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 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.

Richard at Burning Man

Giraffe people

My friend Richard just returned from a trip to Burning Man in the Nevada desert. I haven’t heard the stories yet, but Rich is a great photographer and he’s taken some spectacular photos. Check them out on his site. I find it a bit tricky to navigate his pictures, so here are a few tips: the albums are organized from newest to oldest, and the Burning Man pictures start in the folder with this icon:


I’d heard the buzz. Tofino: a kayaker’s heaven, the Canadian surf experience, stunning landscapes. I was perhaps a bit blasé, having already hiked the West Coast Trail and visited the Juan de Fuca trail. But Tofino and the neighbouring Pacific Rim National Park were well worth the while. For those who don’t know, it’s on the west coast of Vancouver Island, on the only real stretch of regular highway that goes out that way. I think the map tells you how geographically isolated it is better than I can.

You need at least three days, since getting from Vancouver to Tofino takes about 7 hours between transit, ferries, renting a car and doing the driving. I took four days, to make it worth the while. I tried to go bodysurfing with a wetsuit, but failed since I didn’t know how to put the gloves and boots correctly, and created too much drag when they filled with water. I spent an afternoon kayaking around Clayoquot Sound and visiting Meares Island. And I took a surfing lesson down at Cox Bay, managing to ride the whitewash within an hour. I got through a few books, and took several pretentious photographs.

My suggestions for other travellers: take a surfing lesson, go kayaking (and take a lesson if you’ve never done it, or if conditions are rough), visit Wickaninnish Restaurant for a coffee, and go to SoBo restaurant in the botanical gardens. I heard some good things about the whale watching and hot springs, but I’d seen a lot of similar stuff already so I skipped them. Rent a car; it’s just too much of a pain getting around otherwise. Food is pricy at most places, so plan on cooking when possible.

See the pictures here, or for the impatient see the slideshow (no captions).