to think that a visit here makes a difference in the lives of locals like German Martinez. At the base of Unbelievable Falls, he tells me at least one reason why he is so enamored of Pico Bonito. When he was a little boy, someone in his village had a 12-inch black-and-white TV. For 50 cents he and others could watch movies in a darkened house—wide-eyed Honduran kids, gawking at American cowboy and Indian flicks. And there was another movie.

“The big shark. You know this movie?” Martinez asks me.

Jaws?” I reply.

“!Si! That’s it! No ocean for me no more. No more. I stay in the mountains, gracias.

And the mountains are better for it.

Day Four
The Lodge at Pico Bonito offers miles of trails and a swimming pool set in lush tropical gardens, but alas, I had work to do. I wanted to see how the park’s nonprofit Fundación Parque Nacional Pico Bonito (FUPNAPIB) is working to improve visitor access to the park itself. One of its signature sites is the Rio Zacate access area. On the way to Rio Zacate, I dropped by the national park’s headquarters, a low-slung building on the main highway just outside of La Ceiba. Rio Zacate is one of the highly touted new access points to the Pico Bonito interior, but there were no materials available in English, and few in Spanish.

To see the waterfalls and undisturbed forest, guide Jose Maria Calderón and I first drove through a massive pineapple field where large billboards warned us not to enter whenever chemicals were being sprayed. The road ended in a locked gate with a rusty sign: Reportese Con El Guarda de Segurida—“report to forest security.” We’d been instructed to ask for a man named Roger. We found him feeding turkeys and guinea fowl and paid our $6 entrance fee. (I couldn’t help but feel a swell of pride when I spotted the US AID logo on the trailhead sign to La Ruidosa Falls, with the small legend underneath: “From the American People.”)

It’s the kind of scene that might seem a little rough around the edges for some travelers, but the hiking was well worth it. There were platforms built into the tree canopy for bird-watching, and foot bridges over tributary creeks. And the Zacate Falls were awesome.

Day Five
I thought I’d take a break from all the gnarly enviro-reporting and check out La Ceiba, the third-largest city in Honduras and a quick half-hour drive from the Lodge. David Anderson and I arrive at midday and thread narrow, busy streets to the storm-shattered pier where old banana ships docked. Here, the harvest of bananas was moved through town on Dole’s own small-gauge railroad; the narrow tracks are still there—the haunt of old women who have set up small food stands, selling chicken cooked over charcoal.

The streets are packed with vendors in warrens of handmade wooden stalls. Worming our way deep into the market we find Garifuno women in a side alley, selling the bread made from pounded yucca dried flat like a 4-foot-wide tortilla. The Garifuno are the descendants of Carib and Arawak Indians and African-Americans, a lineage that reaches back to the early 17th century. We find bananas, papayas, and the largest avocados I’ve ever seen. One block of kiosks is crammed with fruits; another hosts mostly shoe vendors—there must be thousands of pairs displayed—and another block holds bins of rice and beans. Children roam freely, vendors call out. It’s a festive scene.

It’s late in the day when suddenly David exclaims, “a carbón seller. Come on!” He’s spied a donkey cart heavily burdened with several dozen large sacks, each the size of a 50-pound feed bag. Inside the bags are chunks of coal-black charcoal. These traditional carbon sellers laboriously cut trees and burn the wood slowly to produce a charcoal still used in traditional Honduran cooking.

The woodcutter’s name is Juan Pedro Sánchez, and he’s very proud to show us his wares, although he can’t imagine that we gringos are willing buyers. Bosque tupido, he says, throwing his sooty, arthritic hands open in an exuberant gesture of the woods where he works. Big forest. Very dense forest.

Small-scale woodcutting is one of the threats to even the large forests of Pico Bonito. His wife, Maria, sits shyly on the wagon seat behind a donkey. We wish her buenos dias. Now it is late, with the streets falling to shadow, and Sánchez and his burden of charcoal have two hours of slow travel ahead of them before reaching their home, hidden somewhere high in the shadow of Pico Bonito. I watch them plod off and think: For half a century Juan Pedro Sánchez has turned trees to charcoal. What else can he do?

 

Day Six
To check out what a traveler might experience in other parts of the Pico Bonito area, I drove for about an hour to the eastern edge of the national park, where a string of tiny villages are nestled along the Rio Cangrejal. In the small village of Las Mangas, workers in a nonprofit after-school program called Guaruma show me how it uses a computer lab and donated digital photography equipment to help local children document their world—they’ve even produced gorgeous calendars with original artwork. Then I hooked up with a local guide who led me to a cable strung high over the Cangrejal. I took a 500-foot ride in a tiny wire basket that dangled 120 feet above the river to visit a sewing cooperative for local women. What a kick. Since 1980 Rosario Lobo has run her sewing co-op, mostly targeting single mothers to give them a way of earning extra money, sewing gorgeous quilts, banners, placemats, and other souvenirs for sale in local shops.  The work has changed the life of the seamstresses, giving them extra money to put their children through school, and allowing them to stay in their native country instead of migrating to the United States.

In the afternoon I check out the wilder side of the Cangrejal. On the river bank I watch Jorge Salverri wrestle a raft into a calm back eddy of river current. Lean and muscled, Salverri is a native of Honduras’ remote La Moskitia region, with a forestry degree from West Virginia University and a growing outfitting business accessing remote corners of his natal country. He speaks in quick bursts of Spanish-inflected English, as if he might forget all the things he wishes to say about the many dreams he has for the far-eastern verge of Pico Bonito National Park. “There is no outdoor tradition here,” he says. “Local Hondurans see us out in the river, in the woods, trekking and rafting and looking at birds, and they say: crazy hippies. Dope-smoking Bohemians. But look around. People’s eyes are starting to open.”

Mine sure are, but mostly because they’re pried wide with adrenalin. We raft big rolling Class III and Class IV rapids, dumping over five-foot ledge drops as the river twists, turns, and plunges through narrow alleyways of boulders sun-bleached the color of old bone. All around are the sounds of falling water—water roaring through rapids, falling from the canyon walls in innumerable rivulets, dripping from moss. From watching local children paint images of native plants to my cable-car ride to world-class whitewater—hard to believe it’s all been along a 10-mile stretch of Honduran river.

Day Seven
Tourism will play an increasingly important role in the future of Pico Bonito National Park, but the future of northern Honduras’ world-class wild places is also in the hands of Hondurans. Today I’m traveling far into the park, to spend a couple of days with Fernando Martinez, German’s brother, who works as a park ranger for FUPNAPIB.

We drive through tiny villages where old women chat across fences of tree branches and wire, then cross shallow streams that course through wide gravel bars left behind from the horrific floods caused by Hurricane Mitch. High in the mountains we arrive at a plain cinderblock house under soaring crags shrouded in clouds. Here, Fernando and Amilcar Martinez and their wives take care of nine children—six of their own, and three of extended family. The youngest is a six-month-old baby girl, Zury, with earrings and extravagant dark curls, who erupts in cries each time I get too close. I am the first gringo she’s seen.

One little fellow, seven-year-old Carlos, is a charmer. His mother and father are in the United States illegally. No one knows when they will return. Fernando pulls out a pair of glass-fronted cases full of butterfly specimens. He points to one. “Heliconius cydno,” Carlos pipes up, beaming. Fernando points to another. Papilio cresphontes. Parides iphidamas. Heliconius ismenius. Carlos knows them all.  Fernando is a passionate self-taught entomologist, and he’s passing along his knowledge to family, no matter how distant.     

Fernando splits his time between two jobs; he’s paid about $100 a month to patrol 10 kilometers of Pico Bonito border, watching out for illegal loggers and woodcutters; and he serves as caretaker for a local farm, milking cows and tending to a few horses. The older children leave the house at 5:30 a.m. to walk to a nearby village and catch a bus to La Ceiba, where they attend school. They don’t get home until seven at night. An hour walk, an hour bus ride, twice a day. I make sure to write this down, to tell my own children how much education is valued in places where it is difficult to access.

That night we eat a supper of sheep ribs, cheese curds from the cows Fernando milks, and refried beans, all accompanied by a Hilary Duff sitcom dubbed over in Spanish, playing on a snowy black-and-white television. After supper, the children go out to play, and I hang out with the adults for a while, but the kids peek inside the house so often I know they’re hoping I’ll come check them out.

I speak no Spanish; these eight children speak no English. But we play together for hours, in the light of a single spare light bulb, parrots and pigeons and chickens pecking around our feet. They teach me their games of mimicry and a circle game like “Duck, Duck, Goose,” and I fire up the boys with a few rounds of hand-slapping games and arm-wrestling. I know this sounds parochial and smug, but these children are poor and live in substandard housing and cannot comprehend the lives that my own children lead. But I have never heard laughter like I heard it that night, ringing from that cinderblock house to echo off the peaks of Pico Bonito. I heard it all night long as I lay in my tent. I hear it still.

Day Eight
Up early at the Martinez home, and we hit the trail. I figured that German and Fernando and I would strike out for a hike too long and arduous for the kids. Nothing doing! Like the Pied Piper, here we go, trailing everyone from seven to 17. What a riot.

We climb high into the mountains, the young boys clearing overgrown trail with machetes and pointing out the tracks of agouti. The birdlife is astounding—we see red-crowned ant-tanager, emerald-chinned hummingbird, black-headed trogon. We scatter bat falcons from the trees and watch a black hawk-eagle soar overhead, whistling. Once German calls us to line up. The kids know what’s coming, and they insist I go first. German slices through a six-inch thick vine of titi, water vine, and he holds up the plant as the water pours like a faucet into our open mouths.

“These girls and boys, what if they were the next guides for the Lodge at Pico Bonito?” German muses. “That would make us very happy.”

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Read related story: “Where Dreams Come True