Saturday, January 21, 2012

Honduras: Tela & Lancetilla

Tela is a grungy little beach town, bigger than anywhere we had stayed so far on the trip but by no means a big city. It was an afternoon's bus ride from Cuero y Salado.

The hotel we had picked out in the guidebook didn't exist (continuing the theme of misinformation from the Lonely Planet). So we just headed to the ocean and got a room in the first hotel we stopped at. It was a little cramped and in need of a paint job, but a balcony looking over the ocean for $25 a night? We took it.

The next afternoon we packed up and headed to Lancetilla Botanical Gardens, a few miles away. We took a tour of the arboretum and spent the night in one of their guest cottages.

Lancetilla is a strange spot, a very cultivated park in the middle of a community that's much more forested. But when we tried to walk around in the wilder areas, along the dirt roads, we were turned back several times by people asking us not to walk in the community.

In the morning we spent a few hours birding in the park and saw among other things: tanagers, orioles, nesting oropendulas, toucans, parrots, and a ferruginous pygmy owl.

On this tour and the one in Las Mangas, we were told that the guanacaste tree has special significance because if you make a wish known while holding on to the tree, it will transmit your wish up the tall trunk and out the many branches, straight into the heavens. Can't hurt to try, right?

Mid-morning we caught a cab out to the main road and started a long day of bus travel.We bought fresh lychees for the road from one of the many vendors that mobbed the bus at every stop.

It took a few hours to reach San Pedro Sula, and four more to Copan Ruinas.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Honduras: Cuero y Salado

To get to Refugio Silvestre Cuero y Salado, you take a bus from the bustling town of La Ceiba to the tiny village of La Union, then you hop on a 2-car mini-train (in Spanish, "trencito") that used to be used for hauling pineapples. It's a 45 minute ride through pineapple and palm plantations to the piece of land that was donated by Standard Fruit to make a wildlife refuge.

On our trencito we were joined by a group of families with small children, and two heavily armed members of the Honduran navy. It turns out Cuero y Salado is not just a national wildlife refuge, but also a small military outpost.

A guy in Las Mangas had called ahead for us to confirm that the refuge had a place to stay, and they said yes. We didn't think to ask what the accommodations were: our guidebook described a small guesthouse with several rooms. When we got there, the guesthouse consisted of, "we'll lend you a tent and pitch it for you right between the visitor's center and the building where all the military guys are staying." We chalked this up as an opportunity to hear the howler monkeys better at dawn.

Our man in Las Mangas was an enthusiastic birder and had recommended a specific guide at Cuero y Salado. Once we were moved into our tent, we headed out with him for a two-hour canoe tour of the mangrove canals, just before dusk.Then we went back out with him at dawn. We saw lots of birds, and both howler and white-faced monkeys.

After a couple of guided tours we were itching to get out in our own canoe. Apparently this is unheard of and completely against official policy at Cuero y Salado. (Our guidebook had said you could rent a canoe...we came to dislike Lonely Planet on this trip.) Matt harangued an ecotourism intern at the park until he talked his boss into letting us go out on our own. We probably didn't see as many birds on our own as we did with the professional, but we messed around seeing how close we could get to bats without spooking them...

and stopped to smell the flowers,

and tried unsuccessfully to take pictures of blue morpho butterflies with their wings open.

The highlight of our solo canoe trip: an anteater! And because we weren't on a 2-hour tour, we could sit and watch it for 45 minutes.

Cuero y Salado is mostly uninhabited mangroves. But by the visitor's center there is a little settlement of families who have lived there for generations, working for the plantations. One of the women will cook food for visitors. One of our most memorable meals in Honduras was two plate-sized fish, caught that day and fried whole, with beans, rice, and plantains. A close second was the next morning, when someone climbed up a coconut tree and macheted open a couple of coconuts for us that must have held a liter each of delicious, sweet juice.
The village is near the point where the canals empty into the ocean. The locals don't seem to hang out much at the beach, except to go fishing. (They take their little dugout canoes right through the waves with the help of sails fashioned out of black plastic.) We, on the other hand, spent all afternoon swimming and enjoying the sun between canoe rides.

Although it was beautiful, barking dogs and noisy military guys woke us up in the middle of the night enough that it wasn't quite tropical paradise. And there were still more things to see. So after a couple of nights we hopped back on the trencito and headed west to Tela.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Honduras: Rio Cangrejal

We had read in the guidebook about a nice-sounding hotel along the Rio Cangrejal, associated with an environmental organization training young people as guides and photographers. We couldn't get them to answer their phone to confirm they had a room available (or even if they were still in business -- we learned to question our guidebook at every stop). But we hired a taxi and headed in that direction anyhow, with a backup hotel in mind.

When we arrived in the tiny village of Las Mangas (after a very bumpy 10 miles that took about 45 minutes), not only was Cabañas Aventura del Bosque open, but we liked it so much we stayed four nights. Our days typically went something like this:

1. Wake up and watch birds from our balcony, while eating breakfast.

2. Go hiking or birdwatching with one of the local guides or on our own.

3. Go swimming

4. Siesta

5. More birdwatching and/or hanging out by the river

6. Dinner either at our hotel, or from the woman down the street who would cook fried chicken and plantains (if you gave her some advance warning) and serve them at a 2-person table in front of her house. (Those were the entirety of the dining options in Las Mangas.) We were kept company during the wait for fried chicken by a variety of cats and dogs.

On one day, we followed a local volunteer's suggestion that we make the little village of Juan Pablo II our hiking destination. The village is located about a hour's walk from Las Mangas, on the other side of the river from the road. There is no bridge. Instead, you get into a basket attached to a metal cable and you zipline halfway across, then crank yourself the rest of the way. About 60 feet above the river. We made it across and back with the help of a woman who worked with the Juan Pablo II sewing coop.

She also took us on a walk through old-growth forest to a small waterfall. As she told us a story about the time she saw a jaguar at the waterfall, her love and awe for the forest and its creatures was clear. It was such a treat to meet her.

Eventually we knew we needed to move on if we were going to see other places on our list, so after one last birdwatching tour, we hopped the bus to La Ceiba, stocked up on groceries, and headed out for the Cuero y Salado wildlife refuge.

Saturday, January 07, 2012

Honduras: Utila

Utila is a small island off the coast of Honduras. It is near the southern end of a coral reef that starts along the Yucatan coast, second longest barrier reef in the world.

The island itself is just 11 km long and 4 km wide. Scooters, ATVs, and mini-taxis called tuktuks are the transportation of choice.
We found a great hotel called Margaritaville near one end of the island, which helped us get away from the "traffic." Just $20 a night for a clean, spacious room with a hot shower and a porch with a view of the water.

Most days we walked 15 minutes to go snorkelling right off a dock. (That little blip in the water in this picture is Elizabeth snorkelling.) It was a very short swim to a great outcrop of coral reef that follows the edge of a deep dropoff in the sea floor. In the distance, we could see the mountains on the mainland.

We didn't have an underwater camera so I will share a few pictures from the creative commons that look like some of the things we saw:
spotted eagle ray (マダラトビエイ) #3723 Enough with the Reef Already... Sand maker Roatan 2011
In the evenings we watched the sunset from the small beach near our hotel.
On one day, we rented a kayak and paddled a mangrove-lined canal to the beach on the north side of the island. It was nice to have our own deserted beach, but the piles of trash that had washed up on the beach kept us from taking pictures.

After about a week on Utila we were a little waterlogged and ready to see what the mainland had to offer.