Honduras 3: Pico Bonito

The other best part of our vacation: a three-day jungle hike in Pico Bonito national park.

A gleaming, shiny ferry took us from the island of Roatan to La Ceiba on mainland Honduras. A short 25-minute taxi ride later, we were far outside town in the Cangrejal river valley. The destination was an “eco jungle lodge” by the name of Omega Tours, run by a pair of friendly Germans in a beautiful little slice of jungle. This place had the best food of the vacation: four types of German beers (even served in the right glasses), schnitzel, fleidelsuppe, plantains/honey/sour cream breakfasts, and delicious juices.  Honduran food is fine but fairly simple, and the best stuff—fruit and vegetables—are usually off-limits due to issues with the local water.  This place knows about our delicate digestive systems and cleaned everything carefully, offering us great juices: tamarind, “jamaica juice” (hibiscus), marañon (fruit of the cashew), guava and more. Omega gets our unqualified recommendation: we loved it here, and spent an extra day just hanging around and eating nice food.

Omega offered a range of prearranged tours, and we liked the sound of a three-day hike into the jungle. Two local guides were part of the deal, and they shouldered the big packs and cooked us meals up at the top. While we’re not really used to that level of luxury while camping, it was pretty pleasant, and the guides were great for pointing out wildlife.

And there was some pretty good wildlife. Mammals are shy and scarce, and we saw none. There are many dangerous snakes in the area, and we saw at least two dodgy ones, including a brilliant red-and-black striped critter. The first day of the hike took us up to a small camping ledge on top of a huge waterfall, and the second then took us on a dayhike higher up, circling a ridge around a bowl. From that vantage, we were at most at eye level with a lot of the jungle canopy, and could spot some interesting birds: the toucanet, waving his huge beak around in a show dance. Another bird was described to us as the “koa” and was probably a trogon: like its more famous relative the quetzal, with shiny iridescent feathers. The final charmer was a 15cm chameleon we spotted on a tree trunk. The guy was well camouflaged, and took his role-playing of a “stick on a trunk” seriously: our guide tried to pry him off, and the little reptile just went rigid and played “dead stick.”

Our campsite had its share of interesting features too. We were perched on top of a huge waterfall, but a little upstream was a smaller 15 metre fall which made for a great shower, with pressure massage. The rock pools around here revealed more good critters, like the plate-sized crab who menaced briefly and fist-sized spiders. Nightfall brought more intrigues: at dusk a local type of firefly came out, with brightly glowing abdomens. When the fireflies rested on a branch the abdomen went off, but two eerie green dots remained skittering along the branch: their eyes, as we later discovered. Very pretty, but also a sad scene: we watched one firefly misfire and hit the stream (possibly going for its reflection?) and then get swept over the large 100 metre waterfall. Funny and tragic, all at once.

I’d also bought a new camera just before the trip, the Canon S95. By this stage of the trip, I had enough of grasp of the manual controls to start shooting genuinely gorgeous pictures: striking vistas in dozens of shades of green, misty overcast jungle, orchids and textured tree bark all succumbed to the camera. J gets credit for a fair number of these too, especially the various plant shots.

We had a very wet first day, as the heavens opened and dumped a tropical downpour on us during the ascent. My hiking boots filled up, and it felt like I was standing in buckets full of water. Thankfully, our guides had a great reviving meal of fire-roasted chicken together in short order, washed down with the classic combination of rum and guava Tang. The German influence still came through with tasty liver påté included on the lunch menu; this exotic treat was quite popular with our guides. The rest of the trip was pretty dry, but hard work. The hills were steep, requiring us to haul ourselves up using the tree trunks. Complicating matters, we’d been warned about a particular type of tree: one with near-invisible 5cm needle-thin thorns, capable of going straight through your hand. Not the type you wanted to grab hard and haul up on. No accidents, thankfully.

Looking back and describing the experience, it’s hard to capture how fantastic it felt. The immersion in steamy jungle, the lush, bursting life, the sweaty exercise and the refreshing waterfalls and pools all combined for a truly great three days.

After the three day hike, we attempted to wash our sweat-soaked clothes and took a day off at Omega. The local toads apparently loved the recent downpour and were croaking at full volume, then mating and leaving the swimming pool full of toad eggs. We took a stroll down the road to the town of Las Mangas, and a short canyon hike out there. On the way, we had to admire the amazingly engineered nests of the oropendola bird: a super-deep 1.5m nest, with dozens all hanging from a single tree. They also have a really electronic and liquid sounding call, which I described at the time as Stephen Hawking singing underwater.

Locals in the area seemed unusually invested in the jungle. I think Omega Tours employs enough people (growing food, cooking, guiding, cleaning, making furniture) that the tourism benefits of an intact jungle are clear to people. It’s probably one of the best-kept parks I’ve visited: virtually no litter, comparable to B.C. parks. Something like 75% of the Pico Bonito area is completely off-limit to hikers, a real wildlife preserve.

See the rest of our photos from Pico Bonito and from Omega and the Cangrejal River area.

Honduras 2: Snorkelling

The snorkelling on Roatan was probably the best part of our vacation.

Scuba is the popular thing to do. But we didn’t feel like spending the money or time required to get trained, and were fairly confident we could see a lot. It was tricky finding good advice on sites – most of the printed material is focused on scuba, and the sites were too deep for us to visit. But with good glass-faced masks, and gradual improvement in our diving abilities we made it work really well.

The basic reef fish are just stunningly gorgeous, a rainbow riot of neons and pastels. We spent the first two days just marvelling at the basics, and then started trying to hunt out some more exotic critters. Below are a few of the best ones we saw. These are all stolen photos from the web, but let me give credit to one stunning photographer, Marc Occhio, who took the Blue Marlin shot below.

The pipehorse is a relative of the seahorse. We saw greyish ones, usually totally straight and looking more fishlike. Quiet and gentle.
Lobsters! We saw plenty of full-size adults, hiding out under rocks in shallower water. Sighted on the west side of Half Moon Bay and a few of the sites west of there.
Lionfish are Asian invasives, aquarium escapees that are apparently causing a lot of damage in the Caribbean. They have a unique way of pinning prey against the coral by making a cage with their spines. Local diveshops vent their anger by offering lionfish barbecues, cookbooks and bounties.
Sea turtles: graceful and shy. The first was in the shallow seagrass, and bolted when it saw me. The second was in 5m water and didn’t object to us at all. The third and fourth were in deeper 15m water, spotted deep on the coral wall at the West End Wall. Definitely a magic moment
Spotted eagle ray: also awe-inspiring, with about a 1.5m wingspan. We spotted this one gliding along the edge of a reef wall in 5-10m deep water, looking serene and gorgeous. J was a bit surprised by it during a dive, and was a bit freaked out by it.
Green moray eel: midway through the trip, we started to see the predators. This guy was about 1.5m long, coiled around a rock on the bottom in 5m deep water. He didn’t move much, but his jaw looked frightening. Morays are awesome for being the inspiration for the “Alien” mouth design: they have two jaws, and when they open the outer jaw, an inner jaw with a second row of teeth darts out and pulls the prey in. Textbook learning did not translate into any freaky viewing, though.
Blue marlin. We saw juveniles about 60cm long in the shallows, zooming about just below the surface. They definitely looked like predators, but didn’t seem to care about us much, being far outside their prey size range. Very neat.
Barracuda are unnerving. In the Blue Channel area, we saw an adult hiding in a recess in the reef and a juvenile swimming nearby, and wondered a little – they’re pretty scary looking predators. That night, Wikipedia told us that they scavenge and rarely attack, but often unnerve divers due to their curiosity. It’s not uncommon for them to follow a diving group for their entire time. They sometimes mistake hands for little fish and attack, especially with shiny jewellery. So, we left our wedding bands at home the next day – and met some serious barracuda at Sandy Bay. A 1.5m adult met us in the 2m deep seagrass, and circled us about seven times, staring closely. Our Wikipedia-acquired knowledge felt a little… inadequate, but we held to it and edged slowly towards the main reef, where the barracuda didn’t follow. Freaky. I wouldn’t accept Wikipedia as a source for an undergrad essay, but I was taking life and death information from it… hm.  The next ones were less interested in us, we did spot a juvenile swimming right next to the kids’ section of the beach at West Bay.  I have to wonder if parents know what’s in the water.
Mahi mahi (dorado, dolphinfish): I spotted a 1.5m – 2m long fish that looked like this in the deeper 15m waters off of West End Wall. Didn’t really see enough to say much, though.
One hilarious fish was a big (1m+) reef-muncher. Every time he chomped down, you could hear the teeth-on-coral sound quite loudly.

Getting deeper into snorkelling was interesting in its way. Novice snorkellers just stay on the top, and don’t see any of the vibrant colours once the water gets deeper than 3-4m. If you’re willing to hold your breath and dive down, you can see the reef surface in the same detail that scuba divers do, in 10 second bursts between breaths. By the end of the trip, we were able to dive down to 8-10m regularly – I was cruising the reef wall at 5-6m depth, rising and descending regularly for breath, and swimming in the schools of undisturbed fish.

It seems to be a bit of a continuum between snorkelling and freediving, actually. This type of snorkelling starts to fill almost yoga-like in the emphasis on breath control, and the breath control pattern definitely helps the mind and adds to the mood of it.

Finally, I think the real magic of reefs is the ability to see animal life up close. On land, humans look like classic predators (forward facing eyes, etc.) and are recognized as the top predator; animals are skittish and it’s rare to encounter much of anything. But in the ocean, fish can dart away from many predators easily, don’t really recognize humans as the top of their food chain and are basically unafraid of us. It’s a pretty unique experience.

Honduras 1: Roatan

We settled on an unlikely honeymoon theme: an obscure destination with lots of hiking and exercise. Why Honduras? Because it’s next to Belize, which J had quite liked at age 14. Because it’s off the tourist map. And because of Roatan.

Roatan is the largest of the three “Bay Islands” off Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Its huge coral reef makes it a world-class scuba destination, which hooked us after discovering we loved reef snorkelling in Cuba. (More details on this in a later post.) Charter airline Sunwing has just introduced a weekly direct flight between Toronto and Roatan, and it’s no further than Las Vegas.

Pearson airport at 4:30am was flooded with Caribbean-destined charter airline passengers, mostly of the old and/or fratboy variety. Most debarked for Mexico, leaving a more adventurous group on our plane. We were on the only plane arriving at Roatan airport that day, and 80% of the crowd quickly dispersed into resort-run buses, with the independent travelling 20% hopping into taxis (and we tried public transit). Roatan caters primarily to the resort and diving crowds – and the crowd thus thins even further if you head elsewhere in Honduras. In the later stages of the trip (four days in mainland Honduran cities and countryside), we saw only about ten white people.

Roatan’s a curious cultural mix. In the resort and diving communities today it’s an affluent and safe environment, less polished and crowded than the major Caribbean resort destinations, but similar in feel to some of the places I’ve seen (Varadero, Cuba and Cartagena, Colombia). This influx of tourism only began in earnest in the last decade, though. The prior inhabitants of the island are largely English-speaking black Caribbean, descended from marooned Jamaican slaves. The modern accent is the classic Caribbean-inflected lilt. Tourism has attracted a large influx of Spanish-speaking Hondurans, which must cause some internal rifts and tensions, but also clearly some prosperity and development.

And development is sorely needed. Honduras is a very poor country, and Roatan is only beginning to escape this. GDP per capita is one-tenth of the US, and Honduras’ violent crime is amongst the highest in the world (but dominated by drug violence in the big cities in the southwest). We saw the poverty within an hour of arriving, as our rickety transit minibus bounced along the rutted dirt road into the worker’s community at Sandy Bay. Mangy dogs ran the streets, chickens clucked loudly and small tin-roofed huts lined the way. Crisply-uniformed schoolchildren showed the community pride’s and hopes, but the place is clearly impoverished. Most visitors whisked briskly by taxi from the airport to shiny hotels and never see this side of the island, but it’s there for those who choose to look.

It took a while for us to get the feel of the country’s time. Despite being due south of Thunder Bay, it’s two time zones later. The tropical day is only twelve hours long and most activity winds down at 6pm when the sun sets, likely a legacy of formerly dangerous night-time streets. As a result we found ourselves rising at dawn most mornings, which qualifies as a holiday first for me. We stayed at Land’s End Resort, run by a charming Austrian expat. It was comfortable, attractive and had some affordable rooms, plus immediate access to the reef.

We spent about a week on Roatan in total, split between the start and end of our two-week vacation. In our first days, we found the island expensive. Most restaurants on the main street of our town (West End) had prices similar to Canada ($10-$20). We ate cheaper, mostly in the $5-$10 range, which bought tasty fish tacos and “tipico” Honduran meals of chicken, plantains, beans and rice. By the end of the trip we were a bit more savvy and had a better sense for the pricing: while the tourist towns were mostly pricy, there were always a few tipico restaurants aimed at the service staff, often with decent meals to be had for $5. Outside the tourist towns, supermarket prices were cheap and not too much more expensive than the mainland.

We only saw a fraction of the island in total. Tourism is focused intwo western communities, West End and West Bay, and spilling over to the nearby towns of Sandy Bay and Flowers Bay. The rest of the 50km island is less populated; the eastern half doesn’t even have any bus service. Our quest for snorkelling sites took us on road walks to the sleepy tourist section of Sandy Bay and to the posh West Bay. En route, an overgrown sideroad caught our eye, hinting at the jungle we’d see later on the mainland, but we turned back feeling unprepared after seeing a fist-sized gloriously hairy spider. Our minibus trips took us through a few other areas: the dirt roads of the workers’ section of Sandy Bay, and the charmingly named commercial hub, Coxen Hole.

In one of the next instalments, I’ll cover our main activity in Roatan: the reef.

Meanwhile, check out some of our photos from Roatan.

Angus films

Just a followup on a recent post: Yvonne tells me that Angus Adventures are showing their film in Vancouver this weekend and next (at the Hollywood and Denman Place theatres). I see they’re also coming to Ottawa, Waterloo, Calgary and Edmonton in November (but no Toronto yet). Check out the details of their tour.